Six reasons why Steve Jobs is wrong on Flash

Jobs-small
Jobs-small

“Steve Jobs just hates Adobe, personally. That’s all there is to it.”

That’s what I heard, from the mouth of a former Apple employee (who would not wish to be named), shortly after the whole stink about Apple and Flash blew up a few weeks ago. And I can well imagine how Adobe's persistent refusal to run its business to Apple's timetable throughout the past decade has been a source of personal infuration for Jobs.

So to me it rings true. It makes more sense than the explanations Steve Jobs wheeled out yesterday in his “Thoughts on Flash”, anyway.

For a start, I think the mere fact that Jobs felt the need to make such a statement is suspicious. A rational decision speaks for itself. A pompous screed appearing two weeks after the fact, insisting on half a dozen different justifications for the same thing, smacks of protesting too much.

And the way Jobs expresses himself does hint at a personal grievance. Though he writes in the corporate plural, there's nothing businesslike about the way he crows at slipped dates for mobile releases of Flash, sneers at Adobe's use of one API rather than another (as if anybody cares) and signs off with a catty reference to "leaving the past behind". There's an antipathy here that goes beyond dollars and cents.

A sextet of smokescreens

In fairness, Apple has come in for considerable criticism lately, so a defensive attitude is perhaps only to be expected. But put that aside and what remains is curiously flimsy. To me, Jobs' six ostensible reasons for ditching Flash read more like post hoc excuses than rational explanations. Let’s look at the list:

First, there’s “Open” … second, there’s the “full web” … third, there’s reliability, security and performance … fourth, there’s battery life … fifth, there’s touch … sixth, the most important reason… letting a third-party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform.

Jobs' first argument is a brazen double-standard. It amounts to “our phone platform can be closed, but your app platform must be open”, with no attempt at a reason why. Argument two claims that without Flash you’re “not missing much.” That’s very much a matter of opinion, and hardly an argument for banning Flash – indeed, it tilts slightly the other way.

The third argument – "reliability, security and performance" – may sound like a triple-whammy of deal-breakers; but it's important to realise that Jobs is here casting aspersions over a plug-in that, thanks to Apple, has never existed. Even if the OS X player is buggy (something Adobe strongly disputes), that's no basis for pre-emptively blackballing a new implementation. As for compiled applications, well, over 100 compiled Flash applications have already been accepted into the App Store under the old developer licence, and so far as I’m aware no technical issues have emerged.

Jobs’ fourth argument is that displaying Flash video can be less battery-efficient than showing H.264, because the iPhone has dedicated hardware for decoding the latter. Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen has already pointed out the absurdity of presenting this as an anti-Flash argument. If it were a regular rule that software could be banned for doing its work on the CPU, the App Store would be very empty right now.

Fifth comes touch. Yes, some Flash applets and games would need to be rewritten to work properly with a touchscreen rather than a mouse. But that's hardly a reason to ban them from working in any form. Look at the most common uses of Flash – animated front-ends, simple games and video streaming – and it’s clear that the tweaks needed would be small and simple. When Jobs suggests developers might as well migrate their applications into HTML5, CSS and JavaScript he’s transmitting live from la-la land.

Finally we come to what Jobs considers his “most important reason”, and it’s such a doozy that it’s probably worth re-reading in full:

We know from painful experience that letting a third-party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. 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.

This becomes even worse if the third party is supplying a cross-platform development tool. The third party may not adopt enhancements from one platform unless they are available on all of their supported platforms. Hence developers only have access to the lowest common denominator set of features. Again, we cannot accept an outcome where developers are blocked from using our innovations and enhancements because they are not available on our competitor’s platforms.

It's a paranoid fantasy. Jobs seems to imagine that if developers had the option of producing applications in Flash, they would all instantly sell their souls to Adobe. It’s actually a back-handed acknowledgement of the attractions of Flash, but at the same time an hysterical leap of logic. Slick, professional applications tend to be the ones that “bubble up” in the App Store and make the most money, so if Flash really is less capable, simple economics should keep native development thriving. Flash would settle into a niche as a tool for simpler applications and games – growing the App Store without diminishing its headline quality.

Steve's personal platform

And those six dubious assertions seem to be the extent of Steve Jobs’ “Thoughts on Flash”. In fairness, he does identify some valid concerns, even if his response to them seems irrational. I suspect he may find sympathy on points three and six in particular: the spectre of such a polished device as the iPhone succumbing to bugs and shoddy applications inspires an automatic aversion. But that remains an instinct, not an argument.

Does it matter? In one sense, the question of whether Jobs’ arguments and actions make sense is irrelevant. It’s his platform, and if he wants to ban iPhone apps from using the letter D in their name, no one (save perhaps the shareholders) can tell him he’s wrong to do so.

But millions of customers around the world – myself included – have an investment in Apple’s mobile platform, in the forms of hardware, applications, accessories and contracts. When the platform faces a challenge, or an opportunity, Jobs' response affect us. If he governs wisely, our investment maintains its value, or can even go up (such as when the App Store came to the original iPhone). If he appears to make irrational decisions, to put personal vendettas ahead of sound business sense, that can only stunt the platform's potential and diminish its value.

Presumably, this realisation is what inspired Jobs to publish his "Thoughts" in the first place — a hope of dispelling the whiff of ugly arbitrariness that’s been hanging around the platform since his anti-Flash diktat first came to light.

But if that was the aim, Jobs has failed utterly. This unpersuasive document, this too-bullish rationalisation, seems if anything to further illustrate the fuzz of unreason that has clouded his vision. To me, as an iPhone customer, it confirms that I can't expect him to develop the platform in the ways I'd hope, or even in ways I can make sense of.

And that's why, as I write this, my iPhone contract is being wound up, and a new HTC Desire is on order. And yes, as you probably know — it does run Flash.

Picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/acaben

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