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Shady Illuminations

Smartphone Pyrotechnics

by John Shade

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This fall, Adobe did something supposedly earth-shattering regarding Flash and the iPhone. They made it possible to write Flash apps for the iPhone. Wow. Are you shocked? Does this change your life? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

I mean, I meant to freak out over this news, it was on my to-do list to freak out about it, but I was busy freaking out over the fact that we blew up the Moon.

Did you know that we blew up the Moon? It was in all the papers.

NASA wanted to know if there was significant water under some crater, so they set up a mission to crash a rocket motor near the Moon’s south pole and see if it stirred up ice crystals. Frantic bloggers ranted that mad scientists were going to knock the Moon out of orbit, alter the tides, cause mass extinctions, and annoy the moon people. The scientific illiteracy of the average American may be problematic for scientists, but it’s endlessly entertaining for those of us who think of ourselves as professional audience members for the ongoing comedy.

Me, I think that pyrotechnics on the moon is great theater. Only it can’t be pyro on the Moon, can it? No fire on the Moon, no matter what Norman Mailer thought. I never did hear how the whole thing came out. Was there water under that crater? I’m guessing there isn’t now.

Of course I didn’t actually panic over our bombing the Moon; in fact, it evoked fond memories of my childhood. The idea of setting off explosions to expand your store of knowledge was familiar to me at the age of eight. How high will Mom jump if I set off this cherry bomb behind her chair? There was a lot of that kind of research in my development.

The Flash Affair

I didn’t panic over the Adobe announcement either, and not just because I didn’t understand the issues. I’m sure if I educated myself about the politics of smartphone development I’d be properly scared. I scare easily. But even after researching the Flash Affair, which I’ve decided to call it, I’m not impressed.

As I understand it, the big deal is this: Adobe committed to release full versions of its Flash Player for every major smartphone platform except the iPhone. The missing iPhone version was hardly surprising given that Steve Jobs seems to think that Flash is a combination virus vector and artistic abomination.

Well, actually, no. That’s not the big deal.

The big deal is that Adobe has now released, initially in private beta, a compiler for Flash code that produces first-class iPhone native code. Not a Player, not a runtime that allows anyone to run interpreted code not vetted by Apple on the iPhone. No, this tool produces real iPhone native code.

This is supposed to be frightening not because it will compromise security on the device, which it won’t, but because it will lead to crappy software being offered in the iPhone App Store.

Which has never happened before.

The reason this will lead to crappy software is that these apps will bypass Apple’s UI tools and roll their own user interface. Or because the apps won’t support integration with other Apple technologies, not even cut-and-paste. Or because Flash developers are crappy programmers. Could be a combination of the three. Crappiness is often overdetermined. At any rate, it will lead to some crappy software, and we know this because the apps that Adobe put forward to show how cool this is are all crappy. At least that seems to be the general reaction of early commenters.

And the reason we should panic over crappy software for the iPhone is... I don’t know. Why exactly should you be concerned that other programmers might use inferior tools? I mean, you’re not going to use them, right?

Unless you are. If you’re a Flash developer, and are still reading this after I said you were a crappy programmer, the question would seem to be, how else are you gonna get your programs on the for-the-moment hottest mobile platform? So this is an imperfect solution? So you futz with it until you get something adequate, and anyway you’ll have an answer to those who say it isn’t real if it’s not on iPhone. Meanwhile, you focus on becoming an expert in Android apps.

The Android Invasion

Which apparently everybody is doing. At Motorola, co-chief executive Sanjay Jha trash-canned the entire Symbian line of phones, axed plans to line up with Microsoft Windows mobile, and went all in with Android. Gartner Group is predicting that Android will be the second-place smartphone operating system by 2012, behind Symbian. Everybody’s doing it, apparently.

Oh, you folks developing real apps with Cocoa and Objective-C: the Flash people may write slower apps than you, but that may not matter if they write them faster. Flash is a RAD. So best stake out your space by appstoresquatting.

To me, the concern that Flash apps on iPhone will be crappy is bizarre. I mean, look at the typical Flash app on the Web: there’s the bar, and it’s not very high.

In the end I suspect that what all this Flash brouhaha means is that you should be developing for Palm. Not because it’s a hot platform, but because it isn’t. Your efforts will be appreciated: Palm is hungry for developers. They’re number six in a three-horse race. And let’s face it, you’re probably not going to make any money selling smartphone apps anyway, so why not develop for a platform where you’ll get some love?

I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said you weren’t going to make any money selling smartphone apps. You’ll probably be the exception. Of course you will. And if you do decide to develop for Palm, do it because you like their HTML5 support, do it because you identify with the underdog, do it because Jon Zilber asked you to, just don’t do it because I suggested it. The only good piece of advice I’ll ever give you is, never follow my advice.

John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning left him with a generally dark view of all things shiny, although he is rather fond of the Moon.