Web & communication software

Apple v. Adobe: Something Just Doesn't Add Up

The battle between Apple and Adobe over Flash rages on--stirred up by a 1700-word open letter from Steve Jobs explaining in detail why Apple is not willing to embrace the virtually ubiquitous platform on its iPhone or iPad devices. Jobs cites six primary reasons for rejecting Flash, but somehow it just doesn't add up still.

The war of words between Apple and Adobe over Flash on the iPhone and iPad continues.
Let's take a closer look at each of the six points--not necessarily in the order Jobs lists them--from the letter and dig deeper to see if the arguments and justifications actually hold water.

Full Web

Jobs states in his letter "Adobe has repeatedly said that Apple mobile devices cannot access "the full Web" because 75 percent of video on the Web is in Flash. What they don't say is that almost all this video is also available in a more modern format, H.264, and viewable on iPhones, iPods and iPads."

As a user of both the iPhone and iPad, I have to side with Jobs on this one. I won't say that the lack of Flash is never an issue--I'd like to be able to track my Dominos Pizza order in real-time from the iPad--but it in the years I have been using the iPhone it has really never even occurred to me as an issue. Most of the sites that "rely" on Flash are really only using it to deliver ads that I don't want to see anyway.

The reality, as Jobs points out, is that YouTube--the largest single purveyor of online video content--has an iPhone and iPad app to deliver video, and most major online outlets have adopted iPhone and iPad compatible video standards. For those that still depend on Flash, there are emerging Band-Aid solutions to deliver alternate streams to iPhones and iPads.

Reliability, Security, and Performance

Jobs says "Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009. We also know first hand that Flash is the number one reason Macs crash," adding "We don't want to reduce the reliability and security of our iPhones, iPods and iPads by adding Flash."

I am not sure about reliability or performance issues, but Symantec is not alone in citing security concerns with Adobe software. Microsoft has stepped up its game and offers a more formidable challenge for malware developers. Adobe products--especially Flash and Acrobat Reader--are ubiquitous on virtually every platform, and represent the low-hanging fruit for attackers to target.

However, the lack of true multitasking support on the iPhone and iPad provide the devices with protection against malware attacks. Adobe software may be the weakest link on other platforms, but probably wouldn't fundamentally impair the security of the iPhone or iPad.

Battery Life

In the letter, Jobs explains that H.264 standard is the video codec of choice for the iPhone and iPad. The fact that H.264 decoding is built-in at the hardware level is one of the reasons that Apple embraces it. Jobs explains that decoding H.264 in software apparently consumes about twice as much battery power.

The letter says "Although Flash has recently added support for H.264, the video on almost all Flash websites currently requires an older generation decoder that is not implemented in mobile chips and must be run in software."

Fair enough. I understand that Apple feels like any third-party software that cuts battery life in half will ultimately reflect poorly on the platform, or on Apple itself. However, I don't really see the harm in allowing Flash as an option. Put the choice in the hands of the users and let them decide for themselves if cutting the battery life in half is a worthwhile tradeoff for using Flash.

Touch

This, in my opinion, is actually the strongest of the six points. Jobs clarifies "Many Flash websites rely on "rollovers", which pop up menus or other elements when the mouse arrow hovers over a specific spot. Apple's revolutionary multi-touch interface doesn't use a mouse, and there is no concept of a rollover. Most Flash websites will need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices. If developers need to rewrite their Flash websites, why not use modern technologies like HTML5, CSS and JavaScript?"

When it comes to Flash-based video, the question of the touch vs. mouse-based interface may not be as important, but for Flash-based ads and apps, the mouse pointer is a fairly critical element for interacting with Flash.

Open

Here is where the train starts to leave the tracks. I have to wonder if Jobs could even type this part with a straight face. "Adobe's Flash products are 100 percent proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc. While Adobe's Flash products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Adobe and available only from Adobe. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system."

Um, isn't that Apple's entire business model? Is it me, or is it more than just a little ironic for Steve Jobs and Apple to penalize another vendor for developing a closed, proprietary platform? Apple prides itself on its ability to deliver higher quality products and an exceptional user experience because of its tight control of its proprietary platforms, yet cites those same attributes as weaknesses for Adobe.

It is also ironic for Jobs to champion H.264--a patented, proprietary platform requiring licensing fees--over Flash video in the same letter that he claims to reject Adobe Flash because it's not open.

Jobs does acknowledge Apple's proprietary nature, but claims that Web-based technologies should not be proprietary. I agree. I have said as much in debating the whole issue of depending on Flash. However, I'm not Apple so I can make that distinction without seeming like a complete hypocrite.

Platform Dependence

Then, we get to the crux of the matter--what Jobs claims is "the most important reason." In the ultimate ironic twist, Jobs explains that the most important reason for rejecting Adobe Flash on the iPhone and iPad is that it takes control out of Apple's hands.

Jobs states "If developers grow dependent on third-party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers."

Aye, there's the rub. I agree with Jobs assessment that "Flash is a cross platform development tool. It is not Adobe's goal to help developers write the best iPhone, iPod and iPad apps. It is their goal to help developers write cross platform apps."

So, Apple doesn't want to allow Flash as a development platform because it doesn't want the advancement and innovation of the iPhone or iPad platforms to be at the mercy of Adobe. That seems fairly reasonable, but it doesn't fully explain why Apple took the extra--seemingly petty--measure of banning iPhone and iPad apps that are ported from Flash.

I'll give Jobs points for the Full Web, Security, and Touch points. The Battery Life argument, in my opinion is a draw--I could go either way. But, when it comes to the Open, and Platform Dependence arguments, I have to cry foul.

It boils down to Apple wanting to maintain tight, proprietary control over app development for the iPhone and iPad, and not wanting to share the pie. It also seems suspicious given Apple's foray into mobile advertising with the iAd platform--competing directly with the fairly ubiquitous Flash-based ads.

Tony Bradley is co-author of Unified Communications for Dummies . He tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW . You can follow him on his Facebook page , or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com .

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