Apple's problem with Flash is mobile applications competition

Apple CEO Steve Jobs wants publishers to support iPad, but not with Adobe Flash. Jobs' anti-Flash campaign has grown bolder since the company announced iPad last month and during this week's Mobile World Congress, where Flash 10.1 inched a little close to widespread mobile device availability. What's Apple's problem with Flash? Simply put: Competition.

Apple wants to control the entire mobile applications stack. The App Store/iPhone/iPod touch platform, which will soon include iPad, is a closed stack that Apple tightly controls. For developers, it's Apple's way or no way. But Apple could conceivably lose control of the stack -- most importantly the applications and their user experience -- should Flash run free and unfettered on iPhone OS devices.

Why Apple Disses Flash

As Adobe readies Flash for most every mobile platform -- other than Apple's, of course -- and publishers ask what about Flash on iPad, Jobs and Co. have responded by slandering Flash's reputation: Flash is too buggy, or iPad battery life would be 1.5 hours instead of 10 if running Flash. Flash slandering shifts the debate away from why Apple won't allow Flash on iPhone OS devices to why Apple supposedly protects customers by holding back the Adobe technology. It's the clever kind of counter marketing Apple excels at (Just watch most any "Get a Mac" commercial).

Apple's Flash slandering obscures the real reason for resisting the technology. Because of Flash's huge video success, too many people look at the technology in that context for iPhone OS devices. Long before Flash became the most common way of delivering video over the Web, developers used it to create applications -- and they still do today. Flash is a rival development platform, and one Apple doesn't control. If Apple lets Flash roam iPhone OS devices, uncaged and free, developers can create applications that bypass the App Store. By keeping out Flash, Apple:

  • Maintains tight control over the user experience
  • Avoids competition with a major third-party application platform
  • Keeps user interface fairly consistent across different iPhone OS applications
  • Ensures App Store remains iPhone's primary application development and delivery platform

Apple's problem with Flash is competition. The company doesn't want any. Hence the anti-Flash campaign now under way. The Flash slandering will only increase as Jobs courts more content publishers for iPad and Flash becomes widely available on every other mobile device.

There are Other Reasons

Of course, there is a secondary reason for all this campaigning to, ah, dim the Flash: Apple-Adobe rivalry. With the notable exception of PDF, Apple competes with Adobe in most of the same content-creation categories. That was by choice. Apple chose to compete with this major, long-time Mac supporting developer.

Something else: Contrary to commonly held convention, Apple's iPhone OS device strategy is not about the mobile Web. Apple seeks to establish iPhone OS devices as alternatives to the mobile Web. The mobile Web is all about the browser. The first iPhone was about the browser, but all that changed with App Store, which channels content consumption (or creation) away from the browser into application containers of disparate and discreet functions. "There's an app for that" -- Apple's well-known marketing slogan -- means that people work within separate applications; separately from one another since background operations are restricted or prohibited.

Apple wants any video capabilities to occur within these applications, using its technologies and the H.264 codec. Apple has worked around Flash, rather than support it, by iPhone's YouTube implementation. Jobs wants iPad publishers to work around Flash, too, by supporting H.264 streaming instead of Flash. The publisher controls the user experience (on Apple's terms, of course) with the application either way. The bigger benefit goes to Apple, which keeps out a rival development platform.

HTML5: Backdoor Lover

What I find fascinating is the backdoor Apple opened to yet another rival development platform: HTML5. Apple offers partial HTML5 support in its desktop and mobile Safari browsers, and the company has touted the advantages for video streaming without Flash. Apple is trying to have its cake and eat it, too, as the saying goes: Video streaming without the platform development competition.

But HTML5 support is hugely risky. Last year, at GigaOM, Alistair Croll asked the same question I did: "Will HTML5 break Apple's stronghold on apps?" Google has answered with a resounding "Yes." In 2009, Apple (or was it AT&T -- or both) refused to accept Google Voice in the App Store. In January, Google responded by releasing Google Voice for iPhone as an HTML5 app running in Safari. Last week, when launching Buzz, Google released an HTML5 mobile version for Android 2.x and iPhone 3.x devices. No Apple App Store approval process required.

Apple should be more concerned about Google. As I will explain in a subsequent blog post, the mobile Internet is diverging along two paths: Discreet applications and the mobile Web browser. Apple strongly advocates applications, which benefit its closed App Store/iPhone OS device platform. Google is pushing the browser for consuming services or running HTML5-based apps (even while supporting mobile apps in the Android Marketplace). Microsoft also is taking a hybrid mobile Web browser/applications approach with Windows Phone 7 Series. Nokia favors browser and widgets more than discreet applications, which are more open on Symbian^3, Maemo or MeeGo, like Google's Android.

Competition is in inevitable. It's the nature of things. Life on earth is about living things competing for survival -- something that transfers to the things humans create. Apple may try to shut out Flash as a rival development platform to App Store/iPhone OS devices, only to see HTML5 take its place. Google is a much bigger problem for Apple than Adobe ever could be.

Steve Jobs responded to Flash competition with words -- anti-Flash marketing that came out of his mouth and which blogs and news sites candidly reported, all without him providing substantive evidence to back up the claims. How will Apple handle Google or try to close that HTML5 backdoor? The answer may be soon coming.

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