The fallacy of Flash: why Adobe’s ideological war with Apple is bankrupt
March 30th, 2010
Daniel Eran Dilger
Writing for Gawker’s tech industry celebrity gossip property “Valleywag,” Ryan Tate has delved into embarrassing depths of emotionalist advocacy for Flash in railing against Apple and Steve Jobs in particular. He’s wrong, here’s why, and why it matters.
As with every other tech writer who finds their muse from public relations seedings, Tate falls flatly for Adobe’s simplistic talking points for Flash. He also managed to corral (probably without too much legwork, thanks to Adobe’s advocacy resources) an array of Flash users in the industry who report being alarmed that creating content for the iPad will require digging through another bag of tricks.
Fraud science used to promote Flash performance over web standards
A clashing cymbal of unimportance
All the advocacy for Flash in the world is immaterial because Apple isn’t run by a deliberation of popular vote that can be swayed by evangelist outrage, as Daring Fireball’s John Gruber laid out earlier.
Steve Jobs isn’t going to relent and turn around Apple’s strategy for the iPad and iPhone OS into a machine to enrich Adobe just because some gossip columnist is cranking out emotionally charged complaints citing publishers upset that they might have to learn new skills in order to participate in the profitable software markets Apple is creating, rather than staying in the profitless, dead-end, closed binary Flash+web status quo content market that has no business model other than display ad monetization.
Gruber wrote that publishers have a simple choice: “do something other than Flash and get your content on the iPad, or stick with Flash and ignore the iPad. Complaining about the iPad’s lack of Flash doesn’t constitute a decision.”
But the choice is really even simpler, because there’s not just ideology involved but money. So the extended options are actually: make money on what appears to be a very viable new platform with a legitimate business model (shored up by the historical success of iTunes) by following the web standards Apple is dictating for content creation, or sit around like idiots with the profitless web properties dependent upon Flash they currently have, and earn what they have been earning. Which is to say, not enough to stay in business.
Oh no, change!
Granted, any change is difficult and requires effort, which usually also implies that there’ll be a contingent of anti-change protesters to meet any efforts at improving anything. And of course, many designers and developers still need to become savvy with HTML5 and there’s also a need for new HTML5 tools.
Given these barriers to the adoption of HTML5, what should Apple be doing to facilitate change? There’s one thing that has always been a big motivator for those on the frontier of new worlds who are itching to flee back to their comfortable homes in the old world: burn the ships.
Apple has erased any prospects for fleeing back to the comfortable proprietary content dependent upon the Flash runtime of the 1990s on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad by simply barring the development (or vaporware promises) of Adobe, Microsoft, or anyone else who’d like to replace the open web with a closed binary alternative.
But realistically, Apple isn’t removing any choices because Adobe and Microsoft never delivered a suitable mobile runtime that could be put on the iPhone until it became obvious that not being on the iPhone would be a threat to their proprietary hegemony over the web in general.
Only after a decade of choosing to poorly support the Mac with its proprietary Flash runtime is Adobe now wildly excited about denying Apple the option to support interests that are not aligned with enriching Adobe.
The company is now bewailing the idea that Apple is “limiting users choices,” but Adobe, and Macromedia before it, similarly chose which platforms to support (and how well it would support them) based on its own needs, not by some sort of cover-all-the-bases, global altruism where everyone was guaranteed equal prosperity. Adobe has also worked famously to limit users’ choices within Flash; that’s even a selling point of Flash to content creators.
HTML5 assault on Adobe Flash heats up with ClickToFlash
This all happened before
Microsoft learned a similarly painful lesson when it attempted to ostracize Apple’s platforms by only making its Windows Media Audio DRM format work with Windows. Apple sidestepped WMA and built its iPod empire using open MP3 and MPEG AAC file formats.
Once the iPod reached a point where it began to influence how content creators chose to publish their work, Microsoft rushed back to implore Apple to support WMA on the iPod so that it could benefit from Apple’s success, and so its PlaysForSure partner stores (which had been ignoring the Mac and iPod) could have some way of selling their WMA content to Apple’s users.
While the iPod had the technical capacity to play WMA files, Apple blocked any ability for it to do so because it wanted to preserve open file formats as the dominant way to deliver digital media. Anyone can create DRM-free content in standard MPEG audio or video files that play on the iPod, but only Apple’s iTunes can offer DRM that the iPod will support.
That decision eventually allowed Apple to get the music labels to drop DRM entirely (arguing that they were already selling their music on DRM-free CDs), and prevented Microsoft from taking over media distribution and licensing. Today, Apple remains the primary force in selling digital media, and its decisions have forced the rest of its competitors (such as Amazon) to sell their content without DRM, too, if they want to be supported on the iPod.
Over the top nuttery
Writers like Tate are deliriously intoxicated from the cheap booze of evangelical advocacy that Adobe is providing the tech media in such great quantities. The message is one of fear, because Adobe is terrified. It’s being communicated through Adobe’s flacks in the most over the top, emotionalist way because they know they have a limited time to make a stink before Flash crumbles into obsolescence.
If you dial back the clock five years, you can read almost identical rantings by Windows Enthusiasts wailing that Apple was “hurting choice” by choosing not to support WMA on the iPod. Of course, that wouldn’t have been a good choice for consumers, but it might have helped Microsoft extract profits from its proprietary DRM at the expense of open standards, which would have ultimately resulted in fewer choices for consumers.
Similarly, Tate first published a fear-based scenario about how Steve Jobs was working to “control the media,” repeatedly using the word “dogfight” in the most unusual context it has ever been used. The article rambled on like a Da Vinci Code thriller where a very evil Jobs was hell bent on assassinating a society of cute puppies and bunnies playing the part of Flash.
Small portions of the article were cogent and reasonable, citing publishers who had invested in Flash and didn’t want to have to bother teaching their graphic design staff how to create modern open web content because they already were comfortable producing closed Flash binaries that require the blessing of Adobe to be played back.
But wait, doesn’t that mean Adobe already “controls the media?”
Why exactly is Tate spelling fear and doom about the prospects of Apple introducing new hardware platforms that advocate the use of open standards, when the only alternative for users today is the proprietary control over all Flash content and its playback by Adobe?
This seems like a propaganda campaign in a communist country warning that a popular vote among different parties would threaten the security of the one party communist paradise. Yes, that is the point of a functional democracy actually. Not allowing disastrous decisions is itself a good decision, but those who ultimately benefit from terrible choices don’t want anyone to know that.
Adobe doesn’t have an inalienable right to exert control over digital content. Apple has every right to advocate open standards. And it’s wholly understandable why, after a decade of persecution by Macromedia and then Adobe at the hand of a cruel Flash player for Macs, that Apple would chart its own course so that it was not completely dependent upon such an incompetent weak link so indifferent to its needs.
It’s also completely reasonable for people who have a brain full of Flash expertise or a portfolio of Adobe stock to advocate for the survival of Flash. And it’s also reasonable that they would trumpet Flash’s benefits without actually highlighting the real reasons why they have so much free time to devote to doing so.
An Adobe Flash developer on why the iPad can’t use Flash
However, Tate’s over-the-top, one sided, emotionally pandering, fear based writings really hit a new level of toomuchatude when he republished his quotes from Flash developers a few days later under a headline breathing fire at Steve Jobs’ “anti-Flash propaganda.”
Just as Tate doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of words like “dogfight,” he is also comically upside-down when throwing around the P-word. Everyone likes to suggest that any message that conflicts with their own views is “propaganda,” but the word actually has a definition; it very clearly involves the influential presentation of selective facts to create an emotional rather than rational response, expressly to convey an exaggerated ideological message.
By shifting from any sort of rational discussion about publishers’ purportedly “irreplaceable” investments in Flash to instead throw personal attacks at Jobs and imply that Apple is censoring content in some radical way that no other platform is, Tate ridicules his own premise. The extent of the “propaganda” he accuses Jobs of spreading is limited to a comment Jobs made in a private meeting with Wall Street Journal editors, insisting that their moving from Flash was “trivial.” Sorry, but who is the “propagandist” again?
The fall of Flash could be an opportunity for Adobe
The reality is that Flash is used for video distribution and certain visualization graphics. And ads, period. There’s too much money in advertising to ignore the iPhone ecosystem, so that problem was solved some time ago. Video distribution isn’t extremely valuable, but publishers are quickly shifting to provide HTML5-savvy video distribution for the iPhone. YouTube was first, now we have Vimeo, CBS and Brightcove making the shift.
For other content, such as visualizations, there will need to be more tools and more designers familiar with using open web standards. How does one make this shift happen? Money! Apple is creating a business model that will reward the use of open web standards as opposed to HTML-alternative runtimes such as Flash, Silverlight and JavaFX. Money is the carrot, and the stick is that there just aren’t any proprietary plugins to target on iPhone OS devices.
No amount of talk, no matter how radically and emotionally charged, is going to change publishers’ behaviors like the monetary incentives Apple is setting up around the iPad. And that, not Jobs’ private comments, is what Adobe is most afraid of. It’s too bad the company isn’t yet ready to accommodate the desires of the market in creating sophisticated HTML5 tools rather than trying to maintain proprietary control over digital content with Flash/Flex/AIR. Once it does, it can begin making money from the work Apple is doing.