Apple vs Adobe - what are the real issues?

The war of words between Apple and Adobe started out with public statements, moved to full page advertisements, and has descended into confusion as Apple has backtracked on one of its initial restrictions and RIM and Samsung have highlighted Flash support on their tablets. To unravel this mess, let's go back to the beginning: In April, Steve Jobs wrote an open letter to Adobe as a press release and posted it on the home page (it can still be found online). Jobs lists six extremely well-argued points, but only two of them matter: Flash's ubiquity on the web, and cross-platform development. (Some of the other points are legitimate – Flash can be buggy, when it runs without hardware acceleration it eats battery life alive, and some Flash content has not been formatted for touch. However, Apple claiming that it cannot support Flash because it isn't "open" is disingenuous; Apple supports whatever standards it wants to, and while Flash is most certainly a proprietary standard, it is a standard.)Flash on the Internet

Adobe has repeatedly said that Apple mobile devices cannot access "the full web" because 75% of video on the web is in Flash. Apple argues that much of this video is also available in other formats or as iOS apps. There is some truth to both positions. Most video is accessible on Apple products in one form or another, but the user is sometimes forced to jump through hoops to view it – either by switching out of the browser to an app or waiting a few hours or days for the video that just went viral to get transcoded into H.264. In practice, Apple can probably wait this one out.

The other area where Flash dominates the web is in animation – for web site design elements and games. Apple certainly is no slouch in the gaming department, and in practice I have found that few Flash animation sites are optimized for a smartphone's smaller screen size. Apple suggests that once developers are reformatting their content for phones, they might as well use HTML5. Adobe counters that many desktop browsers do not support HTML5 at all, and that Flash has a richer set of tools for development and deployment (such as analytics and advertising plug-ins). The bottom line: Flash content rarely works well on phones, and there is no clear answer for content developers who need to straddle multiple formats for full coverage of desktops, phones, and Apple devices.

However, once the focus shifts to tablets, things get much simpler: when surfing the Internet on larger screen devices it is quite jarring to find blank websites where Flash ought to be, and where Flash sites could be properly rendered. Therefore, the lack of Flash on the iPad becomes a real liability, and while it apparently has not been enough to slow sales of the iPad one iota, it is an area where Samsung, RIM, and Apple's other tablet competitors have a legitimate differentiator.

Cross-Platform Development

Flash allows cross-platform development. PC, phone, tablet (including RIM's PlayBook), and even some connected television platforms. Apple wants developers to specifically target its own platforms. There is some consumer justification for this beyond the obvious desire to increase the number of apps that are available for Apple devices and Apple devices alone. Applications developed for cross-platform use typically do not take advantage of platform-specific hardware features (like the gyroscope in the iPhone 4) and are built around user interface standards that can be radically different from the native platform. It is fair to make the case that the consumer experience on a cross-platform app might be compromised relative to a native app.

Still, Apple recently backtracked on its prohibition against using non-Apple development tools, opening the door to apps written using Adobe tools and then compiled for the iPhone (Apple is still not supporting Flash in the browser and will not provide a Flash runtime environment on the iPhone). Apple's official explanation for the reversal was that it had, "listened to our developers and taken much of their feedback to heart." Apple did not take "all" of the feedback to heart, just "much" of it, so it is safe to assume that getting the EU to drop its investigation into Apple uncompetitive practices may have also been part of its motivation.

Apple is dealing from a position of strength in apps and may have been reluctant to allow cross-platform apps, but its competitors are willing to get apps any which way they can. When RIM launched its QNX Neutrino–based Tablet OS this week, it noted that there will be an SDK for native applications, but then immediately gave developers other options: a web apps framework, BlackBerry OS 6 (Java) apps, Adobe Flash and Adobe AIR.

Next Steps

Adobe must end its self-destructive attempt to convince Apple that it's wrong. That is a battle Adobe cannot win, and in the process of aiming its message at Apple, Adobe is losing consumers and developers. If the ability of Adobe to convince Steve Jobs to change his mind is a stretch, convincing consumers to stay away from Apple products is downright laughable. Adobe needs to promote an extremely simple message, and it must be aimed at Adobe's actual customers: developers. The message needs to be that Adobe builds the best tools for creating multimedia content. That's it. Adobe's mantra should be if you are building anything with visual content for distribution on nearly any platform, you should be using Adobe tools. If you're building Flash, you need CS5. If you're building HTML 5, you need CS5. If you're building content for distribution via both Flash and HTML 5 or something else entirely, you need CS5. If you are building content libraries for the web, phones, tablets, PCs, televisions... did we mention you need CS5?

Of course, Adobe has to ensure that this message is believable, because if it isn't, its entire business model is in trouble. Adobe also has to stop denigrating HTML5 (one session at Adobe's upcoming developer conference is titled, "HTML5: Half-baked, Baked, or Ready for the Table?"); instead of identifying holes in the feature set, Adobe should be filling in those holes with tools and services. Similarly, Adobe needs to fix the lingering problems with Flash (such as SEO — Google's index spiders don't know how to parse Flash content and largely ignore it.). As for Apple, I'd like to see Flash in the browser for the iPad. Oh, I know that's not going to happen, but I'd like it just the same.