22 February 2009

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.

Update: See also Towards a Flash free YouTube killer...


  1. HTML 5 and Netbooks are not exclusive of Flash player. More netbooks = more Flash Player installs. I am tracking the details (desktops are not the endgame for Flash) but no the conclusion (Flash penetration is lowered by expanding its reach beyond Desktop)

    Thanks for turing off captcha and the follow

  2. if only ppl spent as many hours to browse the web on the mobile as on desktop computers

  3. Just because you got some numbers worked out and just because "you" think a whole lot of people access internet from the mobile phones doesn't mean this statistics is wrong. Anyone who have "ever" used the internet for more than 5 hours would have seen or installed the Flash player its so obvious. How many users do you think would have seen YouTube? All of them needed Flash Player. Go get your basics right kid !

    BTW, how much did M$ pay you for this?

  4. Last November Adobe announced a deal with ARM to optimize the Flash Player for ARM architecture, as part of the open screen project. Adobe is also working with Intel to optimize Flash for other existing and future chip architectures.

    As for all those iPhones and other internet mobile devices, it's true that a majority of them don't have Flash Player. Sometime Adobe is trying to change by working on a full Flash Player 10 to Android, Windows Mobile, Palm Pre and Symbian.

    However, on the flip-side if you look at various web analystics websites (take this as an example:
    http://marketshare.hitslink.com/operating-system-market-share.aspx?qprid=8 ), despite their numbers iPhones generally account for less than 1% of internet traffic. Despite all the internet enabled devices, people still use mainly desktop computers to view the web.

    Meanwhile, the video tag is not going to take off without all the major browsers including a common video codex. Even if they all agree on the same codex, I think browsers installs move too slowly to ever properly deliver web video. Looking a how common IE 6 still is, generally it takes 5 or more years to turn over to a newer version. So now imagine using a codex from 2003 for a new website today, compared to a brand new optimized codex from a browser (if not Flash, Quicktime, or Silverlight or whatever).

  5. @David: The next wave of netbooks will be far more difficult to kit out and maintain now that we are moving away from WinTel.

    @Unreality: Mobile vs Desktop browsing is rapidly trending upward and it's anyone's guess as to where/when it will plateau out.

    @Anonymous Coward: iPhone users have YouTube without Flash. The claim that "Flash content reaches 99% of Internet viewers" is bunk - we're just not sure how far wrong it is.

    @Matthew: That may be so but Adobe have a hard enough time currently keeping up with a small handful of hardware/software combinations - with x86/x64/ARM/MIPS netbooks running a myriad operating systems it's going to get a *lot* harder... and that's without even thinking about how to keep it all secure.

    Also, the codecs need not necessarily be common as the sites could decide what to serve up depending on the user agent (eg Ogg vs H.264 vs Flash). If you saw "Safari on OS X" for example you could serve up a VIDEO tag with H.264 (or any other QuickTime supported codec) and if you saw "Firefox 3.1" on anything you could serve up a VIDEO tag with Ogg Theora.

  6. Forget about penetration and let's talk about the bastardization of JavaScript that is "ActionScript". From a software developer standpoint, Flash is everything but enticing. If Adobe thinks they are going to make every programmer learn their proprietary butchering of JavaScript, then they likely have some bad news ahead of them. Sure, the "designer" people who have been using Adobe tools for years will evangelize, and they might even be able to hack up spaghetti code to build some proof of concept eye candy. But how about the TONS of *developers and engineers* who cringe at the thought of using this technology for their entire application? This plays a HUGE part in the decision of a platform. If they want the support of the world of computer scientists and software engineers, they better figure out a way to satisfy these people.

    Penetration stats are basically meaningless in my opinion, it's just a pissing match between the vendors. Now, platform support is not meaningless. But as long as the VM runs on the major OS's and hardware, the percentage of devices running the software at any given time isn't all that important. All it takes is an app like YouTube to completely change that, literally overnight. As of right now, let's be honest, Flash's success is due to 1 thing: video streaming.

    If I'm creating a "Rich Internet Application", and the user isn't willing to install a ~5MB runtime, chances are my app isn't that "Rich" at all. The reality is, if your app is killer, people will install it. If I can watch some lady stomp grapes and fall on her head, I'm definitely willing to install your runtime. Hence youtube success!

  7. What an entertaining read. I'm not quite sure what your argument is - are you saying that half of your website visitors don't have Flash installed? Surely not.

    Overall, blanket statistics are not much use. They are not much use from Adobe, and have even less use after you have tried to discredit them.

    Each project, each website needs to evaluate the market they are targeting. What is YOUR demographic? Is Flash a viable technology to deliver [insert your content here]?
    On the consumer internet today Flash is clearly everywhere and you make yourself look very silly trying to tell us otherwise. It may be a different story inside a corporate LAN. Or maybe you target only Blackberries (not sure why you would) then Flash may not be the best technology for you (would HTML 5 be though?).

    When a client comes to me asking for a Flash app I will look at *their* user data, not Adobe's. What do I find: statistics that are in line with those that Adobe publishes (ie Flash Player 10 at roughly 55% right now).

    Sam, why don't you publish the Flash Player stats for your blog and let us discuss those? Yeah, thought not.

    I will bookmark this blog post and come back to it in 2 years from now. I predict now that HTML5 will be nowhere, and that 80% of web video will still be Flash. Will you bet against it?

  8. HTML5? Isn't that about as ubiquitous as Silverlight?

  9. @AC: Agreed, had VIDEO appeared in HTML 4 Flash would definitely not have had a look in for many (most?) users.

    @Stefan Richter: About 5% of my visitors don't have Flash, but then again less then 15% of them use IE so this is not your average audience. Turning away 1 in 20 visitors is more than enough enough for me to think twice about Flash content.

    As at today around 1 in 5 (20%) of my visitors *already* support HTML 5 video, either via WebKit/Safari or via Firefox 3.1 beta.

    More than half of them use up-to-date Firefox versions - a huge 90% of them are on the latest versions (3.0.5/6 or 3.1) so shortly after 3.1 drops this should crack 50%.

    @Steve: As above, 20% of my visitors already have at least a subset of HTML 5 features. According to RIA stats that's about the same as Silverlight (and that already seems a bit generous - the only time I've ever used Silverlight was to stream Netflix on my MacBook).

  10. Anonymous: "All it takes is an app like YouTube to completely change that, literally overnight. As of right now, let's be honest, Flash's success is due to 1 thing: video streaming."

    It was Flash that made YouTube a huge success, not YouTube that made Flash a success. As Flash Player 5 had a high-90’s (97? 98?) penetration and this was before video had been introduced in Flash Player 6. Web video took off because everyone already had the Flash Player, which reduced the barrier to users. Meanwhile content providers liked being able to have a custom controls that worked into the webpage rather than being forced to use the plugin's controls, which was often branded by the video company, rather than being branded by the content provider. YouTube was able to get a huge audience because everyone already had Flash.

    Anonymous: "If I'm creating a "Rich Internet Application", and the user isn't willing to install a ~5MB runtime, chances are my app isn't that "Rich" at all."

    If you're website is running a plugin that people have to install, you are going to lose some of your audience. Or what people often refer to as a drop off rate. The question is not whether or not it will happen, the question is how big or low that percentage number is. That's why few companies start using the latest version of the Flash Player until it's over 90% of their audience, as that drop off rate means lost revenue from a smaller audience.

    Sam Johnston: "That may be so but Adobe have a hard enough time currently keeping up with a small handful of hardware/software combinations - with x86/x64/ARM/MIPS netbooks running a myriad operating systems it's going to get a *lot* harder... and that's without even thinking about how to keep it all secure."

    Well, Adobe has beening doing a good job with x86, they have an alpha version for Linux x64 (Windows and OS X on it's way), they a deal with ARM for their chips and deal with Sigma Designs to optimize Flash for MIPS chips. There are also deals with Intel and Broadcom to bring Flash to chipsets included in televisions or top-sets that will connect televisions to the internet.

    Can you think of another chipset? Then google it and Adobe Flash to see if it will also be included in the Open Screen project. If it's missing, it may still be in the works as the Open Screen Project isn't even a year old yet.

    Quite frankly there are so many companies and different chipsets involved now that it's hard to keep track of them all. Adobe would benefit to group them all together in a massive list rather than have them spread out in all sorts of announcements and press releases.

    See the thing is that Flash is used so much through out the web, that any device with web access and without Flash is missing a lot of content and a lot of video. So it seems that many companies want to work with Adobe on the Open Screen Project, so that they can include "Flash Player" as one of the features in the device."

    "Also, the codecs need not necessarily be common as the sites could decide what to serve up depending on the user agent (eg Ogg vs H.264 vs Flash). If you saw "Safari on OS X" for example you could serve up a VIDEO tag with H.264 (or any other QuickTime supported codec) and if you saw "Firefox 3.1" on anything you could serve up a VIDEO tag with Ogg Theora."

    So for Safari OS X users, the solution for the so called "open web" is to use the Quicktime plugin?

    Meanwhile, personally as Firefox user, it would suck to be left with the low-quality Ogg video and have to switch to another browser for the high-quality h.264 with Quicktime or Flash. Not exactly a user-friendly solution. Also will Ogg video in Firefox or any other browser include full-screen video, or hardware acceleration, multicore support (for those who have newer computers) or any of the latest video features found with Flash? That's the problem with Ogg, is that it's already a step back compared to what's already available in Flash and is still years away from getting proper support.

    Beyond those who want to promote open codex, I don't think many content providers or even users are going to want to use Ogg.

    Sam Johnston:"Agreed, had VIDEO appeared in HTML 4 Flash would definitely not have had a look in for many (most?) users."

    If early browsers had gotten over the video codecs issues (once again, I doubt Microsoft would have done so in IE with them pushing Windows Media Player) and it had worked, then I fear we would still be using old codecs from 2001 in order to support IE 6 users. Once again, we would be missing out on full-screen video and all the other advances that have come with video inside of the Flash Player.

  11. Ok let's be honest though, the quality of flash video is regularly appalling, certainly no worse than Ogg at the same bitrates. It's improved somewhat recently, for example with YouTube serving up both LQ FLV versions and HQ H.264 versions, but that already involves storing multiple formats.

    In my opinion for most use cases (e.g. 99.9% of YouTube) Ogg would do fine and for the rest (e.g. full screen HD Netflix movies) people are happy to install a dedicated client, flash, silverlight, or whatever to get at the content. It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem - with more Ogg content there will be wider support and more performance enhancement, and it's very hard to present an argument that proprietary codecs are "better for the web" than open ones... aside from the GIF patents, images on the internet are relatively unencumbered and there was a time when the maths involved was considered as complex as video codecs are today.

    Thanks for the comprehensive feedback - it'll be interesting to see how this all pans out.


    PS Adobe have a lot of work to do on the cross platform issues - this will be both an important and difficult battle for them.

  12. Motive: "I'm a W3C Invited Expert in the HTML 5 working group"

    HTML 5 is years away from being as widely installed as Flash. For the ivory tower set, it sounds great, but for those of us actually developing web pages for the masses, it's just not a realistic approach.

  13. Actually I'm more of an observer/tester than an active participant... there's no conflict there. Regardless of HTML 5 hitting the mainstream a number of browsers (Safari 4, Firefox 3.1, etc.) are already adding VIDEO support and that's all that matters - it's easy enough to detect the browser and act accordingly depending on what it is.


  14. Clearly you have a huge issue with *your* methodology. What the heck is this:

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

    You already admitted that you don't know many of the 4 billion phones are internet-enabled. What if it's around 1 billion? It's probably not far off IMO considering that all internet-enabled Nokia phones for example run Flash Lite. The 14 million iPhones + Android phones is only 0.7% of this 2 billion. We're still close to 99% then. For your conclusion to have any validity, you'll have to provide some evidence that internet-enabled mobile phones are significantly greater than 1 billion. Otherwise, you're just trolling.

    Also, I think you've missed the point about Adobe having to support x86/x64/ARM/MIPS. They don't plan to - they want others to do it for them. That's what the Open Screen Project and publishing the SWF spec is all about. It's already working for them:


  15. Actually no, I don't have to provide anything but an alternative opinion and talking point. Adobe's numbers are complete and utter BS so long as they conveniently ignore the mobile web (and likely a lot of the netbook/smartbook/etc. devices too) and that's before you start drilling down to things like quoting numbers with a 5% margin of error to decimal places. And seriously, wtf are "Worldwide Ubiquity" figures anyway? Either you're ubiquitous or you're not...

    Flash is in its twilight period - it's been fun while it's lasted but I for one won't be losing too much sleep over it.


  16. Internet-enabled desktops in mature markets...how is that stating mobile...I cant even get through the rest of your post.

    you are a hater...and believe me...its only just begun...twighlight my ass!

  17. How Does "99.0% of Internet-enabled desktops in mature markets" = "Flash content reaches 99.0% of Internet viewers"?

    you are seriously putting a huge spin on the words...are you a politician?

  18. The methodology section is interesting (the same size is small, etc.) but the sample questionnaire is REALLY interesting:


    Let's suppose you or I were trying to determine Flash penetration -- would we (a) start by sending users to a page with an embedded flash in it than will -- on most browsers -- cause a "do you want to install this plugin" dialog to appear along with instructions NOT to install the plugin, and then send the users through multiple similar screens each testing for ONE version of Flash, or would we just silently test for Flash and send the results back to our server?

    I doubt most subjects would read the THIRD PARAGRAPH of text before they installed the plugin, so the survey distorts its own results. It's obviously intended to create its own numbers.

  19. By the look of you own website, i can see that you do not really care about how a website looks...

  20. Intersting views but you're only focusing on video. Flash is perfect for delivering complex, engaging, emmersive vector animation at tiny file sizes. Web advertising (which the web was built on after porn) would be in a sorry state without flash.

    used in the right context for the right purpose, Flash is a great tool. Same for HTML 5

  21. So are you responsible for the tag war between Chrome and Safari/IE, or is that the W3C invited expert in charge of cross-browser compatibility? HTML has and will always encounter the issue of browsers squaring off for economic reasons and selectively choosing what to implement and how to implement it. Just look at WebGL, but not on IE, because it won't work there. The plugin system in general, which includes Unity and Java as well as Flash, will not go away because some developers and content creators will always want the assurance that their content will be viewable on all devices.

  22. Nice to see that all you're theories have fall into pieces...
    Nice to see that people like you earns money in speculating... and changing the vision of things... so hardly.

    So yes not 99% but let's talk about important things. Let's talk about the possibilities of Flash Tech. Today we could see how the FP11 will run in PC's. And how will it open markets. Game markets. So do not bother if the stats are wrong but if the thing for itlsef is important and will change anything. Ahhh update to you Firefox 4 will have built-in FP11 as Google Chrome have. Please spent a little more time doing investigation. And less time jerking of with your so called expertise in technology...

  23. We need a universal embed-able flash video player. It would be possible if someone reverse engineer all the flash players out there. Anyone?

  24. This information is so outdated...


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