In 2005 I started writing Foundation Flash for Mobile Devices (Friends of ED). This came about very soon after Flash Lite 1.1 was released, and writing continued right up until the release of Flash Lite 2.1 (we made sure we waited to include it). Before I give my thoughts on Flash Lite and its future, I should probably explain that in the last year I’ve pretty much taken a back seat in the Flash Lite community, and there are many reasons for that. The reality is my attention span is very short and I’ve been too busy keeping up developing prototypes and commercial sites and applications with every new technology, including Flex 2, Papervision3D, Silverlight, WPF and AIR. There are other reasons, but more on that later.
Let’s start by considering this… Do we need a special version of the Flash Player for mobile devices? I’d answer that with a definite “yes” right now. Right now that is.
But I think Flash Lite, in its current form, is not likely to be around for too much longer.
If you take a look at the evolution of computer hardware with regards to the desktop and devices it seems pretty clear that the two are converging in terms of capabilities. Until now desktop computers had vastly superior processors, memory and storage abilities, and it’s true that the size of a computer still has an impact on how powerful we can make it. But that’s changing for two reasons…
First of all hardware components are being manufactured in increasingly smaller sizes, they take less power and have fewer moving parts, if any. This picture helps to illustrate the point. All of this has an impact on what currently limits what devices are capable of, namely power requirements and size.
The second reason is that we are not necessarily pushing hardware as much as we used to, not in most applications. We used to really push the envelope with lower-spec computers, making every byte of RAM count. Now we write a lot of software in high-level languages without even considering the possibility of running out of RAM…. RAM is cheap, disk-space is cheap, and with software being deployed on the web, you might not even need disk space in the first place. So for a wide spectrum of games and applications, computing requirements are not that high, and as such devices are able to run the exact same software as the desktop or surface computers. So for this reason the convergence in capability between desktops and devices is not just about computing power… it’s also about the software requirements, and they are forever shifting.
So let’s take one device in particular… the newly released Nokia N810. If you don’t already know, the N-Series includes Nokia’s power devices, capable of most every-day tasks, some even have hardware accelerated 3D graphics for games or maps. But unlike most Nokias this particular device doesn’t have Flash Lite. Instead it has Flash 9. So it simply skipped Flash Lite all-together. It was able to do this because as well as being up to the challenge in terms of computing power, it is also a device that is up to the task physically, in terms of form factor. Along with WiFi, integrated webcam and an 800×480 pixel screen, it has a touch-screen with stylus input. My last post was on The Future of Mobile Devices, which looked at some of the devices Nokia will be releasing in 2008, and in that post I mentioned that I believe touch-screen with tactile feedback (not stylus pens) would be the norm for most devices in the coming years. What this does is help bridge the final gap between desktop and device, leaving only the screen-size as a concern, and it goes without saying there are solutions being tried in this area too, the N95 for example has TV out, other prototype devices have built in projectors.
Flash Lite has shown that you can quickly adapt something you have made for the desktop and have it running on a handset with minimal changes. In this case the software is moving to meet the capability of devices, but the devices are also moving to meet the software requirements…
Flash Lite3 has FLV support. That’s not because FLV is any better than MP4, but it does help standardise the platform. Taking this to its logical conclusion, and backed up by the gradual quashing of the problems devices currently face, it seems safe to say that Flash Lite is really only there as a stop-gap measure, and a very good one with a very real need right now, but eventually we should expect Flash “X” and AIR to be found on our devices, particularly when form-factors make the very distinction between “device” and “desktop” almost impossible in its own right.
So what I’m saying here is that in answer to the question posed in the title of this post, for now it’s a yes, but for the future it’s a no for me. Not for any other reasons than I believe the gap will be bridged so that two separate Flash Player profiles will not be needed, but you may still have to develop in such a way that it adapts to the target device for the foreseeable future, whilst the current concept of a “device” exists that is.
All of this aside, one thing that still needs addressing is the number of handsets we can realistically target right now. I’m worried that people are being put off of Flash Lite because they consider the channels for distribution too narrow to turn a profit unless you are a one-man band or like taking a gamble. This is increasingly discussed on the list, on IM and brought up by people I meet, particularly now that a few of the original Flash Lite vets are rearing their heads and saying that it’s been a long time since they made anything, and still no sale. It’s also a hot topic with anyone I speak to in the industry (the industry I’m referring to being marketing and digital). Nokia have really embraced Flash Lite, but the others have let it fall by the wayside, with only Sony Ericsson making any sort of effort, whilst remaining at odds with how Nokia go about implementing it. The supported devices page is really very confusing, and we still need a way to ship the player with our applications.
This is a problem, I only hope that things can be improved before the community loses interest. Without developers we end up in a situation similar to where Director ended up (hopefully that is soon to change with D11), albeit for slightly different reasons. My feeling is that the manufacturers and operators have received a lot of love (after all, the operators pay the manufacturers and the manufacturers pay the licenses), but the Flash Lite developers are largely forgotten. They can get all the attention they want if they jump on the Flex and AIR train however. I was speaking to someone the other day who threw a lot into Flash Lite, fully intent on it forming the basis of a business, only to have to change those plans a year or so later. A real shame.
Thoughts on these topics are appreciated.