Flash on Android: Look but don't touch
The sweeping deficiencies of Flash Player 10.2 for Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets can't all be chalked up to its 'beta' status
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.
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.