iPhone Flash Support: The Real Apple Tax

A fascinating soap opera of video format wars precedes us and one has to wonder why exactly Adobe’s Flash format is not supported on the iPhone.

Microsoft came out with an ad and PR campaign recently which focused on the excessive amount of money being spent on Apple products and services – they call this the “Apple Tax.” The idea is you can get equivalent products from Microsoft at a fraction of the price. But Microsoft knows this isn’t really a tax – they know their own OS initiatives have been a major challenge and that consumer perception of Vista is that it is a substandard OS. Windows 7 in fact is supposed to be the fix. Then there are ease of use issues which directly relate to decreased productivity.

But while we can all agree Apple products cost more (and I would argue in many cases the cost is justified by a better user experience) I would like to point out the real Apple tax that is often overlooked.

This levy is being paid by users and websites and it is simply the result of the fact the iPhone does not support Flash meaning the web experience on the iPhone while superior to most every mobile device on the market, still cannot match the desktop since an important piece is missing.

Many sources cite infighting between Adobe and Apple as a reason for the problem but at the same time Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen has said publicly that the problem is theirs and they are working to resolve the situation.

The challenge for websites is finding a way to display video and other complex graphics to users on the iPhone in a seamless way. One solution is to use H.264 as a video standard but the challenge here is this content is played on a standalone iPhone video player – the same way YouTube videos are played.

But for most sites this is a major drawback as they generally like to have static ads and other promotions run around their videos. Granted, on a pocket-sized gadget you just aren’t going to effectively promote much while having a decent video viewing experience.

Then there is the interactivity – H.264 does not allow the rich set of features of Flash allowing games to be developed for example. It is a one-way stream in fact.

So there is a solution which isn’t great. Every site that uses Flash video must also have a separate site which supports H.264 so iPhone users can have the full experience – and even then, embedded Flash on a page cannot be shown on the Apple product.

To be fair however there are few mobile devices which support Flash but as the iPhone mobile browsing experience is so superior, Flash support is more expected here than anywhere else.

Perhaps this is the reason for the dramatic irony around the fact that products like Skyfire allow mobile devices to have excellent Flash support by dealing with the Flash processing in the cloud. The irony of course is that Apple does not allow third-party browsers not based on Safari on the iPhone so Skyfire cannot show up on the iPhone meaning no Flash for you.

To make matters more interesting, Flash 10 Beta will be released by Adobe this fall and is expected to run on most mobile devices but the iPhone is not on the list of those gadgets supported. Google’s Android however is.

For Apple’s part, they seem to think the problem is minimal as they support H.264 for video streaming and HTML 5 support is built-into the 3.0 release of the iPhone OS. I have seen some demos of HTML 5 video and so far it does seem to be the functional equivalent to Flash for one-way video presentation.

The difference is that the Flash format is proprietary. This is not a big problem of course unless you want free and open standards for video. The challenge in the video market is for years Microsoft, Apple and others have been fighting to own the video standard and while in the middle of the squabbling between Windows Media Player and Quicktime, Flash emerged as the default – but proprietary way to distribute video.

Prince McLean does an excellent job bringing one up to speed on the situation. Here is an excerpt:

With the iPhone, Apple did something parallel to Flash: it similarly refused to support video playback of Flash movies, officially citing that this was only because Flash, now owned by Adobe, didn’t work well enough to include it. While that was true, the real reason for killing Flash on the iPhone was to push web developers back toward publishing standard video formats rather that wrapping their video content up in a proprietary Flash binary.

Somewhat ironically, Microsoft itself has now taken aim at Adobe’s Flash by introducing its own copy originally called Sparkle, along with the Silverlight runtime. With Internet Explorer now facing increased competition and plummeting market share, Microsoft’s ability to assassinate competitors’ plugins as it did with QuickTime and its power to coronate others, as it did with the Flash plugin, have weakened.

There is more – those fascinated by the video format wars must read this:

Meanwhile, the browsers taking away Microsoft’s control of the market, including Opera, Mozilla’s Firefox, Apple’s Safari, and Google’s Chrome, are working together to solve the problem of having no standardized way to present video. HTML 5 defines simple ways to embed video files so that the client browser can display them. Microsoft’s strategy seems to be to wait and see how those efforts develop, and perhaps attempt to derail them before they obsolete any real need for Flash or Microsoft’s own anti-interoperable, web-standards hostile, belated clone of Flash in Silverlight.

Apple already convinced Google to serve up its YouTube videos as H.264 in addition to Flash binaries, initially to support playback on the iPhone. Google has also demonstrated a version of its YouTube website delivering video using HTML 5’s native support for publishing H.264 video without Flash.

The remaining problem is that two browser companies that depend upon free distribution of their software are opposed to licensing the H.264 codec. Instead, they wanted the W3C to designate Ogg Theora as the official video codec of HTML 5. Ogg Theora is based upon VP3 video technology originally proprietary to On2, and subsequently abandoned after it became obsolete. Flash video is based on On2’s VP6, and Skype’s proprietary video conferencing uses VP7. In the face of interoperable standards published by the ISO, On2’s proprietary codecs are increasingly in the same boat as Microsoft’s WMV/VC-1, without Microsoft’s remaining clout.

The open source community has embraced the obsolete VP3, abandoned by On2 back in 2001, as a viable alternative to today’s H.264. For software developers, using Ogg Theora allows them to avoid paying royalties in order to share in the patent pool contributed by MPEG’s member companies. This has also resulted in adoption of Ogg Theora by video game developers and organizations like Wikipedia.

The article goes on to explain the Ogg Theora format while free is inefficient and Google for example says they would clog up the world’s Internet pipes if they had to support this format exclusively with YouTube.

Based upon the evidence I am seeing it seems Apple really doesn’t want Flash on the iPhone. I am convinced that any group of people able to enter the mobile device market and clobber most of the incumbents with thei
r first go are smart enough to find a way to add Flash to a mobile computer. If it is such a resource hog, a separate processor could have been bundled in the hardware just to support it.

Then again, how does cut and paste take years to roll out?

So yes, Microsoft, there is an Apple tax but it is not what you think. The tax is on websites line CNN and ESPN and others that need to support Flash on PCs and H.264 on mobile devices.

The tax extends to companies which embed Flash players into their pages to add functionality… These pages just won’t be seen by more and more users as the iPhone gains ground.

Perhaps Apple is doing the world a favor in the long-term and if we move into a dual standard Ogg Theora/H.264 world, maybe we are all better off (just not Adobe).

But there is an interactivity element being missed here. You see HTML 5 videos I have seen on the iPhone play in a standalone player meaning the rich functionality of this new standard may not be realized on the iPhone since you leave the browser to see the stream.

The HTML 5 solution today seems to be using a format like Ogg Theora coupled with Javascript. I have seen demos of JavaScript worker threads which are used to detect motion in a video and subsequently take some action but I haven’t yet seen any demos of rich interactivity required to make a Flash-like video game.

Does HTML 5 on the iPhone support rich interactivity when playing content allowing for a player which displays article graphics on a site like TMCnet where users can skip to the article graphic of their choice? I am not sure at this point.

I must admit I was a bit miffed at Apple and still am as an iPhone user who wants to see websites the way their creators envisioned them. But can you blame Apple when the Blackberry Storm doesn’t support Flash either? In Apple’s defense, the iPhone supports JavaScript which can approximate some Flash functionality.

So what is the future? Android will soon support Flash and users could consider this fact when they decide which mobile device to choose.

If lack of Flash support is the collateral damage of a political war then Apple will have to decide if it makes sense to be ideological on the matter or to just give in so they don’t lose share.

I must admit that when I started writing, many hours ago I didn’t realize the complexity of the situation. I still have many questions in fact.

I would like to leave off by saying if there is a grander vision at work here and all websites will improve as a result of the iPhone not supporting Flash on mobile devices, I am all for it.

But for now, as a user who is missing a piece of many websites when I browse on the go, I am looking forward to a better solution  and to my dear readers – I have discovered the real Apple tax and it is the lack of Flash support on the iPhone and iPod Touch.


Check out some other exciting non-video HTML 5 features such as being able to use a local database which provides similar functionality to Google Gears:

  • JT
    July 10, 2009 at 11:54 am

    Apple wants eveyone to conform to their iphone OS and H.264. I can’t wait until Flash Player 10 for Mobile is released and the few phones that don’t support it including the iphone will perish. That’s a bold statement but once people get the full internet experience the iphone won’t seem so innovative.

  • David
    August 12, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    That is great news.

  • Rey
    August 12, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    That is great news.

  • Noureen
    August 30, 2009 at 3:14 am

    We shall see and wait. I am not sure I would say it is great news till the hats are off. Just as you think it is a great, some one else will come up with some thing hew. By the way, why Motorola is falling behind in Cell phone technologies. Anyone want to take a shot at it?

  • Joshan
    September 5, 2009 at 9:17 am

    I think that is a very good news.

  • Mal
    October 13, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    I have been waiting for this kind of news since 2005, it has been long due.

  • Sherri
    October 13, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    Competition will drive prices down. I still think IPhone is way too expensive for what it does. Any cell phone above 29.99 dollars are way too expensive since they only last a year.

  • Kathy
    October 19, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    We need more competition in Cell phones, Wireless providers, long distance and many other fields. I agree, Iphone is way to expensive, and why is it that AT&T won’t allow you to have Iphone without the $30 dollars extra fee per month for internet access. When they say AT&T has conumers by their Balls, they really mean it.

  • gece elbiseleri
    November 22, 2009 at 8:40 am

    I have been waiting for this kind of news since 2005, it has been long due

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