why disable flv?
January 29, 2010 8:34 AM   Subscribe

why doesn't apple enable flash video on its mobile devices? How do they make money doing this, exactly? What market are they trying to preserve for themselves? why can't they just allow the freaking format already?
posted by cogneuro to Computers & Internet (36 answers total)
I think Apple has cited concerns about how Flash would allegedly rapidly drain battery.
posted by jckll at 8:36 AM on January 29, 2010

Apple also says that Flash is exploitable, though this issue has largely been addressed. I maintain that it is because Flash is a direct competitor to their own Quicktime format. Problem is, as bad as Flash is on the web Quicktime is arguably worse.

This will likely fall by the wayside by the time the next iPad/iPhone is released. HTML5 should hopefully hit mainstream by then; it supports embedded video.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:39 AM on January 29, 2010

I think Gruber's recent piece on this topic is insightful.
posted by adamrice at 8:42 AM on January 29, 2010 [10 favorites]

Flash defines a fairly capable virtual machine, and apple's app store rules explicitly disallow anything programmeable. My take is that they want to be sure to remain the gatekeepers for software on the platform, and flash is a bit too close to a cross platform alternative environment that can actually do stuff.
posted by larkery at 8:42 AM on January 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Part of it is likely down to Flash being a platform that can be used to develop applications that would compete with things in the app store.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:44 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

..or what larkery said
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:44 AM on January 29, 2010

Fantastic article, adamrice. Thanks!
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:47 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a side note, I have heard rumors that the next version of flash (CS5) will be able to output to iPhone app format. I have no evidence to back up this claim, but it would refute some of the arguments above.
posted by AtomicBee at 8:47 AM on January 29, 2010

Its called if they enable flash then the app store would be useless.
posted by majortom1981 at 8:50 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't speculate on Apple's motives, but as far as Flash goes: Flash 10 uses hardware acceleration for H.264 content, which in terms of compression efficiency is so vastly superior to Sorenson 3 / VP6 / etc. that it's really laughable. Other types of hardware-accelerated video decoding - DXVA, CUDA, etc. - on a Windows notebook typically eat battery life more slowly than pure software decoding done through the CPU; this is not only one of Adobe's own Flash marketing claims, but confirmed for other applications in a discussion over at doom9. I have no idea what the GPU on Apple's mobile devices looks like, but I would think that if it can do hardware accelerated H.264 decoding then the battery life argument would be a canard. Moreover, since Apple uses H.264 (albeit, like Flash, with only a small subset of the most useful compression features) extensively in its own Quicktime content, one would think the two formats would be appealing from a design point of view for use on the same hardware.

/x264 is the one true path
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:51 AM on January 29, 2010

Gruber's article is really a must read about this. I don't think it's necessarily the final word, but it does strike me as balanced and fairly thorough.
posted by OmieWise at 8:55 AM on January 29, 2010

Why? At the core, because Flash is the only de facto web standard based on a proprietary technology. There are numerous proprietary web content plugins — including Apple’s QuickTime — but Flash is the only one that’s so ubiquitous that it’s a de facto standard. Flash is the way video is delivered over the web, and Adobe completely controls Flash. No other aspect of the web works like this. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are all open standards, with numerous implementations, including several that are open source.

Gruber is right on, but to expand I would say that Apple has designs on some new, open source, option. HTML 5 is coming out and will, hopefully, be able to do the same sorts of things that Flash can. Also, since the Iphone, and now the ipad have, and are going, to occupy a huge share of their respective markets, I would say that apple is making a play to squeeze out Adobe as the only option, hoping this is the case, and imho of course.
posted by TheBones at 8:59 AM on January 29, 2010

Because they could get away with it on the iPhone. People didn't expect much from a phone browser, and Apple doesn't really want to rely on any other company for part of the base OS.

It's debatable whether this will fly with the iPad. It's true that HTML5 video is a workable replacement for Flash video, once everyone converts their sites over. But that is a lot of work, and HTML5 is not a magical solution for all the other uses of Flash. Those require handcoding javascript against the <canvas> tag. (Even replacing all those video players on the net require a lot of javascript.) And it's certainly debatable whether rewriting flash apps in javascript will solve any battery life issues.
posted by smackfu at 9:03 AM on January 29, 2010

Adobe == BloatWare

Nut I think it should be there on the iPad, I should be closer to a general purpose computer than the iPhone. It's straddling the divide, it's edging towards being closed, but I imagine it should offer services like that.

I was somewhat disappointed that it was missing some computer-specific features such as an iSight and USB ports, but they're keeping it pretty closed.
posted by Napierzaza at 9:06 AM on January 29, 2010

Maybe because Flash's implementation in anything besides Windows sucks? I can only imagine how much CPU the thing would eat on the iPhone OS.

Also, what everyone else has said about the walled garden Apple has been slowly creating for their mobile hardware.
posted by Memo at 9:22 AM on January 29, 2010

" why can't they just allow the freaking format already?"

In a nutshell: because Apple doesn't want their mobile devices to get a reputation for being crashy, and running Adobe's runtime on them would make the browser crashy. A majority of application crash reports submitted to Apple are crashes in the Flash runtime over which they have no control -- and in fact Apple's relationship with Adobe has continued to deteriorate now that Adobe considers the Mac a secondary development target, so they have even less clout over the crashy Flash runtime than they would have in the olden days.
posted by majick at 9:48 AM on January 29, 2010

The performance/bloat theory is augmented by the way Apple uses their own PDF-viewing frameworks all over the iPhone and OSX proper, rather than the ridiculously slow and awful modern OSX versions of Acrobat.
posted by rokusan at 9:53 AM on January 29, 2010

One thing that Gruber doesn't mention is that most Flash games requires the use of a real keyboard. It wouldn't be possible to play those games satisfactory on an iPad. So even if they did include Flash, it wouldn't really help the games. The interactive graphics that NYTimes creates, can be created as well using Safari's current support of html5.

Besides, Flash performance on the Mac perform is very bad and drains the battery, a disaster for an iPad, and it would be foolish to expect Adobe to deliver a implementation for the iPad that sucks less than the Mac and Linux versions.
posted by flif at 10:21 AM on January 29, 2010

I am pretty sure that flash is in the works for Android, (and symbian/winmo??) so I would imagine that once it is up and running on their competitors apple will come around.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:44 AM on January 29, 2010

Since all your previous responses here are drinking the Apple Kool-Aid, I'll point out that Flash is a pretty capable application platform, and there are Flash interpreters for pretty much every platform that you can think of. If everybody wrote their apps in Flash, people making a new telephone would not need to bother about getting software developers to write apps for it since they would just have to get the Flash interpreter running and presto, all the apps written for other phones would Just Work[tm]. This is a big fat threat to Apple's first-mover advantage with the iPhone, and they'll fight tooth and nail to keep that.

All the things about power drain and exploitability are talking points.
posted by themel at 10:47 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Flash — even used for simple apps with minimal animation and no video — brings OS X to its knees on netbooks (Air, hackentosh) and would simply not run usably on the iPhone, or probably the iPad. There's very little that can be done with Flash that can't be done with HTML 5 except video, and the API access that limits Web apps would presumably limit browser-based Flash apps too, so the suggestion that Apple is blocking Flash to stifle some imaginary uncontrollable Flash application market is a canard.
posted by nicwolff at 11:36 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

"People making a new telephone would not need to bother about getting software developers to write apps" as long as the hardware has pretty much the same standard HID as every other, i.e. a keyboard and mouse. Apple's devices, of course, make use of a drastically different multitouch interface, for which there are no standard APIs in Flash. [Actually, it appears that the newest Flash SDK has some multitouch support, but my next point still stands.]

Developing a multitouch-capable application really requires engineering from the ground up to support the input methodology; the myriad existing Flash applications would have a severely degraded user experience under the iPhone OS for this reason alone.
posted by ijoshua at 12:01 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think part of it is spite, and part of it is that they want people to buy their TV shows from the iTunes store.

The lack of Flash on the iPhone irritates me, but I've learned to live without it. In my opinion, the iPad does not get as much leeway.

Jobs himself said that for the iPad to have a reason to exist, it needed to "be far better at a certain few things" than either a smartphone or a laptop. The very first thing on his list of examples was "Browsing." Whether you like Flash or not, it is very pervasive on the web, and is often used for very cool things, like Hulu for example. I don't think you can make the argument that browsing the web without Flash support on an iPad is "far better" than browsing the web on a laptop with Flash support. Not for the vast majority of people anyway.

I think Apple and Adobe need to make nice on this, and I hope they do it fast. I want the iPad to be super cool, not just another AppleTV.
posted by spilon at 12:18 PM on January 29, 2010

On a related note, Apple is pushing h264 for video, which is itself proprietary and closed. So they're not looking for open standards based tools, but rather they're looking for tools they can control.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:33 PM on January 29, 2010

Flash — even used for simple apps with minimal animation and no video — brings OS X to its knees on netbooks (Air, hackentosh) and would simply not run usably on the iPhone, or probably the iPad.

This is true. I'm using a first-gen PowerBook 12" - 867 MHz G4 - for most of my at-home web surfing and YouTube clips are indeed enough to cripple my trusty little box. Conversely, if I download YouTube files as h.264, they play back fine.
posted by porn in the woods at 12:42 PM on January 29, 2010

Am I the only one reading this question as "why don't they allow .flv"? (Flash Video - the video container format). Not "Why don't they allow flash?"

Because they're really two separate questions.
posted by bitdamaged at 1:12 PM on January 29, 2010

Lots of people talk about Apple wanting total control of the whole device, and there's something in that, yes. But this decision wasn't about protecting the App Store -- the App Store didn't even exist when the iPhone launched, and Jobs was reportedly dead against it at first -- he didn't want any developers inside his phone. The iPhone doesn't have a Java plugin either, although nobody cares about that.

But, for the most part I think it's the result of simple technicalities, personal politics and Adobe's relationship with the Mac, stretching back years.

I'll point out that Flash is a pretty capable application platform, and there are Flash interpreters for pretty much every platform that you can think of.

There is a Flash interpreter for Windows. On the other platforms, there's some software that brings the system to its knees and then crashes.

Apple and Adobe have a long history; the two companies together invented desktop publishing and its ancillaries, like Photoshop. But in the mid to late 1990s, when it looked like Apple would fold and control of Adobe shifted from engineers to marketers, that all changed. The marketers said that Apple was dying, and shifted a lot of engineering effort to Windows.

In the era since Jobs came back to Apple, Mac users have been treated more or less like second-class citizens: Acrobat is the most famous example of this, but really outside of Photoshop and latterly Lightroom, everything the company makes is second-class on Mac. Since the Macromedia acquisition, that also includes Flash. Flash on the Mac is terrible: it's slow, it uses a lot of power and battery, it sends the fans on the laptop models up to full speed, anecdotally it crashes more than anything else.

Mac users have been pestering Adobe about this for almost a decade, but they've always met the cold shoulder: they were told their platform was a minority, Windows had the 95% market share, and therefore they should hush. Hell, they're still doing it (search for "95%"). It's unfair and untrue: the Mac's marketshare is vastly larger in the areas Adobe cares about, which is why they still reluctantly follow Apple's endless API and platform changes to update Creative Suite.

But more than that, it pisses Jobs off. This sounds petty and ridiculous, but personal politics seem to matter a lot to him: he changed the entire Apple product line to ditch ATi graphics cards because their CEO mentioned an upcoming Apple product, and there are reports he ditched a mention of a book publisher in his iPad keynote because of a similar thing. He's definitely not above making technical calls for personal reasons.

That would probably be enough for Apple, but there are really good technical reasons not to let Flash on the phone. The phone runs a stripped-out version of OS X, so the version of Flash that would run on it would be the aforementioned terrible OS X version of Flash. (Reports from people who've seen the runtime running on the phone suggest that it sent battery life into the 30-minute territory). It'd also be crashy, and the iPhone isn't crashy. Further: there's no keyboard or mouse on the device, so the majority of Flash apps, even if they ran, would be useless. Video, too, is much better served by the iPhone's built-in player. Phones that do run Flash show why this is -- the video is "nearly unwatchable".

Ultimately, the decision was that bad software -- crashy, slow, battery draining software that offered nothing unique or special that couldn't be better replicated in other ways -- wasn't getting on the phone. If Adobe had the massive Mac fanboy market on its side as it once did, this would have been different: they would have shouted down Apple until it caved. But they treated them as second-class citizens for 15 years, and they thought shipping a "good enough" runtime on Mac would be fine.

In essence, they bet -- and continue to bet -- on Windows and IE. Now they have Apple, Google and Mozilla ranged against them, and are excluded from the biggest mobile platform there is.

(Also, you might hear a lot of noise about how Flash on the Mac could be good if only they'd give Adobe access to the hardware, like they have on Windows. This is a talking point spread by their paid Flash evangelists. It's also rubbish: hardware video decoding is brand-new on Windows. The performance disparity goes back years.)
posted by bonaldi at 2:15 PM on January 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

That would probably be enough for Apple, but there are really good technical reasons not to let Flash on the phone.

This argument makes me wonder how well this runs on the iPhone, and what it does to the battery life. It's just canvas/javascript.
posted by smackfu at 2:25 PM on January 29, 2010

Pretty badly, I guess: it had my MacBook fans spun up in about a minute. The difference, though, is that if that became as popular for YouTube, Apple could optimise MobileSafari for it without having to depend on Adobe to do what it's shown no inclination of doing for the past 10 years.
posted by bonaldi at 3:35 PM on January 29, 2010

All the things about power drain and exploitability are talking points.

Flash 9 reported exploitable security flaws.

Flash 10 reported exploitable security flaws.

Power drain problems are so typical that nobody bothers to catalog them, but let's just say that one of the nicest things about quad-core computers is Adobe can now only max out 25% of your CPU per process.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of Apple, I know Apple has it's own security problems, and I suspect that in Jobs' eyes making it easy for an iPhone owner bypass the App store is a bigger "security flaw" than making it easy for a non-iPhone owner p0wn someone's iPhone. But let's not completely ignore reality here, okay?
posted by roystgnr at 8:04 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm also going with the "Flash sucks up RAM like there's no tomorrow" theory.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:26 PM on January 29, 2010

I have an iPod touch, and I don't miss Flash. There are times when you run across content that is only accessible with Flash, but that's not been all that often in my experience. Flash on my Macs is not a fun thing; it works the hell out of the CPUs. There's also the occasional Flash item that tries to resize the screen or pop open new windows, which would be hell on the iPhone. People run Flashblock on Firefox for a reason, especially on Macs.

The statement above about the difference between Flash and .flv being allowed on the iPhone sounds about right to me.
posted by azpenguin at 10:55 PM on January 29, 2010

After getting bored with Flash crash on the Mac I installed ClickToFlash for Safari and it helps a lot. You can set allowed sites and then have the option to load individual flash parts or all Flash on the page for other sites. You find a lot of pointless Flash used across the web.

I'm fine with flash where it is genuinely useful but 80% less Flash on the web would be A Good Thing IMHO...
posted by i_cola at 6:17 AM on January 30, 2010

Am I the only one reading this question as "why don't they allow .flv"? (Flash Video - the video container format). Not "Why don't they allow flash?"

Are there any sites that actually use a plain Flash Video file without a Flash wrapper?
posted by smackfu at 8:09 AM on January 30, 2010

Side note - it's not just a rumor that Flash CS5 will be able to create iPhone apps. Here's an article about it on Adobe Dev Net. Apparently it'll compile directly to machine code instead of to flash player bytecode, so they won't need to use a runtime interpreter.
posted by moonmilk at 9:57 AM on January 30, 2010

This argument makes me wonder how well this runs on the iPhone, and what it does to the battery life. It's just canvas/javascript.

I get 17 FPS at "tiny" on my iPhone 3GS, 9 FPS at "small".
posted by nicwolff at 12:22 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

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