Politics and Practicality the Reason for no Flash Player on iPhone... and iTablet?

iPhone SDK: Smashing Flash Rumors

Daring Fireball has an interesting post up regarding the continued lack of a Flash Player for the iPhone, and the reasons why Flash support for the iTablet/iSlate/iPad is unlikely:

I’ll leave the last word to Apple COO Tim Cook, who a year ago said, “We believe in the simple, not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.”

Flash is owned and controlled by Adobe.

Gruber breaks it down into several broad strokes.

  • According to Apple plugins in general, and according to sources at Apple, Flash in particular, is the leading cause of crashes on Mac OS X.
  • In order to make a 64-bit version of Safari on Mac, Apple had to create a new plugin architecture because Adobe (still) only makes 32-bit Flash and since Apple has no control of the Flash code, they have to work around it.
  • Flash is the only remaining major web technology that's proprietary and controlled by one company, which is not good for the web, and if Apple can't control something, they'd rather it be non-proprietary.
  • Flash performance on Mac OS X is poor compared to QuickTime. Adobe would like to address this via direct hardware acceleration, Apple would rather developers use the existing, higher-level QuickTime APIs.
  • Flash is used as a runtime, which Apple doesn't support on the iPhone.

I'll add two more things to this list, especially applicable to the iPhone:

  • Flash is an increasingly large target for malware attacks. While Apple is slow to respond to zero day exploits, Adobe is as well. The idea that Apple would have to wait on Adobe to patch an iPhone exploit is likely not appealing to Apple, and might seem glacial to end users concerned with security.
  • Flash is privacy hostile, allowing sites to store "Flash cookies" which can restore deliberately deleted browser cookies and otherwise track user data. That Adobe still doesn't better inform their users, and relies on an obscure website to provide controls is troubling to say the least. (That page is supposed to contain site-specific permission for Flash to access webcams. Mine contains entries for major online media sites and e-commerce stores).

Apple believes control helps them create the best user experience. It's incredibly frustrating at times, but it's how they've built their business and arguably attained some of their success.

I don't believe for one moment Apple is pushing open standards over Flash for altruistic reasons. In this instance, however, their reasons happen to coincide with what's better for the web. They're also are one of the few companies powerful and popular enough to push HTML5 video.

The iPhone and quite possibly the iTablet are their best shot at doing that.

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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Politics and Practicality the Reason for no Flash Player on iPhone... and iTablet?


This pleases me greatly.
If they bloated the phone with Unstable Flash, I wasn't going to upgrade.

I don't really see the need for flash. The only thing I would use it for would be cafe world on facebook. That's not a big enough reason for me to want it. I agree with the first commenter.

While Flash is garbage on the OS X platform, and just a little less garbage on Windows, I still think that it's best to at least support it on this mythical "new creation" that Apple is going to unleash. While it is a source of many pains, there are still plenty of websites that use it. Those sites should be more diligent on moving to more open standards, but I know there are some hard-headed ones that won't.

With HTML5, I think Flash will be phased out in the next few years. And yes, I enjoy browsing on the iPhone with no flash-based ads taking loading times and screen space.

While I am no fan of flash, Rene, you really should investigate into the "open standards" you and others assume Apple is pushing, because Apple is pushing elements that are neither free nor open.

  • MPEG LA, a group which includes Apple, controls patents over some of the more popular codecs in mp4 video, which is why Firefox and Opera will not support them. (MPEG LA also charges fees, but Mozilla, at least, says the fee is irrelevant to their deciscion not to support.) The MPEG LA page is somewhat cryptic, but Microsoft's page on their own licensing of these patents are instructive:

In a nutshell, most flavors of mp4 video (including the ones supported by Safari) are neither free nor open.

  • While talking the talk about open standards, Apple has filed for patent 20090228784, entitled "TRANSFORMS AND ANIMATIONS OF WEB-BASED CONTENT." The patent is here:

Apple is applying to patent the concept of animations that use a document, a scripting language, and a stylesheet to create movement and transitions. In other words, Apple is attempting to patent broadly the entire concept of DOM-based interactivity. Given Apple has made no public reference to this patent, much less made any statement about placing it in a pooled trust, combined with Jobs' statements about Apple "vigorously" defending its portfolio, it is hard to take anything but a cynical view of Apple's motives here.
You are correct that Apple is not pushing open standards over flash for altruistic reasons, because it appears they are not pushing open standards at all, just elements under their control.

You're forgetting one MAJOR reason, and perhaps the ONLY reason: Many games online are powered by Flash. Even the demonstration video showing the new Flash 10.1 for Nexus One shows them playing a game.
This would give game developers a way of making games, while cutting out the App store approval process. Don't you think old Mr Jobs knows that this would cut into the sales of games in the App store?
All decisions made by Apple are made with profit in mind, no matter what the hippies tell you.

MP4, that's certainly the case, though MP3 wasn't open either and that developed mass support. GIF was controlled by CompuServe. Many file formats have patents/licensing but the method they're integrated into the web has been agnostic. Firefox supports GIG and MP3, right?
Ideally there'd be support for open source containers and codecs as well as players (though many open source files, like OGG, may face future litigation over their technology).
Right now, open players are a good first step.
Google once intimated that what they couldn't control they'd fragment. I think Apple uses the same strategy. For private companies, open source is usually a weapon, not a philanthropic endeavor.
@Joe McG: Apple is private company, everything they do has to have profit in mind or they're failing their shareholders ;)

I personally really do not care if the iPhone can do flash or not. TBH, if a website uses heavy flash stuff just to be flashy (no pun intended) I probably won't go to that website very much. Flash crushes performance of any computer/browser/system and is more a pain in the a** to use and figure out where to click to do things on websites. In more cases than not I find websites seem to add flash stuff just because and it really adds nothing but making the site annoying and slow to navigate.
If Apple never supports flash on the iPhone it's no skin off my back.

GIF and Mp3 developed mass support in large part because there were no comparable alternatives -- they solved a need nobody else had yet attempted. Regarding MP4 and MPEG-LA, that is simply not the case -- other standards were available and in use, but rather than build open them (or license similarly), Apple adopted to close. (The intimation of a suit against OGG seems like pure speculative FUD, thought I would love to read any supporting evidence.)
"Right now, open players are a good first step."
While I am not going to defend Flash on a technical level, to distribute mp4 content you have to pay. To build a flash player from the ground up blessed by Adobe, you can sign a document and build your own for free. Heck, if you do not care about Adobe's blessing, there is a GPL'd one available which is 100% free and 100% open. It is not up-to-date, but the work is possible; with mp4, it is not possible to build a free player. In that sense, by your own statement, mp4 is a step backwards.
The patent on web based animations is more insidious, as it attempts to close off under patent a portion of what has formerly been an open platform -- the actual interpretation performed by a browser. I encourage you to read the actual application -- it is not long, and even reading the abstract reveals it attempts to patent a broad concept, not an implementation, and its granting (should Apple play hardball) would seriously retard the ongoing development of the web. Apple should be vilified at least as much as an Adobe, or Microsoft, for making such an effort, and yet they get a pass.
I agree with you that companies use open source as a weapon, and I ascribe to Apple no particular malice here. However, it is tiring to constantly heard the drumbeat of blogs saying how "open" Apple is when evidence indicates the exact opposite.

I agree with all of Gruber's points. So the question is "Why might Adobe be unwilling to improve Flash on Mac OS X?"
I think a major reason is that Apple bundled software with Mac OS X that competes directly with Adobe's, hurting Adobe's sales. Adobe is likely counter-attacking by attempting to tarnish the overall Mac OS X experience. Just out of spite.
Adobe's bread and butter applications include Photoshop, Lightroom, Acrobat, and of course Flash. Apple's iPhoto has built-in photo manipulation tools, which might be enough to keep people from buying Photoshop Elements. Apple sells Aperture, which competes directly against Adobe Lightroom. Mac OS X's Finder has built-in PDF rendering support in both Quick Look and the Preview application displays PDF files perfectly. No need for Adobe Acrobat if all you want to do is view PDF files.
Which brings us back to the main point: Mac OS X includes QuickTime, which Apple is using to try and kill off Flash. In addition, Apple uses the open-source SproutCore JavaScript framework in its cloud-based services. All the features of MobileMe.com and iWork.com are implemented in SproutCore. And the user experience is very similar to that of running a full Cocoa application on Mac OS X. In other words,
I would expect the Apple tablet device, iPhone OS 4.0, and all future Mac OS X releases to support HTML5 in one way or another, especially in Safari. And I expect Apple to continue migrating their iLife and iWork apps to "the cloud" in the form of SproutCore applications. This leaves Flash out of the picture entirely, thankfully.

What I mean is, Apple will cripple functionality in the name of profit. Of course for-profit companies will make all decisions with profit in mind...

Farmville is lame...
Almost as lame as Mafia Wars...
Facebook would be sooooo much better without these, and the stupid useless quizzes...

Its also been rumored that h.264 will require PAID licenses to use after 2010. This is probably why Google is slowly moving YouTube to html5 and free codecs.

I'm not going to pretend that no Flash support on the iPhone isn't frustrating at times... but if support comes at the cost of interface response, then the iPhone us better off without it.

Ok thank you apple fan boys enough all ready. There is only one reason why there will never be flash on the iphone and it has nothing to do with adobe, Apple wants to keep is strangle hold on the iphone because the moment they let go two things will happen.
1. People will realize how much apple has been gimping their own product.
and 2. Apple would lose money because users would stop using the app store and go to get apps that DON'T SUCK.

Maybe they should let adobe make an app that can run a flash browser within it and if people chose too, they can download and use it

Flash brings my 64bit dual-core laptop processor to a grinding halt. God only knows how my iPhone would cope!
Not needed, and the negatives outweigh the positives.

If flash were added to the iphone, I probably would leave it disabled most of the time. For the most part I enjoy not being assaulted by those blinky dancing people home refniancing ads. Every once in a while it's frustrating not to be able to navgate thru some site's flash-based menus, or to view certain web videos, and basically I'd only turn flash on if I really wanted to get at that content.

I would bet a lot of cash that as soon html5 has capabilities and works across browser like flash we will see this "blinky dancing people home refniancing ads" done in html5.
For me is Flash/Flex/AIR a interesting technologie and it really depends on the users how to use it. I agree that this ads are disturbing, but there are a lot of great apps done in flash like aviary, hobnox or lovleycharts.
And sorry, video would not be so popular on the web without flash, and flash not so popular without these video sites.
I would love to see flash on the iphone, but i had no problems without it during the last years. On the iTablet I would really expect to have the full web experience. So i really hope that the new improved 10.1 flash player will be available on the iTablet.

I love how you didn't bother mentioning that Flash CS5 which is in the final stages of development will publish native Iphone IPA files ready for submission to the app store.http://gotoandlearn.com/play?id=116
This has been a political game for way too long. the fact that all these people are commenting like they know the whole story is laughable. The points laid out in this article are the tip of the iceberg.
All I, and every other Flash developer, will do is remake all the apps with HORRIDLY poor ux into works of usability art. Flash haters can stuff it.

I agree with some... Flash is normally a waste of time when browsing. When I go to a heavy Flash website I normally back out before the stupid percentage bar or clock finishes! On my iPhone I don't need something like that wasting bandwidth or my time.