Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Adobe Finally Ships the Real Flash for Phones

This post was also published in VentureBeat.

When my company Transpond added support for Nokia smartphones, we were excited that we would be able to deliver Flash videos in apps deployed to Nokia handsets. Instead, we were shocked to learn that there were no Flash video players that worked on the devices, even though the handsets supposedly supported Flash. We talked with Nokia. They couldn’t find one. Then we called our friends at Adobe. The only one they could recommend was JW Player, which didn't work on Nokia's Flash-enabled phones. Between Nokia and Adobe, we could not get a way to play Flash Video (FLV) files on a Nokia/Symbian handset.

Flash Lite is not Flash

We discovered Adobe’s dirty secret: while Adobe’s asserts that 80% of videos on the web are viewed in Flash, virtually no online videos other than YouTube are viewable on shipping, Flash-enabled mobile device since they use a limited version of Flash called Flash Lite. And since most mobile devices include a native YouTube player, they didn't need Flash to play YouTube. In essence, no one was watching any Flash videos on any smartphone, and Adobe’s entire Apple gambit about Flash video was a PR ploy.

When tested playing Flash videos on Flash Lite 3 devices, they found that they could not watch video on many popular Flash video sites including,,, imeem, Metacafe, and Vimeo. ( The reason for this is that the latest version of Flash Lite only supports a subset of the four year old Flash 8 (, which has since been replaced by Flash 9 and then Flash 10. Most websites and Flash video players are implemented with Flash 9 or Flash 10 and will not run an Flash 8. It is like trying to run a Mac OS X application on an old PowerBook. The reason the mobile version of Flash was so limited was that mobile devices did not have to the processing power to handle the full, modern version of Flash.

New Mobile Devices Now have the Real Flash

Adobe is now shipping the full Flash 10.1 for Android with the introduction of new, more powerful Android devices such as the HTC Evo 4G that employ the powerful Snapdragon 1ghz processor. Now that smartphones have much more processing power, Android 2.2 will run the same Flash that runs on a PC, and will therefore run all of the Flash content on the web. As always, there are some exceptions: Flash developers are obsessed with “hover” events that only work when a mouse hovers over an element which does not work on a mobile device where a user can't hover, and many Flash implementations are not built to resize themselves to a screen's limit and target 1024x768 sized screens, which will require a lot of scrolling by the user.

For Most Apps, Flash Does in Fact Suck

Flash on mobile devices does in fact suck, even on devices with the new, more powerful processors. Loading a massive Flash site on a PC is bad enough, let alone a mobile device, and blinking Flash ads suck up a ton of processor power that is better used to render a web page’s content and scroll through the page. For most non-game mobile apps, and even regular websites, both developers and users are much better off with HTML5, as evidenced by the slew of HTML5 announcements from even the staunchest former Flash supporters. If an App is going to be very sophisticated and interact extensively with features like the phone's camera, a handcoded, native App for each target platform is the ideal solution.

Flash Games will Actually be a Differentiator

However, in the gaming segment, Flash support on mobile devices will prove to be very useful. There are a ton of existing Flash games that will never get ported to the iPhone/iPad, and many Flash game developers will continue to produce fun Flash games, since they do not have the skillset or inclination to learn how to program in the iPhone’s complicated Objective C language. In addition, it will take quite some time for all of the video players on the web to get upgraded to HTML5.

Now that the Flash on new smartphones will be the real Flash rather than Flash Lite, devices that support Flash will have quite an edge over Apple when it comes to games and video. Support for more apps and video really didn’t matter when competitor's phones weren’t competitive with the iPhone, but now Android devices are outselling iPhones, and the new generation of Android devices such as the HTC EVO 4G and Droid X are arguably just as good if not better than an iPhone. Flash support will actually be a differentiator, particularly in the lucrative 15-35 male market that is very game and video focused. Despite all of the recent acrimony, Apple may very well reverse course once it ships more powerful iPhones that can support the full Flash. Apple has a long history of emphatically stating that it will not support something and then changing it's mind. Steve Jobs' rants about Intel and Microsoft went far beyond his recent Adobe vitriol, and soon after Macs switched from PowerPCs to Intel processors and Microsoft invested in Apple.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

iPhone Now as Fragmented as Android

This post was also published in VentureBeat.

At Transpond, when we were building apps on the iPhone and Android platforms last year, all of our engineers were enamored with the iPhone and annoyed with the pesky Android devices.

The iPhone environment was remarkably consistent. There was a single 480×320 screen resolution and API consistency across iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPhone 3GS. Even though the original iPhone doesn’t have GPS, it provided an approximation based on cell towers, and our customers like CBS and NBC are more interested in syndicating video and engaging users, so we did not need the 3D graphics of the newer generation iPhones. All in all, the iPhone platform presented a clean, wonderful experience for our engineers where they could write one piece of code and it would run beautifully on all of the iPhone and iPod Touch devices.

Android, by comparison, was a disaster. Every Android device had a different screen resolution. Every hardware feature had to be checked, since every Android device had different hardware configurations. Android was a huge, fragmented environment where the engineers had to constantly test for different things. What’s the screen size? Is there a camera? Is it running proprietary extensions that would conflict with the app? Compared to the iPhone, supporting Android was a huge pain from development to quality assurance to production.

This all changed in the first half of 2010. The engineers at Google, with backgrounds in Java and UNIX, recognized this problem and came up with a solution: the Nexus One. A lot of people thought that the Nexus One was Google’s entry into the handset market. This was actually far from the truth. The Nexus One is the equivalent of the Java Reference Implementation or UNIX POSIX and X/Open: a baseline of what handset manufacturers would have to support in order to create a real Android handset. If a developer wrote an app that ran well on the Nexus One, but it did not run well on a Motorola Droid or HTC EVO, the problem was clearly with Motorola or HTC, not with Android. In addition, Google obsoleted the 1.5/1.6 generation of handsets. So a developer could now target the Nexus One, adjust for various screen resolutions, test for hardware features such as a camera, and feel confident that their app would run on Android 2.0/2.1/2.2 devices. If a problem arose, it was a problem for Motorola or HTC to fix in their next patch, not for the developer or Android.

Apple, on the other hand, took the pristine iPhone OS platform and has added a ton of changes in the past two months. The iPad introduced a new screen resolution and did not include a camera. The iPhone 4 added yet another screen resolution and a front-facing camera. iOS programmers now have to make their apps run on three different resolutions and check for hardware features like cameras. While the variations are not as extensive as in Android, iOS has almost all of the same permutations. Especially from a programmer’s perspective, since programmers do not check for device type, they check for feature. For example a programmer is not writing “if iPhone or iPhone 3G or iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 then there is a camera”, they are writing “if there is a camera”.

Apple’s form factor and feature disparity had to happen at one point or another. Although Apple presents a limited product line, market requirements between phones, music players, and tablets is fragmented and has inherently resulted in fragmented features. However, it is incredibly bad timing for iPhone programming to become as complicated as Android programming when compounded with Apple’s onerous App Store policies, Android outselling the iPhone in Q1, and forcing developers to program in an obscure language such as Objective C.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Why Worry about AT&T’s New Rates? Your Phone Bill will Soon be $60

This post was also published in VentureBeat.

Mobile plans are ridiculously confusing. Voice, text messages, and Web surfing — it’s all data, right? Yet carriers make consumers guess — the minutes they’ll spend talking, the number of text messages they’ll send, and worst of all, the amount of data they’ll use in a month in order to avoid steep surcharges.

The only thing that’s sure: It’ll cost you. Mobile phone plans for typical usage of 800 minutes of talk time, 100 text messages, and 2 gigabytes of data typically run between $150 and $200.

When Apple and AT&T introduced iPhone plans, people complained about the expense. The one silver lining: They were unlimited. Now Ma Bell, by introducing new, capped plans, will have new iPhone customers once again play the guessing game. It’s a game only a regulated utility could love.

In the fiercely competitive world of Internet service providers, flat-rate pricing won out. Consumers loved it: They could budget against it. Here’s the good news: AT&T is mounting a last stand against a flat-rate wireless future. With new gadgets, and new wirelss technology, your phone bill will soon be a flat $60 a month, tops.

Wireless carriers would like you to think voice and data are different. They’re not. When you talk into your mobile phone, your voice is digitized in real time and transmitted as a data signal. Apps that use your phone’s data connection to transmit voice, such as Skype and Google Voice, do the exact same thing. The only difference is that you are not paying for “minutes of talk” with those voice-over-Internet apps. You only pay for data, and voice calls do not actually use that much data. The industry standard for a voice call is 64 kilobits per second. Compression cuts that in half. So 800 minutes of talk time amounts to less than 200 megabytes of data. In that context, Apple’s rejection of a Google Voice app for the iPhone suddenly makes a lot of sense, since Google Voice gives you a phone number and the ability to send and receive text messages, all over a data connection.

Every once in a while, new products present such glaring price disparities with legacy products that everyone realizes what something is really worth. Such a seminal moment occurred in 1996, when AOL moved to a $19.99 monthly flat rate for dial-up Internet access and killed off its remaining pay-by-the-hour competition. It happened again in 2002, when Rhapsody offered unlimited music streaming for $20 a month.

A similar watershed moment is happening in the mobile data market as faster wireless networks are getting lit up across the United States. The hot new devices are mobile hotspots like the MiFi or Overdrive, which connect to third- or fourth-generation wireless networks and rebroadcast their Internet connections as Wi-Fi signals, which almost any device can connect to. Verizon and AT&T are shipping 3G mobile hotspots with 5GB/mo. — the equivalent of 20,000 minutes of talk time, remember — for $60 a month. Sprint is shipping a 4G mobile hotspot with unlimited, high-speed 4G data for $60 a month.

That’s down considerably from slower 2G data services road warriors used to hook up their laptops, which ranged from $80 to $100 a month. Unlike cell-phone voice and data plans, which always seem to be creeping up in price, mobile hotspot plans are getting faster, cheaper, and delivering more bandwidth.

The digerati are starting to do the math. A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with Jen Herman, an old-time mobile entrepreneur who is now at Zynga, who turned me on to a new trend: coupling an iPod Touch running Skype or an unlocked Android handset running Google Voice with a small MiFi hotspot. Some people keep it in a purse or backpack, while others just velcro it to the back of the handset. The handset uses the hotspot’s Wi-Fi connection, which in turn communicates via 3G or 4G to the carrier. This geeky setup offers everything you’d get from a $200/mo. smartphone plan and more: voice, text, mobile data, and a connection you can share with your laptop, iPad, and any other gadget you might carry.

Right now, mobile hotspots are the province of the technically savvy. But the writing’s on the wall. Sprint’s aggressive 4G pricing will force AT&T and Verizon to match. And $60 a month is just the beginning, as competition drives prices down. The best part: We won’t just save money when the wireless guessing game comes to an end. We’ll save time. And we can spend that time coming up with clever new things to do on the network.