by Mark W. Hibben
A Victim of its Own Success
The Skyfire app promises Flash video enabled browsing for iPhone users through real-time “transcoding” of Flash video into a format compatible with iOS. So many iPhone users found this promise appealing that within a few short hours of its debut on November 3, sale of the app was halted at the request of Skyfire Labs, Inc. The problem Skyfire Labs had in absorbing so many new customers was very much tied to their technical approach to Flash video conversion. Flash video transcoding is not done by the app at all but within a Skyfire cloud computing center. The Skyfire app does dual duty as a web browser and as a thin client for the Skyfire cloud. When the user selects a Flash video to watch, the Skyfire app redirects the user to the cloud which streams the converted video as a proxy for the original Flash site. Skyfire Labs’ servers were simply not up to the influx of new users, a condition that apparently has been corrected. I was able to purchase and use the app on 11/7 without any problems. The experience is not exactly seamless, but it works surprisingly well.
The Mystified Media
As usual, the technical comprehension of the Internet Tech Media was rather spotty. The table below shows the result of my informal and admittedly non-exhaustive survey of coverage of the new Skyfire app’s release. TechQ is a rating of 1-10 where 1 is the technical comprehension of a bacterium and 10 is the technical comprehension of an Einstein.
Obviously a log scale (base 10). The fact that the top TechQ score was a 6 reflects my opinion that you don’t have to be Einstein to get this one right.
|CNNMoney||David Goldman||5||Correctly explained the Skyfire server approach.|
|AppleInsider||Katie Marsal||5||Correctly explained the Skyfire server approach, but explanation of lack of “interactive” Flash content only partially correct.|
|Wired||Brian X. Chen||2||Stated that the app performs transcoding. Also stated that sites with Flash video were “tough” to find.|
|PCMag||Chloe Albanesius||2||Stated that the app performs transcoding, and that the app “embeds the Safari browser”. I wish.|
|PCWorld||Harry McCracken||3||Manages to say nothing of technical substance regarding the transcoding process. Perhaps wisely.|
|Engadget||Donald Melanson||1.5||Stated that the “browser actually transcodes the video. . . and it compresses all videos by about 75 percent. . .” Not clear what good post-download compression is supposed to do, but he cites this as the reason that “Flash video is the only type of Flash that the browser supports”.|
|ZDNet||Adrian Kingsley-Hughes||2.5||Also avoided saying anything of technical substance. He couldn’t get the app to work.|
|InformationWeek||Antone Gonsalves||6||Correctly explained the Skyfire server approach and how the app’s popularity lead to server overload|
|MacRumors||Eric Slivka||5||Correctly explained the Skyfire server approach.|
|cnet||Jessica Dolcourt||6||Correctly explained the Skyfire server approach and how the app’s popularity lead to server overload|
|Msnbc Technolog||Wilson Rothman||5||Correctly explained the Skyfire server approach, but may have overstated the server overload problem.|
The Proxy Game
Skyfire Labs has been using the proxy approach for years to enable a more “desktop” browsing experience on devices such as Nokia’s Symbian OS smartphones and Windows Mobile phones. In this case, all web pages are rendered by the Skyfire server before download to the Skyfire “browser” which is really just a special purpose client for the server. This approach compensates somewhat for the lack of power in the OS and processor and provides a fairly credible alternative to the OS included mobile-only browser.
For so-called smart phones of the Symbian or Windows Mobile variety, this approach makes perfect sense. As smart phone processors and operating systems have become increasingly sophisticated and feature near-desktop browsing (as exemplified by the iPhone), this approach was in danger of becoming obsolete. Skyfire needed to find another raison d'être for its proxy service, such as providing Flash video to iPhone users.
Skyfire’s new Rocket Cloud Service doesn’t stop with Flash. It is a very tight welding of cloud computing services with mobile computing within the context of a browser-like application. This “cloud-assisted browsing” is intended to provide transparent interchangeability of multiple video formats such as Flash, Windows Media, Silverlight and Quicktime over multiple platforms including iOS, Android, Windows 7 Phone, and even Symbian. Other benefits include improved network capacity through extensive cloud hosted data compression, improved battery life for mobile devices by off-loading compute intensive tasks, integrated search through a “recommendation engine” as well as customized targeted advertising. Of course, this last feature leaves me less than overjoyed.
The Rocket Cloud Service consists of the Rocket Cloud Platform, the Skyfire hosting service, and the Rocket Device Client which is embedded in Webkit browsers developed currently for Skyfire 2.X Android and iOS versions. Skyfire 2.X is a hybrid browser which uses the phone for direct web browsing as well as providing a link to the Cloud Platform. Skyfire 1.X is the older proxy-based browser available for Symbian and Windows Mobile. If market conditions warrant, Skyfire may also provide 2.X version for these platforms at some time in the future. My bet would be that if Windows 7 Phone takes off, a Skyfire 2.X version for it will soon follow. Symbian’s future is of course very clouded, now that the Nokia Board has cleaned house. Since Nokia’s new CEO, Stephen Elop, is ex-Microsoft, I would bet that Nokia will ally with Microsoft and host Windows 7 Phone, becoming a Windows (Mobile) hardware vendor in the time honored PC mode.
Promise vs. Reality
Skyfire Labs is unquestionably on to something exciting with its mobile/cloud paradigm. With its browser, the cloud becomes a constant companion to the mobile device, able to offload or supplement the computing capability of the device in a way that has the potential to be seamless to the user.
But that potential has yet to be realized, at least in this iOS version. The browser is hardly competitive with Safari, and on the iPad it's almost unusable, since the application was clearly targeted for older iPhones, so you have to use pixel doubling to get a reasonable screen size. Web pages look blurry until you zoom in, but then navigation becomes a chore. Viewing Flash video requires some wait time, but then a real revelation occurs. The video looks good, and plays back smoothly, even at full iPad screen. And as I showed in the video report, finding Flash video is not difficult. Although many sites advertise conversion away from Flash, usually you only have to navigate a level or two down from the home page to encounter Flash videos. The conversion has only been skin deep.
The speculation about why Skyfire can’t render interactive Flash pages has been only partially correct. True, the proxy approach would be cumbersome for interactive Flash content, with unreasonable lag time due to communication and processing times. But Skyfire, and other third party web browser developers could always implement Flash at the browser/phone level, if Apple would allow them to do so. Apple’s current restrictions don’t permit this because they specifically ban applications that download Flash code. When a browser plays back some Flash-based animation or control, that’s essentially what it’s doing, downloading snippets of Flash code. Meanwhile, Apple recently decided to allow applications that make use of Flash as long as all the code is self-contained in the app. I still have a sense that this inconsistency cannot go unresolved forever.
The recent run on Skyfire clearly demonstrated that thoughtful, intelligent users of Apple products such as the iPhone remain unconvinced that Flash is dead, despite months of Apple propaganda. I can only hope that Apple management are paying attention to the message their customers are sending through their Skyfire purchases. If Apple relented on the web-based Flash ban, would Skyfire instantly become obsolete? Not necessarily. If Skyfire makes good on their strategy of cloud/mobile fusion, they will have a lot more to offer than just Flash video.