It ain't a flashy job, but somebody's got to do it

Things're heating up in the Apple and Adobe camps. Apple CEO Steve Jobs finally explained the reason Apple has staunchly blocked any attempts to support Adobe's Flash technology on their mobile products such as the iPod, the iPhone and, now, the iPad. In his "Thoughts on Flash", Jobs pulls no punches when describing his apparent disappointment with the Flash platform and Adobe's "painfully slow" adoption of "enhancements to Apple's platforms".

Adobe responded April 29, 2010 with this understated blog post.

As pretty much every tech geek knows by now this battle has been raging for some time now in Silicon Valley. Apple and Adobe started off with a dream partnership, their corporate values and goals seeming to interfere constructively with each other to produce an on-going slew of tech innovations. Starting with the adoption by Apple of Adobe's postscript printing system and moving up through making desktop publishing possible, the combination of Apple and Adobe products (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc.) have been indispensable tools to tech-savvy creatives the world over. Apple computers became synonymous with the creative arts and their often sleek hardware seemed to reinforce that these were high-end performance machines for people for whom design is a way of life.

Over the last few years, however, this ideal relationship has been showing cracks of strain. Apple started to tout their own film-editing suite, Final Cut, a direct competitor to Adobe's Premiere and After-Effects suites. Then Apple released Aperture, a photo management application for professional photographers that competed directly with Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom.

Meanwhile, Adobe was slow to migrate their Creative Suite over to support Apple's move to the Intel Chipset when the Macintosh computer line made the jump to that technology. It took in excess of a year before Adobe's Creative Suite 3, reconfigured for Intel chips, made it onto the Mac. Adobe maintained that this was for reasons of complexity, and that they wanted to ensure that their Apple customers would enjoy a high level of quality across the product-line when it finally came out. While there is no reason to doubt this claim, it may lend fuel to flames of Jobs's comment that Adobe is slow to adopt enhancements to the Apple platform.

And now, in 2010, with the launch of Apple's portable home content distribution channel (a.k.a. the iPad), the debate has finally hit flashpoint (no pun intended) over Adobe's flash technology. Apple, in the person of Steve Jobs, lists several reasons why, according to them Flash is inappropriate for Apple systems. I'll skip various reasons such as security, performance, proprietary technology, etc. There are already endless debates raging on the web about the validity, or lack thereof, of these points. I'd like to home in on the issues which I think are key to what this conflict is about.

Jobs admits in his essay that the most important reason that Apple does not support Flash is that they do not wish to be reliant on a third-party layer between their platforms and the apps made by "Apple" developers. This is fair enough. If apps are built using Flash technology, then those apps will only perform as well as Flash supports the Apple technology it is interfacing with. If Adobe lags, or for some reason refuses, to constantly update Flash to match the innovations that Apple is introducing on its platform, Flash-based apps will lag behind applications that are built directly on Apple platforms.

Cynics may say that this is just an expression of Apple's obsessive need for control and I'm not sure I could find fault with this argument. People have even proposed that the real reason Apple fears Flash is because it would allow Flash content creators to circumvent the Apple App Store (currently the only approved way to get apps onto your iDevice). On the other hand, the above argument by Jobs is not an invalid one. Whether it's the real reason or not, is impossible to say.

There does seem to be a pattern here, however. Apple's strength has always been in its innovations. They stay at the cutting edge of consumer tech through constant improvements to their platforms, both software and hardware. In the past, they have used this strength to make in-roads into areas of technology in which they have appeared to be total strangers. By redefining the category, they have managed to show users how good an experience there is to be had if technology was appropriately leveraged. As soon as they've established themselves as a player, they start to use that user-base as a means to force others to comply with their vision of how things should be. Witness Jobs's derisive removal of any form of CD drive in the Macbook Air a few years ago or the fact that Apple laptops make use of DVI graphics ports instead of the industry-standard (but inferior) VGA port.

Lately, due to their heavy investment in mobile devices and the ecosystems around them, Apple is increasingly becoming a content provider. The iTunes and App stores along with sales of iPods, iPhones and iPads are Apple's largest income streams.

Until recently, Apple was largely seen as a hardware firm, and while it had the quirky habit of writing its own software, it was not seen as a serious contender in this regard by any but the fanboys. Now, moving into software and content as they are, they are stepping on the toes of their erstwhile partners, Adobe.

Apple has always had an aggressive stance towards competitors. Its recent skirmishes with Google are also a good example of how Apple can suddenly shift its position and alienate partners that were once seen as core to their strategy. They make headway into new areas (like mobile phones) and have a talent for rapidly making their products the most popular in these new categories.

The iPad, as a very hyped, and very appealing window to on-line content, heats up the battle over which technology will be used for on-line video. At the moment, Flash has a large stake in sites like YouTube, Hulu, Facebook, and many others. These sites would not be possible without Flash technology. And yet, Apple is confident enough in their position, that they feel they can ignore this important component (by making use of other technologies like H.264 and HTML5) and actually wean users away from Flash-based content. And no matter how ridiculous this may sound to many industry-insiders, it should not be forgotten that Apple has accomplished this in the past.

It is Apple that really brought MP3 and digital music to the masses. It is Apple that finally got the smartphone ball rolling. And it is very likely that it will be Apple that finally makes on-line content easy enough that grannies the world over will be able to access it from the comfort of their living rooms.

The battle lines have been drawn, and the fate of Flash technology may well decide whether Apple truly has the ability to stamp its vision of the future onto the world.

Why Steve Matters

Why Steve Matters