Why Steve Jobs Loves Adobe Flash
April 30th, 2010
Daniel Eran Dilger
Steve Jobs doesn’t offer his thoughts all that often, but when he does, they are articulated in masterfully convincing language. His latest “Thoughts on Flash” sounded like a distillation of every RoughlyDrafted article on the issue of Flash, boiled down into a devastating six point skewering. Secretly though, Jobs really does love Flash, here’s why.
Critics of Apple’s stance on Flash in the iPhone OS have settled upon a conspiracy theory that links the company’s refusal to bundle a mobile version of Flash with the lost revenues Apple might suffer were Flash apps to eat away at App Store downloads. They say Apple isn’t blocking Flash for “technical reasons,” but rather “for business reasons,” a talking point shorthand for insisting that there’s nothing wrong with Flash, it’s just all a matter of Apple being corporately rude to protect its walled garden of native apps.
The first problem with this conspiracy theory talking point is that Flash does have a very clear and indisputable technical problem in the mobile arena: it simply does not yet exist! While pundits seem to think Apple is refusing to allow Adobe to offer Flash to iPhone users, the reality is that there is still simply no version that Apple could bundle or allow run on the iPhone (say, as an App Store download), even if it wanted to do so.
The experimental Flash 10.1 mobile version that is being prepared for Android 2.2, due in the second half of 2010, has not even yet had the opportunity to demonstrate that Flash can be viable on mobile devices. Why Flash’s proponents exercise so much blind faith in Adobe’s promises to deliver a workable first edition is rather difficult to rationalize, given the company’s terrible record of performance, security, and update cycles for Flash Player on any platform other than (or perhaps in addition to) Windows.
The only thing we really know about Flash 10.1 for mobile devices is that it will require at least an ARM Cortex A8 processor (that means minimally the iPhone 3GS) just to run. That’s not a solution for the millions of iPhone and iPod touch users who own a device sold before last fall. That’s the kind of thing that Microsoft and Google would roll out, along with the pat suggestion that users just run out and buy a new phone before their existing contract is even up, just to be able to play Farmville.
Which Brings Me To My Main Point
See, you thought I was just going to regurgitate all the things I’ve already written about Flash and not really ever get around to the tantalizing idea I dropped into the headline. Well no, I’m just now getting around to explaining how it is that Jobs absolutely loves Flash.
But first let me clarify: Jobs certainly doesn’t love Flash on the iPhone OS for the reasons he outlined in his blog posting, writing in character as (it would appear) the Fake Daniel Eran Dilger:
- First, Flash is closed and proprietary to (owned by) Adobe, meaning that its future development is completely under the control of one company, making it toxic to the open nature of the web.
- Second, the existing content Adobe keeps promoting as “critical to the full web experience” is a mixed bag of stuff that is mostly either also available without Flash (like YouTube) or junk that isn’t really desirable (those Flash games that are weak sauce and wildly overshadowed by real games written natively for the iPhone OS).
- Third, Flash is a black hole of security problems, performance issues, and instability. Anyone on a Mac is aware of how Flash eats up RAM and CPU cycles while doing nothing. But even on Windows, Flash is a major vector for security problems because it is a web plugin, making it a front door to attacks (at CanSecWest, security expert Charlie Miller was asked which browser is safest, to which he replied, “there probably isn’t enough difference between the browsers to get worked up about. The main thing is not to install Flash!”). Adobe simply hasn’t done a good job of delivering Flash Player as a desktop platform, but in the mobile area, these issues are even a greater problem.
- Fourth, Flash isn’t optimized for battery life efficiency. Flash was designed to animate the web on desktop PCs, where computational efficiency wasn’t an important engineering factor. Additionally, all the Flash videos Adobe brags about “as critical to the full web” is largely pre-H.264, meaning Flash has to decode it in software rather than leveraging the hardware accelerated codecs in mobile devices (the iPod/iPhone only support MPEG-4 video codecs because they can be accelerated in hardware. Most existing Flash videos are FLV/VP6, which lacks mobile hardware decoding support. Incidentally, this is also why Ogg Theora is brain dead as a mobile codec).
- Fifth, existing Flash content is not designed to support multitouch interfaces. To upgrade it to support multitouch, you have to rewrite and redesign how the interface works. Why do that in Flash instead of embracing open web standards?
- Sixth, Apple doesn’t want its third party developers to be tied to a “lowest common denominator” middleware platform that may not expose the unique features of the iPhone OS if it is not in Adobe’s interest to support them. And it wouldn’t be in Adobe’s interests to support novel things Apple adds to the iPhone OS if those features aren’t also in Android, webOS, BlackBerry OS and Windows Phone 7, because that would derail Adobe’s cross platform efforts. This is the same problem that has hindered JavaME from being any good across mobile devices. JavaME similarly promised to bridge different hardware and vendors, but really just watered down the features available to fancy phones, making them expensive, underutilized versions of everything else that ran JavaME. And everything else implemented JavaME poorly anyway.
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Where Jobs Loves Flash
Jobs’ six reasons for not supporting Flash in the iPhone OS also serve as six reasons why Jobs will absolutely love to see Apple’s mobile competitors rushing to support Flash as a competitive talking point in their desperate, last ditch efforts to compete with the iPhone.
Google started the ball rolling with its announcements that it would embrace Flash on Android, recently noting that Flash Player will be bundled with Android 2.2 at some point later this year. Whether Android phone users will actually ever be able to upgrade to the new release is a matter of aligning the planets (of mobile providers and phone makers’ dependencies upon Android customizations and specific phone models) that will further delay or prevent the upgrade for many users. Of course, only the latest Android phones will even have the hardware required to run Flash Player.
Google has not explained how its support for Flash will mesh with its support for open web standards; nor mentioned the security problems, performance issues, and instability of Flash as a platform, nor its battery life impact, nor the fact that most existing Flash content does not work well in a multitouch environment, nor the reality that having Flash on Android will impede the development of native, Android-specific apps, in addition to harming the development of sophisticated, cross platform HTML5 applications that could possibly be used to share common ground with the iPhone and leverage its success.
Microsoft has similarly announced that Windows Phone 7 will support Flash when (or if) it arrives at the end of the year. And like Google, Microsoft is similarly ignoring the problems of Flash in a mobile environment. Palm’s webOS, Symbian, and RIM’s BlackBerry OS are also all set to incorporate Flash, bringing upon themselves the series of problems for their users as outlined by Jobs above, just as many of those same vendors embraced Java to their own peril with essentially no upside (and count Apple in among the platform vendors who were duped and burned by cross platform Java hype a decade ago).
Schadenfreude and the WebKit pearls before swine
What better curse could one wish upon one’s mobile platform competitors than a bunch of performance and security problems, poor battery life, a mess of user interface inconsistencies, and a malignant boil upon their efforts to develop their own third party development platforms? Jobs didn’t express such schadenfreude himself, but he can’t possibly not be ecstatic that his competitors are all rushing to wrap themselves around the neck with the dead albatross that is Adobe’s Flash.
For its part, Apple has shepherded the development of WebKit as a free, HTML5-savvy, standards-based web browser engine that all the major mobile platforms (apart from Microsoft, which is still sticking with its completely terrible Trident browser) have embraced. It’s their own decision to climb into bed with the rotting corpse of Flash instead.
And so Steve Jobs absolutely loves Flash in the mobile realm, and must be greatly entertained by antics of his peers who are all desperate to enslave themselves to Adobe’s inefficient, poorly performing, lowest common denominator alternative to open web standards that will choke their already ineffectual efforts to duplicate the iPhone and iPad.
Once Flash for mobiles actually ships and consumers see what a completely ridiculous and wildly overhyped bunch of junk it is, all those mobile platform vendors will be stuck having to rely on Adobe to roll out security patches and updates. And they’ll be forced to keep their fingers crossed that Adobe, which hasn’t bothered to invest the resources to maintain two decent desktop versions of Flash Player, will now suddenly decide to maintain five different new mobile versions of Flash Player and keep them all up to date, secure, performing acceptably, and in feature parity. All at the expense of their own native software platforms.
Steve Jobs couldn’t wish for a better virus to weaken rival smartphone platforms.