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Jobs Explains Apple’s Position on Adobe Flash

The notoriously private Steve Jobs, who keeps Apple within the same public comment straitjacket, has found his voice lately. In a break from answering email messages sent to [email protected] with one-word responses (generally, “No”), the Apple CEO posted a candid assessment of why Adobe’s Flash technology has no place in the iPhone OS.

Jobs’s “Thoughts on Flash” reiterates points made by many of us who have a long experience with Adobe, Apple, and the capabilities of mobile devices. Notably, John Gruber has written extensively about this issue, including an essay on a change in the iPhone Developer Program agreement that Jobs told one email correspondent was “very insightful and not negative.”

There are two areas that Jobs splits a bit across his six points that I want to discuss: open standards and Flash’s suitability for the mobile world.

Open Standards — Jobs writes that Adobe is pushing a proprietary technology, Flash, while Apple is backing the open standards of HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript. Apple also developed and put considerable effort into the open-source WebKit browser engine, which Google, Nokia, and Palm use as the basis of browsers on their smartphones. Research In Motion will be moving to WebKit for the BlackBerry, too.

This bleeds a bit into Jobs’s second point, in which he rebuts Adobe’s claim that by not having Flash support, the iPhone OS lacks “the full Web.”

In an ideal world, content created targeting the three standards that Jobs cites would display similarly on any device regardless of browser. HTML5 includes descriptions – but not prescriptions – for graphical animation, video playback, audio playback, and quite a bit else, all of which encroach on some of the main uses of Flash.

Adobe’s CEO, Shantanu Narayen, told the Wall Street Journal a few hours after Jobs’s essay hit that “Flash is an open specification,” chuckling while talking to the reporter. It is true that Adobe has published the details of Flash – as the SWF File Format Specification – but that’s more than a little disingenuous.

Unlike any version of HTML, CSS, or JavaScript, SWF was a closed spec until 1 May 2008. Also unlike those other standards, there was not and remains no explosion of Flash-oriented applications across many platforms.

True, Adobe’s Flash player is available for many systems, and some non-Adobe software can create SWF files. Adobe has released some SWF code under an open-source license. And there’s even a mature effort, Gnash, to bring Flash playback to the GNU/Linux and BSD world.

There are issues that remain about how a third-party Flash player could process DRM that’s embedded in content – like the BBC Player. But my reading of the open-source Flash code documentation is that the 10.1 release of Flash will allow third parties to work with protected content.

What the Wall Street Journal reporter should have asked Narayen was, “Tell me about all the applications and players not from Adobe that handle Flash?” or “How are other individuals and companies actively involved in Flash format development?”

That’s because none of the movement in the Flash world holds a candle to the variety of Web browsers available. Nor is Adobe’s control of the Flash spec anything but a sharp contrast with the ability to influence browser capabilities that the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) or other standards body has.

Flash may be an “open specification,” but Adobe remains in complete control of development, saying only that “Adobe seriously considers all feedback to the SWF file format specification.” Notably, Adobe has no requirement to incorporate the ideas of others or to reach consensus on how the Flash community would like to see the technology evolve.

In comparison, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are the result of well over a decade (more than 15 years in HTML’s case) of experimentation, pushback, browser differentiation, compromise, debate, and not a little hostility among competing interests.

The reporter should also have asked about Adobe’s alleged role in stalling HTML5 development through procedural moves related to the scope of HTML5’s work. HTML5 incorporates a video tag that will allow direct embedding of video in a standard way. (The underlying video format, whether H.264, Ogg Theora, or Google’s VP8, will likely not be specified in the HTML5 spec, but H.264 will likely be the most widely supported, given Microsoft’s commitment to H.264 in Internet Explorer 9.)

HTML5’s video tag threatens Flash, even though Adobe’s tools can output H.264 and other video formats. Adobe denied holding up HTML5 draft progress, but the Web’s father, Tim Berners-Lee, stepped in to move things along by declaring that HTML5’s scope was just fine, and work should proceed.

Of course, Jobs is also being disingenuous about Apple’s commitment to openness when he focuses on Web-based standards. Outside the browser, the iPhone OS is a completely closed platform, and the changes that John Gruber discussed in the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement require that apps be written only using tools supplied by and controlled by Apple. (According to a New York Post article, that move may prompt an antitrust inquiry.)

The license agreement change prevents Adobe from letting developers compile Flash programs into iPhone OS apps using a tool in Adobe Creative Suite 5 that has already been used for 100 programs in the App Store.

It may also prevent the use of some other development tools for creating iPhone apps; it’s not yet known whether Apple will enforce the rule change uniformly. With 200,000 apps in the App Store, the company can afford to lose a few, despite the impact on those developers.

Apple and Adobe are intentionally arguing at cross purposes. Jobs supports open formats for Web-based resources, but a closed development and distribution system for everything outside the browser.

Adobe is arguing for a quasi-proprietary embedded use of Flash on Web pages, which requires that everyone have Adobe’s Flash Player installed instead of relying on browser makers to shape a consistent experience independent of any one company.

But in the realm of apps, Adobe is arguing that Flash developers shouldn’t be forced to use a separate development process for the iPhone OS, which Apple has now required via the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement.

In terms of tools, Adobe makes the only rich Flash design and development software, while Apple makes the only viable iPhone OS development environment. Developers would likely prefer Adobe’s hegemony, despite the limits it imposes, if only because Flash’s reach is much broader than that of the iPhone OS.

(Whether Adobe’s packaging tool can turn Flash content into an app that provides as good a user experience as a native app is a separate question, and one that Jobs strongly disagrees with in a different section of the essay.)

What the two firms are really arguing about is control. Apple wants near-total control over the iPhone OS platform, but is willing to accept open standards in the realm of the browser, because even the best Web apps don’t challenge iPhone OS apps. The best thing a browser can do is let Web pages appear and work the same as every other browser. It took Microsoft a decade to accept that.

On the other side of the coin, Adobe wants control over embedded Web content, seeing itself as a conduit for developers to create a single product that can span dozens of disparate environments.

Each company clearly sees itself as the developers’ friend: Apple in encouraging developers to rely on open standards that will render well everywhere, and Adobe in providing developers with tools to create rich content that will render well everywhere that Flash is supported.

Mobile Performance and Suitability — Jobs devotes his other two points to whether Flash even makes sense on a phone as it now stands.

Despite the focus on the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, Flash isn’t widely available on any other mobile platform. Nokia includes Flash 9.4 on its N900, but no Android, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, webOS, or Symbian phone handles Flash content. (There is a Flash Light player that works on many basic phones, but which requires Flash content that has been designed and optimized for Flash Light. The Flash Light site appears to be have been last updated in 2008.)

While Adobe has complained about the lack of Flash support from the start on the iPhone, it has only recently demonstrated reasonable mobile performance with a beta of Flash 10.1 on Android.

As Jobs writes, “We have routinely asked Adobe to show us Flash performing well on a mobile device, any mobile device, for a few years now. We have never seen it.”

That will soon change. Adobe has commitments for Flash Player 10.1 to work in Android (after the 2.2 release later this year), Palm (the Flash beta works in WebOS 1.4), and Research in Motion for some of its BlackBerry phones. Flash 10.1 for Symbian devices is likely, but I have heard nothing about preinstalled support.

Microsoft at one point said that Flash would be included with its Windows Phone 7 system due out in time for the holidays in 2010, but the company has since backed away from that timeline. A future release will support Flash.

Adobe’s complaints seem to be that Apple won’t include support for a technology that nobody else supports and that isn’t ready for prime-time mobile use until mid-2010 at the earliest, after an 18-month delay. Jobs writes, “We think it will eventually ship, but we’re glad we didn’t hold our breath. Who knows how it will perform?”

Jobs also makes public several claims that have been reported as being aired privately within Apple. First, that Flash “is the number one reason Macs crash.” Adobe’s CEO’s response to the Journal: that it has something “to do with the Apple operating system.”

We can’t evaluate either claim. The only browser plug-in that most users rely on regularly is Flash, and thus browser crashes not caused by browser bugs would be due to Flash. Apple has said this without referring to Adobe before, and it gathers such information directly from automatically generated crash reports.

Second, Jobs claims that Flash is a battery hog due to a lack of the necessary low-level hardware support on mobile devices. Jobs says plain H.264 video burns through power at half the rate that Flash video does. Adobe’s CEO says that’s “patently false.”

It’s also hard to evaluate this claim. On a Mac, Flash often chews up processor power, but the Flash 10.1 release looks to be substantially more efficient. Someone could benchmark H.264 playback against Flash video with the 10.1 beta on an Android phone to test the current state of those claims.

The Future — Jobs’s essay and Adobe’s Wall Street Journal interview make it clear that neither embedded Flash Web content nor Flash-as-apps are in the iPhone OS future. Adobe is pushing hard on other platforms, but to the extent it has made this a battle with Apple, Adobe simply can’t win.

Adobe’s CEO says the company is working on “dozens” of tablet projects with other companies. But those projects aren’t in the market – a market where Apple has already sold 85 million iPhones and iPod touches and, as of 3 May 2010, 1 million iPads.

And just this last week, Microsoft canned the Courier tablet concept project, a well-received set of new ideas for a two-screen slate-sized computer, and TechCrunch reported that HP, in the wake of its Palm acquisition, has opted not to release a Windows 7-based tablet demonstrated by Microsoft’s CEO at CES in January 2010.

Adobe has made a strategic error. Its customers aren’t Web users; its customers are developers and designers. Adobe should have been spending its time and effort to make a superb creative and production environment for creating content that would appear on every smartphone, tablet, laptop, and desktop. Its customers care vastly more about being able to create something that works in Mobile Safari and other mobile browsers than the reasons why Adobe hasn’t yet been able to get Flash working on a single smartphone platform.

Adobe deserves enormous praise for developing Flash for all these years and managing to get it embedded in most browsers. Without Flash, the Web would have been much less interactive, much less fun, and much less useful over the last few years. Video on the Web would have been a non-starter. YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu, and all the rest would probably not have come into existence at the time they did.

Let’s give Adobe all that. But it’s also clear that the necessity for Flash as the sole enabling technology to bring rich media and rich interaction to the Web is over. HTML5’s support for animation, video, and audio, coupled with improvements in JavaScript rendering engines, means that most of what Flash was absolutely needed for will be generally available without buying into a particular company’s technology or tools. Adobe’s tools will have to evolve to match this new reality.

Beyond this sea change in Web development, going head-to-head with Steve Jobs never works. The only way Adobe could have gotten Flash on the iPhone was to convince Jobs that Apple’s customers – we end users – desperately wanted content that was available only from Flash developers. That didn’t happen.

Apple is happy to force technological change on the industry, and if HTML5 will meet the industry’s needs, few companies will resist adding support for it if they want to serve their own iPhone OS-using customers.

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