Digital Fiction on the iPhone via Flash export?

Dreaming Methods - iPhone EditionOne of the things that attracted me to upgrade from Flash CS4 to CS5 (as well as the improved drag and drop code snippets and generally better stability) was the promise of iPhone and iPad export. Apps for these devices are making waves in the world of digital literature at the moment with publishers knocking out mobile device editions of their authors’ books like nobody’s business. Despite the raging battle between Apple and Adobe over Flash, I thought this was a cool move on behalf of Adobe (after all, it compiles Flash into App code, bypassing the problem), and a few weeks ago decided to see whether this export option really worked. A Dreaming Methods project on the iPhone? That would be a nice thing to see.

Let me mention that I don’t have an iPhone myself – or indeed an iPad. My wife has an iPod Touch, which is supposedly like an iPhone but without the phone capabilities, so I borrowed that and plugged it into my PC ready to see this miracle in action. I couldn’t quite believe that it was going to be as simple as pressing “Publish for iPhone”. And it wasn’t.

Apart from having to use ActionScript 3 (which is tough for us AS2 people), the first major stumbling block I came across was the fact that I needed to be a registered Apple Developer and have a proper Developer’s Certificate. The Flash CS5 iPhone OS settings wouldn’t let me publish a thing without one. So I had a look into this on the Apple website… and realised I’d need to pay Apple $99 per year for this privilege.

Several days later, after mulling over whether this might actually be worth it, and having sold quite a few Dreaming Methods Resource Packs in the meantime, I thought OK, let’s do it – the more scope for pushing out digital literature on mobile devices the better. So, I became a registered Individual Apple Developer – an odd feeling for a PC user.

About 48 hours later after having to confirm my identity a few times, I got access to the iPhone Provisional Developer Center, where I realised there were no SDK versions or Xcode applications available for Windows whatsoever. According to the instructions on creating a valid Certificate, I needed a Mac running Snow Leopard. Oh dear, why the hell didn’t I think of that?

Going back to the Flash Help documentation however, I realised I could obtain a Certificate by using OpenSSL and some snazzy command line arguments. Although fiddly, this miraculously worked, and, after having to type in a 40 digit hex key from iTunes due to there being no cut and paste option, the Flash iPhone OS Publish dialogue decided my settings were valid.

My first test application was a movie clip you could drag around the screen with your mouse – or rather your finger on the iPod Touch. Although Flash almost overheated my laptop during the publish process, it did eventually say it had been successful, and I copied the App onto the iPod via iTunes to see what would happen. And my goodness, it worked. I almost fell off my chair.

So, unless Apple start rummaging around in the compiled Apps that run on their devices for traces of SWFs, or my exports fail to work on anything other than my wife’s iPod, neither of which would surprise me, you can expect some Dreaming Methods iPhone hybrid fiction App downloads in the near future. Although a lot will undoubtedly be lost in terms of full screen atmosphere, there’s still the potential to experiment to a high degree with animated and interactive text, and of course Apps are often considered to be simply ‘tasters’ for the bigger experience.

15 Responses to “Digital Fiction on the iPhone via Flash export?”

  • Well done. But I’m confused. I was under the impression that Apple banned Flash apps from its app store? Adobe says it’s a business decision and Apple says it’s a technical decision. But, in any case, I thought it was a decision? What’s up with that?

  • In order to ban ‘Flash Apps’ Apple will have to examine the source code of each of its iStore-submitted Apps, or ensure that iPhone 4.0 OS examines the metadata embedded within any of its existing or future Apps and then rejects them if they show trace of 3rd party/Flash CS5 root development. Which is amazingly restrictive, as posts on hundreds of forums across the internet are reflecting. According to Adobe forums however, very few individual developers – if any – have even tried to submit Apps developed via CS5 to the iStore in the first place. So who knows what Apple would accept or reject?

    But regardless of any of this, I’ve found the whole process a compelling gateway into thinking towards handheld digital fiction design – and feel confident that if the Flash to iPhone export becomes open source, as is being discussed across the web at the moment, then there will be at least a form of underground future for non-Apple-restricted App production – jailbroken iPhones/iPad limited or otherwise.

    Adobe appear to be redirecting their stand alone mobile export technologies towards Android which would also be a valid path for digital fiction experiments in exactly the same vein. My hope is that any further investment I make into producing mobile-formatted digital fiction won’t be entirely wasted and that my work will find its way onto mobile devices in some way or another.

  • Apple almost certainly wouldn’t bother to “examine the source code of each of its iStore-submitted Apps, or ensure that iPhone 4.0 OS examines the metadata embedded within any of its existing or future Apps and then reject them if they show traces of 3rd party/Flash CS5 root development”.

    Though Adobe might take the ‘publish to iPhone’ option out of CS6.

    Bizarre.

    In any case, glad to hear you’ve got some digital fiction happening for the iPhone, Andy.

  • Hi Andy – Glad to hear you’re experimenting with iPhone apps. Are you creating entirely new pieces for the iPhone or are you adapting existing Dreaming Methods projects?

  • Thanks Christine. I have considered reformatting a few of my existing projects, but everything I have produced thus far – except my latest work which is still in development – has been done in ActionScript 2. So there’s no easy way to convert any existing material to mobile format via Flash. Which is a big downer really.

    Also I think most of the projects just wouldn’t work on a handheld-sized screen – a lot of them rely on generating a moody and cinematic feel which I think would be tricky on an iPhone. I’m looking at ways of using words more and perhaps having the Apps as teasers for work that is also available online or as EXE downloads for a richer, more powerful experience.

  • Ah yes, AS2, I see what you mean. Also, yes, the moody, cinematic atmosphere which is so strong in your work, that’s what I was wondering about.

    Using an app as teaser for a richer experience is an excellent idea. An interesting example of that is “The How It Is application for iPhone™ or iPod touch® [which] is an interactive interpretation of Miroslaw Balka’s epic work in The Unilever Series, How It Is” at Tate Modern a few months ago – http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/unilevermiroslawbalka/default.shtm. The app was a very different thing from the (huge) physical installation but it was interesting how both variations of the work gave the user a different experience of the mystery of spaces with unseen boundaries. It’s also interesting how the iPhone app version of “How it is” relied on text whereas the physical installation, “a giant grey steel structure with a vast dark chamber” employed no text at all.

  • Chris joseph:

    Fascinating stuff – what a lot of hoops to jump through! I wonder how Android development compares. Any insights you gain here re developing work for the smaller screen will surely be invaluable across a lot of mobile devices.

  • Thanks Chris. For the purposes of keeping the post short I didn’t go into the full details of what the process entailed, but jumping through hoops really is an understatement and it worries me that so much messing about is required just to have the ‘freedom’ (he says through gritted teeth) to develop for certain technologies. It does indeed make you wonder if Google have similar assault courses set up for Android.

    [One annoying thing was that the iPod Touch had to be paired with my difficult-to-generate developer certificate via iTunes and a small meta file generated which needed to be copied onto the iPod before any of my test applications would even show up on it. I have to do this with any other future devices/Apps too. I'm sure this is all very familiar to hard core coders, but it's annoying to me.]

    I’m keen now to try submitting a final App to the iTunes store just to see what happens. However I’m new to mobile application design so I’m not moving very quickly on this. Having invested the money with Apple though I do want to push it as far as I can.

    Are you looking to produce mobile editions of any of your own work on your work with Kate? I know you mentioned CS5 entering your work flow at some point.

    It would be interesting to swap notes on this stuff with anyone else attempting to get their digital writing into people’s pocket gadgets.

  • Interesting discussion, and thanks, Andy, for taking the first daring step forward. I will be following this with great interest!

  • One of the main problematic issues that has struck me when converting Flash to iPod Touch is the fact that the iPod cannot handle proportionally large bitmap graphics very well. There is a lot of documentation in the CS5 Help resource about optimising graphics for mobile devices via bitmap caching in AS3 – something I know nothing at all about – and as such my results so far have all had terrible framerate problems.

    I’m a fan of creating interfaces which include the use of easing effects when chunks of graphics come to a stop; or applying a smidge of intertia when items are dragged. These small hints often give a project/application a slight edge; a feeling of solidity and professionalism. But all of my experiments so far when it comes to porting this technique across to the iPod have resulted in sluggish performance. It’s almost as if the iPod knows that my application has come from Flash – and has thus applied some kind of Steve Jobs Fuck Up Filter to ensure I can’t get away with anything I’m used to very easily.

    Mind you, I suppose Flash has spoilt me by allowing me to throw around enormous bitmaps with relative ease. My lack of experience developing for anything less than a full on browser experience is perhaps starting to really show. Components such as PageFlipper and UltimateScrollerPro by Flashloaded – brilliant little gadgets for quickly containing and exploring mixed media – stagger dreadfully on the iphone (even with 256-colour PNGs) despite being fully AS3-friendly and very small in filesize/scale.

    Although the adjustment from mouse pointer to finger doesn’t seem to be a problem (the interfaces pick up almost perfectly), it’s the graphical kick that seems to have completely gone. And this is quite frustrating from a creative point of view. It’s like trying to squash mega rich media into a super-low-powered computer with a shockingly weak CPU and expecting it to respond like a monster.

    But again that’s just how it feels – it’s my lack of experience that’s the problem, not the device or the format. My approach to mobile digital fiction seriously needs to change from wanting to squash mini-versions of Dreaming Methods projects into pocket gadgets to thinking from the point of view of what the device is capable of or best at.

  • Have you seen this “Smokescreen: Flash… without the plugin”? http://smokescreen.us/ It’s a preview of an app (for the mobile advertising market) that converts Flash to HTML5/Javascript. “This is just a start,” they say, “Smokescreen currently supports a sizable subset of Flash 8 animation capabilities, streaming sound, sound effects, some input, and basic ActionScript.”

  • Thanks for this Christine – very interesting. I’ve seen the banner advert demo (with HTML5 and Flash versions side by side) somewhere else but I didn’t realise it was tied in to this bigger project.

    For non-too-complicated Flash SWFs, this looks like a good solution – not sure how it would handle 3D environments, lighting effects on videos and other complexities that Flash excels at in the right hands – but if it’s open source, it could easily be downloaded and experimented with once it’s released.

  • Sounds like a good start. At least someone is taking Flash to hml5 seriously, and doing something about it. I retain a guarded optimism…

  • Here’s an article speculating that the reason for this reversal was the threat of an anti-trust probe: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/09/ftc-apple . In any case, it seems pretty clear that Apple’s initial reasons for the Flash ban were business reasons, not tech reasons.

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