Why Adobe Flash penetration is more like 50% than 99%

Slashdot discussed PC PRO’s “99% Flash Player Penetration – Too Good to be True?” article today which prompted me to explain why I have always been dubious of Adobe’s claim that “Flash content reaches 99.0% of Internet viewers“. Here’s the claim verbatim:

Adobe Flash Player is the world’s most pervasive software platform, used by over 2 million professionals and reaching 99.0% of Internet-enabled desktops in mature markets as well as a wide range of devices.

The methodology section asks more questions than it answers but fortunately we don’t even need to go into details about how 3-6% margins of error can lead to a 99% outcome. Here’s why the claim is bogus:

Mobile devices

“Internet viewers” clearly includes users of mobile devices like the iPhone and yet they are conveniently only counting “desktops in mature markets”. Fortunately this little chestnut which has just been removed from Adobe’s own Mobile & Devices Develoer Center is still available in the Google cache:

So by Adobe’s own reckoning there’s about 1 billion PCs to 3 billion mobile devices. That reconciles with other research, but the latest news is that we’ve just passed 4 billion (or 60% of the entire global population today). Let’s be conservative anyway and use Adobe’s own figures. So that’s 1 billion PCs to 3 billion mobiles.

99% of 25% is still less than 25% overall…

but that’s not really fair because many (most?) of those mobile devices aren’t yet Internet enabled. Well every iPhone sells with Internet and none of them have Flash so those 13 million Internet-enabled mobile devices already knock nearly a point and a half off their 99% claim. Google’s Android’s just getting started and its first incarnation (the T-Mobile G1) has already sold a million devices with many more to come this year.

The iPhone alone knocks it down to 97.5%

On the other hand, Flash Lite will have shipped on a billion devices by March so:

1 billion PCs + 1 billion mobiles = 2 billion out of 4 billion total = 50%

As if it’s not enough for Adobe that large segments of the mobile device market are currently out of their reach they have another two emerging technologies which will erode their penetration rates:


Features like the “video” and “canvas” tags, timed media playback, offline storage, messaging/networking, etc. (which have previously only been possible via 3rd party plugins) will soon be supported natively by the browser. I’m a W3C Invited Expert in the HTML 5 working group (primarily monitoring the web application developments) and it’s great to see demos like offline mobile Gmail already starting to appear. It will also be nice not having to download and install a plugin to view video content in sites like YouTube, Facebook and MySpace (arguably the main reason why anyone would install Flash in the first place).


Over 10 million of Netbooks (“Internet Notebooks”) shipped last year and another 35 million are expected to ship this year. So far Flash penetration hasn’t been too bad with Windows/Linux on x86 devices but the next generation will run a myriad operating systems on alternatives to x86 like ARM. Flash will certainly have trouble maintaining its usual penetration rates, and will have to do so with less incentive to install thanks to HTML 5 support in the browsers.

In summary, Flash has its place. It is constantly evolving and there are things that it does that can be difficult or impossible to do otherwise (e.g. video capture). However, if you choose to deploy Flash then you are choosing to exclude some potential users and it’s hard to say how many as it depends on many factors (your specific audience’s demographics, devices, locations, etc.). Adobe’s figures are not perfect so the only way to reliably know how many users you are turning away is to measure it after the fact. If you don’t need these advanced features then opt for a Native Web Application, or confine Flash objects to pages where it is absolutely required.

Update: There’s a handful of (mostly) developers discussing this article over at Y Combinator’s hacker news, generally in defense of Adobe’s figures (including a comment from Adobe’s own John Dowell). This is not “more flash hate“, rather an observation that things that seem “too good to be true” usually are. Take a quick glance at this screenshot from Adobe.com:

What does it tell you? Did you bother to read beyond the title? Would you have any doubts about using Flash for your site after seeing it? Should you?

Is an iPhone user really not an “Internet viewer” when iPhones ship with a full-featured browser and a data plan? Does “desktop” mean desktop computer or desktop metaphor? Are laptops and netbooks included? What happens if you drop the “mature markets” restriction? What does “over 2 million professionals” really mean anyway? How do the numbers for “real world” tests compare to the survey results?

Basically this clever marketing exercise (which no doubt overcomes the #1 objection to Flash in many instances) raises more questions than it answers.