Not worthy of iPhone, Adobe's Flash Lite surges

1 billion cell phones served by March, says firm

Adobe Systems Inc.'s Flash Lite multimedia player is spreading like wildfire on mobile phones, according to third-party statistics released by the company on Monday.

According to market researcher Strategy Analytics Inc., Flash Lite will have been shipped on 1 billion phones by the end of March this year, one year ahead of Adobe's earlier target.

And despite its move to deliver a full Flash player to smartphones later this year and address the performance complaints of Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs and others, Adobe continues to roll out Flash Lite products for the much larger market of regular mobile phones.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, Adobe will release the beta of a new Flash Lite distributable player. Based on the latest Flash Lite 3.1, the player can be bundled with a Flash Lite app by vendors.

That way, if the user's phone lacks Flash Lite, it can be automatically detected and installed on the phone, said Anup Murarka, director of partner development and technology strategy for Adobe's platform business unit.

This bundling avoids the hiccup of requiring users to go and visit a separate download site to get Flash Lite.

Available initially for Nokia's S60 (Symbian) and Microsoft's Windows Mobile phones, the distributable player is about 400KB in size, so it should only take a few seconds for most phones to download, Murarka said.

Apple's Jobs said last year he wouldn't permit Flash Lite to run on the iPhone because it wasn't advanced enough and the regular desktop version of Flash ran too slowly on Apple's smartphone.

Phones shipping with Flash Lite doubled last year from 2007, according to Strategy Analytics. All told, 40% of phones sold last year came with Flash Lite.

"The take-up of Flash Lite has been staggering to be honest," Stewart Robinson, director of strategic technologies at Strategy Analytics, said in an e-mail.

He attributed Flash Lite's rise to new features in Version 3 such as support for high-def video, as well as Nokia's agreement to install Flash Lite on its phones.

"I think it also comes down to the fact that competition is almost nonexistent," Robinson said, adding that he expects another 1.5 billion smartphones with Flash Lite to ship in the next two years.

Microsoft is developing a Silverlight for Mobile player for release on Nokia S60 (Symbian) and Windows Mobile phones sometime this year.

"Silverlight may make an impact, but I doubt it will be significant," said Robinson.

In terms of total adoption, Flash Lite still trails Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java platform for mobile phones, popularly known as J2ME.

According to Sun, 2.6 billion phones and other devices run J2ME.

That includes virtually all apps for the BlackBerry, said Jack Gold, president of J.Gold Associates LLC.

However, J2ME is not as widely installed nor used on newer phones. That has led Sun to develop a successor technology, JavaFX, and a JavaFX Mobile runtime, which shipped last week.

Gold is unconvinced that Sun has the clout anymore to convince the phone makers to upgrade to JavaFX.

Despite Flash Lite's growth, the upgrade of the latest Version 3.1 last year -- to include support for H.264 video -- caused complaints about its performance, which still remain.

Many Flash apps on regular Web sites still need to be re-encoded to be viewable on phones.

To partly solve that problem, Adobe is working on bringing the full version of its latest Flash Player 10 to smartphones by the end of the year.

Murarka did not share any details on Flash Lite's road map.

Gold said that within two to three years, Adobe was likely to merge the Flash and Flash Lite players to remove this final performance discrepancy.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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