Steve Jobs' 'Thoughts on Flash' is just smoke

Apple CEO Steve Jobs' "Thoughts on Flash" memo is a rare glimpse into the mind of the rarest breed: A high-tech, cult figure who isn't a geek. Apple posted the nearly 1,700-word essay earlier today, in response to the ongoing debate about Adobe Flash on iPhone OS devices. Or perhaps more directly: Adobe's April 20 announcement that it had abandoned Flash development for iPhone OS devices; primary focus is shifting to Android.

The Flash debate got ugly earlier this month after Apple announced iPhone OS 4 would not support the Adobe technology and made developer agreement changes that prohibited use of cross-platform tools that could enable rival platforms like Adobe's. Last week, Mike Chambers, Adobe's Flash platform Principal Product Manager for developer relations, sounded the retreat in a blog post.

He wrote about the cross-platform tools: "We will still be shipping the ability to target the iPhone and iPad in Flash CS5. However, we are not currently planning any additional investments in that feature." Adobe had already baked the feature into Creative Suite 5, which was announced on April 12. Additionally: "Personally, I am going to shift all of my mobile focus from iPhone to Android based devices (I am particularly interested in the Android based tablets coming out this year) and not focus on the iPhone stuff as much anymore."

Adobe's retreat seemingly should have been end of story, so why then did Apple's CEO write a long essay giving six reasons why Flash is prohibited from the iPhone? I surmise two main reasons, although there are surely others:

  • The Flash cross-platform tools will still be available with Creative Suite 5.
  • Apple is still getting pushback from somewhere, presumably from developers who want more options on iPhone OS.

Letter of Lost Love

So Jobs penned a memo laying out reasons why no Flash on iPhone OS devices. In first reading "Thoughts on Flash," the tone struck me as whiny. But in rereading I discerned something more complex, and I can't detect whether it's sincere or deliberate -- the latter for marketing gain. The memo reads like a forlorn letter of lost love -- like "if only" punctuates each of Jobs six points. If only you could be more "open," we could be together. If only you embraced the "full Web," we would never have parted. If only you would do things my way, I could embrace you.

Jobs sets the lost love tone right from the essay's start:

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 percent 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. Apple went through its near death experience, and Adobe was drawn to the corporate market with their Acrobat products. Today the two companies still work together to serve their joint creative customers -- Mac users buy around half of Adobe's Creative Suite products -- but beyond that there are few joint interests.

The "if only," lost love theme permeates the entire essay, which makes Apple's Flash divorce seem so reasonable -- all with a strong emotional undercurrent. But Jobs presents a one-sided argument, which is anti-social in a computing era of commenting and crowdsourcing. His essay is posted to the PR section of Apple's Website. No comments are possible. By comparison, Chambers posted to his blog, where comments are enabled. Chambers' post encourages dialog and interaction. Jobs' essay discourages it.

The one-sidedness also seeps through nearly all of Jobs' six no-Flash justifications. I don't doubt his sincerity about wanting to protect the iPhone OS device user experience, but there's more. Apple calls iPad "magical and revolutionary," but the same phrase applies to Jobs' ability to make so reasonable arguments that emphasize the positives benefitting Apple products, while de-emphasizing or even ignoring the negatives. He is deservedly called a master marketer -- more like master marketing magician.

Which Platform is More Closed?

I won't critique all six no-Flash reasons but grab a couple to make the point: The reality Jobs evokes isn't the only viewpoint. Jobs begins with "Open":

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.

Now I'll rewrite the same paragraph applied to Apple:

Apple's iPhone OS products are 100-percent proprietary. They are only available from Apple, and Apple has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc. While iPhone OS products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Apple and available only from Apple. By almost any definition, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad is a closed system.

By Jobs' logic, iPhone OS and devices running it are more closed. Adobe's cross-platform approach lets developers directly distribute Flash content or applications on major browsers and operating systems. Development for iPhone requires Apple's approval for App Store, and distribution is limited to three product categories -- all controlled by Apple.

What About Adopted Standards?

"We strongly believe that all standards pertaining to the Web should be open," Jobs writes. He doesn't say pertaining to the iPhone platform. Jobs continues: "Rather than use Flash, Apple has adopted HTML5, CSS and JavaScript -- all open standards." For that position on open standards Apple should be praised. But Jobs' open-closed argument ignores an important reality: There is little practical difference between adopted standards and open standards, particularly when there are no onerous licensing fees attached to the adopted standards.

In fact, adopted standards are more commonly used everywhere. Flash is an adopted standard used by millions of Websites, and Apple has chosen to make content and interactive features unavailable to iPhone OS device users. How is the issue any more complicated than that? Flash is everywhere on the Web, but not Apple's mobile Web.

Jobs writes: "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."

What Jobs ignores: Flash has supported H.264 since autumn 2007, with Flash 9 update 3. Also, H.264 is not an open standard. Like Flash, it is a proprietary adopted standard, for which license MPEG LA manages. By my count, there are 26 H.264 patent holders, among which is Apple.

H.264 isn't free, either. In March, CNET's Stephen Shankland asked: "Is H.264 a minefield for video pros?" Shankland wondered about licensing fees for H.264 content produced by Adobe or Apple products. In contacting MPEG LA he learned there are fees, depending on circumstances -- hence the "minefield" reference. Something else: Firefox doesn't support H.264, because Mozilla won't pay the licensing fees. In January, after YouTube and Vimeo announced HTML5 support for video, Mozilla's Mike Shaver posted:

Vimeo and YouTube seem to believe that reliance on proprietary plugins for video is a problem on the web. Mozilla believes that reliance on patent-encumbered formats is a problem on the Web...For Mozilla, H.264 is not currently a suitable technology choice. In many countries, it is a patented technology, meaning that it is illegal to use without paying license fees to the MPEG-LA.

The point isn't rocket science: Licensing fees will affect H.264 adoption, and to places where Flash content already is available. Flash that Apple won't support on its iPhone OS platform.

H.264 isn't a Competing Platform

The difference between Flash and H.264 is important to Apple. Flash is a development platform, whereas H.264 is not. Then there is Apple being one of the H.264 patent holders. Jobs' essay isn't difficult to interpret, when viewed logically rather than as presented: Apple is pushing open standards where it benefits, as Microsoft did at the turn of century, mainly around the browser and where HTML5 preserves and extends the iPhone OS platform. But Apple is closed where it most benefits iPhone OS and App Store.

Jobs makes a reasonable argument about technical issues, such as Flash's impact on battery life. He also reasonably explains why Apple doesn't want Flash or any other third-party development platform on iPhone OS:

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.

I won't quibble that reasoning, but must add perspective. Isn't what Jobs' describes the reality of iPhone developers? They are "at the mercy" of Apple deciding "if and when" it will make enhancements available to them. Apple also exercises editorial control over which applications are approved and even sets rules around their development.

Why is this developers' situation? Because the iPhone OS platform is closed -- at least as much as Flash, and in some ways much more. Plain, pure and simple.

[Editor's Note: Headline was changed from "Steve Jobs' 'Thoughts on Flash' is a snow job." There was concern some readers wouldn't understand snow job definition.]

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