For three years, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has been intentionally strong-arming Adobe’s (NASDAQ:ADBE) efforts to bring Flash to the iPhone. Of course, a Flash-free iPhone also means no Flash on the iPod Touch and now the iPad too.
With Flash 10.1 due real soon on every major smartphone platform except Apple’s phone/PDA/tablet OS, does that make the iPhone OS a laggard? Or is it the leading edge of a larger trend?
The controversy flared up in the past week in an (indirect) exchange between Apple’s CEO and Adobe’s CTO.
An internal (and presumably confidential) speech at Apple last week by Steve Jobs was reported Saturday by Wired — which quotes an (obviously) unnamed employee (or contractor) providing this paraphrase:
About Adobe: They are lazy, Jobs says. They have all this potential to do interesting things but they just refuse to do it. They don’t do anything with the approaches that Apple is taking, like Carbon. Apple does not support Flash because it is so buggy, he says. Whenever a Mac crashes more often than not it’s because of Flash. No one will be using Flash, he says. The world is moving to HTML5.
In response, Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch wrote a detailed justification for why the world needs Flash, how most of the world has it, and the iPhone (and iPad) could have it too if only Apple would be nice:
We are ready to enable Flash in the browser on these devices if and when Apple chooses to allow that for its users, but to date we have not had the required cooperation from Apple to make this happen.
Why is Steve being so mean? It’s silly to say “there’s no technical reason” Flash is not on the iPhone. Of course there are technical reasons: Flash is a resource pig and is buggy — it’s the only thing that crashes the browser on my laptop. As Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) did with Windows 4,5 and 6, Adobe’s priority has been adding features rather than solving the complexity/reliability problems.
On the other hand, is bugginess enough reason to rule out Flash permanently? Of course not.
At one point, it might have been possible to conclude that Apple was trying to extract leverage — as when Steve Jobs claimed two years ago that Apple wanted a new version of Flash between Flash and Flash Lite, that played Flash websites with less demands than the desktop Flash.
Now, of course, it’s pretty clear that all that is window dressing, and basically what we have is a repeat of the Windows vs. Java platform war, with Apple trying to prevent Flash from layering itself on top of its existing platform.
Last time, much of the world was cheering on Sun’s efforts to promulgate Java as a cross-platform standard. Today, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) , Microsoft, the Free Software Foundation (and most of the Chinese software industry) share Apple’s goal to create a world where an enhanced open standard HTML (HTML5? HTML9?) obviates the need for Adobe’s proprietary, royalty-bearing de facto standard. This is a noble goal if the majority of the world’s Internet users will be using mobile phones — but it isn’t going to be a reality any time soon.
Still — unlike the PDF standard that Adobe (mostly) controls — there will be increasing alternatives to Flash in the future (and not just Silverlight). For three years Apple has been gambling that Flash needs the iPhone more than the iPhone needs Flash: so far it has been right.
What’s different this year is the rising market share of Android — and Flash coming to both it and North America’s most popular smartphone platform, the BlackBerry. That’s market pressure that the Jesus phone hasn’t faced before — but if I had to guess, I’d (make a small) wager that the iPhone (and iPad) will end 2010 the same way they began: Flash-free.
Author's disclosure: none.