Flash on Android: Look but Don't Touch

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With their larger screens, long-lasting batteries, and powerful CPUs, tablets seem well suited for the kinds of rich multimedia applications that confound ordinary smartphones. But Apple famously won't allow Adobe Flash on its iOS mobile devices, including the iPad. This fued creates an ideal opportunity for competing tablet makers to step in and fill the void.

Right now, the iPad's top competitor is the Motorola Xoom, which has been available in the United States from Verizon since February. The Xoom is the first device to ship with Google's Android 3.0 OS, code-named "Honeycomb," which features a new UI "designed from the ground up for tablets."

[ Also on InfoWorld: Your website might be gorgeous, but is it really cross-platform? See 7 Web UI mistakes to avoid for smartphones and tablets. | Updated for Android 3.0: Learn how to manage iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, and other smartphones in InfoWorld's 20-page Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF special report. ]

When InfoWorld compared the Xoom to the original iPad, we found Motorola's tablet to be a credible yet inferior competitor, and it paled still further when pitted against the newer iPad 2. But both reviews were conducted back when neither platform supported Flash. Adobe has since released a beta Flash Player 10.2 for Android 3.0, making Honeycomb the first tablet-centric platform to support Flash content.

Would Flash be a game-changer for Android, giving Honeycomb tablets a clear advantage over the iPad at last? I wanted to find out, so I grabbed InfoWorld's demo Xoom and set off on a journey through the Flash-enabled Web. Unfortunately, my results weren't particularly encouraging.

Video, because you demand it

Installing Flash Player 10.2 is easy enough; it's available for free from the Android Market. Honeycomb tablet owners who want to run Flash Player will need the Android 3.0.1 update, which Motorola pushed out for the Xoom in March.

There's no stand-alone Flash app for Android. The installer simply adds Flash support to the existing Android Web browser, much like the Flash plug-in does for desktop browsers.

Adobe also offers a separate app called Adobe Flash Showcase, which is nothing more than a list of links to featured Flash-enabled sites. I doubted these carefully vetted showpieces would give me the whole picture, however. I wanted to see how Flash Player behaved in real-world browsing scenarios, so I skipped Adobe's canned demos and went looking for Flash content on my own.

Streaming video is the most popular application for Flash today, so I tried that first. Ironically, I had a hard time finding demo cases. The Xoom ships with a video player that automatically launches when you view content from YouTube or Dailymotion, so you don't need Flash for those sites. On the other hand, Hulu wouldn't work even with Flash installed; all it would say was, "Unfortunately, this video is not available on your platform. We apologize for any inconvenience."

On sites where I could view Flash video -- such as Comedy Central and MTV -- results were mixed. Playback quality was mostly good but a little choppy at times, and audio occasionally seemed slightly out of sync. Videos that looked sharp in full-screen mode seemed to degrade in picture quality when shrunk to smaller sizes. Worse, some of the Flash video players' controls were almost impossible to activate, given the tablet's touchscreen interface.

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