At its annual developer conference in Los Angeles on Monday, Adobe secured Flash’s future, at least for the near term.
Adobe said that its forthcoming Flash Professional CS5 will allow to developers “to create rich, interactive applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch.”
But just because those applications were created as Flash applications does not mean they will be allowed to run as Flash applications.
Flash Professional CS5, to be released as a public beta later this year, will allow developers to create Flash applications using the Flash development platform and then export those Flash apps as native iPhone applications.
“We created a new compiler front end that allowed LLVM [Low Level Virtual Machine] to understand ActionScript 3 and used its existing ARM back end to output native ARM assembly code,” explains Adobe senior product manager Aditya Bansod in a blog post. “…When you build your application for the iPhone, there is no interpreted code and no runtime in your final binary. Your application is truly a native iPhone app.”
That means certain Flash capabilities, such as being able to load another another Flash (.SWF) file or to browse Web content from within exported Flash apps, will not be available. Developers using Apple’s tools, however, can browse Web content from within their own apps via the SDK’s UIWebKit component.
Adobe’s announcement does not change the fact that Flash content on the Web is inaccessible through the iPhone’s Safari browser. Flash content on the Web requires Adobe’s Flash Player browser plug-in, which relies on a just-in-time compiler and virtual machine to render Flash content. Apple does not allow interpreted code on the iPhone.
James Anthony, co-founder of iPhone game maker Inedible Software, said in an e-mail that since his company has been developing native iPhone applications, its development process won’t change at all.
“What does make a huge difference is the flood of Flash developers that can now easily port their existing properties to the iPhone, as well as rapidly create new ones,” he said. “Apple made it pretty easy to get up to speed on the SDK, but this makes iPhone programming trivial for the tons of Flash programmers already out there. It’s definitely most well-suited to games, which aren’t expected to use the built-in user interface elements. There have already been lots of successful games that were clones or ports of existing Flash properties, and now the originals can make the leap painlessly.”
A sudden influx of Flash app conversions may not be entirely welcome, however. iPhone developers have been complaining about how difficult it has become to be noticed among the exploding inventory of Apple’s iTunes App Store and more games means more competition.
Apple recently announced that over 85,000 applications are available for the iPhone and that number is likely to pass 100,000 before the end of the year.
Adobe also announced that Google and RIM have joined its Open Screen Project, an initiative make Flash and Adobe AIR available as a consistent runtime environment across a wide variety of devices and platforms. The company said that Flash 10.1 would be available on Google Android, Blackberry, Symbian, Palm webOS and Windows Mobile devices toward the end of the year.
Google’s decision to support Flash may seem to be out of character. Google executives have been proclaiming loudly that the Web is the platform of the future and have been promoting open Web technologies like HTML 5, which duplicate some Flash functionality. The company’s willingness to look beyond Flash is even more explicit in a recent patent application that describes the company’s ambition to create sophisticated 3D maps “without needing special software such as a Flash plug-in or the like.”
However, company insiders are now striking a more conciliatory tone and acknowledging that Flash may be a better tool for certain jobs than Web technologies and that a lot of developers want to use Flash.
In a blog post, Google SVP of engineering Bill Coughran explains, “We’ve always believed that open platforms lead to greater innovation on the Web and we see participating in the Open Screen Project as another step in that direction.”
Although Adobe appears to have dispelled many doubts about Flash’s future at a time when so many are moving toward open Web technologies, the continued absence of the Flash player on the iPhone will become all the more glaring if Apple, as expected, releases an iTunes-dependent tablet device next year. An Apple tablet could be a showcase device for rich media content, and Adobe will want to make certain that its Flash technology plays a staring role.