In the unique mobile ecosystem known as Japan, 85% of mobile phones have Flash Lite in them. That’s not the case for the rest of the world, but several events are conspiring to change that.
With Adobe Systems’ Flash on an estimated 98% of Internet-connected desktops, you might assume it would make its way onto mobile phones in a big way.
That hasn’t been the case – yet. The first phone with Flash Lite was shipped in May 2003, and it has now been shipped on more than 500 million devices worldwide. That might sound like a lot, but you won’t find it on too many U.S. devices aside from Verizon Wireless.
|Murarka: Flash Lite has a jump on competitors.|
Adobe wants to change that, and it’s working with a bevy of heavy hitters in its Open Screen Project to get Flash on more devices. “We’re ecstatic about seeing growth in mobile,” said Anup Murarka, director of technical marketing for the Mobile and Devices unit at Adobe. The company expects more than 1 billion handsets and mobile devices to ship with Adobe Flash technology by 2009.
SEEING THE LIGHT(S)
Until recently, most phones did not have the processing power, memory and battery capabilities needed to run Flash Lite. But another key thing happened this spring: Adobe announced it’s removing licensing fees, making the next major releases of Adobe Flash Player and Adobe AIR for devices available for free. That should make handset makers more inclined to include the technology in devices.
It’s been a challenge for game studios, which want to reach the greatest number of handsets. “Now it’s still really a difficulty because Flash would only cover a small market segment,” said Ernest Axelbank, chief technology officer at mobile game developer Artificial Life. Once the handset coverage is there, you can expect to see more interest among developers.
Some of the world’s largest phone manufacturers are part of Adobe’s Open Screen Project, a “write once, run anywhere” type of endeavor designed to drive rich Internet experiences across screens, including mobile, computer, television and consumer electronics. The effort includes industry leaders such as ARM, Cisco, Intel, LG Electronics, Motorola, Nokia, NTT DoCoMo, Qualcomm, Samsung Electronics, Sony Ericsson and Verizon Wireless.
“Given those kind of partners, I fully expect this to be successful,” said industry analyst Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. Of course, Apple is missing from the roster; it did not include Flash Lite in the iPhone because, according to prevailing wisdom, it wasn’t rich enough, although full Flash for the desktop wouldn’t work properly, either. Murarka said he could not go into specifics, but Adobe is working with Apple on an implementation of Flash for the iPhone.
|Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob is one example of new Flash Lite-based UIs and mobile apps. The screen moves when you touch it or roll over individual elements.|
Another big player missing from the Open Screen Project is Microsoft, but it is pursuing Silverlight, a rival to Flash. According to Microsoft, Silverlight is designed to take the .NET Framework (Microsoft’s development framework that the majority of Windows applications run on) and make it cross-browser, cross-platform and cross-device. “Microsoft offers a dramatically different approach for creating and delivering experiences in a way that aligns more with our customers’ development and deployment needs,” a Microsoft spokesperson said via e-mail. “We are building a true development platform, not just a player or a browser. This platform spans Windows to the Web and includes emerging surfaces such as the media/living room (Xbox360, Media Center PC), as well as mobile devices.”
Murarka pointed out that Flash Lite has a big head start over rivals such as Silverlight, and Flash has a large contingent of dedicated developers. Microsoft, which also is a licensee of Flash Lite, isn’t saying how many developers are in the Silverlight project but says Silverlight is central to Microsoft’s strategy and the company is committed to making the technology a success. The competition doesn’t bother Murarka, who said it puts pressure on Adobe to stay innovative. “We welcome them,” he said. The first releases out of the Open Screen Project are expected mid-next year.
Silverlight 2 is on track to ship this fall. Microsoft also announced support for Windows Mobile 6 and several popular Nokia devices and plans to port Silverlight to the Symbian OS. Earlier this year, Nokia announced plans to make Silverlight available for S60 on Symbian OS, as well as for Series 40 devices and Nokia Internet tablets.
SERVING THE CAPUCHIN
Adobe is getting an assist from some other big wireless companies as well. At its annual BREW conference, Qualcomm said it would incorporate Flash into new chips for mass-market devices; the platform is expected to ship later this year. Ahead of the JavaOne Developer event in May, Sony Ericsson Mobile Communication announced plans to release a new technology that, for the first time, bridges the Flash Lite and Java ME development platforms.
Generally speaking, Java developers aren’t Flash experts and Flash developers are not Java experts. But the new technology and tools, referred to as Project Capuchin (think cappuccino), make it possible to combine the richness of Flash Lite and Java ME technologies, allowing developers to use the best attributes of both software stacks.
“When you combine these two, we can get so much more exciting stuff coming out of these communities,” said Ulf Wretling, general manager, head of the Developer Program and Communications at Sony Ericsson.
The first phone to feature the bridging technology is the C905, Sony Ericsson’s first Cyber-shot slider and its most advanced cameraphone to date. Almost all future Sony Ericsson releases will support the bridge; ultra-low-end phones for developing markets, however, aren’t likely to support it. Sony Ericsson also is looking at ways to share its work with other manufacturers to avoid the inevitable fragmentation that would occur if every major phone manufacturer developed its own version of the bridge, Wretling said.
LEGIONS OF FANS
You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Flash fan than Smashing Ideas, the largest independent Flash developer in the United States. The company is encouraged by the latest developments by way of the Open Screen Project and Qualcomm’s decision to support Flash in chipsets, said Brian Burke, managing director of corporate development.
All of the things that make Flash so cool on the Web – “we are really trying to emulate that in the mobile environment,” he said.
As you might expect, a company like MTV Networks uses a lot of Flash on its various Website properties. Flash Lite is used in two MTV game services offered by Verizon Wireless, Shockwave Minis and Addicting Games Qwikies. “Because it’s developed in Flash, we can quickly update them and deploy them very quickly,” said Jeremiah Zinn, senior vice president of syndication and operations in the digital offices at MTV, which employs hundreds of Flash developers.
Adobe’s Murarka said Flash Lite currently is just one release behind the desktop. “We’re as close as we’ve ever been to the desktop,” he said. And Zinn said he doesn’t find the mobile version of Flash to be limiting. “All the ideas we’ve had about developing for Flash, we’ve been able to do within Flash Lite,” he said.
Some companies are going beyond games. Mobopia has built what it calls the first Open Mobile Publishing Network called Xuinet, offering tools and services that enable Flash developers to easily create, distribute and make money from mobile services worldwide. “We are all about opening things up and really focusing on the Flash developer community,” which is about 2 million strong worldwide, said Mobopia President and CEO Ray Taylor, a former Verizon Wireless executive. Another big area for Flash Lite is mobile advertising, an area in which Mobopia will play as well.
With such a large community of Flash developers and more handsets supporting Flash Lite, Adobe just might see those 1 billion handsets and mobile devices by 2009 – and they won’t all be in Japan.