Wallaby: Adobe sneaks Flash onto the iPhone

30 Jun 2011
Apple iPhone 4

Tom Arah argues that Adobe has done the best it can under the circumstances with Wallaby, its Flash-to-HTML5 converter

Recently, I’ve been making the case on the PC Pro blogs that Apple’s anti-competitive ban on Flash has stopped rich cross-platform development in its tracks.

As such, I was intrigued by a video I came across recently asking: “Has Adobe figured out how to get Flash to play on your iPhone?”

First, it’s important to stress that the obvious and by far the best way to get Flash content to play on your iPhone/iPad remains far off.

Try to convert a typical sample FLA and you’ll see that the unsupported features certainly aren’t insignificant

Although it would love to, Adobe hasn’t been able to announce the launch of a Flash player for Apple’s iOS-based devices to match its Android player.

There’s no question that Apple’s hardware could support it, but for reasons that I covered recently – money, and with no competition – Steve Jobs won’t allow it.

So if it isn’t a Flash player for the iPhone and iPad, what is it? It’s a new technology preview made available on the Adobe Labs site under the codename “Wallaby”, and it’s essentially a Flash-to-HTML5 converter: open your FLA file, hit OK and Wallaby will attempt to output all the necessary HTML, CSS, JavaScript and other standards-based files to recreate your player project within the browser.

So is this a bridge from the old days of Flash and player-based development to the promised land of HTML5 and truly rich browser-based development? If anything, it looks more interesting.

After all, when Steve Jobs announced that iOS wouldn’t be supporting Flash, the case he made against it was that Flash was no longer necessary and that it should be replaced by HTML5 (a blanket term covering all the W3C standards such as CSS, DOM, SVG and so on).

The sign-off line to his thoughts on Flash was: “Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticising Apple for leaving the past behind.”

At first sight it looks like Adobe has done just that and that Steve Jobs has won the argument. After all, if you can deliver Flash functionality in the browser via HTML5, why shouldn’t you? Especially now, when there’s one overwhelming reason you need to: if you want to access the full web audience, including the crucial iPhone/iPad demographic walled up in Steve Jobs’ closed kingdom, there simply is no alternative. The browser is the only way to go.

I’m sure this is exactly how it will be seen and presented by many: “don’t worry that the iPad doesn’t support Flash, you just don’t need it nowadays, everyone’s agreed that it’s much better to do it in the browser rather than the player – in fact, even Adobe has given up on it now and has built its own Flash-to-HTML5 converter”.

Any such talk is misguided, misleading and dangerous. To understand why, you need to dig deeper and see what Flash-to-HTML5 conversion involves in practice.

Unsupported features

In fact, you don’t need to dig far before a different picture emerges. Read the introduction to Wallaby and it’s clear that Flash-to-HTML5 conversion isn’t simple.

This initial version has several unsupported features due to the complexity of FLA files and the inability to represent some Flash Professional features in HTML5.

The major ones include no conversion of ActionScript, Movies or Sound, and some design elements such as Filters aren’t supported. For a detailed list of supported and unsupported features.

Try to convert a typical sample FLA and you’ll see that the unsupported features certainly aren’t insignificant. My first “successful conversion” came back with 291 warnings.

Many of these limitations are important, particularly when it comes to text – line-break differences, glyph spacing/positioning, no support for links, selectable or vertical text, and so on.

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