If you visit www.youtube.com from most mobile handsets you’ll find you’re re-directed to m.youtube.com – a version of the site optimised for the screens and video playback capabilities of phones. This mobile edition offers a small subset of the videos available on the full service and launches the clips in a separate video player on your handset rather than from within the web browser. This is because these clips are encoded in the 3GP video format, supported by most video-enabled handsets and not the Flash Video format used by the ‘desktop’ version of YouTube.
Although some handsets now ship with a ‘Lite’ version of the Flash player installed (a cumulative total of 300m according to Adobe), this mobile edition has not had the same video support as the PC version (installed on 98% of PCs – Adobe’s figures again).
However, that’s about to change. Adobe have announced Version 3.0 of Flash Lite, with full support for the Flash Video format used by sites like YouTube, raising the prospect of providing a much wider library of video content to mobile users. Nokia, which has a long-standing licensing agreement with Adobe, has commited to integrating the software into future handsets, while NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese network operator which pioneered the use of Flash in mobile devices, will make it a standard feature of its handset range.
In an interview with Reuters, Adobe’s mobile marketing lead Gary Kovacs said the company is planning to integrate the mobile and desktop versions over the next two to three years, providing a unified codebase for developers. The speed of such developments will likely be determined by the rate at which the processing power and memory of mobile devices continues to increase. This time may not be too far off: Apple, for instance, is already using an optimised version of its desktop operating system to power the iPhone, showing that high-end mobile devices with fully featured chipsets are already capable of emulating some rich environment aspects of the PC.
However, to-date mobile Flash has failed in many ways to live up to the expectations set in motion when, several years prior to its acquisition by Adobe, Macromedia started lobbying the mobile industry to adopt Flash as a universal ‘write once, run anywhere’ platform for application, content and interface development.
After winning a series of high profile operator agreements with NTT DoCoMo (February 2003) and T-Mobile (July 2004), Macromedia’s marketing efforts stalled. Much of its initial push had been led by Juha Christensen, a founding member of the Symbian team and former head of Microsoft’s mobile business, who joined Macromedia as President of its mobile division in January 2004. Christensen, however, stayed less than a year at Macromedia, during which the company signed up Nokia, Samsung, several other small manufacturers and T-Mobile.
With Christensen gone and the subsequent internal changes caused by Macromedia’s acquisition of Mobile Innovation (now known as Adobe Consulting) and then Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia, the company’s mobile mission lost its impetus. Although it has since added an operator agreement with Verizon Wireless and strengthened its partnership with Nokia, the goal of establishing Flash as a key technological underpinning of the mobile experience has fallen by the wayside.
Flash has been caught in an awkward situation. Initially it was perceived as insufficient for advanced application development on mobile devices: the platform simply didn’t allow the deep integration required for developing anything beyond fairly simple, content-based applets. However, as the platform was enhanced with new features and greater possibilities for tapping into the native features of mobile handsets, handset manufacturers and operators became wary of adopting the technology because they feared handing too much control of a key application and interface element to Adobe.
There are certainly some attractive arguments for using Flash. It is widely acknowledged as an easier development environment and one that is accessible to a much broader base of creative and graphically-minded developers than alternatives such as Java and C. The desktop version has also been used extensively for prototyping mobile interfaces in the past, so a mobile edition makes it possible to use a single environment for every development stage from prototyping to commercial deployment.
Samsung has taken advantage of this to create Flash-based interfaces for some its handsets. Flash also underpins many interface elements for the LG Prada phone, a device widely acknowledge for the simplicity and elegance of its GUI.
This latest 3.0 version of Flash Lite, however, seems to be aimed more at enhancing the richness of mobile web pages. Manufacturers will integrate it closely with the web browsers embedded on their handsets, and one of the most significant developments for users will be the ability to view the standard video content of sites like YouTube.
However, this raises some interesting user experience questions. The reality of logging on to the desktop version of a Flash video site from a mobile phone is likely to be a broken experience and one significantly removed from that enjoyed on a PC. While the Flash player may be technically capable of delivering the content to the phone, a wide range of other factors, such as processor speed, memory requirements, the quality of network connection and availability of screen real estate, may all conspire to produce a negative result.
While it is tempting to imagine this new version of Flash for mobile devices will enable access to the full range of content already available on the web, the reality is likely to be rather different. Embedded Flash videos may be a realistic viewing proposition on some sites, but only for those willing to wait for complex pages to load and then navigate them on small screens.
In practice, it is the developers who are likely to derive the most benefit from Flash 3.0 in the short term. It will simplify content deployment by allowing more rich media items to be published in a single format. However, it will not negate the need for employing due care and attention in presenting these content items in a way which makes sense for mobile users – it should not be seen as an excuse for simply re-publishing desktop sites to mobile.