Moviestar: Big Step Towards Flash on iPhone

I’ve believed for a while now that Flash is coming to the iPhone, sooner or later – emphasis on sooner. Today’s announcement and beta release of Moviestar make me feel even more certain.

Here’s why I think Flash is coming to the iPhone:

Apple wants it. Steve Jobs has referred to the Internet experience with the iPhone as “The Real Internet”. For better or for worse, today that means Flash content. Until Flash is built-in to the iPhone, it only offers most of “The Real Internet”. If it’s not the same experience you can get with Firefox, IE, or Safari, it’s not “The Real Internet”. (Can you tell that I don’t love that phrase?) Jobs knows this. Flash on the iPhone = more iPhones sold.

Adobe wants it. Flash’s reach and market penetration are a bragging point, and a source of clout. They want people developing Flash sites and apps for the iPhone, so they can sell more copies of Flash and Flex Builder and so the patina of the iPhone rubs off on them. Everyone wants piece of the iPhone pie, and adobe isn’t immune.

Apple and Adobe are tight. Their goals are aligned, and they know how to work together.

Walt Mossberg says so.

At launch, the iPhone version of the Safari browser is missing some plug-ins needed for playing common types of Web videos. The most important of these is the plug-in for Adobe’s Flash technology. Apple says it plans to add that plug-in through an early software update, which I am guessing will occur within the next couple of months.

The technical hurdles are fixable. The primary hurdle is CPU usage, and along with it, battery life. This is fixable. H.264 encoding goes a long way toward fixing this, because the iPhone includes a hardward H.264 decoder. Hardware decoding is way more efficient than software decoding, and video is a large portion of usage of Flash in today’s web. MobileSafari’s JavaScript engine also demonstrates that some minor tweaks to a scripting engine can help prevent badly coded scripts from sucking precious watts. I wouldn’t be surprised if Adobe made similar modifications to Tamarin for the iPhone.

The Flash player dev team is on a roll. Version 9 is a huge success, and ActionScript 3 is a great language. They haven’t rested on their laurels either: since v9 was released for Mac and Windows, they’ve released a bevy of improvements, such as full screen support, today’s H.264 support, and support for other platforms, such as Linux and the Wii. Do you really think it’d be a big deal for them to dev a iPhone build with some CPU-saving customizations? I think not. The iPhone, after all, is essentially a Mac running customized versions of OS X and Aqua and some novel hardware. For an example of the competence of the team members, see Tinic Uro’s What just happened to video on the web? or Mike Melanson’s blog Penguin.SWF.

Apple’s Customers Want It. This is last because I think it’s actually the least important – for better or for worse, Apple doesn’t have a great track record of implementing features just because customers ask for them. Anyway, people who buy the iPhone so they can use “The Real Internet” are going to be annoyed when they find that some sites just don’t work, or work partially, or look different. (Regular, non-geek people, that is. Geeks already know Flash isn’t supported, so while they may be disgruntled, they aren’t surprised.)

If there are so many reasons why, you might be wondering: what’s taking so long? The basic answer: it’s important enough to both Apple and Adobe that they’re taking the time to do it right. While I’ve already explained why I think it’ll happen, and why the hurdles are jumpable, I’m not saying it’s easy. Apple in particular has a lot to lose. They need to tread lightly with iPhone stability and battery life. It’s a phone, not a computer, and people have very high expectations of stability and availability for a phone – far more than a computer. One risky software update, a couple of hundred phone crashes, and the media could jump on the issue in an iFeedingFrenzy. (Yes, I know the iPhone technically is a computer, I use it here as it’s used on the street, to mean a general-purpose system, which are historically not completely stable.)

So that’s my prediction. And who knows, after Flash, we might even see two-click application installation on the iPhone with AIR.