Daniel Eran Dilger
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Why Steve Jobs Loves Adobe Flash

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.
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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.

Flash Wars: Adobe in the History and Future of Flash
Gone in a Flash: More on Apple’s iPhone Web Plans (2007)

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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Five Tremendous Apple vs. Adobe Flash Myths
Fraud science used to promote Flash performance over web standards

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).

Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad: 2. It needs Flash
Why Apple is betting on HTML 5: a web history

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.

  • http://couchguy.tumblr.com couchguy

    With regard to other mobile platforms choosing to embrace Flash to try and differentiate themselves from Apple’s products, I can just hear Steve Jobs quoting Sheriff Bart from Blazing Saddles: “Baby, I am so talented… and they are so dumb!”

  • gctwnl

    @gus2000: I tried the interactive chart for AAPL over on Yahoo, but my CPU staus nicely idle. OTOH, try to add the NASDAQ for compare and the first time the popup window comes up, you check the box and say add and nothing happens. Then you try again and th ebox pops up but is unable to get mouse focus. Crappy programming, certainly, and though Flash itself may not to blame, it certainly seems to make it easy to make such crappy software.

  • gctwnl

    “stays” not “staus” of course

  • Chipotle

    @JohnWatkins: While I’m not an expert in this either — I’m mostly going by Flash engineer Tinic Uro’s postings on his weblog about this, and may well be misinterpreting something — the problem with Core Animation wasn’t performance, it was that they really can only use it for better performance in the newest versions of Safari. Browser plugins can only draw to the screen using whatever method the browser uses to draw, apparently, and only Safari is using Core Animation.

    My understanding is that Core Animation lets them accelerate more than just video — in future versions of Safari with future versions of Flash, performance should just be much better all across the board. But the Video Decode Acceleration framework doesn’t actually do any of the drawing; it just decodes video frames. So it should help in all browser plugins.

    @Mike: Well, no, Adobe wouldn’t have to rewrite “millions of lines of code.” The 10.1 beta is already using Core Animation and they already have a development version using VDA. Remember, whatever Flash’s copious faults may be, it’s written to be cross-platform to start with. They’ve almost certainly written their I/O routines in such a way that they’re “black box” functions, like methods in object-oriented programming. That way when you have to switch the way a given component works — like using hardware decoding when it’s available — you have only the absolute minimum amount of lines to rewrite or add.

    @MetalboySiSo: Hmm. I used to be a really big Fireworks fan, but the newer versions have been getting progressively more annoying. I don’t really *want* my user interface designed in Adobe AIR, thanks; that’s precisely the kind of thing that makes people hate Flash in the first place!

  • airmanchairman

    gus2000 { 04.30.10 at 4:45 pm } said
    “Don’t get hung up on the inefficient video decoding for OSX Flash…that’s not the issue. Pull up a Yahoo! or Google Flash-based stock chart, and watch your CPU peg to 100% as you do nothing but roll the mouse over the chart. Pathetic.”

    Touché, Gus…
    This is something I do on my Windows XP machine (3.4MHz, 2Gb RAM) mind you, with Task Manager up and displaying the CPU window, and the “spike” as I run my mouse over an innocuous bit of Flash code absolutely horrifies me…

  • airmanchairman

    Maniac { 04.30.10 at 12:31 pm } said:
    “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
    - Napoleon Bonaparte
    Steve Jobs would have been an awesome General.

    Steve Jobs IS an awesome General

  • airmanchairman

    md5sum said:

    I’ve not had Flash ever crash on my Mac, but I also only use Chrome, not Safari.

    It’s tempting to call you out as an outright liar – I use Chrome on my Windows XP PC, mind you, and Flash has crashed more times than I have had hot dinners since I installed Chrome. In fact, it’s the only plug-in I can recall as having crashed on a regular basis .

  • Jim F.

    At last an explanation of the single / short “Steve Jobs” emails to Macophiles… He is too busy writing as “Fake Daniel Eran Dilger” !!!

  • stefn

    I’m with Berend on this: I don’t think Steve wishes his competitors well or ill.

    He let go of the junkyard dog, life-as-a-pissing-match attitude in maybe 1990, at the point when he had to let go of Apple and learned to move on, to Next and Pixar.

    Steve simply does not let anyone or anything get in the way of Apple’s doing something great. Now that he knows what great means.

    “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Eliot.

  • MetalboySiSo

    @Chipotle:

    RE: Fireworks, I just recently really started learning about some of the Adobe/Macromedia products, so that may explain our difference in satisfaction levels with current iterations thereof. I mean, I knew a little about Photoshop, but it’s only recently that I started to bother to really learn about it, and also, until recently, I knew *nothing* about vectors at all. Therefore, since Fireworks does both, I’ve been enjoying using it (the catalyst for learning it in the first place was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a college class).

    I will say that I agree with you about UIs designed in AIR, though. That’s very true, but at the same time, I don’t mind the CS4 layout that much. And the stuff Adobe has previewed from Photoshop CS5 looks interesting.

    Be that as it may (meaning that although Adobe does still make a few interesting/worthwhile products), down with Flash, as it is not one of them.

    Michael

  • bparry1990

    I must admit “dead albatross” make me laugh also. :)

  • nini

    Gotta wonder sometimes had Adobe not gone and eaten Macromedia what’d become of Flash. Super-evil or plays nicely with others?

  • hcdb

    FLASH – SMASH,

    Selfish perspective from an Apple/Adobe USER!

    Adobe obviously cares more about markets than they do about long-time customers and users of their products. Admittedly they are historically more accumulators and maintainers, as opposed to innovative original creators -but- they have accumulated useful technology tools.

    Instead of improving their existing products they waste their time trying to be (get) more and spin to the tech world and the markets. Let’s see some data on how much market share they are LOSING with people who are real users of their products who are disgusted with their political partisanship !

    Forget Flash for a moment (easy enough!)

    Look at what Apple has done for it’s customers recently – the iPhone and the iPad. Re-defined mobile computing.

    Look at what Adobe has done for those same customers (who are re-defining how mobile tech is used):

    Photoshop.com for the iPhone and Ideas for the iPad. Both are bad jokes on users who expect and deserve more. Adobe should be embarrased.

    In contrast, companies like Autodesk have QUIETLY taken acquired technology and produced a killer app for the iPhone in Sketchbook Mobile -and- an unbelevably useable full-blown application for the iPad in Sketchbook Pro. SBP is no freeby toy app and was in the AppStore, ready for download on iPad day one! Absolutely brilliant and user centric. Where is Adobe and Photoshop?

    In even starker contrast is a tiny company like Stunt – who, with Freeform, have a brilliant product that owns vector creation on the iPad so far. Where’s Adobe and Illustrator?

    Adobe is busy being social suit, political wannabees and MAYBE working a little bit, willy-nilly on the tenth beta of flashlight for Androld.

    Adobe needs to can half of their overhead exec/sales staff – hire some dedicated developers who care about the customer experience (INCLUDING APPLE USERS!) – and do some real work.

    Apple and their developers are making nextgen tools for ME! I care about Apple.

    Adobe does not care about me as a customer or my product needs. I don’t care about Adobe.

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

    @md5sum
    I’d be curious to see a list of Flash-based apps that you say are already in the App Store.

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

    @hcdb
    Adobe feels more and more like Microsoft. A lumbering beast that wanders the land, devouring the villagers, making lots of noise and smoke.

    I wonder where FreeHand would be had Adobe not devoured it.

    As for AutoDesk, they’re seem a bit schizophrenic. One the one hand, they have acquired some interesting applications and seem to want to do interesting things with them. On the other hand, they still dominate the CAD market with that horrific, Byzantine and bloated POS AutoCAD (which also seems to produce equally horrific and downright FUGLY drawings). I use Vectorworks, btw.

    I tried their SketchBook and did not like it. Thanks for the Freeform tip. I’ll check it out.

  • ericgen

    @Mr. Reece

    On ‘Flash’ apps in the App Store, I haven’t seen any hard numbers on how many ‘Flash’ (they were apparently written in Flash and then converted) apps are in the store, but I believe one of the Adobe protestations earlier in the week made reference to their being “more than 100″. That would seem pretty inconsequential in the face of Steve Jobs saying that there’s over 200K apps in the store. The only ‘Flash’ app by name that I’m even aware of is the South Park app.

  • ericgen

    Oops! Grammar police! Wrong’their’! Should have been ‘there’!

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

    @ericgen

    “Around” 100 Flash-based Apps!

    Holy Zhit, Adobe should be pissed! That’s around a whopping one half of ONE percent!

    Still, if it’s SUCH a big deal and has SUCH huge bearing on the Flash on iOS devices issue, let’s see a LIST. I mean, what’s the BFD about compiling a list of actual App names? Toss in URLS and developer names for emphasis.

    Otherwise, rumors of Flash-based apps in the App Store amounts to little more than conjecture, myth and PURE DESPERATION!

    Personally, I can’t WAIT to see when (and IF) Adobe delivers Flash for Android. When it turns out that Apple and Steve Jobs were CORRECT not allowing Flash on the iPhone/iPad, it will be absolutely hilarious seeing and hearing the hoops Flash apologists will be forced to jump through in order to justify their championing of dying desktop technology.

    It’ll be just like the iMac and the floppy disk all over again.

  • JohnWatkins

    1/2 %!?
    Check your math Mr. Reece
    (1/20 %.)

  • hcdb

    @MREEEE – 65

    SKIP INTRO > SKIP FLASH !!!

    Without getting too far off-topic of Daniel’s Jobs/Flash article:

    Autodesk is one of the only diversified 3D games in town anymore. Can’t really comment too much on AutoCAD other than it has a HUGE user-base. However Autodesk is now 3DS Max, Softimage, Alias Studio, Maya, Inventor, etc. amazing!

    My point was mostly that Autodesk took acquired tech and Quietly and brilliantly made it mobile.

    You may not like Sketchbook Pro – but it is without doubt one of the most sophisticated apps available for the iPad. It is really geared at quick visualization for concept sketching but is applicable to other tasks. Substitute Brushes or 5-or-6 other apps. BUT NO PHOTOSHOP tools for iPad users.

    AND Autodesk just did their job quietly and professionally.

    Opposite of Adobe who did essentially NOTHING for iPad users and made TONS of noise while doing nothing!

    Stunt’s Freeform is in it’s infancy – but obvious potential and the most Illustrator or Freehand like of the vector tools. Stunt did it professionally and quietly.

    Again, Adobe did TONS of NOTHING for iPad users and made TONS of noise while doing nothing!

  • fenderplayer96

    A few people have pointed out there are around 100 iPhone apps built using Flash, and some have used that to suggest there’s no problem using Flash to develop iPhone apps.

    Does anyone have any idea how many crappy, buggy, crash-prone and battery-wasting Flash-based apps Apple have blocked before that 100 got through?

    I can’t imagine that only 100 developers tried to get their (Flash-based) app onto the iPhone, which makes that 100 the tip of the iceberg. How big is the rest?

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

    @hcdb

    I’m not disputing AutoDesk’s lineup of 3D applications. As a Mac user they have next to zero relevance for me and my own work, except in the case of translating AutoCAD DXF/DWG files.

    Years ago AutoDesk released a Mac version of AutoCAD which was dreadful and failed miserably on the Mac. We have high standards and expectations, so bad software dies quickly on the Mac.

    I tried an early version of SketchBook on my iPod touch and wasn’t very impressed. The iPad version looks to be much more capable. Maybe I’ll give it a try.

  • hcdb

    @MRREEEE – 71

    Yeah, again, know really nothing about AutoCAD.

    BUT – have used Autodesk Sketchbook PRO, Autodesk Maya, and Autodesk Alias Studio – ALL on the Mac. Not CAD – but KICKassk design, visualization, animation, game dev tools.

    Autodesk did not originally develop any of those tools – but they are keeping them alive (along with a bunch of other tools).

    Again, bringin it back round …

    … AS OPPOSED to Adobe – who are making much misleading noise about mobile while doing NOTHING for millions of existing customers.

    Adios Adobe!

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