Daniel Eran Dilger
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The fallacy of Flash: why Adobe’s ideological war with Apple is bankrupt

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.

Flash Wars: Adobe in the History and Future of Flash

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.

Why Apple is betting on HTML 5: a web history

Whose choice?

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.

New Media and Free Market Choice

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.

How Apple Is Dogfighting To Control Your News – Gawker
Publishers Push Back Against Steve Jobs’ Anti-Flash Propaganda – Gawker

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.

  • Per

    I have a feeling that whoever releases the first real HTML5 publishing tools will earn a huge pile of cash.

  • klasseng

    @ Per: Ditto, HTML5 authoring tools are the bottle neck for the move away from Flash to happen. Thing is, who’s going to do it? Adobe is dragging their feet on it.

  • http://berendschotanus.com Berend Schotanus

    Good thinking!

    When you see the intensity of the punditry, Flash apparently does have a lot of loyal supporters in the developers community. Building a good HTML5 editor now is the thing to do for Adobe to keep these folks attached to them.

  • daBoss

    This all happened before.

    Makes me think back to the late 80s when Adobe was portrayed as the big, bad, bully for not reducing the licence fees for Postscript or Type 1 hints. Then Apple developed and released TrueType, crossed licensed it to Microsoft and, lo and behold, those same pundits rushed to defend the poor, old Adobe because Apple and Microsoft were ganging up on the little company that could.

  • harrywolf

    Apple gave up OS9 and created OSX to enable the future prosperity of Apple.

    Microsoft held on to Windows – losing share, losing (lost?) credibility.
    Adobe holds on to flash and refuses to create new tools for content delivery – they arent thinking clearly and will lose too.

    Flash really is junk – and old junk at that.

    More to the point, when a person aims his device (PC, Smartphone, iPad) at a page on the web, that page should load, clean and clear, no matter what.
    Open standards ensure that, closed systems deny that.

    Its laziness and greed that define Adobe and Microsoft et al.
    That in itself is enough to reject Adobe and its nasty, ugly little movie player/mouseover piece of junk.

    Dan, you really are the very best writer on all things tech and the web.

  • Extensor

    Adobe needs to add an HTML5 exporter to Flash as a first step while working on a separate HTML5 editor.

  • http://ObamaPacman.com ObamaPacman

    With the parade of content creators moving to produce HTML5 or no-flash version of websites, Flash is going the way of the floppy.

  • enzos

    > ..simply baring the development.. <

    ..simply barring the development..

    Baring all

  • FreeRange

    Amen! Thank you Daniel for another brilliantly written and logically laid out expose!

  • gus2000

    It’s sad that “propoganda” has come to mean “this crazy stuff that you’re making me say”. I’m similarly saddened by the frequent and errant use of the word “hype” to refer to Apple. The definition is “exaggerated and often misleading marketing”, when in fact Apple has barely marketed the iPad at all. Sadly, “hype” now means “all the excitement you’ve caused”, since this term is used to describe the internet temperature prior to a rumored Apple product announcement when “hype” is obviously a non-sequitur.

    For exaggerated and misleading marketing, look no further than the billboards and print ads from 2007 claiming “The Wow Starts Now”. Now THATS hype, unless of course you use “wow” in the negative sense:

    “Hey, I just installed Vista!”
    “Oh. Wow.”

  • iLogic

    Apple’s influence is as far reaching as ever before and it will continue to increase as Dan said, through a successful and innovative platform. The iPad is the future in such an obvious way that all websites will want to support it perfectly.

  • overnightparking

    Good essay Dan, you’ve covered it. I think the economics of the situation for advertisers will quickly drive the transition to html5 technologies regardless of all the blog arguments, tweets and Adobe manipulations. As the transition picks up steam the impetus to switch away from flash will become a competitive necessity.
    Good bye floppy disks…

  • KenC

    Haha! You totally took apart that guy’s rantings. I like the parallelism with all those blatherings about WinMedia choice.

  • Mike

    Great article. The only problem here is that Adobe has gotten so desperate that it wants to spread misinformation about HTML5 because it doesn’t want to rewrite its entire Dreamweaver product, not to mention scrap its highly profitable Flash development tool. I guess that’s what has got it all worked up, because it’s possible to do HTML5, but the documentation and the tools just aren’t there yet. But they will be in a few years, so I’m guessing they’re covering their bases? Hopefully Apple or some other enterprising developer will make an HTML editor that’s as easy to layout as an iPhone or iPad app. Think of what could be done with a Interface Builder equivalent for the web! That sort of tool needs to be done, with an Apple-esque flourish.. none of that Dreamweaver crap. And then you could go back and connect the interface to the code. Ah, what a world that would be if web programming was similar to developing for the iPhone…

  • chandrac

    Daniel, what are you smoking nowadays? This was a fine article, in a different class. Articulate, impassioned and on target. The Muse was with you, it seems.
    For the mean-spirited of the world, it is often preferable to aim for the rocks and sink the ship than to change course and do the right thing. They will cut off their noses to spite their faces. Adobe, like MS, suffers from a scarcity mentality: a belief that the cake has a limited and finite size and thus wanting a larger than reasonable slice of it, at the expense of all others. They want to own the cake and gorge on it even though they did little to create it. Apple and companies like it on the other hand, have an abundance mentality. They see the cake as being capable of infinite size if you work hard to add to it, as well as take from it; and that there could be enough for everyone to have a fair share. They don’t want to own the cake.
    Abundance thinking tends to lead to growth and success. And the cake does indeed get better.
    Thanks again. I really enjoyed reading this. Articulate and well-argued.

  • http://macsmarticles.blogspot.com Derek Currie

    In case anyone in the USA had not noticed, we’re deep into an era of propaganda, all around us, in many aspects of our lives. The loony political garbage is only one facet, albeit profound. It is part of a general trend in marketing that I snarkily call The Marketing Moron Movement. If that phrase sounds like someone is taking a dump on your head, you’re getting the clue. The key components are contempt and disrespect for the customer, well hidden of course behind vacuous happy smiley shiny rhetoric.

    Adobe’s Flash Blog is a great place to see hard core propaganda in action. If you follow the loony political garbage, it is great fun to pick up parallel strategies in HATE, ABUSE and LIES. That Adobe has come to this is incredibly shameful and sad IMHO.


  • http://macsmarticles.blogspot.com Derek Currie

    A quick intro to the business management cycle:

    Most creative businesses start out as entrepreneurial in management. Apple is a great example. With time the management of most companies gradually wanders away from creating into selling. Eventually this leads to marketing executives being allowed to take overall management roles, something they are typically entirely unfit to perform. (Shoot me kids, but I’ve lived it.) As the marketing-as-management process progresses, the concept of ‘the customer is king’ gives way to ‘the customer is a PITA, only good for handing us their money.’ Meanwhile, marketing personalities have a reputation for actively undermining productive personalities, effectively wiping out the entrepreneurial spirit of the company. Examples of companies currently in this dreadful state are Kodak, Adobe and Sony. (And oh yes, the US federal government!) Kodak are in a transition back to the start of the management cycle. Sony are trying, but fumbling. Adobe are currently still on the down slope, not recognizing their degradation.

    Apple of course took direct action to end the downward spiral resulting from marketing-as-management by allowing themselves to be taken over by a stridently entrepreneurial company, NeXt, not coincidentally headed by Steve Jobs. This has allowed Apple to return to and sustain an entrepreneurial management system.

    Hopefully Adobe can recover as well. In the meantime, we have to put up with their lack of focus on creativity or customer respect.

  • Imapolicecar

    @Derek Currie

    I’d noticed that too but assumed it was only my imagination.
    Very articulately described. I like the way you also state that Apple were taken over by NeXt [which is what happened ideologically but not financially]. :-)

  • gctwnl


    Many people have likened the takeover of NeXT by Apple as a takeunder, with NeXT ideologically taking over Apple. But how good these NeXT people were, to present it purely like that is unfair. There must have been a lot of brilliant people inside Apple whose ideas were not heard/used. What the NeXT ideological takeover at the top also did was to liberate these people from seriously misguided upper management.

    With respect to content of the article. The situation remains that for rich internet application Flash (and its brethren like Silverlight) is the only available option. For video play and advertisement, there are other options, but not for RIA. Ajax and stuff are not that rich. For iPhone and iPad, the option is to go native (app store) and create a Cocoa app for iPhone OS.

    So, while most of Flash is ads and video, the small number of sites using it for a rich user experience cannot go open standard yet. Think of many sites directed at small children with small games and stuff. As long as there is no practical open standard for that, Flash will be with us, I think.

    It is especially this kind of functionality that Apple wants to keep from iPhone OS. This forces apps to take the Cocoa-route and that means that apps will less easily be available on competing mobile platforms. If Apple (and Microsoft) would support Flash on iPad/iPhone (WinMo7), a lot of developers would use it just to be able to target multiple platforms. That makes business sense. But now that Microsoft also has said it will not support Flash, it looks dire for Adobe.

    In case of Microsoft, that seems a stupid move. They need all the apps they can get, even if those same apps would be available on other platforms (Android) as well. But it seems Microsoft is worried about Android and takes (for now) Apple’s market position for granted.

  • http://www.van-garde.com adobephile

    I have worn my screen name proudly for over two decades now, driven mainly by my professional love for Adobe’s Creative Suite products and their enablement of my current freelance career. I have admired Adobe’s original entrepreneurial spirit as set by its founders. I was impressed in particular by John Warnock’s personal VHS video presentation (very much in the character of Steve Jobs’ famous keynotes) about what a fine product Adobe Illustrator was. The video cassette accompanied the software in that big green slipcase. That was 1987.

    Though I still use and love those Adobe software tools as they exist today in Creative Suite 4, I have to honestly take exception with Flash.

    I’ve always held the view–or at least the hope–that Apple and Adobe, despite all gossip to the contrary, have always been fast friends, having effectively partnered in bringing us into and through the desktop publishing era. I’ve even excused them for the various gaps in platform parities where they exist across their extensive catalog of apps, as I could understand the likely pragmatic strategies which had to be adopted for reasons of economics and efficiencies.

    I think Steve Jobs continues to show true brilliance and courage in his stance on Flash, as I think Apple’s broader embracing of open standards has been and will continue to be an ever increasingly positive factor fueling its prosperity and expansion.

    I hope Adobe management has enough integrity at this stage to eat some crow and put Flash either on the shelf or in file 13 and get serious about getting onto the Apple bandwagon, as there is indeed a lot of money to be made there if they play their card right.

    The Flash joyride is over.

  • ShabbaRanks

    As there is an obvious need for HTML5 authoring tools coming in the future and Adobe are purposely dragging their heels trying to prop up Flash, the question may be….
    Why don’t Apple create the kit themselves?

    Maybe they already have with the iPhone web app kit they put out. Maybe they’re relying on the FOSS community to sort it out. Maybe they can’t be arsed with the inevitable support hell they’ll have to bear. Currently Apple, Google and to a lesser extent Mozilla are the main drivers of the finalisation of HTML5. Why aren’t they on top of this golden opportunity?

  • ShabbaRanks

    Oh, one more thing.

    One of the comments on the mentioned articles made me spit my tea all over the room.

    “What a dumb article. Hmm, I know, let’s ask a bunch of mid-level managers whose bread-and-butter is Flash whether or not they think Flash is geigh.

    What these bozos quoted in the article fail to recognize is that many internet users install Flash-blocking browser elements to hide their lovingly crafted monkey-punching ads.”


  • http://www.copperhead-design.com Mr. Reeee

    Another good article.

    It would make sense for Adobe to cover their own backsides and create Flash to HTML5 converter.

    I suppose they could still call the application Flash to save face and marketing dollars. It’s unclear which is more important to Adobe’s management at this point.

    Clearly there is a major shift going on and Apple’s vigorous support of open standards probably makes it easier for some of the weaker and smaller players to follow.

    I’d be curious to see how general real-world performance of Flash-supporting mobile devices (battery life, browsing speed, etc.) are affected accessing Flash content vs. those same devices accessing those same sites’ iPad/iPhone optimized content pages.

    There’s an idea for an article, Daniel! Maybe not you, but someone, somewhere.

  • tundraboy

    Adobe has this strange notion that it can arrest the march of technology and henceforth keep Flash as a perpetual web standard. It can keep it maintaining that belief at their own peril. They truly are a lazy company, as Steve Jobs said. And its not physical sloth, it’s a laziness of the imagination. An unwillingness to exert the mental effort needed to formulate a vision of the future in their industry. This could be fatal in the tech industry.

  • CrestonBob

    Funny thing is … Adobe already has had extensive involvement in an open replacement for Flash. It’s called SVG. They could transition their vector graphics users to that standard, which they were going to do originally, as I recall. If Adobe and other players would hurry up and get the SVG implementation completed the whole Flash issue would just go away with no real loss to anyone.

    [Right, but Adobe cared about SVG back when it was positioning it as an open standard to counter Macromedia’s Flash. Now that Adobe owns Flash, it has a different take. Also, a major reason why SVG didn’t become more popular was that Microsoft pomoted Flash with IE, but didn’t support SVG. – Dan]

  • http://www.curiosity.com curiositrey

    I love the writing – just discovered RoughlyDrafted yesterday, on my iPad! – and I totally agree…Why Adobe is complaining so loudly, while they are releasing “lite” versions of Photoshop for iPhone and Illustrator for iPad, seems a little obsequious. Their 2 Apps could have been making loads of money already, so maybe they were seen as Protest Apps. Seems like a strange business model: complain about the competition and then contribute free software that allows their own ultimate demise…curiosity

  • MetalboySiSo

    @curiousitrey –

    Boy, do you have some catching up to do, if you just found RDM. Go back and read some of Dan’ articles from the 2004-2007 timeframe, and you’ll begin to understand (if you don’t already) why the rest of us are so taken with his writing.

    Cheers, and welcome,

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