Adobe & Apple’s holding pattern: navigating the Flash blockade

Adobe & Apple's holding pattern: navigating the Flash blockade


If you’re ever stuck at airport security behind someone unloading a seemingly endless array of gadgets it might just be Paul Trani.

As developer evangelist with Adobe Systems Trani brings his bag of tricks – filled with well-worn demonstration gear including his faithful 17-inch MacBook Pro an iPad Motorola Xoom tablet Research In Motion BlackBerry PlayBook Samsung Galaxy Tab three smartphones and related accessories – wherever he travels.

And he travels a lot: during Adobe’s recent CS5 Evolution roadshow he and colleagues Greg Rewis Jason Levine and Terry White circled the globe to demonstrate the latest innovations in the company’s ubiquitous design suite to thousands of interested designers and developers. By the time the team of Adobe rock stars got to Melbourne – the 15th stop on a two-month 20-date tour of Europe Asia and South America that has just wrapped up in Skelleftea Sweden – Trani had packed and unpacked his who’s-who of the mobile world countless times.

It’s all in a day’s work for a man who has spent 15 years bouncing around the global development scene. An Adobe Certified Instructor for over a decade Trani is a regular on the company’s AdobeTV site and authors video tutorials through his own site Design Update.

One of his major challenges on the roadshow is to highlight how well Creative Suite’s new tools – including Flash Builder and Flex – can be used to easily bring Flash to all sorts of different devices. And when it comes to bundling apps for Android or the PlayBook’s RIM Blackberry Tablet OS the process is as easy as clicking a few buttons and sitting back while Adobe’s tools do the hard work.

Flash Builder can also package up iOS-compatible .IPA files used on Apple’s massively popular iPhones and iPads – but thanks to a long-running dispute over use of embedded runtime code on iOS devices which Apple prohibits users’ ability to actually get those files onto a device has been an on and off affair.

For Trani who professes a great love for the design and simplicity of the iPad and iPhone the inability to just get on with the process of designing great apps has been a constant point of frustration – starting back in April 2010 when Apple changed its App Store policies to prevent developers from using the suite’s new ‘Packager’ iOS bundling feature which translated Flash apps into compiled iOS-compatible Objective C applications indistinguishable from natively-written iOS apps.

“It was a huge downer for Adobe” Trani recalls. “We’d had Packager in pre-release within Adobe Labs for months. The whole company was extremely bummed; aside from the fact that Flash wouldn’t run in the browser on those devices Apple were now saying people couldn’t make apps using Flash either.”

Clearing the AIR

That ban continued for seven months during which Adobe was forced to down tools on its iOS efforts and redouble its efforts improving support for Android. By the time Apple reversed its ban on Packager-built Flash apps in September Adobe had a lot of catching-up to do.

“It became all about performance on iOS products” Trani recalls. “This is our biggest priority right now and our engineers are focusing on how we can get some sweet performance out of it. We really will do anything we can to get our content on these devices; they’re important to our consumers as well as [Apple's].”

Nearly a year later Flash-based sites such as Miniclip.com have moved many of their most popular Flash games into the iOS world and the Adobe team’s discussions with developers now take iOS for granted as a target platform. One of the CS5 roadshow’s key themes was the relative ease of use provided by the heavily-integrated suite: rather than having to learn to code Objective C and build apps in Apple’s XCode integrated development environment creative professionals can concentrate on app functionality and let the suite take care of the heavy lifting.

Trani has also been spruiking the benefits of AIR Adobe’s lower-level runtime environment which has been positioned as a companion to Flash and a way to let developers build apps that span different platforms. AIR and Flash compete in the same space as Microsoft’s Silverlight framework which spans Windows Mac and Windows Phone 7 devices.

AIR allows developers to access lower-level system elements like tapping into system notifications building system widgets or accessing contact information and Trani believes its incursion into the tablet market will facilitate creation of richer applications. “AIR does have a role on these tablets” he says “and we’re working on cool things that will be more and more integrated [with the platform].”

Does Trani see Silverlight as a potential problem for Flash? “Not anymore to be honest” he replies. “Microsoft want in on the game but Silverlight just doesn’t have the penetration.”

Cross-platform

With new mobile operating systems like HP webOS and Intel/Nokia’s MeeGo adding to the platform options on the market Trani has also been talking up the potential of Flash as a cross-platform equaliser of sorts. While he concedes the value of straight HTML5 for less-demanding and static applications when it comes to more-complicated apps he sees Flash as the way to go.

By building application logic in CS5’s ActionScript and adding Adobe FLA asset bundles to accommodate for devices’ different physical and application characteristics developers can now build apps that run on different devices using a single SWF (Flash) application file.

Trani’s favourite demonstration of this involves a Flash app he put together which portrays a kayaker moving steadily down a river. It seems simple enough at the roadshow until the kayaker reaches the edge of the iPad and seamlessly continues his trip on an adjacent Motorola Xoom tablet then onto a Samsung mobile phone. “When I’m at home I can get him to paddle onto my TV using my set-top box” he laughs.

The trick is accomplished using Flash’s built-in peer-to-peer communications capabilities in which the app listens to find out which device is physically closest to it. But it’s more than just a gimmick: Trani uses the demo to point out just how far the capabilities of Flash have evolved to mirror the expectations of smartphone and tablet users.

With Apple and Adobe now in something of a holding pattern over Flash it’s all forward for Trani and the platform he loves. Many industry watchers crow about a challenge to Flash from HTML5 but Trani remains focused on the task at hand: helping customers build new content for whatever devices they want to use.

“To some people Flash might be a dirty word” he smiles as he packs up his myriad gadgets into his padded carrying case. “Steve Jobs might want you to believe that but if you believe that you’re talking to the wrong guy.”