TiPb Answers: Why No Flash Video on the iPhone?

TiPb loves answering your emails, but we also love sharing our answers with the community in hopes that more people will benefit, and even better answers will present themselves (hey, that's why we have them forums!). For today's debut TiPb Answers, reader Michael asks:

I can't believe that my pet iPhone omission wasn't a choice in the poll of what we'd like to see in iPhone 2.2. Flash support! Maybe a system update isn't necessary to roll out Flash, but that has been my only gripe with my iPhone (other than having to deal with AT&T during purchase and setup). I can't watch Hulu, or other Flash based video on my phone without it. I've wondered if this isn't exactly Apple's intent - why permit Hulu to compete with the iTunes store? What do you think?

TiPb answers, after the jump!

Our understanding is a little different than the above, Michael, so please bear with us as we go back a bit and get into Flash a little more deeply.

First, video is only one of the things Flash does (and some would argue while Flash does make video ubiquitous, it wasn't until they jumped to the H.264 codec -- same as Apple uses in iTunes -- that they made it actually watchable!), it's not the only thing or even the main (technologically speaking) thing. What Flash does, in broad stroke, is make interactive animation on the internet, and this interactivity has grown over the years into a fairly sophisticated scripting language in its own right. Yet, despite what UK courts might think, it remains a proprietary third party add on, and regardless of its popularity, is not really part of the core internet (read: web, including HTML, CSS, and Javascript).

Currently, the major uses of Flash on the internet consist of:

  1. Video wrappers, like YouTube and similar sites.
  2. Multi-media websites, like movie studies often employ to present more dynamic, more *protected* content.
  3. Rich internet applications, such as Adobe's Photoshop express, which seeks to make Flash a/the standard for WebApps.
  4. Hyper-annoying "punch the monkey"-style adverts that enable user-tracking more secretly and robustly than regular web snooping.

While you asked about #1, we have to understand that a FULL Flash deployment on the iPhone would also bring the others as well, along with the historically bloated, buggy implementations Adobe has never seen fit to address on the desktop OS X, and the various security and privacy issues that go along with it. Bottom-line, full-on-Flash is basically a code interpreter like Java, which adds a far greater burden to resources while making the device far more vulnerable to hackers, and lets advertisers annoy and invade us to deal-breaking degree. Bottom-line? We'll probably not see desktop-class Flash support in near to far future, and while Flash-centric developers should lament that, users should probably be ecstatically happy about that.

Want to make your rich internet WebApp for the iPhone? Use AJAX. Want to make a Batman site that take 10 minutes to load, won't scale to the iPhone screen size and protects your valuable Hollywood content from -- gasp -- a fan downloading an image? Stick to HTML. Want to clutter out MobileSafari with Flash monkey nonsense while slipping insidious cookies onto our system? Don't let the lack of support hit you on the apps on the way out...

As to Flash-video in the specific -- this is far more likely. While politics between Apple and Adobe may be playing a part, it's not impossible to imagine either a simple Flash video plugin that passes the video off into an intermediary player similar to the existing Quicktime plugin.

For us, this would be the best solution as it would give the most popular aspect of Flash (ZOMG! Vidz!) to the masses, while sandboxing the security and privacy issues, and hopefully forcing Adobe to create a better, and more optimized OS X application (similar to how Apple streamlined Quicktime X for the iPhone).

With regards to Hulu, please first remember it's a US-only site, which while a huge percentage of the iPhone user-base, is basically dead to the 69+ other countries that will get the iPhone in 2008. However, before NBC patched things up with iTunes, they did flirt with providing a similar service directly to iPhone users anyway. So we imagine that Hulu could fairly easily add iPhone support if they wanted to, not to mention give a little love to those of us outside the US (understanding the complex rights messes they've gotten themselves into over the years...)

Anyone have anything to add for Michael?

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

TiPb Answers: Why No Flash Video on the iPhone?


Sadly, this is never going to happen. Apple wants to control the media distribution on the iPhone, and they want to support the application support on the iPhone. Apple will never support Flash for the same reason they will never support Java: They want to be the gatekeepers to any application you run on your iPhone. opening up to Flash (or Java) opens up the potential of a App Store competitor.

java opens up a mess of problems and non uniformity... Just confusing the user. It's a mac. Write code to thier standards to provide uniformity, or don't. Simply put.

Here in the UK the BBC has produced a mobile version of the BBC iPlayer website using Quicktime. It enables viewing of the last 7 days of BBC TV and Radio on the iPhone via WiFi only. Another great reason to get the iPhone.

Will there be wmv or wma support on the iphone? I would like to listen to some radio stations that currently are not on the web apps but still stream on the web.
And is Apple/AT&T going to have a tethering solution or is that just a pipe dream?

There is a solution. It's already possible with PDANet and jailbreaking your iPhone. The options open up exponentially when you jailbreak.
I have video recording, picture messaging, copy and paste, phone search, different themes, different SMS sounds, finder, tethering and even the flashlight automatically brightens the screen brightness when I open up the application. :)
Some people don't want to risk jailbreaking but I say it's definitely worth it.

To think that Apple doesn't have Flash primarily to keep out Hulu is WAY too myopic. Sure, it's a competitor to iTunes, but only kind of. The reasons given in the article are most of the reason. Mainly, as Rene stated, remember that Adobe has to make a version of the Flash player for the iPhone. Until that happens, there's nothing you, nor I, nor Apple, nor anyone else can do about it. If and when it happens, then we might find out if Apple is opposed to Flash support or not, not before.

Thanks for the great answer TiPB! As you probably surmised, it's only the video element of Flash that I miss particularly. I would be content with your solution using a player that permitted or interpreted Flash video without the other elements of Flash as a compromise.
Jason - Note that my original question included Hulu "or other Flash based video." I did not intend to suggest that Hulu alone was Apple's intended exclusion, but rather other video formats/portals in general (although Hulu has gotten a lot of attention in the market where most iPhones are sold. And their parent company - NBC - has had a high-profile squabble with Apple over the iTunes store). Moreover, I did not state this as a certainty - "I’ve wondered if this isn’t exactly Apple’s intent..." I've wondered. Thus the submission as a question. Big difference between curiosity and myopia. In fact, to confuse the two probably requires a little of the latter.
Either way, it wouldn't be the first sign of myopia that I've displayed. But Apple is hardly immune to wanting their own standards, services, hardware, and applications to prevail. You may be aware of the hubbub regarding the ongoing App Store App rejections based on "competing services" such as Podcaster and MailWrangler. In fact that is just the way large companies that have revenue dependent on their software/formats/portals tend to operate.
Also note the TiPB response acknowledges that "politics between Apple and Adobe may be playing a part" in the lack of Flash video for the iPhone. Politics based on what, do you think? Apple and Adobe have certainly pushed competing applications and formats in the past, and have had plenty of "politics" between them over the years. Surely it's not a stretch to assume Adobe would like Flash to be an unparalleled standard, NBC would like Hulu to be the dominant video portal (at least in the US) and Apple would like iTunes to be the dominant video portal (and would like Quicktime to replace Flash video where it is used).
Keep in mind I'm not blaming Apple. I bought my first Mac in 1991 (could have been 92?) - after years of empty-pocketed lust. I'm a fan. I'm not chastising Apple. I don't consider them evil. I don't particularly care about competing Apps in the App Store (although, I'm not a developer with a competing App). I prefer Apple to come out on top in any disputes with Adobe or any other major corporation.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that I don't want to pay to watch a television program on iTunes that I can watch for free on Hulu, or other service. One of the great things about the iPhone is video capability. For what I'm paying every month for my iPhone (not to mention the initial $299), I don't want to go to a site and not be able to view the contents because of the limitations of my iPhone's software. Particularly if it is a very common format.
I'm sure that security is an issue with Flash - and I don't want that compromised either. If that's the sole issue, and their is no way around it that will allow Flash video on the iPhone without a serious decline in security, then so be it. Question answered. Perhaps the video-only workaround TiPB suggested is what Adobe and Apple are working on. I suppose in the long run that you are right - we'll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, I don't see any harm in speculation.

As an end user here in the US, I bought the iphone assuming I would be able to ditch my ipod with its huge hard drive and just stream everything I wanted. Sadly, since most developers out there are using Flash and not QuickTime, I am pretty much screwed. Hulu.com is a great, but only one of many, examples of this. It would be well worth the commercials to be able to stream their content rather than have to convert the video and transfer it to my ipod. As someone who travels a lot, and spends lots of times waiting for airplanes, I am sorely disapointed not to have Flash on my iPhone. FanCast.com, CBS.com, and just about all the other free and paid streaming TV and Movie sites are off limits to my iPhone, so I am still stuck lugging around a laptop everywhere I go!

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