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Apr 30, 2010

Apple versus Adobe

Apple’s battle with software giant Adobe -- over Apple not allowing iPhone's to use Adobe Flash -- has potentially billions of dollars worth of implications on the entire mobile computing market. So what's the fight about?

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Apple’s embarrassing loss of a next-model iPhone prototype has garnered plenty of media coverage, what with the police seizures and a resurrected  “Are bloggers journalists?” debate. But Apple’s battle with software giant Adobe, while harder for non-geeks to understand, has far bigger implications. It’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 doesn’t run Flash. But Adobe’s newly-released Flash Professional production tool introduces what’s essentially a button  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. That’s an expensive slap in the face for Adobe. “Go screw yourself Apple,” wrote one of Adobe’s Flash evangelists.

But deeper than that, this is all about control of the mobile market in which Apple’s iPhone and its App Store is leader. That’s why Apple’s latest “iPhone Developer Program License Agreement” bans a lot more than just Flash. To explain why that’s important, I’ll have to over-simplify …

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 Google’s Android system, one for Microsoft’s Windows and so on. As an analogy, if you’re writing a document for an international audience, you’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, that’s like teaching everyone to speak English, and then writing one document in English. More work up front, but then it’s far more flexible.

Clause 3.3.1 of Apple’s new developer agreement says “Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine … Applications that [use] an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited.” In other words, you can only write in specific Apple-approved languages, and translation is banned.

If you want to write for the iPhone, Apple’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. That’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. That’s the sort of situation that creates a license to print money,” writes  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 Apple’s highly profitable iPhone.

“Apple isn’t just ambivalent about Adobe’s goals in this regard — it is in Apple’s direct interest to thwart them,” writes Gruber.

Thwart? Steve Jobs’ 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. “[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,” he writes.

“We 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 we’re glad we didn’t hold our breath. Who knows how it will perform?”

It’s worth reading in full. “While you’re reading it,” writes Gruber, “think about how little wiggle room the whole thing leaves for Adobe to respond.”

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14 comments

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14 thoughts on “Apple versus Adobe

  1. Meski

    I’ve read the Apple developer license agreement (despite not having signed the NDA that goes with it) – As a developer, I’m happy to leave it for Apple fanbois to develop on. The Android (and soon, the Windows) app stores are much nicer to work with. GFY, Apple.

  2. Socratease

    Damn the iSatan. I have avoided his products from the outset and yet my life goes on without him.

  3. Malcolm Street

    “Jobs criticises Flash for being a closed, proprietary system”

    Pot, meet kettle! Jobs is a control freak par excellence, something which has been borne out in the design of all devices he’s been involved in (including the nExt computer when he was away from Apple). No surprise at all for him to try to stop someone from using cross-platform tools to develop for one of his products.

    I have to wonder how legally defensible the developers’ license agreement is – restraint of trade and all that.

    Anyway, if you’re concerned about being dependent on “a closed, proprietary system” don’t touch Apple with a bargepole.

    (Being written from a laptop PC running Ubuntu Linux)

  4. dlew919

    Apple – always late. Always look nice: never work properly. Oh, they never crash – they hang, hold, freeze, reset themselves.

    This is typical of Apple’s arrogance. They (almost) got the iPod right, and they (almost) got the iPhone right. But then they forget that they are in a market with a lot of cheaper competitors: and take the advantages away. How Jobs ever gets out of bed in the morning without fucking up defeats me…

  5. Socratease

    “How Jobs ever gets out of bed in the morning without fucking up defeats me…”

    A: He takes a hubris pill each night.

  6. Christopher Armstrong

    DLEW919: Jobs fucked up for nigh on 12 years with his startup NeXT – he was marketing ahead-of-their-time whizzbang computers for a) $15000 b) to students. Obviously they didn’t move many machines, and not much software either when they started selling it separately, but *after* Microsoft took the PC market. Admittedly it was very nice kit for the time, but just a tad expensive for most people except those working in finance.

    Ironically, most of the technology from that experiment is what powers MacOS X, iPhone, iPad, etc, now that its competitively priced.

  7. Andrew Houston

    This article may shed some light on the Apple v Adobe impasse. It seems that the problem is technical and NOT personal.

    http://www.granneman.com/webdev/graphicsmultimedia/multimedia/flash/whatswrongwithflash/

  8. Socratease

    Speaking of Microsoft and irony, how many recall that in 1997 Gates bailed out the iSatan’s then bust company with an investment of $150 million?

  9. 4-eleven-3

    Well written article, thanks for the insights.

  10. whatiris

    Using the Flash Professional tool is more like writing a document in English and then running it through Google Translate to get the various other languages you need. Sure, the output is basically understandable, but it’s a whole lot shittier than if you’d simply written the documents in the different languages in the first place.

    For good examples of this sort of horrible cross-platform nightmare, see basically any Java application ever.