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How Adobe plans to shine a Flash Lite on a billion mobile phones

Off the desktops and into the handsets, or so developers hope

By Eric Lai
October 25, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - However popular Adobe Systems Inc.'s design and programming tools may be, they don't sell themselves.

They rely, at least in part, on a pair of free consumer applications from Adobe that make their designs pop and programs run. Those two apps -- Adobe Reader for opening PDF files and Flash Player for Web multimedia -- are installed on more than 500 million Internet-connected PCs worldwide, claims Adobe, giving Flash a 90%-plus penetration rate.

Having conquered PCs, Adobe is turning its attention to mobile phones. By 2010, it wants to see a total of 1 billion phones shipped with Flash Lite, a cut-down version of Flash Player that runs small apps and games, and, with an update released earlier this month at its annual MAX conference, plays Web video.

Getting Flash Lite on as many phones as possible will enable its huge community of designers and developers -- the 2 million "people in black turtlenecks" as Gary Kovacs, vice president of Adobe's mobile and device business, calls them -- to port their content and applications to a potentially lucrative platform.

"Our developers are already making money on the Web. They just want a way to get to mobile," Kovacs said in an interview late last week.

An uphill battle

Since its release four and a half years ago, Flash Lite has been shipped on 300 million mobile phones and handheld devices. This year alone, Adobe expects 250 million Flash Lite phones to ship, giving it 27% of the global phone market, according to Kovacs.

By contrast, the most popular mobile application platform -- Java Micro Edition -- will come preinstalled on about 500 million phones and devices this year, according to British research firm Informa PLC.

There are 3 billion mobile phones in use today, according to Informa, far more than the 1 billion PCs that IDC estimates are currently in operation.

Factor in the average two-year life span of a mobile phone today, and Flash Lite appears to run on just 8% to 10% of all cell phones today.

"Adobe has an uphill battle if it wants Flash Lite to become the platform for multimedia on mobile phones," said analyst Jack Gold, of J.Gold Associates LLC in Northboro, Mass.

Adobe's obstacles

On PCs, Adobe could rely on Web downloads and bundling with Windows, on which Microsoft Corp., under pressure from antitrust regulators, offered to propagate Flash. And Flash is free.

Things are different in the mobile space. Most phones today, due to security fears and hardware limitations, restrict users from downloading and installing applications such as Flash Lite. Apple Inc.'s iPhone was the best example, until its developer support announcement earlier this month.

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