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5 More Reasons Apple Kicked Adobe in the Knees

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
May 4, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Last week Apple CEO Steve Jobs fired off the equivalent of a backhand slap in the tech industry -- an open letter, entitled "Thoughts on Flash," describing why Apple believes Adobe's Flash sucks. More to the point, Jobs made it exceedingly clear that Apple isn't going to make Flash available for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad -- not now, not ever.

5 More Reasons Apple Kicked Adobe in the Knees

This means no Flash-based video, no Flash-based apps, and while most consumers barely know what this means, it means they'll still be confused as to why some Web sites won't load properly from an Apple mobile device. And they still can't get Hulu.

In his long, six-part missive, Jobs basically said Flash is unreliable, insecure, and worse yet, a battery-sucking monster. He didn't use that word, monster, but he might as well have. While slapping Adobe back and forth, Jobs looked to cloud the issue with the ideas of openness, open standards, de facto industry standards, and proprietary solutions. He cast HTML 5, CSS, JavaScript, and H.264 as the open future for Apple and anyone else who wants to be nearly as cool as Apple.

The resulting storm of coverage has prompted plenty of posts about half-truths and outright lies, including a supportive blog post from Microsoft's Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer, who led off with this short sentence of clarity: "The future of the Web is HTML5."

Hachamovitch gets into some similarly vague statements around openness and standardization as Jobs, but he doesn't back away from an Adobe slap, noting that while today's video on the Web is predominately Flash-based, "Flash does have some issues, particularly around reliability, security and performance."

Ouch. These aren't off-hand verbal comments from executives from two of the largest and most influential tech companies in the world given in response to a reporter's question -- these are public posts clearly written for everyone to read. In the case of Apple, Thoughts on Flash is more likely in response to prosumer clamor for Flash that, three years after the first iPhone came out, just won't die.

Adobe Dodges and Weaves

Following the Jobs open letter, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen spoke with The Wall Street Journal to give Adobe's side, which is basically the polar opposite of what Steve Jobs said. While Adobe's development tools might be proprietary, Adobe believes in open content that can run on any platform. While Jobs says Flash is the No. 1 cause of Mac OS X crashes, Narayen says that if Adobe crashes a Mac, it's because there's a problem with the Apple operating system. Oh, and what about the assertion that Flash, which is software-based, sucks mobile batteries dry much faster than H.264 video that uses a hardware-based decoder built right into mobile chips?

"Patently false," Narayen countered.

For geeks, this is the small-town bar equivalent of bikini JELL-O wrestling.

Why Stop With a Slap?

Even if Flash-based apps aren't buggy, don't introduce security issues, or suck batteries faster than a 10-year-old kid can down a blue Slurpee, there's lots of very good business reasons -- like them or not -- for why Apple needs to kick Adobe in the knees. Here are five:

  1. App Differentiation. The iPhone has an amazing and accurate touch interface, and the iPad expands on it. As hardware devices, these units can hold their own against hordes of other smartphones and tablet devices on the way, but only for so long. Apple might have introduced its own proprietary processor in the iPad, but hardware isn't enough to distinguish the Apple products in an increasingly cluttered marketplace. Where's the app differentiation if everyone has the same Flash-based app on their mobile phones? What if Flash developers start coding for the least-common smartphone denominator?

    Long-time Mac users have likely seen several lousy cross-platform attempts that looked and functioned like broken pooper-scoopers. Competing on hardware differentiation is a tough business model, and Adobe is a cross-platform enabler that undermines Apple's app exclusivity.

  2. User Experience Control. While Apple's smartphone lead starts with amazing hardware design, it's the entire user interface experience that sets it apart and turns regular consumers into iPhone fanatics. The same goes for the iPad and iPod touch. Because Apple forces its App Store developers to play by its basic rules, Apple is able to nearly guarantee a great user experience for all apps that run on its iPhone OS operating system. Allowing Web-based Flash could reduce Apple's ability to guarantee that Apps look and work as expected and open the door to a sub-par iPhone, touch, iPad experience, and Jobs is notorious for keeping the riffraff out -- even if some Apple customers want more options. (Of course, there's a difference between Web-based Flash apps and an app that could possibly make it through the App Store, even though it was built using Adobe's tools -- see below.)

    Besides, if Apple truly has internal evidence that Flash is the biggest reason Macs crash, Jobs is being rather gentle on Adobe. Seriously, if true, and you were the CEO for Apple, wouldn't this little fact alone drive you insane with rage? No way I'd let Flash onto my glorious iPhone and shiny new iPad. No freakin' way. Moving on.

  3. Developer Mindshare. Apple needs its developers to focus on its platforms -- the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Every time a developer thinks about delivering something for a generic mobile audience, the developer is moving away from the Apple ecosystem, which erodes Apple's ability to differentiate itself in a market it does not yet dominate. This last bit is worth saying again: Apple doesn't yet dominate the smartphone market, and while the iPad is already surprisingly successful, increasing market share and a profitable lineup is far from given.

    Think of the long haul. With competitors like Google and HTC working with Android, not to mention a possible mobile shift from the glaciers that are Microsoft and Dell, Apple must attract and retain Apple-focused developers or face just being another device with a cool logo.

  4. Adobe Flash Enables Content Competitors. If Apple supported Flash, Apple would make it easier for content providers to deliver video and applications that can run anywhere. While "running anywhere" sounds great to consumers, it makes for a difficult business proposition -- how can you differentiate yourself if everyone else has the same content? Apple wants publishers to invest in the Apple App Store ecosystem wholeheartedly, and in return, Apple promises to reward them with millions of potential users who love to interact with their iPad, iPod touch and iPhones. On subpar hardware, on subpar applications, the entire vision of a mobile, touch-enabled world of delightful devices starts breaking down. Look, it's 2010 and our cars still don't fly. At least Apple is delivering consistently satisfying mobile devices.
  5. Never Compete Head-to-Head. In business, who wants to compete on a level playing field? Save fairness for sports. Apple can only produce so many new hardware devices a year. In contrast, HTC can produce several mobile devices each year, and there's plenty of competitors who can produce decent Android-based phones and mobile devices, too.

    Can you imagine Apple throwing in the towel and saying, "Uh, our MacBook laptops are so awesome from the design alone -- aluminum unibody, baby! -- that we're going to stop producing Mac OS X and simply run Windows 7 as our new standard OS. We're tired of going against the PC grain." Think Apple would stand a chance stacked head-to-head against the likes of Sony, Dell, HP, and Lenovo? Great design goes a long way, but not when it comes with such a high price compared to solid contenders that run the exact same software. Flash not only "levels the playing field," but it would start pushing Apple to compete in a game it should never get into. To keep playing with the sports metaphor, if Apple is great at, say, basketball, why would the company risk everything to compete in soccer, baseball and football?

But I Want Flash!

Sure, I personally would still rather have the option for Flash-based apps for my iPhone (as long as my iPhone never crashed), and while I'm at it, I'd like the ability to run non-sanctioned apps without jailbreaking my iPhone, too. But I understand why I'm not going to get them from Apple any time soon. As long as Apple is freakishly successful and popular managing its ecosystem, I'm stuck with a pretty damn good list of Apple-sanctioned options. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.

Meanwhile, by focusing the hardware, development tools, and deployment operating systems, Apple actually gives developers and publishers a stable platform from which to deliver innovation. It reduces complexity, which lets them turn their creative spigots on full-blast. Case in point: 200,000 apps in the App Store.

Following the Vision

One reason Apple is successful in the face of the worst economic recession in recent tech history is because it simply doesn't compromise on quality, fit and finish, inside and out. You can blame a lousy PC experience on Microsoft's operating system or you can blame it on a poor piece of hardware -- or the way the two interact. Apple doesn't want to let any third party come between it and the customer experience, period. I don't shell out for "expensive" Apple products because they're cool; I do it because they succeed 9 out of 10 times in every category I care about. There's no one thing that makes a great Apple product, it's the whole package, and Jobs understands that, maybe better than anyone else on the planet.

Apple doesn't want to be just another tech company. Jobs and crew want to change the world, rework it into something more closely resembling their own vision. That's not such a bad thing. In a business context, this means you need to kick butt, take names, and show no mercy in the face of clear business threats. And that's what Apple is doing with Adobe. Or it's revenge for the years Adobe turned to focus on solutions for Windows. Today, if Adobe isn't a critical competitor, Adobe is enabling others to become Apple competitors. Either way, when I think about the threat that Adobe represents to the Apple way of life, I still think Jobs was rather gentle.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.


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