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Skyfire browser struggles to put Flash on iPhone

Skyfire screenshot from iPhone 4.
Skyfire screenshot from iPhone 4.

UPDATE: The Skyfire browser is, sure enough, back in the iTunes App Store. But video playback still appears to be choked. Buy at your own risk!

I was excited yesterday to hear that Skyfire, the only browser that can deliver Flash video to an iPhone, went on sale in the App Store for $2.99. Within five hours, reported the company, Skyfire had become "the top grossing app, the third highest paid app overall and the top application in the Utilities category." But by the next day, the company pulled it from the store — and those who bought it couldn't use it. It was a victim of its own success.

See, the promise of delivering Flash video to an iPhone requires a massive bypass of the iPhone itself. You spot a Flash video you want to watch — on, say, eBaum's World (not necessarily safe for work) — and the browser sends a message to Skyfire's servers to "watch" the video, and translate it frame by frame to something the iPhone is compatible with. When thousands of people downloaded the app at the same time and demanded Skyfire's servers to convert all of their videos at the same time, well, those servers ground to a halt.

One of the biggest reasons to get a Flash-capable browser is porn, which tends to not be available on mobile-friendly services like YouTube. The app's iTunes sales page said as much, with an obligatory warning of "Frequent/Intense Sexual Content or Nudity." Yet privacy minders should take note that checking out the dirty movies would be sharing their viewing choices with Skyfire's servers. Surely Skyfire won't use this information, or presumably even store it, but it's worth noting that this isn't just an exchange between you and your porno provider, as it would be on a traditional Flash-capable computer.

Whether it was porn or cleaner content, the Skyfire servers clogged fast. "The user experience was performing well for the first few hours, but as the surge continued, the peak load on our servers and bandwidth caused the video experience to degrade," said the company on its blog. At the time of this writing, I can't get any video to load at all, as you can see in the screenshot above, which I took.

"Thus we are effectively 'sold out' and will temporarily not accept new purchases from the App Store," the notice continued. "We are working really hard to increase capacity and will be accepting new purchases from the App Store as soon as we can support it."

Despite the complete shutdown of the Flash functionality, the company's spokesperson sounded optimistic when I called him. He said that the video conversion would be back up and working for current users "within days." He also mentioned that the company would put out another "batch" of downloads on iTunes, and that after that second limited run, Skyfire would likely be ramped up enough for general purchases.

When I asked if the company would refund money if they can't get their sole unique feature working properly, he replied, "It won't come to that." Good to hear, cuz there's a lot of porn out there on the Web, and it's not going to convert itself.

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman, especially if you've got a better way to get, um, "Flash video" on your iPhone.