Accessing Flash Content on the iPad
Apple’s iPad tablet, along with the iPhone and iPod Touch mobile devices, cannot natively play content that is Flash-based, like some videos, interactive sites, tutorials and games. The reason that Apple made the decision to not allow Flash to operate on these devices is debated in online forums, but Apple’s official published reason can be summed up by saying that the late Steve Jobs disagreed with Flash being a controlled and closed system. If this decision is something you’re interested in knowing more about, here is Jobs’s open letter on the issue. Adobe itself (the company behind Flash) has announced plans to move away from supporting Flash for mobile devices in favor of web standards like HTML5 that are capable of serving up the same content.
Regardless of Apple’s reasons and the fate of Flash, there is video content on the web that is still Flash-based, including MedlinePlus’s Interactive Tutorials and Surgery Videos (though not the Anatomy Videos, which are in Quicktime format). Both health care providers and patients use iPads and iPhones to access health information. I test drove five iPad browsers to investigate potential workarounds for accessing MedlinePlus’s Flash based educational material (or any other Flash video) specifically on an iPad.
This is the default web browser installed on the iPad. As stated above, there isn’t a way to access Flash content from Safari. As illustrated in the screen capture to the right, if a user navigates to a page that requires Flash, instead of displaying the video, the user will be informed that they need to”Get Flash.” Clicking on the “Get Flash” link opens a webpage that informs the user that Flash is not supported for their device.
Puffin is a web browsing app available for purchase from the App Store for $2.99. In blogs and forums, this is a browser frequently mentioned as an alternative to Safari for users who need to be able to view Flash-based content. During testing, it was certainly the fastest of the browsers. Importantly, it was able to play video and tutorial content on MedlinePlus and given the quality and cost of the other browsers tested, potentially the best option. However, there are a few caveats that need to be mentioned. A notable issue for playing video content is that audio seemed unable to be played through the iPad’s built-in speakers, though audio quality was fine though headphones when they were plugged in. Additionally, during the test run, Puffin crashed a number of times during normal browser use – both when playing videos and doing run-of-the-mill site navigation. As a final tidbit, Puffin does appear to be unable to play Quicktime videos.
Photon is a web browsing app, available from the App Store for $4.99. Photon takes a slightly different approach than the other browsers discussed for rendering Flash content. Rather than automatically loading Flash videos, areas on the page where Flash is needed remain hidden behind the “Get Flash” warning (as seen in the lower left hand corner of the MedlinePlus homepage to the right), until the user activates Flash by pressing the lightning bolt in the upper right hand corner of the browser window. This is a nice feature, because the browser does slow down notibly once Flash content is activated. During testing I found this slowdown to be acceptable for video playback, but it made the interactive tutorials difficult and frustrating. Like the Puffin browser, Photon also crashed a number of times during normal browser usage.
Skyfire is another browser app, this one available for download from the App store for $4.99. This browser attempts to “analyze” the current web page to detect all of the Flash video content and displays them in a list (as seen at right) when the Related Video button is clicked at the bottom of the browser window. Interestingly, Skyfire was unable to “see” the videos on MedlinePlus, suggesting instead videos from MayoClinic.com. If the page for a specific video or tutorial is loaded, either from a URL or by clicking through, a blank page will load, but the video for that page will be available from the Related Videos button. It is worth mentioning that during testing the browser failed to load videos on several occasions after a few minutes of buffering.
Free browser apps
As is usually the case, there are free web browsing apps available for the iPad. Two were evaluated for their ability to stream Flash content: iSwifter and the free version of Puffin. Puffin Free, on the surface seems like a fair option, working similarly to the paid version. However, Puffin Free functions more as a free trial version as the it can only display and play Flash content during the first fourteen days after download, according to the company’s description at the App Store. iSwifter is a browser targeting individuals interested in using their iPad to play Flash games more than for watching videos. For this reason, the interface is on the playful side and ads for games appear along the bottom of the browsing window, which may not be appropriate in all environments. Additionally, it also has a trial period for free Flash web browsing and after that requires an upgrade to the purchased version ($4.99) to continue functionality.