Daniel Eran Dilger
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An Adobe Flash developer on why the iPad can’t use Flash

Daniel Eran Dilger

Morgan Adams, an interactive content developer who knows a lot about building Flash, wrote in with an interesting perspective on Flash and the iPad. The remainder of this piece is his comments on the subject.

Inside Apple’s iPad: Adobe Flash
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I’m biased. I’m a full-time Flash developer and I’d love to get paid to make Flash sites for iPad. I want that to make sense—but it doesn’t. Flash on the iPad will not (and should not) happen—and the main reason, as I see it, is one that never gets talked about:

Current Flash sites could never be made work well on any touchscreen device, and this cannot be solved by Apple, Adobe, or magical new hardware.

That’s not because of slow mobile performance, battery drain or crashes. It’s because of the hover or mouseover problem.

Many (if not most) current Flash games, menus, and even video players require a visible mouse pointer. They are coded to rely on the difference between hovering over something (mouseover) vs. actually clicking. This distinction is not rare. It’s pervasive, fundamental to interactive design, and vital to the basic use of Flash content. New Flash content designed just for touchscreens can be done, but people want existing Flash sites to work. All of them—not just some here and there—and in a usable manner. That’s impossible no matter what.

All that Apple and Adobe could ever do is make current Flash content visible. It would be seen, but very often would not work. Users would hate that broken promise much more than they hate gaps in pages, missing banner ads, and the need to download a game once from the App Store instead of re-downloading it every time they visit a Flash game page.

Mouseover examples:

* Video players where the controls appear on mouseover and hide otherwise. (This seems to be the norm, in fact. Whereas a click on the same video does something different: usually Pause. Try Hulu for instance.)

* Games where you steer with the mouse without clicking (extremely common).

* Menus that popup up subpage links when you mouse over a main button, vs. going directly to a main category page when you click.

* Buttons that have important explanations/summaries on mouseover, which you need to understand before deciding what to click.

* Functions that use mouseover to preview and click to commit; such as choosing hair colors for an avatar: you mouse over the colors until your character looks the way you like, and then you click to commit.

* Maps and diagrams that don’t use click at all, but pop up info as you mouse around.

* Numerous other custom mouseover functions that “just work” with a mouse and need no explanation.

None of these things can work right with a finger (or traditional stylus) because on a touchscreen, pointing at something without clicking isn’t a mouseover: it’s just holding your finger vaguely in the air. The device doesn’t even know it’s happening.

In addition, some Flash sites rely on right-clicks (such as for security settings), and many rely on a physical keyboard. Especially games, which are the main kind of content people want from Flash. (I’d say video, except video can easily be done without Flash, and sites are increasingly doing so. Much of the video missing from your favorite Flash site is probably easily found on YouTube anyway.) Games often use realtime key control, requiring a distinction between a single press and a long hold, and including the need for chording. For instance: holding right arrow continuously to walk, while simultaneously hitting the space bar to fire, and either hitting up-arrow once to jump or holding up-arrow longer to jump higher. A touchscreen keyboard can’t handle these kinds of rapid, precise combinations well. And the keyboard would block the game view, too. Games on a touchscreen need controls suitable for a touchscreen (and/or tilt).

The only potential “solutions” to the mouseover problem are terrible ones:

A) The best case: every Flash app on every site is re-thought by its designers and re-coded by its programmers (if they’re even still available), just for touchscreens. They wouldn’t use mouseovers any more—or else they’d have dual versions of all Flash content, so that mouse users could still benefit from the mouseovers they are used to. That’s a ton of work across the Web, for thousands of parties, and just isn’t going to happen. Plus, with many sites, mouseovers are so fundamental that the very concept of the site would be altered, creating a whole different experience that would annoy and confuse the site’s existing users. (And would this be any easier than simply re-designing without Flash at all? Not always.)

B) Gestures, finger gymnastics or extra physical buttons are created that simulate mouseover—which is absurd since mouseovers, by their nature, are meant to be simpler than a click/tap, not more complex. And meant to be natural, not something new to learn. Not a whole set of habits that violates our desktop habits. And any additional complexity is unworkable when it comes to games: you need to react quickly and simply, not remember when to hold the Simulate Mouseover button, or use three fingers, or whatever. The game itself is enough to deal with. Anything on top of that takes away fun.

C) Make clicking itself—the fundamental, constantly-used action—MORE complex. Such as requiring a double-tap or two-finger tap before anything is registered. (Two taps is how Mobile Safari does JavaScript popup menus: the first tap pops it up, the second selects.) But many Flash apps and games already use double-click (or rapid-fire clicking) for other things. Extra taps only make sense for certain limited situations (like menu popups). And it’s not just clicking: you have to allow for movement: dragging vs. a moving mouseover. And even if a system could be created that was quick and simple enough to do all this in the middle of a game, how would the user know which parts of a web page played by these special rules? One part of a page (the Flash elements) would do fundamental things like scrolling or link-clicking differently from the rest of the page! (Not to mention the rest of your touch-based apps.)

D) Have a visible mouse pointer near your finger, and not interact with things directly. Use Apple track-pad style tap-and-drag gestures, as seen in some VNC clients. This kind of indirect control violates the very principle of direct touch manipulation. This is making the touchscreen be something “like a laptop but worse” and has little reason to exist. And again, you’d have to keep remembering whether you were in direct touch mode or “drag the arrow” mode, and which parts of the page behaved in which way.

E) Require extra force for a “real” tap. So you’d have to learn habits for a light tap vs. a hard tap. This extra complexity is non-intuitive, cramp-inducing, and easy for the user to get wrong (even with click feedback, as in RIM’s failed BlackBerry SurePress experiment). This complicates the whole device just for the sake of one browser plugin, and makes it more expensive to build.

So it’s not just that Apple has refused to support Flash. It cannot, logically, be done. A finger is not a mouse, and Flash sites are designed to require a mouse pointer (and keyboard) in fundamental ways. Someday that may change, and every Flash site could be redesigned with touch-friendly Flash. But that doesn’t make Flash sites work now.

Even if slow performance, battery drain and crashes weren’t problems with Flash (and they truly are), nothing can give users of any touchscreen, from any company, an acceptable experience with today’s Flash sites. The thing so many complainers want is simply an impossibility.

By the way, imagine my embarrassment as a Flash developer when my own animated site wouldn’t work on the newfangled iPhone! So I sat down and made new animations using WebKit’s CSS animation abilities. Now desktop users still see Flash at adamsi.com, but iPhone users see animations too. It can be done.

Morgan Adams, adamsimmersive
interactive design and games

  • http://www.xtyler.com xtyler

    meh, the author is not overly concerned with internet users, they just don’t like Flash because of its proprietary nature and are looking to justify an internet without the plugin. To each his own, but the whole discussion is pretty weak speculation:

    “Users would hate that broken promise much more than they hate gaps in pages, missing banner ads, and the need to download a game once from the App Store instead of re-downloading it every time they visit a Flash game page.”

    The devices (tablets/phones) that will win out (at least with me) over the next 5 years are those that offer an OS, a platform for me to do with it what I will, and not decide for me what it is I really want.

  • timkindberg

    @ObamaPacman good point. Wait no, I’m pretty sure no one used floppy drives a long time before they were excluded from Macs. EVERYONE agreed on that change. Clearly this isn’t anywhere near the same argument.

  • Nerd Uno

    Dan: The Nexus One doesn’t make the world dependent upon a mouse cursor. It merely provides an alternate method to touch technology which you claimed was the deal-breaker for Flash. To me, having a trackball and keyboard makes a mobile phone such as the iPod or Nexus One more versatile rather than less. And, just to refute your basic premise, FarmVille works perfectly fine with Flash on the Nexus One… without ever touching the trackball.

  • timkindberg

    I’m inventing a new phone. It uses elbow sensors. Also I am excluding text and image support, because I decided they aren’t needed. Sound is the only important aspect anyway. Don’t worry you’ll get used to using your elbows for input. Also give me $500. kthxbai.

  • Gophero

    @ObamaPacman

    iPhone and iPod don’t have Internet browsing as one of their primary features. Steve Job’s claims the iPad as the ultimate browsing experience, which it clearly isn’t as it isn’t compatible with a large amount of content available on the Internet right now.

    The floppy drive analogy, which is constantly flogged by the Apple faithful, is a poor one. The floppy drive is hardware and became redundant due to its limitations. Apple only helped it out the door. Flash is software and therefore constantly capable of being improved. Flash 10.1 on mobile devices compared to previous versions of Flash Lite are worlds apart.

    @everyone but no one in particular :P

    I have no doubt that the iPad will be a successful product. I don’t think that point is even worth debating. It probably won’t be as successful as the iPhone since a phone is something many people consider a ‘need’ – they might as well have a good one such as the iPhone. I don’t think many people will find a ‘need’ for the iPad or similar devices but if there is one thing Apple does well, it is marketing.

    What is fair to debate is whether the iPad will be the “ultimate browsing experience”. Without Flash, I don’t believe it is.

  • Gophero

    @timkindberg
    “I’m inventing a new phone. It uses elbow sensors. Also I am excluding text and image support, because I decided they aren’t needed. Sound is the only important aspect anyway. Don’t worry you’ll get used to using your elbows for input. Also give me $500. kthxbai.”

    I’ll race you to the patent office! :P

  • timkindberg

    oh no you don’t!~

  • olahaye74

    @Gophero
    Benefit of having a 64bit browser is that it does not require to install all 32apis aside the native 64bits one.
    half security fixes to install, half the space used on hard drive.
    half memory used. Right now, you have 2 ie engines running in memory: ie8 64bits for desktop and ie8 32bits for browsing. both use their own api (libc and such, all loaded into memory).
    This is just plain stupid.
    Flash should disappear or run natively NOW
    Contivity VPN should disappear or run natively now. (the 32bit contivity can’t run on 64bits) (I admit this is another story).
    @Dorian: your almost right: except that Flash 64bits exists for linux as a beta version. http://labs.adobe.com/downloads/flashplayer10_64bit.html

  • miloh

    @timkindberg

    “I’m inventing a new phone. It uses elbow sensors. Also I am excluding text and image support, because I decided they aren’t needed. Sound is the only important aspect anyway. Don’t worry you’ll get used to using your elbows for input. Also give me $500. kthxbai.”

    If it sells, what’s the problem?

  • ChuckO

    Gophero 104, Are you a Flash developer? Texas Hold ’em addict? Hulu fan? I’m not trying to be a wiseguy I’m just wondering what it is about Flash that makes you feel like it represents “a large amount of content available on the Internet right now.”

  • robojerk

    As stated before, like comment #96.

    Mouse events do work on mobile Flash 10.1 (exception of scroll wheel)

    http://www.mikechambers.com/blog/2010/02/22/flash-player-content-mouse-events-and-touch-input/

    [You keep ignoring the point: existing Flash content makes extensive use of mouseovers because it assumes it is running on a Windows PC. While future Flash content *can* be compatible with multitouch devices like the iPad, that is irrelevant to the current installed base of lame Flash games and full page websites. – Dan ]

  • Gophero

    @Chucko
    None of the above :P. Flash makes up most of the media rich content available right now. HTML5 and AJAX cannot replicate the function of Flash for these websites although they can replace many of the other use cases of Flash.

    I do not see a genuinely good reason to go without Flash.

  • Gophero

    @Chucko
    I could also quote Adobe’s figures of 85% or something like that of the top 100 web sites using Flash but I think they might be somewhat biased. Even if that were true I think half of those could probably be done without Flash with new browser technologies (except for the issue of people using old browsers – but I hate those people :P) but it’s the other half, which is still a significant amount that I still want to be able to use.

  • ChuckO

    @Gophero 110,
    Give us an example website. What’s an example, some free porn websites? Flash for me is the eyesore ads of how to get ripped without doing any work. Really, you seem way over invested in this not to have some angle of self-interest.

  • Gophero

    Or I could also point at that this very page is using Flash :P

  • Gophero

    Okay, now you got me on a rant.

    I also don’t see the many websites that frequently embed video switching to HTML5 overnight.

    YouTube doesn’t have its HTML5 player ready. There is no option to embed YouTube video with HTML5 yet and the HTML5 beta on YouTube can’t even do fullscreen.

    The iPad user is going to be a minority among all web users and so I don’t see web developers dropping everything to cater to such a minority.

  • timkindberg

    @ChuckO, do you think eyesore ads will go away if you get rid of flash?

  • Gophero

    @Chucko
    Well I personally block adservers so I rarely see adds but are you going to tell me that you never watch any video content on the Internet? Nearly every embedded video on the Internet is using Flash.
    If you want a full experience of browsing the Internet TODAY, or even on the day when the iPad releases, you are going to need Flash.

  • ChuckO

    Gophero, So you can’t be against Flash because it’s ubiquitous? It may suck in many ways but Apple should just go along to get along? I don’t get your passion for Flash. Your arguments are childish and about immediate gratification and not the long term interests of the web.

    We’ll see where YouTube goes now that Google bought On2 and VP8.

  • ChuckO

    @Gophero 116, YouTube will still work just as it does today the day after the iPad is released and no one is coming to your house to force you to surf the web with an iPad. So everythings going to be OK.

    Apple’s Flash battle is a long term strategy and they are putting their money where their mouth is on their mobile platform.

  • Gophero

    @ChuckO
    “Your arguments are childish and about immediate gratification”
    Nice… or they’re based in reality.

    Once more, for clarity, if someone is going to market something as the ‘ultimate browsing experience’ it should be able to view all the web content that it out there. Not what might be there in a few years. I just think that it’s a ridiculous claim.

    It will be interesting to see where YouTube goes, as you say, but Flash is where it’s at now.

    Also HTML5, AJAX and all the rest cannot do things like this http://lux.lookbookhd.com/

    As I say, I just do not see any really good reason to exclude Flash.

  • Gophero

    @ChuckO
    “Apple’s Flash battle is a long term strategy and they are putting their money where their mouth is on their mobile platform.”

    I don’t disagree with that. I disagree on the “ultimate browsing experience” claim.

  • ChuckO

    timkindberg 115, Don’t I wish but hopefully they’ll annoy me from an open source technology. Maybe that’s the big downside to life without Flash: it would be much harder to implement something like “ClickToFlash” if ads were all served in native html elements.

  • miloh

    @Gophero:

    “I disagree on the ‘ultimate browsing experience’ claim.”

    You’re entitled to your opinion, but realize that to some it may in fact be true.

  • Gophero

    @miloh
    “Ultimate but only for some” kind of misses the meaning of ultimate.

  • ChuckO

    @Gophero 119, That “LookBook” thing is like a bucket of hot sick to me. I’d rather see that content implemented in standard html in simpler format.

  • ChuckO

    @Gophero 124, Not really Apple isn’t hiding the lack of Flash. This is their take on the ultimate in web surfing.

  • Gophero

    @ChuckO
    “That “LookBook” thing is like a bucket of hot sick to me.”
    Who’s arguments were childish again? I forget.

    It’s just an tech demo effectively of what Flash can do. It’s not actually even a real magazine. Also it’s pretty similar to what Apple will have with their digital magazine subscriptions on the iPad so you better get on hating that too.

    There’s also plenty of Flash games and other things that would work just fine on an iPad with Flash without any changes whatsoever.

  • Gophero

    @ChuckO
    And because our Lord and Saviour, Steven Paul Jobs, says it is good then it must be so.

    Look, I like Apple products, I’m not just here for the sake of hating Apple. I even like most of the things about the iPad but I would want to be able to browse the Internet without unnecessary restrictions.

  • miloh

    @Gophero:

    “‘Ultimate but only for some’ kind of misses the meaning of ultimate.”

    Sure, if one assumes that what constitutes the ultimate of something is not subjective.

  • Gophero

    @miloh
    Hmm… now that I consider your view I can see why all those people still use IE6 – they think that IE6 is the ultimate browsing experience. I totally respect their opinion now.

  • Nerd Uno

    Just wait ’til He covers up all the Ta♥Tas in the universe. Then we’ll see how much you like your Ultimate Browsing Experience.

  • ChuckO

    @Gophero 127, I’m actually not sold on the whole eMagazine thing. The mingling of text and video doesn’t make much sense to me. I think you could just skip the text at that point. It makes more sense for an eText book. I definitely don’t want to read fiction with any distractions (links,video,etc.).

    To me this thing is the first steps in a new world of “appliance” computing. This isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. Apple’s “thinking different” and that’s good.

  • Gophero

    The iPad is a pretty nice bit of hardware and it should be a great mobile web browsing experience. As it stands, it’s merely a good-enough web browsing experience.

    Before I read the “iPhone doesn’t have Flash and it was successful” argument again, on the iPhone, web browsing wasn’t a major part of the experience, with the iPad, web browsing is a major part of it.

  • Gophero

    @ChuckO 132
    Agreed, plain text is a much better way to view novels and such but the digital magazine thing is where print media is headed and one of the things Apple is hyping up.

    “Apple’s “thinking different” and that’s good.”
    But anyone thinking different from Apple is bad?

    “Appliance” computing is a very lovely buzz word but that has nothing to do with why they’re excluding Flash.

  • miloh

    @Gophero:

    “… now that I consider your view I can see why all those people still use IE6 – they think that IE6 is the ultimate browsing experience.”

    For some it may be. Who are you to decide for them?

    “As it stands, it’s merely a good-enough web browsing experience.”

    Once again, subjective. What you perceive as good enough may be seen by others as outstanding, excellent, or the best-ever. Not everybody values the same things.

  • Gophero

    @miloh
    The point is, there is still no compelling reason to exclude Flash.

  • kenkopin

    [The problem is that it’s not a problem that the iPad does not run Flash. It is an intentional design decision. – Dan ]

    Well, seeing that the entire premise of you article was “Why the iPad can’t use flash” and “All that Apple and Adobe could ever do is make current Flash content visible.” you can perhaps understand my confusion. Can’t and Won’t are different.

  • miloh

    @Gophero:

    “The point is, there is still no compelling reason to exclude Flash.”

    Yet again, subjective. Just because you don’t find something compelling does not mean others agree. Apple obviously was compelled enough to exclude it thus far.

  • Gophero

    @miloh

    And so that reason is? …

    Fine, let’s be picky, I will take any reason that can’t be demonstrated to be untrue.

    ■ The point of the original article was that mouseover doesn’t work – comment 72 cleared that up, it would work fine.
    ■ Some content wouldnt work well – but what about all the content that would?
    ■ Flash wouldn’t run well/drain the battery/too buggy – Flash 10.1 seems to run quite nicely on other mobile devices, HTML5, AJAX and WebGL implementations will use just as much power
    ■ Mobile Flash isn’t the same as desktop flash – effectively not true as of Flash 10.1
    ■ HTML5 is better – HTML5 isn’t even a complete standard yet, most importantly there’s no standard for the most important component – video streaming, and it cannot replace the media rich content found on Flash
    ■ Open source w00t – yeah because that’s what Apple is all about, they love open source and open systems
    ■ I don’t want to see Flash adds – you’ll be seeing adds one way or another if you’re not actively blocking them, which you probably won’t be able to do on the iPad
    ■ Apple doesn’t want Flash apps competing with the app store – well that’s reasonable but Apple denies this excuse along with the Apple faithful

  • miloh

    @Gophero:

    “Fine, let’s be picky, I will take any reason that can’t be demonstrated to be untrue.

    …”

    I don’t follow. Are you trying to claim that the “ultimate browsing experience” is not a matter of opinion?

  • ChuckO

    Gophero 134,
    “@ChuckO 132
    Agreed, plain text is a much better way to view novels and such but the digital magazine thing is where print media is headed and one of the things Apple is hyping up.”

    I haven’t seen Apple hype eMags anywhere but that’s neither here nor there. If it means mixing text and video I don’t see the point. I’d rather just WATCH the whole thing. On eTextbooks I could see value in the combo.

    “Apple’s “thinking different” and that’s good.”
    But anyone thinking different from Apple is bad?

    I don’t follow your logic. There’s no implication from that satement that thinking different from Apple is bad. The iPad is a significant break with traditional computing and Apple is trying some new things and extending some ideas from the iPhone. I don’t plan on buying an iPad but I can still appreciate what they’re doing.

    “Appliance” computing is a very lovely buzz word but that has nothing to do with why they’re excluding Flash.

    Wether “appliance” is a lovely buzzword or not also is neither here nor there but it does convey the idea that these devices are different and aren’t just lazily extending the old desktop metaphors mindlessly. I think it’s great Microsoft will be out there mindlessly extending those metaphors for people who can’t take a chance on the future.

  • Nathanael

    Observe that the glaringly obvious solution was presented in the second comment. It’s simple. Hold = Mouseover.

    Here is the link: http://www.roughlydrafted.com/2010/02/20/an-adobe-flash-developer-on-why-the-ipad-cant-use-flash/#comment-24536

    All of this nonsense about “holding and dragging already scrolls in Mobile Safari” completely ignores the fact that in any browser, mouse events which begin within a plugin do not extend outside of its frame and mouse events which begin outside the plugin do not continue inside. The reason that you think that scrolling would take place is that everything that you experience within Mobile Safari today *is* an HTML element.

    Similarly, objections that holding is already reserved for copying and pasting or opening links in a new window are useless. Notice that this functionality only takes place when holding on an actual URL.

    The only real objection against this intuitive Hold = Hover argument is that you would not be able to click and drag. The solution, again, is obvious. Contextual responsiveness is key. If my initial touch when I begin holding my finger down happens on whitespace, I am simply hovering. If I begin holding on plain text within Flash, I want to highlight it. If I begin holding on a URL in Flash, I want to open it in a new window or other appropriate secondary options. If I begin holding on top of a menu item which has a flyout UI element, then I want to trigger that. If something’s primary purpose is to be dragged, I want to drag that element.

    Really. I can’t believe that there are this many people who are as simple as most of the above. If flash is used in a tastefully small dose on a page or if a page is a single Flash app, then exceeding the iPad’s or iPhone’s capabilities shouldn’t be a problem.

  • Gophero

    @miloh
    Clearly you do not follow. I am simply asking, “Why is there not Flash on the iPad?”

  • Gophero

    @ChuckO
    “I don’t follow your logic.”
    That’s because their is no logic in that statement but many people seem to just think because Apple says that they’re doing something different then it must be good. Maybe not you but I’d still like to know why something different is good other than just “it’s different”.

    “these devices are different and aren’t just lazily extending the old desktop metaphors ”
    Is the iPad really that different? I’m not sure that it is. If anything it’s extending the iPhone metaphor… or at least the iPod Touch since it doesn’t make phone calls. I think it’s pretty good but I don’t see the revolutionary device that Steve Jobs is trying to sell me.

  • miloh

    @Gophero:

    “Clearly you do not follow. I am simply asking, ‘Why is there not Flash on the iPad?'”

    But that’s not what you and I were discussing.

  • Gophero

    @miloh
    Oh yes, I forgot. We weren’t discussing Flash on the iPad. Hmm…

    @everyone who is not miloh or also miloh if he chooses to answer even though it deviates slightly from what we were personally discussing previously

    I am simply asking, “Why is there not Flash on the iPad?” and please see comment 139.

  • miloh

    @Gophero:

    “Oh yes, I forgot. We weren’t discussing Flash on the iPad.”

    You are correct, we were not. I made a passing remark in comment #123 about something being a matter of opinion. But rather than leave it alone and let the main subject of discussion continue, you tried to counter it with a series of statements that did nothing but suggest a failure to comprehend subjectivity. Then, in comment #139, you pulled things back into the main thread so abruptly it was as if the prior matter had never been brought up. Even now, you continue to act as if none of this ever transpired. I can only conclude that you either have a poor memory for conversations or you’re trying to avoid something.

  • Gophero

    @miloh
    I think you’re reading too much into it. I’m sorry I wasn’t paying enough special attention to you and accidentally slipped back on topic. Speaking of which, can we get back on topic? Or is it too late now? Have we gone too far, never to return?

  • miloh

    @Gophero:

    “Speaking of which, can we get back on topic? Or is it too late now?”

    I would say have to say the latter. You have demonstrated that you are overly impulsive, that you do not actually understand the things about which you speak, that you have difficulty admitting faults, and that you would rather mock people than actually carry on a conversation. In short, you’re not worth anyone’s time.

    Bye. :)