It’s no secret that Apple doesn’t like Flash. It won’t allow Flash apps to run on the iPhone or iPod Touch despite all of Adobe’s cajoling and pleading, and despite the fact that it’s long been working in the labs. The iPhone’s lack of support for Flash is a major inconvenience for both consumers and developers, and is a gaping hole in the iPhone’s arsenal.
But all of that is about to change because Adobe is going to bring its 2 million Flash developers to the iPhone, with or without Apple’s blessing. As it announced in October, the next version of its Flash developer tools, Creative Suite 5 (currently in private beta), will include a “Packager for iPhone” apps which will automatically convert any Flash app into an iPhone app. So while Flash apps won’t run on the iPhone, any Flash app can easily be converted into an iPhone app. (Microsoft is taking a similar approach with Silverlight). This is a bigger deal than many people appreciate.
Much of the focus in the Flash iPhone debate centers around the fact that Flash is the de facto video standard on the Web. For instance, whenever you encounter a Web page in your iPhone browser with a Flash video, instead of seeing it right there in the browser, the phone must open up a separate Quicktime player. Most video on the Web, including everything on YouTube, is displayed through a Flash player, so this gets to be tedious. Apple has always cited technical reasons for why it doesn’t support Flash. It’s a battery hog, it’s too slow for mobile phones, not capable enough, etc. Some of these issues are valid and Adobe has been addressing them to the point that Flash now works fine on Android.
But there is a more strategic reason Apple kept Flash off the iPhone. It wanted a chance to become ingrained with developers. In addition to video, Flash, of course, can be used to create Web apps—the kind of apps that might look good on a phone. Apple had to hold off Flash not so to control the video experience on the iPhone, but because it needed to establish its own Apple-controlled iPhone SDK. The last thing it needed was a competing developer platform getting in the way.
Once Adobe publicly releases CS5, Flash apps and video still won’t run on the iPhone. But those 2 million developers will be able to keep working with Adobe tools and simply turn them into iPhone apps automatically. In contrast, there are only an estimated 125,000 or so iPhone developers. This will lower the barriers to making iPhone apps even more than they are today, which may or may not be a good thing. But if you thought there were a lot of iPhone apps now, just wait until the Flash floodgates are open.