Steve Jobs is sick of getting asked about Adobe Flash. You could see it all over his face in the Q&A after the iPhone 4.0 preview, when he faced questions about it. He’s even been quoted behind closed doors railing about Flash, branding it outdated, last-gen technology.
Enough is enough, he’s probably thinking. So in an unusual turn of events, the CEO — who is not known for explaining himself or his decisions — has written an open letter… you know, explaining himself and his decision, at least in regards to Flash.
People who remember Apple’s background with Adobe might be gratified to see him reference it. After this nicety, he immediately gets down to business, hitting a primary accusation head on: The suspicion that he’s foregoing Flash just to protect his App Store. (If users could game via online Flash sites or watch Hulu on mobile Safari, would they hit the App Store as often?) But according to Jobs, it’s not about that: “…it is based on technology issues.”
Here’s a summary of the rest, with some reactions, followed by the original letter that was released, in its entirety:
(Wow. Seriously? That’s like the pot calling the kettle really, crazy, ridiculously hypocritical. When did you become a champion for openness? If I were an iPhone app developer, I might have some choice words to insert here.)
The "full web"
Jobs cites Adobe’s claim that Apple devices don’t get “‘the full web,’ since 75% of video on the web is in Flash.” Jobs then asserts that most of this video is indeed available to iPhones via H.264, and then rattles off a bunch of iPhone-compatible apps, like YouTube, CBS, Netflix, Facebook, etc… plus HTML5 sites and game apps. “iPhone, iPod and iPad users aren't missing much video.”
(Steve, good on you or whoever got ABC, Netflix, etc… streaming onboard. But there’s still a big glaring hole. If I were you, I’d get Hulu to play ball ASAP. Once that happens, your argument might stand a chance of somewhat resonating with end users.)
Reliability, security and performance
"Flash is the number one reason Macs crash… [and still] 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." He cites that Flash’s launch date for smartphones keeps getting pushed back. “We think it will eventually ship, but we're glad we didn't hold our breath. Who knows how it will perform?”
(Good argument. And still, the majority of web developers writing for cross-platform multimedia use this. There’s a third alternative here: Including a setting switch to let users turn Flash support on or off, like many full browser plugins do. Plus, if your snazzy new A4 processor goes into the new iPhone, couldn’t that help matters?)
“To achieve long battery life when playing video, mobile devices must decode the video in hardware.… Many of the chips used in modern mobile devices contain a decoder called H.264…” Flash, he admits, now supports H.264, but most sites use older decoders. That means mobile devices have to use software to decode those vids, and that’s a massive power drain (as much twice the drain than hardware decoding on iPhones).
(Another good point, but is it good enough to justify your rigid Flash ban? Again, users — many of whom want or need access to Flash sites — can decide for themselves if a given site or vid is worth the battery drain.)
(Wait, you’re telling web developers that their sites don’t work well for touch, so why not redo the whole thing using a totally different standard? Perhas you’ve been among the corporate elite too long. Not everyone is CNN, and some small businesses and individuals don’t exactly have the resources to do that all at once.)
The most important reason
This one has everything to do with the devs. And the argument Jobs makes almost seems to defend them: "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."
(Apparently, no one else should decide when or if developers can update their own apps — well, at least not unless it’s Apple…)
So obviously, Steve isn’t going to budge on this Adobe Flash issue. And he does make some excellent points in his letter. But do they justify the utter and complete blocking of it across Apple’s entire mobile platform? I genuinely don’t think so.
But the mere fact that he wrote this letter to begin with is interesting, and uncharacteristic. He’s appealing to people to see his point of view. And that’s practically unheard of for Jobs, he of tight-lipped corporate policy and rigid (even perplexing) rules of behavior.
Much of the Apple news these days doesn’t seem to be overwhelmingly positive — given lost prototypes, acquisitions, lawsuits, et al. And while this letter may not truly appease, it does seem like an acknowledgement on his part that some sort of PR was needed for Apple. Of course, any attempt by Jobs to “humanize” himself or his company in the face of the public was destined to be a little awkward and kind of strange. And this was, no doubt. But it’s a start.
And who knows? If there’s even a grain of truth to the notion that he supports openness, it would be great to see that trickle down into his public persona and internal decisions. I’m not holding my breath on that one, but I can hope.
Steve Jobs open letter, issued via press release
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% 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.
I wanted to jot down some of our thoughts on Adobe's Flash products so that customers and critics may better understand why we do not allow Flash on iPhones, iPods and iPads. Adobe has characterized our decision as being primarily business driven – they say we want to protect our App Store – but in reality it is based on technology issues. Adobe claims that we are a closed system, and that Flash is open, but in fact the opposite is true. Let me explain.
First, there's "Open".
Adobe's Flash products are 100% 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.
Apple even creates open standards for the web. For example, Apple began with a small open source project and created WebKit, a complete open-source HTML5 rendering engine that is the heart of the Safari web browser used in all our products. WebKit has been widely adopted. Google uses it for Android's browser, Palm uses it, Nokia uses it, and RIM (Blackberry) has announced they will use it too. Almost every smartphone web browser other than Microsoft's uses WebKit. By making its WebKit technology open, Apple has set the standard for mobile web browsers.
Second, there's the "full web".
Adobe has repeatedly said that Apple mobile devices cannot access "the full web" because 75% 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. YouTube, with an estimated 40% of the web's video, shines in an app bundled on all Apple mobile devices, with the iPad offering perhaps the best YouTube discovery and viewing experience ever. Add to this video from Vimeo, Netflix, Facebook, ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ESPN, NPR, Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, People, National Geographic, and many, many others. iPhone, iPod and iPad users aren't missing much video.
Another Adobe claim is that Apple devices cannot play Flash games. This is true. Fortunately, there are over 50,000 games and entertainment titles on the App Store, and many of them are free. There are more games and entertainment titles available for iPhone, iPod and iPad than for any other platform in the world.
Third, there's reliability, security and performance.
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. We have been working with Adobe to fix these problems, but they have persisted for several years now. We don't want to reduce the reliability and security of our iPhones, iPods and iPads by adding Flash.
In addition, Flash has not performed well on mobile devices. 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?
Fourth, there's battery life.
To achieve long battery life when playing video, mobile devices must decode the video in hardware; decoding it in software uses too much power. Many of the chips used in modern mobile devices contain a decoder called H.264 – an industry standard that is used in every Blu-ray DVD player and has been adopted by Apple, Google (YouTube), Vimeo, Netflix and many other companies.
Although Flash has recently added support for H.264, the video on almost all Flash websites currently requires an older generation decoder that is not implemented in mobile chips and must be run in software. The difference is striking: on an iPhone, for example, H.264 videos play for up to 10 hours, while videos decoded in software play for less than 5 hours before the battery is fully drained.
When websites re-encode their videos using H.264, they can offer them without using Flash at all. They play perfectly in browsers like Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome without any plugins whatsoever, and look great on iPhones, iPods and iPads.
Fifth, there's Touch.
Even if iPhones, iPods and iPads ran Flash, it would not solve the problem that most Flash websites need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices.
Sixth, the most important reason.
Besides the fact that Flash is closed and proprietary, has major technical drawbacks, and doesn't support touch based devices, there is an even more important reason we do not allow Flash on iPhones, iPods and iPads. We have discussed the downsides of using Flash to play video and interactive content from websites, but Adobe also wants developers to adopt Flash to create apps that run on our mobile devices.
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.
Flash is a cross platform development tool. It is not Adobe's goal to help developers write the best iPhone, iPod and iPad apps. It is their goal to help developers write cross platform apps. And Adobe has been painfully slow to adopt enhancements to Apple's platforms. For example, although Mac OS X has been shipping for almost 10 years now, Adobe just adopted it fully (Cocoa) two weeks ago when they shipped CS5. Adobe was the last major third party developer to fully adopt Mac OS X.
Our motivation is simple – we want to provide the most advanced and innovative platform to our developers, and we want them to stand directly on the shoulders of this platform and create the best apps the world has ever seen. We want to continually enhance the platform so developers can create even more amazing, powerful, fun and useful applications. Everyone wins – we sell more devices because we have the best apps, developers reach a wider and wider audience and customer base, and users are continually delighted by the best and broadest selection of apps on any platform.
Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.
The avalanche of media outlets offering their content for Apple's mobile devices demonstrates that Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of web content. And the 200,000 apps on Apple's App Store proves that Flash isn't necessary for tens of thousands of developers to create graphically rich applications, including games.
New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.