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Android vs. iOS: A Video and Flash Comparison

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I had just finished reviewing the top 20 social media sites for HTML5 usage (there was none) and to gauge how closely viewing the site on an iPad matched the desktop experience (close on some, not so close on others). I had been assuming that if I viewed the same websites on an Android-based tablet the experience would be identical to viewing in a computer browser, but then I remembered what they say about assuming anything, particularly when it comes to computers, browsers, and the web.

So, I bought an Android tablet device—the Toshiba Thrive to be specific—and visited a few of the top 20 sites, focusing on those where the iPad experience didn’t measure up to desktop browsing. The obvious question was, did the Thrive perform better? Well, in general, yes, though the answers varied from site to site. My experience as documented below should be useful to anyone creating a site for iPad or Android-tablet viewing, or for those seeking to choose the best tablet for general internet browsing.

Of course, you have to factor this analysis in the light of Adobe's recent decision to stop further development of the Flash Player on the Android platform after the release of Flash Player 11.1. I'll do that below.

Simple Flash Usage

For simple Flash-usage, like the big video playback window on www.starbucks.com, or even the make your own potato chip can on www.pringles.com, the Thrive worked identically to the desktop browser. With the iPad, the video on www.starbucks.com played, but the site displayed a Flash error message, while on the Pringles site, the Flash-driven can creation routine of course didn’t work.

The Thrive produced the same positive experience on www.converse.com, duplicating the immersive Flash-driven site as viewed in the desktop browser. In contrast, the iPad took me to a prosaic e-commerce site.

Sent to a Mobile Site

Several other sites with immersive Flash experiences, like www.adidas.com, www.drpepper.com, and www.nikefootball.com, sent the Thrive to a mobile site that offered much less functionality than the main site. With Adidas and Dr. Pepper, the iPad was directed to the same mobile site, so the experience was identical. Nike Football offered an iPad site with greater functionality than the mobile, so the iPad experience was superior to the Thrive.

The Simple Solution: Opt for the Main Site

Some sites like Victoria’s Secret and Disneyland sent the Thrive to a mobile site, but let me opt out and use the main HTML site. Once I did, the Thrive produced a better experience than the iPad. With Victoria’s Secret, this meant watching big screen videos of scantily-clad women that weren’t available on the iPad (and telling my daughters it was research). With Disneyland, this meant that videos in the headers played normally, while appearing only as static images on the iPad site.

If you have a mobile site, consider allowing visitors to opt for the main site; if it doesn’t work, it’s their fault and they know to use the mobile site thereafter. If you’re surfing on an Android tablet and end up on a mobile site, check to see if the site lets you opt for the main site as Victoria’s Secret and Disneyland do.

Some Flash Sites Just Didn’t Work on Android

One of my favorite experiences during the top 20 review was Burberry’s excellent Art of the Trench, a UGC site that lets Burberry owners upload pictures of themselves in their Burberrys that others can view while listening to an assortment of music with multiple comment and social media options. Try this on the iPad and you get a message that it’s not available on a mobile device. Watch it on the Thrive and you get ... nothing. The site just refuses to load and stays black.

So what’s the net/net?

For Site Producers

If you’re a site producer, recognize that Android-tablet usage is on the rise. If your site is heavily Flash-intensive, be sure to make sure that it works with one or two Android tablets.

In terms of serving the content, the best approach is to auto-sense the tablet and send it to your main site. Otherwise, make sure to include an option on your mobile site for viewers to click over to the main site. Overall, in most cases it will take much less effort to make your Flash-intensive site play nice with Android tablets than it will be to duplicate the same functionality for the iPad.

Remember that Adobe is ceasing the further development of Flash Player on mobile platforms, not withdrawing it, and will issue Flash Player 11.1 for Android and BlackBerry Playbook and continue to support them with big fixes. Until you add features incompatible with these releases, Flash Player should continue to be a good solution. Looking forward, however, if you plan to make significant enhancements for mobile viewing, you should shift to either apps or HTML5.

For Tablet Buyers

I’m aware that trying to convince an Apple fanatic to even consider an Android device would be like trying to convince a choco-holic to consider vanilla. As a choco-holic, I won’t even try.

Regarding Adobe's decision, again, remember that Adobe isn't withdrawing Flash Player on Android, they're ceasing further development (but not bug fixes) after Flash Player 11.1. If you're a Chicken Little kind of person, you may be thinking that Flash is dead on Android, but that's simply not true in the short to medium term. If you're an optimist, you could say that even over the mid-term, Android devices will continue to offer a richer experience, playing Flash where offered, and both HTML5 and HTTP Live Streaming when it's not.

All that said, as an Android owner, I was disappointed in Adobe's decision, though I'm guessing that it won't be particularly onerous over the 24-36 months that I expect to use the tablet. If your primary motivation for buying Android over Apple was Flash support, you've got to feel a little less confident in that particular product differentiation than you did before the Adobe announcement.

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