Appleâ€™s embarrassing loss of a next-model iPhone prototype has garnered plenty of media coverage, what with the police seizures and a resurrectedÂ “Are bloggers journalists?” debate. But Appleâ€™s battle with software giant Adobe, while harder for non-geeks to understand, has far bigger implications. Itâ€™s about the entire mobile computing market — potentially billions of dollars.
On the surface, this is about Apple not allowing the iPhone run software created in Adobe Flash, a platform for adding interactive multimedia to websites including animation, video, games and, more recently, full-featured applications.
iPhone doesnâ€™t run Flash. But Adobeâ€™s newly-released Flash Professional production tool introduces whatâ€™s essentially a buttonÂ marked “turn this Flash stuff into iPhone stuff”. This was to have been a major selling point for Flash Professional.
Except Apple just banned it. Thatâ€™s an expensive slap in the face for Adobe. “Go screw yourself Apple,” wrote one of Adobeâ€™s Flash evangelists.
But deeper than that, this is all about control of the mobile market in which Appleâ€™s iPhone and its App Store is leader. Thatâ€™s why Appleâ€™s latest “iPhone Developer Program License Agreement” bans a lot more than just Flash. To explain why thatâ€™s important, Iâ€™ll have to over-simplify â€¦
Developers write software apps in a programming language that is translated (“compiled”) or interpreted in real time into the language spoken by the hardware device in question. Different devices speak different languages. To write software that works on different devices, developers have two main choices.
One, they write a different version of the software for every device. One for the iPhone, one for Nokia phones, one for phones running Googleâ€™s Android system, one for Microsoftâ€™s Windows and so on. As an analogy, if youâ€™re writing a document for an international audience, youâ€™ll need to write versions in Chinese, Spanish, French and so on.
Two, they first write intermediary translation software for each device, then they write just one version of the software for that intermediate language and it works everywhere. In our analogy, thatâ€™s like teaching everyone to speak English, and then writing one document in English. More work up front, but then itâ€™s far more flexible.
If you want to write for the iPhone, Appleâ€™s way is now the only way. Not Flash. Not any other way.
“The App Store platform could turn into a long-term de facto standard platform. Thatâ€™s how Microsoft became Microsoft. At a certain point developers wrote apps for Windows because so many users were on Windows and users bought Windows PCs because all the software was being written for Windows. Thatâ€™s the sort of situation that creates a license to print money,â€ť writesÂ John Gruber, developer and long-time Apple-watcher.
The last thing Apple wants is for Adobe to turn its already-popular Flash into some kind of meta-platform for mobile apps. Those Flash apps could run just as easily on BlackBerry or Android or other platforms, giving the punters far less reason to stick with Appleâ€™s highly profitable iPhone.
“Apple isnâ€™t just ambivalent about Adobeâ€™s goals in this regard — it is in Appleâ€™s direct interest to thwart them,” writes Gruber.
Thwart? Steve Jobsâ€™ open letter Thoughts on Flash posted yesterday reams Adobe a new orifice. Jobs criticises Flash for being a closed, proprietary system, for its poor performance, for its poor handling of touch interfaces and much more. â€ś[IT security vendor] Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009. We also know first hand that Flash is the number one reason Macs crash,â€ť he writes.
â€śWe have routinely asked Adobe to show us Flash performing well on a mobile device, any mobile device, for a few years now. We have never seen it. Adobe publicly said that Flash would ship on a smartphone in early 2009, then the second half of 2009, then the first half of 2010, and now they say the second half of 2010. We think it will eventually ship, but weâ€™re glad we didnâ€™t hold our breath. Who knows how it will perform?â€ť
Itâ€™s worth reading in full. â€śWhile youâ€™re reading it,â€ť writes Gruber, â€śthink about how little wiggle room the whole thing leaves for Adobe to respond.”