Flash Player 10.1: Rich media experiences go mobile

by Eric Oldrin

In 1996, Bill Clinton was re-elected president, a gallon of gas cost $1.22 (in the US), DVDs appeared as a new media format, the Internet grew from one million to 10 million hosts, Google was born, and Flash was released — bringing sound and animation to the web like never before. Like most digital media professionals, I look back and marvel at Flash technology and how it has evolved along with so many careers.

There's a passionate culture around Adobe Flash and the advancements that continually emerge from the people who design, develop, and deliver it. From vector animation and the Sorenson codec to ActionScript and rich Internet applications, it has been a wild ride. With every new feature released, new markets, opportunities, and technical pioneers have emerged.

Expected to ship in the first half of 2010, Adobe Flash Player 10.1 will mark another great milestone: rich media experiences on mobile and handheld devices. Users today benefit from unparalleled web browsing of expressive applications, content, and high-definition videos across any device, anytime, anywhere. And designers and developers embrace opportunities in a whole new market.

In this article, I spoke with Tom Barclay of the Adobe Flash Player team and individuals from Motorola, NVIDIA, and EPIX to get a better understanding of how Flash Player is helping to usher in a new genre of digital experiences on mobile devices.

New opportunities

Contextual applications, a term coined by Adobe, describe web applications that provide a unified experience across desktops and Internet-connected devices, such as mobile phones, televisions, and other consumer devices. According to Tom Barclay, the advent of contextual applications spells opportunity for developers.

"More now than ever, developers have the opportunity to reach more people, on more screens, in more markets," says Barclay.

Chart of Connected and web-enabled devices

Connected and web-enabled devices are far outpacing PCs in shipments and usage.
(Source: Digital Media Devices Global Market Report, December 2009)

"We're essentially doubling the number of operating systems and platforms that content in Flash Player can reach," says Barclay. Working in close collaboration with its partners from the Open Screen Project (OSP), the full Flash Player will be supported on Android, Symbian, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and Palm webOS." Additionally, Adobe will provide an SDK to OSP porting partners that will enable them to port Flash Player 10.1 to other operating systems on other platforms and mobile devices.

While Flash Player 10.1 presents an opportunity for designers and developers, it also provides a new opportunity for device manufacturers. Christian Kurzke, Motorola technology evangelist, explains: "By integrating Flash Player 10.1 into our Motorola Android–based handsets, we tap into a new community of developers who will be able to deploy their applications and content to the Android-based handsets that Motorola is launching this year." 

Consumers win too because they get more content choices and interactive experiences — whenever they want and wherever they are. According to Kurzke, "This is a huge step forward from a world where mobile device users were limited to a simplified view of the web, to a class of devices that brings the full browsing experience of modern interactive websites to the mobile user."

Open Screen Project

By working with OSP partners, Adobe has made it possible to bring Flash Player to innumerable mobile devices and leverage it to offer rich end-user experiences. At the time of this writing, 19 out of 20 mobile handset manufacturers are currently collaborating with Adobe to integrate Flash technology into their devices.

According to Steve Xu, manager for Motorola's browser integration: "We are working very closely with Adobe to ensure that the Flash Player 10.1 is taking full advantage of the hardware acceleration features and sensors available in all of Motorola's Android-based handsets." In fact, in order to reach as many users as possible, Motorola has been working with Adobe to ensure that previously released devices can be upgraded to use Flash Player 10.1 as soon as it becomes available.

Partners in the Open Screen Project — including Motorola, Nokia, and HP — are working together to enable a consistent runtime environment for open web browsing and standalone applications. "We're seeing some very innovative hardware come out," says Barclay, "and we're able to take advantage of this innovation, including multi-touch and accelerometer input, to provide better user experiences across devices."

Working with NVIDIA and other OSP partners, Adobe has enabled some really amazing graphics acceleration on smartphones to provide a fluid animation, gaming, and graphics experience, while simultaneously preserving battery life.

Neil Trevett, vice president at NVIDIA, explains, "By offloading Flash Player from the CPU to the GPU, suddenly these experiences become as compelling as they are on a PC." Adobe's work with NVIDIA is exciting. It not only promises to bring RIAs and contextual applications to mobile devices, but it also means they will perform well.

"You can provide an experience that is similar to what you get on a desktop, but optimized for device context and user experience, even though it's running on a device that has a fraction of the CPU power and available memory," says Barclay.

Flash Player 10.1 extends the reach of immersive applications to other mobile devices as well, creating opportunities for developers in emerging markets like tablets, smartbooks, and netbooks. "The critical component to bringing the full visual experience to these devices is Flash Player," says Trevett. "Without Flash Player, all the interesting parts of the web are inaccessible."

Leading CEOs discuss Open Screen Project and Flash CEOs from ARM, Broadcom, DoCoMo, Google, HTC, Intel, Motorola, NVIDIA, Palm, QUALCOMM, RIM, and STMIcroelectronics talk about how they’re bringing Flash Platform technologies to their devices and platforms as part of the Open Screen Project.
View video ›

A consistently expressive experience

With this upcoming milestone, those interesting parts of the web will reach many more screens than we ever thought possible back in the days when DVDs were brand new and gas was going for US$1.22 a gallon. Since then, one of the most important elements of the Flash Platform has become evident: expressiveness. Expressiveness is a key expectation of any Flash experience — the part that most people get passionate about, the part that inspires artists and storytellers.

Contextual applications work consistently across a multitude of devices and operating systems — inside and outside the browser.

Flash developers have had the technology to combine advanced graphics, animations, and rich text capabilities with video, filters, effects, and blend modes for the browser for a while now. But with the release of Flash Player 10.1, developers can now bring these capabilities to mobile devices. According to Barclay, mobile-ready features in Flash Player 10.1 take advantage of native device capabilities to bring unprecedented creative control and expressiveness to the mobile browsing experience.

For example, EPIX will deliver HD-quality cinematic experiences built on Adobe Flash Media Server 3.5 and delivered through Flash Player 10.1. "We are a network on the simplest level, with all first-run content from Paramount, MGM, and Lions Gate," explains EPIX Chief Digital Officer Emil Rensing. The service is available through a regular cable channel and can also be viewed from an online portal — a fantastic implementation of Flash Player 10.1 and Flash Media Server 3.5 to deliver video content.

"Our player is multi-bitrate adaptive. Every 20 seconds or so, it looks at the bandwidth available and adjusts the quality accordingly," says Rensing. "We have six levels available, from 1080p to 500K — all built off the Flash Media Server and delivered through Flash Player 10.1."

The result is a consistently expressive experience that adapts to bandwidth dynamically, delivering HD-quality entertainment whenever possible but never compromising the experience when connections slow down. That balance is the essence of contextual applications that leverage a perfect storm of cross-platform convergence.

"The ability of Flash Player to deliver highly expressive content on mobile devices enables an entirely new set of applications," says Lori Fraleigh, director of developer tools and technical services at Motorola. "Fans at sporting events can now get in-depth stats on their favorite players and view highlights from previous matches, while also watching instant replays from other games in the league. Movie aficionados can watch previews of the latest releases as they stand in line to buy tickets at the theater. Home buyers can take virtual tours of houses they see for sale as they drive through neighborhoods, before deciding whether or not to contact the Realtor."

"That's where expressiveness really comes in with Flash Player 10.1," says Barclay. "The same types of expressive features and capabilities that developers have enjoyed — building applications that run in desktop browsers — will work across devices as well."

A new chapter

With the release of Flash Player 10.1, Flash has once again reached a milestone that opens new markets, kick-starts careers, and creates opportunities. With Flash Player 10.1, we start another chapter: the mobile adventure, filled with truly immersive, artistic, purposeful experiences — that contextually fit within the immediate goals of their users.

To learn more about Flash Player 10.1, check out the Flash Player 10.1 videos on Adobe TV, and listen to the Flash Player engineers talk about the new features. Also, make sure to visit the Mobile and Devices Developer Center, where you'll learn how to optimize content for devices, get tips for code optimization, and find design guidelines to provide compelling mobile user experiences.

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Eric Oldrin is Executive Producer / General Manager at Digital Kitchen.