Mobile Flash: Always Exciting, Always Not Quite Here Yet

Motorola's Xoom tablet-the first one to run Google's Android 3.0 Honeycomb-goes on sale on Thursday. It packs more features than any other tablet from a major company to date. But for the moment, one of them apparently won't be support for Flash. As Engadget is reporting, Verizon's Xoom site says that the gizmo is "fully Flash-enabled," but then it says that Flash is "expected spring 2011."

(Why the gap between Xoom's debut and the debut of Flash on the Xoom? I don't know the specifics, but I assume it's because Motorola has yet to, well, fully enable it for Flash.)

I got a hint that Flash for Honeycomb was still a work in progress back on February 2nd, when I attended Google's Honeycomb event and saw a demo of a third-party app that requires Flash-but which was presented on a Xoom that didn't have Flash installed, rendering the demo meaningless.

Spring 2011 starts on March 20th, so it's possible that the wait for Flash on the Xoom will be brief. But the fact that the tablet is shipping without Flash is entirely in keeping with the history of Flash on mobile devices to date. Hardware makers keep arguing that Flash is exciting and essential-and they raise the issue of its absence on Apple devices, either explicitly or by implication.

Here, for instance, is Motorola using Flash as a selling point back at CES in January:

Adobe hasn't been shy about promoting Flash for mobile gadgets before it was ready, either: At the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona, it showed off versions of Flash Player for BlackBerry, Web OS, and Windows Mobile that aren't still yet available on any devices. And I'm not talking about the Mobile World Congress held last week-I'm referring to the 2010 edition of the show.

As for Flash for Android smartphones, the good news is that it shipped last June. Adobe says it's preinstalled on 20 million handsets and has been downloaded six million times. But Flash Player for Android requires Android 2.2, and the curse of Android fragmentation has left buyers of some high-profile Android handsets without Flash. (Such as me: I own a Verizon Fascinate, a Samsung Galaxy S phone which will theoretically be upgradable to 2.2 someday, but is currently stuck on 2.1.)

Even on the millions of Android phones that do support Flash, it's a mixed blessing. Adobe points out that the reviews in the Android Market are largely enthusiastic, but not everybody is impressed.

Is it possible that Flash will indeed turn out to be an exciting, essential component of the mobile Web? Sure. RIM it touting it as a key feature of the cool-and-almost-here BlackBerry PlayBook, for example. And Adobe says it's working on a mobile version of Flash Player that incorporates its nifty new Stage Video technology for vastly better performance and battery life.

Then again, Adobe has been talking up various mobile versions of Flash for more than a decade now-here's a 2000 press release on the topic, for instance. I can't think of many products that have retained such a largely vaporous quality for so long. And my instinctive response now when Adobe or someone else touts an upcoming version of mobile Flash is something like this: "That's fabulous-let me know when it's actually available on devices that real people can buy."

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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