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Adobe Flash: 20m phones flip Steve Jobs the bird

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Is Steve Jobs the best thing that ever happened to Adobe Flash?

Nine months after Jobs unloaded his infamous open letter on Flash, defending Apple's decision to completely ban the technology from the iPhone and the iPad, Adobe has announced that in 2010, more than 20 million smartphones shipped with or were upgraded to Flash Player 10.1, the first full version of Flash built specifically for mobiles. That means a mobile-optimized Flash was on about 12 per cent of smartphones shipped last year – though it was available for only six months.

"The proliferation of Flash [on mobile] is actually happening," David Wadhwani, executive and senior vice president for Adobe’s Creative and Interactive Solutions, told reporters on Thursday during a gathering at Adobe's San Francisco offices. "Flash does not run in the browser on iOS devices yet, but we're confident – given the momentum we're seeing on other devices and the consumer interest – that we're on the right track [in the rest of the market]."

Steve Jobs' rather personal attack on Flash only encouraged his competitors to embrace the technology – in a big way. On the desktop, Google integrated Flash with its Chrome browser, and on the mobile side, it quickly committed to including the player with Android, which has now eclipsed the iPhone's market share and is poised to run on iPad-like tablets as well. In both cases, Mountain View has worked hand-and-hand with Adobe to ensure that the platform doesn't live down to Jobs' scathing portrait.

Then, in September, when RIM announced its PlayBook tablet, the BlackBerry maker put its weight behind Flash. And HP did the same this week when it unveiled the first webOS tablet, the HP TouchPad. At least in part, these big names are working to distinguish themselves from Apple, the market leader (for now).

Perhaps more importantly, after Jobs questioned whether Flash was technically suited to mobile devices, Adobe was forced to get its act together. And fast. Android users actively downloaded the Flash Player over 6 million times, and Adobe is chuffed to point out that its average rating is 4.5 out of 5. "It's great to see," Wadhwani said. "These are consumers actively going after the technology."

Famously, Jobs called Flash a "CPU hog". And in the months since, Adobe has worked to build hardware acceleration into the player. Last week, the company rolled out the hardware-accelerated Flash Player 10.2 for the desktop, and its now preparing a version for both Android's Honeycomb tablet incarnation and the RIM PlayBook.

Adobe expects that by the end of 2011, Flash Player will be supported by 132 million devices, including tablets. More than 50 different tablet models, the company says, will ship this year with the player.

Apple has banned Flash from iOS since the iPhone launched in 2007, and then, in early 2010, the company came down even harder on Adobe's multimedia platform, barring developers from converting Flash script into native iPhone and iPad applications. As Adobe – and countless others – cried foul, Steve Jobs unloaded a very personal attack on Flash, calling it a closed technology and saying he didn't want a third-party platform sitting between Apple and developers.

The letter didn't just galvanize Adobe and win it all sorts of big-name friends. Apple was eventually forced to reconsider its ban on code conversion – possibly due to concerns over antitrust action. In early September, Apple actually reversed the ban, and now developers can once again use Adobe's Packager for iPhone to transform Flash ActionScript into iOS apps.

So, although iOS won't run the Flash Player, it can accomodate Adobe AIR, the runtime environment that lets developers build applications using Flash, Adobe Flex, HTML, and other tools. AIR is also on Android, and it's coming to RIM devices. It's now supported by 84 million smartphones and tablets, according to Adobe, and the company expects that number to grow to 200 million by the end of 2011. After only two months, Wadhwani said, over 15,000 AIR apps were uploaded to the Apple and Android app stores.

Yes, Flash is reborn. The only problem is that its rebirth has slowed the way to a web where applications – particularly video – aren't dependent on such proprietary technology. Google has open sourced its VP8 video codec under a royalty-free license, and along with Mozilla, Opera, and many others, it's pushing the codec for use with the HTML5 video tag. But Flash – which uses the royalty-encumbered H.264 codec – remains the dominant choice for web video, and that's not changing anytime soon. In reviving Flash, Google has undermined its own march towards open video.

When we asked Flash platform vice president Danny Winokur if Adobe still intends to include VP8 with a future version of Flash, he said yes. But he wouldn't be drawn on when this might happen. "There are still plans to do it. We haven't actually committed to a date yet," he said. Part of the delay, he said, is due to the fact that hardware support for WebM is still at a minimum. But Winokur says this is changing.

"What we're seeing in terms of silicon partners we work with is that H.264 is clearly up ahead in terms of hardware support, but we see WebM beginning to come into that market. Partners have new designs they're starting to sample, building WebM support into hardware."

This is yet another counter-play to Jobs. Apple backs HTML5 video as well, but it's part of the patent pool that licenses H.264. On Thursday, Adobe was loath to discuss Apple directly. But the subtext was hard to miss. ®

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