Thursday, April 29, 2010

Apple Spells Out Its Position on Flash

In the tradition of his prior letter on DRM (before it died), Steve Jobs posted an open letter on Flash.

The upshot? The analysis of Apple's view here (and here, here, and here) has been spot-on: Flash is a buggy kludge designed to force people to use Adobe products and tends chiefly to decrease performance while increasing bugs. Flash has no place on Apple's mobile OS. Apple wants people to use Apple's APIs to leverage Apple's technological improvements, and Adobe's track record of exposing Apple's technology to developers through intermediary platforms isn't stellar. Adobe took ten years to move to Cocoa in its own products, and has a long record of churning out buggy, low-performance Mac software. Apple has no interest in forcing users to suffer through third-party software that is at least that bad.

Atop all this, rewriting apps to function with no mouseover won't happen, and this absence will prevent Flash apps from working as expected. Broken, unworking applications or parts of web pages are just not part of the environment Apple wants its users to experience on its platforms. This is completly justifiable. Adobe's argument that its proprietary plug-ins should be executed on Apple platforms in the name of "openness" are absurd, and should be loudly derided.

Apple is preventing users from suffering bugs, plain and simple. Apple could act differently, but its decision is entirely understandable. Adobe is justifiably disappointed (not just because it won't reach the market on Apple's mobile platforms, but because the shortcomings and lack of necessity of its Flash products have been made clearer to the world as a result of Adobe's conflict over accessing the Apple mobile platforms). At the end of the day, though, Apple has made its position clear and we'll see how users and developers react.

UPDATE: Adobe's already reacted, in the form of an interview given by its CEO Shantanu Narayen.

In the interview, Narayen claims Adobe is persecuted by Apple for promoting open content. This would, of course, be more plausible if anything about Adobe's Flash platform could be construed as "open" in any way. It's exactly as closed and proprietary as Win32 or any other proprietary API, and utterly unlike the HTML5, Javascript, CSS, H.264, and other standards Apple suggests developers consider as Flash alternatives.

Narayen denied that its Flash plug-ins are the main cause of application crashes on Macs, but supplied no data for the claim. Narayen blamed Apple for the crashes. Sigh.

Narayen contradicted Jobs' statements about Flash's impact on battery life, but – alas – offered no evidence. One solid piece of evidence might be a Flash application running on an iPhone using an Adobe cross-platform toolkit, showing exactly how Flash impacts (or doesn't impact) battery life. The power to put on the demo is entirely within Adobe's power, because the iPhoneOS developer tools enable developers to load apps onto iPhones using synch cables. Adobe could load a browser with and without Flash plug-ins, and show a bake-off with time-lapse cameras, showing the battery death. Narayen could prove Apple wrong in a heartbeat. But ... no. A cynical person might be tempted to doubt his statements about Flash performance.

Narayen's assetion that users should decide which apps should be allowed to run on the iPhone is the closest thing he comes to articulating a useful philosophical perspective. Narayen's position is not dissimilar to lots of similar articulations one can find on the blogosphere, and no more fleshed-out or well-explained. Of course, the fact is that the power to decide what Apple will and won't carry in its store is Apple's. Since the qualitative claims about his company's products seem so full of fluff, one has a hard time working up sympathy for the view Narayen's company has been wronged.

Let's face it: Narayen's claim against Jobs' position is a shoe cut to fit Narayen himself: "It doesn't benefit Apple, and that's why you see this reaction." Ha. Apple's position doesn't benefit Adobe, which is why we see Narayen's reaction. As for Apple's position, it makes sense that having browser users – and iPhone users are browser users – hit site after site that requires mouseover to work the interface ... well, with a UI that has no pointer to effect a mouseover effect, it's clear Apple can't make it work for users. Developers would have to make iPhone-specific Flash content. Adobe's vaunted cross-platform benefit would evaporate as developers were forced to make target-specific versions of Flash apps. Apple's point becomes clear: so long as they're rewriting anyway, why not rewrite to a standard that anyone can implement, instead of to some proprietary API that might or might not ever expose the advantageous features of the platform to developers for the enjoyment of users?

Narayen's statement that the future lies with multi-platform content is likely correct. The problem with Narayen's position is that multi-platform content will likely be delivered through standards – programming interfaces capable of being implemented independently by different vendors competing to deliver a superior experience, better performance, and improved security – and this future is unlikely to require the services of proprietary API vendors like Adobe to allow commonly-demanded functionality like exposing video or accepting clicks or the command to scroll. Narayen's "multi-platform" prognistication may be where he wins the battle, but it's surely where he loses the war.

Maybe Adobe will come back with a better articulation of why Flash doesn't suck on the iPhone, but this wasn't it.

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