Apple, Adobe, and Openness: Let's Get Real

There's a huge debate online about who's "right" between Apple and Adobe in the dispute over allowing Flash on the iPhone. Both companies portray their actions as protection of users and developers, but in reality what they're both protecting is their profits. There's nothing wrong with doing that -- it's what companies are supposed to do. But the only truly innocent victims in this dispute are the people trapped between Adobe and Apple.

Why Apple really doesn't want Flash on iPhone

Steve Jobs outlined his case against Flash in a recent open letter. His arguments boiled down to this:

Flash is proprietary.
H.264 video is better than Flash video.
There are lots of games on iPhone, so you won't miss the Flash ones.
Flash is insecure.
Flash makes Macs crash.
Flash is slow and reduces battery life.
Flash doesn't work well with touchscreen technology.
As an independent development layer, Flash reduces Apple's ability to innovate.

I'm not going to evaluate each of those claims; others have done a good job of that already. But none of Jobs' points except the last one explains all of Apple's actions. Apple has consistently banned not just Flash but almost all independent platforms, including Java, QT, and Palm OS emulators. One of the most poignant examples I've run across recently is Runtime Revolution, which is basically Hypercard brought into the modern era. It's a nifty tool for making prototypes and interactive media products, and its creator had been heavily committed to iPhone as a development target, encouraged by Steve Jobs' public statement that a third party developer could create a Hypercard-like product for iPhone. But Runtime Revolution's CEO killed the iPhone project last week because Apple won't allow the product to run; his story is posted here (link).

The bottom line: Apple just doesn't like other platforms.

I think Apple is sincere when it says it views these platforms as a potential barrier to innovation. But I don't think that's the whole story. Independent platforms also make it easy for a successful developer to port its software to other platforms, like Android or Symbian. This cross-platform porting is something that Apple fears because it's what allowed Windows to catch up with Macintosh.

Here's a list of some major PC software products. Do you know what they all have in common?


The answer: They were first successful on Apple systems, and only later took off in the PC world.

I was working at Apple when this process happened, and I can tell you that it was searing. Apple had invested countless hours and dollars marketing those products as prominent reasons to buy Macs, and then we saw that investment turned against us when the apps were made available on Windows.

Do you think Steve Jobs has forgotten that experience? Look how he started the open letter on Flash:

"Apple has a long relationship with Adobe. In fact, we met Adobe's founders when they were in their proverbial garage. Apple was their first big customer, adopting their Postscript language for our new Laserwriter printer. Apple invested in Adobe and owned around 20% of the company for many years. The two companies worked closely together to pioneer desktop publishing and there were many good times. Since that golden era, the companies have grown apart."

Can you hear the resentment? It reminds me of Bill Cosby quoting his dad: "I brought you into this world, and I can take you out." I think some of the key folks at Apple remember being "betrayed" by "their" developers, and they are determined never to leave themselves vulnerable to that again. I believe it's Apple's policy to keep iPhone and iPad developers as closely tied to the platform as possible, and to make it as hard as possible for them to move their products elsewhere. I think that's the core reason why Apple won't permit Flash, or any other third party platform, to run on iPhone.

If I were still working at Apple, I would probably do the same thing. That's not to say I like the policy, because it restricts customer choice and developer flexibility. But I understand the business logic behind it, and the depth of feeling Apple folks have on this issue. To Apple this isn't just about innovation, it's about business survival.

I just wish Apple had been more specific about what was allowed and not allowed on its platform. At times the rules seem very arbitrary. For example, Runtime Revolution is banned from iPhone, but a game creation environment called Game Salad says it is allowed (link). The company claims Apple privately promised that it could continue to run, but won't say what it did to get Apple's permission. Runtime Revolution thought it was following the rules too. A platform vendor is responsible for articulating exactly what developers will and will not be permitted to do, before they invest time and money. Apple was at best sloppy about delivering that information, and at worst it changed the rules in the middle of the game.

Adobe's Flash agenda

So we have Apple trying to keep developers on the farm, barefoot and pregnant. Does that make Adobe the liberator, throwing open the gates and setting developers free? Maybe, but only to the extent that it serves Adobe's own interests.

If you want to understand Adobe's agenda for Flash, you have to look back to 2006, when Adobe bought Macromedia. Just after the acquisition, Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen gave a very interesting interview in which he discussed Adobe's plans for Flash and related technologies (link):

Buying Flash "enables us to create an 'engagement platform.' Think of it as a layer or a vehicle in which anybody can present information that could be engaged with in an interactive, compelling, reliable, relatively secure way -- across all kinds of devices, all kinds of operating systems....If we execute appropriately we will be the engagement platform, or the layer, on top of anything that has an LCD display, any computing device -- everything from a refrigerator to an automobile to a video game to a computer to a mobile phone."

In other words, Flash becomes the developer platform, and the underlying OS is transformed into commodity plumbing. Adobe's focus at the time was on competing with Microsoft (the article mentions Apple only in passing and Google not at all), but when you declare war on one OS, you declare war on them all.

I don't think you can blame Apple for feeling threatened by this. (Or Google, for that matter, which has been running its own behind the scenes war against Flash by promoting HTML 5.)

I thought it was a brilliant strategy when Adobe announced it. Unfortunately, Adobe's execution hasn't matched its rhetoric. Four years ago, Chizen said Adobe would quickly merge Flash and Acrobat into a runtime environment that would own the next generation of applications. If Adobe had moved quickly, it might have made its platform into a contender, and the software market might look a lot different today. But the new platform, called Adobe Air, was very slow to come to market, and was focused on PCs rather than mobile devices. Today it has very little developer momentum.

Adobe spun its wheels in the mobile market in particular. It insisted on charging for the mobile Flash runtime for a long time, even though it knew that free runtimes are the key to adoption. And then much of the Adobe mobile team was fired in a series of layoffs starting at the end of 2008. Adobe had hired a lot of mobile industry veterans, and by firing them Adobe created the impression in the mobile industry that it was not serious about mobile. There's a very good discussion of some of Adobe's other mobile challenges here.

Fast forward a year and a half from those firings, and Apple has completely seized the initiative with mobile developers. Now Adobe is fighting a defensive battle just to keep Flash relevant.

There's an old quote attributed to Napoleon, "If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna." Adobe failed to take Vienna. Note to other tech companies: Don't declare your intention to take over the world; do it first and explain later. (By the way, this explains both Apple's strategy and Chinese foreign policy, but I digress.)

Because of this history, I find it hard to feel a lot of sympathy for the troubles that Flash is having. I also find it a bit disingenuous when Adobe says that it's fighting for a "multiplatform" world (link), when the company has said previously that it really wants a single platform, led by Adobe, that runs on top of multiple operating systems.

I'm also amused by Adobe's statements that it has always been a proponent of open standards. Adobe cofounders John Warnock and Chuck Geschke wrote:

"That, certainly, was what we learned as we launched PostScript® and PDF, two early and powerful software solutions that work across platforms. We openly published the specifications for both, thus inviting both use and competition. In the early days, PostScript attracted 72 clone makers, but we held onto our market leadership by out-innovating the pack."

Actually, Adobe held onto its leadership in part by building secret, proprietary extensions to PostScript and tying its paid products to them. In an example I saw personally, Adobe's secret APIs in PostScript enabled it to create higher-quality fonts that looked better and ran more efficiently than competitors. As a PostScript developer you were welcome to work with Adobe's low-quality font technology, but Adobe refused to allow any developer to access its proprietary high-quality APIs.

Sounds like something Apple would do, doesn't it?

The real battle

So the real situation around Flash is that Apple won't permit most other platforms on iPhone (no matter how innocuous they are) because it thinks they threaten its survival, while Adobe wants its platform on iPhone so it can set a de facto standard and make money from it. Neither company is really focused on protecting developers or users as its main goal; they are fighting over who gets to use developers to make money.

Unfortunately for developers, this situation makes it more and more likely that the mobile world will continue to be split into incompatible platforms, forcing them to rewrite their programs multiple times in order to reach the broadest group of customers. Theoretically, the mobile browser could become the grand unifier of mobile development, and as I have said before I wish it would (venture capitalist Eric Ver Ploeg makes the case for it here). Unfortunately, the development of those standards has been incredibly slow and political, and after watching that process for years, it's becoming harder and harder to convince myself that it'll ever speed up. I hope it does, but I suspect that one reason Apple's willing to support web standards is because it believes it can dramatically out-innovate them.

In the meantime, Apple and Adobe will continue to duke it out. If Adobe could get customers and developers to boycott Apple products, I guess Apple might be forced to back down. Or Adobe might convince the government to charge Apple with noncompetitive behavior. But I think neither of those is likely to happen. The most likely outcome is that Apple will hold the line against Flash, Adobe will try to run Flash on every other mobile platform, we'll get a lot more posturing from both companies -- and a lot of websites will get rich running Adobe's anti-Apple ads.


Unknown said...

Awesome, well written piece.

Douglass Turner said...

Great piece Mike. This. Is exactly the perspective I was lacking. I completely forgot the Apple/Adobe backstory regarding Photoshop, etc.

Doug Turnef

Anonymous said...

Nicely balanced piece Mike, although I'm not sure I agree that Apple's SDK restrictions will result in noticeably less options for app purchasers, I'm of the opinion that with 200,000 apps in the app store, Apple want to keep the numbers down but the quality up.


Anonymous said...

"Independent platforms also make it easy for a successful developer to port its software to other platforms, like Android or Symbian. This cross-platform porting is something that Apple fears because it's what allowed Windows to catch up with Macintosh."

This is flat-out wrong. Windows applications were not built on an "independent platform" layered on top of the Macintosh. They were ported by hand, in precisely the way Apple wants developers to port applications to or from the iPhone. Apple is all for porting; what they are against is developers who don't want to invest in doing a port.

The relevant bits of history are PowerPlant (a UI framework that became ubiquitous for Mac development, and which crippled Apple's ability to innovate) and Java (which let developers uninterested in real porting to claim support for the Mac by shipping incredibly crappy applications).

You may disagree with Apple's approach here, but this post completely misrepresents the context and history.

Jonas said...

Interesting article, but you overstate the Macintosh importance by far.

Word and Excel did not take over the market from the Mac. While true that the (later) Mac ports of the programs took off, Macs still represented a minor part of the whole market. I'd say Word really took off when Windows took off and WfW was first ported.

Also Postscript took off in the professional market of printing, and the unix market which was much bigger and more important back then. Mac bet the right horse in that race but the technology did not originate in the Mac world.

Other than that your analysis was interesting.

Unknown said...

First sensible comment on this whole issue I've read that isn't steeped in blinded fanboism.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard said...

Wow. Level-headed and, as an industry participant for longer than most fanbois have been alive, I concur with your analysis. "All this has happened before, and it will all happen again," to paraphrase a popular show. What is almost always missing from the overwrought handwringing this melodrama has engendered is any understand of how business works. Thanks for sharing your point of view.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comments, folks.

I wanted to add a bit more on a couple of issues...

Anonymous wrote:

>>This is flat-out wrong. Windows applications were not built on an "independent platform" layered on top of the Macintosh.

Thanks, my wording was imprecise. What I should have said was, "Apple believes that cross-platform layers will facilitate the migration of iPhone applications to other smartphones, in the same way that Windows, by imitating the Mac look and feel, facilitated the movement of Macintosh apps to DOS computers."

From Apple's perspective (and I was there at the time) Windows was a platform layer on DOS designed to rip off Mac. It doesn't really matter what the technical reality was; that's what Apple veterans believe, and the belief is what drives Apple's actions.

I'm sure the Java and other examples you cited were also a factor, but in my opinion they're not the whole explanation for Apple's behavior.

Jonas wrote:

>>Word and Excel did not take over the market from the Mac. While true that the (later) Mac ports of the programs took off, Macs still represented a minor part of the whole market. I'd say Word really took off when Windows took off and WfW was first ported.

Word for DOS was a miserable failure, the #6 word processor in the DOS market. Microsoft learned to make GUI apps through its Mac experience, and then flowed that knowledge into its Windows products. Only then did Word (and Excel) take off on the PC.

But it doesn't matter what actually happened. My point is that Apple believes that those apps were made successful by Mac and then taken to the PC.

>>Postscript took off in the professional market of printing, and the unix market which was much bigger and more important back then. Mac bet the right horse in that race but the technology did not originate in the Mac world.

No, it didn't originate in the Mac world. But I think Apple's marketing of desktop publishing played a huge role in Adobe's success.

And again, it doesn't matter what really happened; what matters is what Apple believes. Re-read Jobs' comments on his history with Adobe and ask yourself why he brought up something that happened 20+ years ago. There's a sense of hurt and betrayal that persists in the minds of Apple veterans to this day.

Anonymous said...

Now that Apple has turned it's back on MacWorld, stabbed some 3rd party developers in the back ( iPhone ), they better keep up their winning ways, because the next time they get into trouble some of those betrayed developers won't be there to help Apple. BTW, if Apple will betray some iPhone developers, then there is nothing stopping them from additional betrayals, which group of developers will be next to be forced off the island by Apple for the sake of "business" ?

Heimy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heimy said...

Sorry, deleted my previous comment because I didn't see a way to edit (shame on me, I reviewed it thrice).

I'll repost it as soon as it dissapears.

Anonymous said...

Smart, insightful piece. One of the best in the blogosphere on this internecine war.

Now that Jobs is on a roll pissing off whole new groups of people every week, how many more weeks will it be before the seeds of discontent he's sown will yield a harvest of thorns?

He's been a savior to Apple, but don't forget he was fired once before for his hubris.

No one can afford to piss off the entire world....

Sprezzatura said...

Or Adobe could release an HTML5 toolset as well as Flash for mobile and make money from both platforms....

Chan said...

Awesome stuff!
The issue is the history apart after Macromedia, "Adobe did a half hearted port of Flash to be a developer platform and it took so long taxing designer as well as developers. The environment is still not polished (Eg: VIsualStudio)for either party, designer nor developer, the mobile version still not out.

The first step on the road to recovery is admitting that you have a problem and fix it, than flocking users with other inundated theories and stuff.

Also apps and comics apart, there is not a single game that impressed me was done in Flash, would that change if Adobe is given a free ride on already elegant iPhone ecosystem?

I was a Flash Designer and completely lost hope when Adobe took it.

Thorne said...

I'm reminded of the war over whose font technology would be the standard.

Adobe had a firm grip on it; it was charging megabucks for its font while not allowing anyone to see what was under the hood.

Apple didn't like that; neither did Microsoft.

This also reminds me of Rodney King's lament: "Can't we all just get along?"

Saurabh said...

I think Apple has the right to defend its territory on its own hardware. I have been in mobile apps business since 2002 and always wanted a unifying solution. At one time I wanted to create a mobile platform of my own. But over the years I have realized that one size does not fit all. Apple wants iPhone to be a 5 Star hotel. Flash is a 4 star business hotel. Java ME a 3 star hotel. So all have there place under the sun. The way Apple prices iPhone I do not think that it will be the dominant platform in terms of devices shipped but it will continue to attract the cream of the user base. This is what 5 star hotels do. Browsers are something like McDonald's. Small but ubiquitous. Affordable by all but not the replacement of a hotel. Consistent in some ways and different in some ways.

Anonymous said...

adobe is a greedy company...can you believe they charge around $650 for their AIR sdk.....and view this as an important source of revenue....with HTML 5 and android keep improving, adobe AIR is game over

Unknown said...

Mike - very well written as usual. I do think Adobe has been gaining developer traction as there are a few million Flash/Flex developers out there, and the demand for them continues to outstrip supply. But they are still wedged in a strange place in the web development world. @anonymous - Adobe has never charged for the AIR sdk. You can get it for free off their developer site.

Andreu Castellet said...

Hi Mike & folks,

You make very insightful points, altogether feeds the discussion back and helps us to understand the war on standards.

Rather than my own thoughts I wish to ask about html5 and Ajax.
- what is the role those platforms can take in an environment in which it seems that we are not going any steps forward in accepting more shared platforms?
- if the point is: i'm not going to allow others to make money out of my customers with the technical standards business, what difference can either Ajax or html5 make?

Thanks everyone.

Walt French said...

Well: 6 months later, Flash now is capable of running on something < 10% of smartphones, thanks to Android's fantastic run rate, but also thanks to Adobe's utter inability to install Flash on Windows, on BlackBerrys, on Nokia and of course, on iOS.

Meanwhile, those otherwise capable-of-net-video mobile devices are now selling close to PC levels. So Adobe has almost half of all active users unable to use Flash. Add that many of the desktop devices are work PCs that don't get used for a lot of Hulu, MLB, facebook games: Adobe has quite let the potential eyeballs for its developers go to Hell. Adobe must have been slow on the uptake when Apple intro'd the iPhone, and assumed it'd go away or just be another Cupertino toy. They wouldn't be the only shop to misperceive the iPhone's disruptive wave.

Now, the huge growth rate of smartphones is especially strong at the low end, where the Flash problem is the greatest. My laptop regularly showed 150 MB for the Flash plug-in, even after I'd closed all pages with Flash. That's both a sign of why Flash crashes Macs (gawdawful memory leaks), but also what a burden on a smartphone — that's more RAM than the original iPhone had, and twice what some BlackBerrys comfortably get by with. Flash might do OK on high-end Androids with a GB of RAM (and perhaps they've fixed the memory leaks), but I can't see it as the vehicle for the smartphone explosion in the lower half of the US income strata or the developing world, period. It'll take another iteration or two of Moore's Law.

Even in the well-heeled US/European markets, BlackBerry has many bigger problems than a resource-hungry entertainment capability which gives it zero revenue or cachet for its target users. If YOU ran RIM would you devote a couple of engineers to trying to squeeze Flash onto OS6?

Ditto, Nokia. Of course, WebOS and WP7. Adobe has done quite well by putting a decent capability on Windows and a crappy version on Mac & unix, but the Windows hegemony has broken down and Adobe now has to support dozens of OS/CPU/GPU/RAM/screen/driver combos, all of which need clever fine-tuning to cope with Flash. From what I see of Adobe's efforts over the last year, this isn't about to get better any time soon.

Even if S.P. Jobs is a jerk, he's not Adobe's problem. Their enemy is their old modus operandi, which is unsuited to the new fragmented platform world.

mrattackfrog said...

This is a great article. About this: "Or Adobe might convince the government to charge Apple with noncompetitive behavior." This has been rumored to be the reason AIR apps are allowed to be in Apple app store. Fragmentation seems to be the order of the day as Flash is still here at least for web gaming.