Flash on Android: Look but Don't Touch

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Flash lacks a certain touch

As I continued my tests, it became clear that these initial problems weren't limited to streaming video. In general, the Flash Player for Android 3.0 does not do a good job of scaling bitmap images. This becomes especially clear when scaling bitmapped text, which becomes blocky and hard to read at small sizes.

The difficulties of navigating Flash UIs on a touchscreen device are increasingly troublesome, and unfortunately they're endemic to the Flash platform. Flash developers are even more likely than traditional Web developers to populate their UIs with rollovers, fancy animations, and aesthetically appealing yet nonstandard controls, none of which work well on a device with a small screen and no mouse.

Scrolling the screen is a particularly egregious example. Android tablets don't use the traditional scroll bars of a mouse-based UI; instead, users swipe with their fingers to scroll. Flash apps don't seem to understand this concept. Once a Flash movie loads into part of the browser window, that part of the window no longer responds to swipes. If you need to scroll the window -- say, to make sure the Flash content is centered on the screen -- you have to carefully touch your finger on a portion of the page that corresponds to HTML, so the browser will know you're trying to scroll.

That's true most of the time, anyway. The worst part is the player's inconsistent behavior. This gets really frustrating when there's lots of HTML and Flash content mixed on a Web page. The UI turns into a tug-of-war between the browser and the Flash Player, where each touch produces varying effects, seemingly at random. Depending on where your finger happens to land -- and maybe on your timing -- one touch might be interpreted as a command for the browser and the next might activate controls in a Flash movie, while the next might do nothing. Adobe simply has not done enough to accommodate touch-based interfaces.

Applications? Forget it

Needless to say, these deficiencies are compounded when you try to use Flash Player for real work. For my next assessment I wanted to see how the Xoom would handle complex Flash-based applications. I had the perfect torture test in mind: Adobe's own Acrobat.com, which features a Google Docs-like suite of office applications implemented in Flash. Unfortunately, on the Xoom I was greeted with the message, "Sorry, but Adobe Acrobat.com is not compatible with your browser at this time. Please upgrade to a supported browser." That should have been my first hint.

When I did track down some demo Adobe Flex applications that would load in the Android browser, my reaction was utter disappointment. Visually they were appealing enough, but they didn't do much to accommodate the tablet-sized screen, which meant I had to scroll around a lot (where possible). The UI controls were all nonstandard, and many assumed I had a mouse.

Worst of all was form input, a mainstay of any business application. When presented with a Flash-based form, I literally had to stab my finger at the Xoom's screen six or seven times before my touch would register as a click. Finally some random form field would be highlighted, irrespective of where my finger landed, and the onscreen keyboard would pop up. Woe betide me if the wrong field was highlighted, though, because Tab and Shift-Tab would both advance me forward through the form fields. There didn't seem to be any way to go back, and I dared not try to select another field by touch. In a nutshell, Flash-based forms are a total nonstarter on Android tablets. Forget about them.

What about games? Even there, I didn't have much luck. One simple balloon-popping game rendered in my browser window, then inexplicably leaped up and to the left, leaving a white square where the Flash content was supposed to be. I could scroll the window to see the game screen, but to control the game I still had to touch inside the white square. It was hopeless.

As far as I could tell, there was one thing and one thing only that the Flash Player for Android 3.0 accomplished successfully. On the stock Android browser, Flash content is invisible, so you don't notice Flash-based advertising. With the Flash Player installed, however, all those ads suddenly appear where once there were none, their animated graphics leaping and scuttling under your fingertips like cockroaches on a dinner tray -- some achievement.

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