Strong opinions, weakly held

Steve Jobs’ war on Flash

I can’t believe I’m linking to Valleywag, but there it is. They have a recap of Steve Jobs’ iPod demo for editors at the Wall Street Journal.

I agree with the many people who argue that Apple’s feud with Adobe over including Flash on mobile devices is mostly about control. Apple does not want people developing applications for the iPhone on a proprietary platform that will be ported to other platforms. I suspect that part of this is a pure power play, and that part of it is that they want iPhone applications to look like other iPhone applications, rather than looking like whatever UI toolkit the platform provider offers. My point here is that Apple has reasons both user-centered and selfish for keeping Flash off the iPhone.

Anyway, Apple can get away with it if they can make Adobe the bad guy. That’s why they keep bringing up the things that really are bad about Flash. It is a CPU hog (especially on OS X), it does cause browser crashes, and there are security problems with it. It enables Web sites to circumvent your browser preferences by providing its own cookies and allowing sites to do things like launch pop-up windows regardless of your other settings. When Apple points out the obvious shortcomings with Flash, they do well politically.

What Jobs is doing here, though, I think serves Apple very poorly. They look like the bully. It’s one thing to actively try to kill off the floppy disk, it’s another to try to kill of a popular and useful (in spite of everything) technology with a very active community of developers and lots of happy users to serve your own selfish ends. I don’t think that will serve Apple very well.

One point Jobs is said to have made is that there are readily available alternatives to Flash that the Wall Street Journal could use just as easily, but that’s just not true. The New York Times is cranking out interactive features in Flash every day, like this one explaining how Lindsey Vonn won the women’s downhill, and this one breaking down Obama’s 2011 budget. The effort required to produce something similar in HTML is much higher, and the results will not be as slick, nor are they likely to work in older browsers at all.

Steve Jobs may want to kill Flash, but openly saying it is a big mistake.


  1. I dunno. I tend to give Apple the benefit of the doubt here. The iPhone developer agreement strictly disallows providing programming platforms or language interpreters. There’s no real way to allow such without risking the security of the phone and thus exposing it to viruses and trojans.

    We already know Apple is enforcing this against even non-competitive apps: see the BASIC interpreter in the C64 sim. Flash, therefore, ought to be refused under this rule as straightforwardly as can be.

  2. Steve Jobs may want to kill Flash, but openly saying it is a big mistake.

    I don’t see how this will affect anything.

    • Will this lead to a backlash that causes Apple to relent and include Flash? Backlash maybe, relent on Flash almost certainly not
    • Will less people buy iPhones? No
    • Will less people buy iPads? No
    • Does Steve Jobs care what people think about him w/r/t Flash? I doubt it
  3. I think it’s going to come down to whether or not a flash capable phone really takes off and can challenge the iPhone.

    Right now Adobe is claiming that they’ll have flash 10 on Android, WebOS, Symbian and Windows phones by the end of the year. If the addition of this feature allows them to take back some market share from the iPhone, I’m sure Jobs and Apple will have a change of heart. If it doesn’t, see ya Flash.

    It’s all about the money and right now Apple feels it’s in a strong enough position to say they don’t need it. Everyone else is in a weak enough position that they need a differentiator.

  4. I think it’s going to come down to whether or not a flash capable phone really takes off and can challenge the iPhone.

    Even if some phone came along that could challenge the iPhone, I don’t think it would matter because Flash wouldn’t be the differentiator for two reasons:

    1. Most people don’t know what Flash is and it would fly over their heads in a commercial
    2. Because of the iPhone’s marketshare most web sites that make use of Flash will have to create a non-Flash version for the sake of iPhone users

    I think the only way Apple would ever be forced to add Flash is if they found themselves with weak and eroding marketshare and lots of web sites stopped caring about making things work for the iPhone and used a bunch of Flash for the other more popular phones. I think the probability of this scenario is near 0.

  5. If you build a web site entirely in Flash, you don’t deserve to have access the iPhone/iPad market share.

    Flash is great for a couple of things (like animations and animated presentations), but for the most part it’s a steaming pile of buggy junk.

    I’d actually feel different about this if Adobe open sourced Flash and allowed developers to fix the bugs, optimize the code, extend the platform, and build fast native versions of it for any mobile OS – including the iPhone OS.

  6. Apple has already lost this one. Even if Flash were abandoned today, there are still too many websites, games, and videos that use it that it can’t be avoided. They were able to get away with it on the iPhone because people who bought it were coming from dumbphones or smartphones without Flash. But people buying an iPad will be expecting the functionality of a computer not a broken internet.

    As an aside, Apple didn’t kill off the floppy disc. The floppy disc was a popular and useful technology for several years after the first disc-less iMac in 1998. In fact external floppy drives for the iMac were quite popular.

  7. Lack of Flash will be a bigger problem for the iPad than the iPhone. I’ve seen some things I’d want to use Flash for on the iPad, like the NYT graphics and some other interactive sites. I’ve never seen a Flash site I cared to see on the iPhone.

    Flash is a great technology for a limited number of things but it’s overused. I don’t go to a restaurant web site to see Flash animations, I go to find locations and menus. You don’t need Flash for that, but a lot of restaurants have Flash sites. This is really frustrating on the phone, but it would be more frustrating if my phone crashed or froze on Flash.

    Killing Flash would be going too far, but it seems to me that at least half the sites that use it will be better off without it, and that my user experience would be significantly improved on both phone and laptop if the practice of building sites in Flash was curtailed.

  8. If one of your Flash examples is a video, and another one looks like it might be easier as an imagemap with Javascript popups, you haven’t made a compelling case for Flash at all.

  9. Oh wait, the budget thing is zoomable. Well, that’s kind of cool. The netflix breakdown also was pretty cool. Those are good examples of Flash applications.

    But video delivery isn’t an argument for Flash. It’s an argument against it.

  10. The sports presentation is a video, yes, but I’m thinking more here of the authoring effort required to build the video. It’s a hell of a lot easier for an experienced Flash developer to turn something like that around overnight than it is for an experienced Web developer, although I do take the point that you could create the presentation in Flash and then use HTML5 to embed it.

  11. My impression is that Javascript is getting to the point where all the Flash magic is doable in JS. Yes it’s harder–for now. It’s just a question of when the tools, libraries, and performance catch up. From what I see with all the new JS vector libraries popping up like mad, and the performance improvements of Safari and Chrome on the JS front, the tools are the only thing that is missing an obvious path forward.

  12. Flash has already lost, for reasons Bill Higgins has already covered, but I’ll re-iterate.

    Apple is not going to allow Flash web content on the iPhone or iPad, ever. I use the awkward phrase “Flash web content” because they already have apps in the store that were created with Adobe’s Flash tools and then compiled down to something that runs on the iPhone. These will apparently also run on Android and possibly other platforms. I don’t see Apple blocking these so your accusation about Apple blocking from fear of porting is, at least currently, untrue and applies to several other app-building techniques, using Mono or HTML5 for example.

    But Flash on the web will not be seen on these devices unless Apple is forced to make an embarrassing backtrack on this issue. They appear to be going out of their way to leak their annoyance at Adobe. I agree with Bill that there is zero chance of this backtrack happening unless the iPhone tanks completely and I’ve not seen much argument from Adobe supporters that they think this is going to happen either.

    So if people want their videos to play on these devices they’ll need to deliver them via both Flash and HTML5 video. This is trivial to do and you’d have to be as firmly against HTML5 video as Jobs is against Flash to not make this simple change to reach this half a percent of your audience.

    At this point it is trivial to test all the platforms that support both HTML5 video and Flash video (e.g. Safari on Mac OS X, Chrome, Android soon) and decide which offer better quality/battery/user experience. I’m sure Flash will have some obscure benefits for certain users (pretending to be “secure” being one of them), but I’m also sure that HTML5 will rapidly become the preferred delivery mechanism for Safari, Youtube and Android. It simply doesn’t make sense on mobile to do anything other than hand the video over to be played natively and Flash’s issues on Mac OS X are well known. Youtube already has a cool feature in their HTML5 beta (fast-play/slow-mo) that I’ve never seen in any Flash video player.

    The interactive charts, slideshows etc. are more Flash’s thing but will follow soon after. Again, to reach a small but influential audience that Steve Jobs won’t let have Flash they will need to be redone in javascript/svg/canvas. If you use an appropriate library then you can fallback to Flash, VML or pure javascript in IE.

    What I find particularly ironic about this shift is the fact that those who are creating these Flash items probably own Apple products themselves. What psychological impact will this have on them? If the coolest nightclub in town stopped lettting people wearing pale blue denim enter, would the fashion conscious still wear those items to the clubs that still allow it?

  13. Rafe, I think you’ve picked up the wrong end of the stick here. After way too long the Flash party is coming to an end. Adobe (and a few of your commenters) hasn’t quite figured it out yet but it’s really an opportunity for them to address you point about ease of creating non-Flash. Tools like Gordon (http://paulirish.com/work/gordon/demos/) show what’s possible. If they can read the writing on the wall they’ll start overhauling their tools to produce HTML5 style content.

  14. Actually, I’d be perfectly ecstatic if Flash were to be replaced with something open and browser-native (like further enhancements to HTML5 and authoring tools to go along with them). In fact, I don’t even like Adobe, much less Flash.

    There’s no doubt in my mind that Adobe will create tools that emit whatever format is dominant on the Web, just as they have throughout their history. I think that just as Adobe has created a Flash-to-native iPhone app converter, they’ll also produce a Flash-to-HTML5 converter if it’s feasible to do so.

    My point was that Steve Jobs serves my cause (advocacy of open formats) better by sticking to technical grounds when justifying the decision not to include Flash support in Safari for the iPhone than by making it a crusade to make Flash a legacy platform.

  15. “There’s no real way to allow such without risking the security of the phone”

    This is simply untrue. For one thing, there is no clear line between a “language interpreter” and a “file viewer”. An application that reads JPEG files and does something with the results is no more or less prone to security bugs from programming flaws than an application which reads script files and executes them.

    For another, there is no reason that a scripting environment cannot be secure. In-browser Javascript is a relatively secure scripting environment, for instance. It limits the ability of programs to access the host machine or network resources, and allows users to shut down malicious or buggy programs.

    The single solitary reason that Apple does not allow language interpreters or VMs is that it wants to be the gatekeeper for applications on its platforms. That’s not a bizarre or unprecedented thing to wish for, but it’s also not one based on technical concerns that a user should care about.

    Since Apple actually does ship an actual language interpreter and GUI rendering environment – it’s called a “web browser” – the idea that doing so is an unacceptable security risk is a bit silly.

  16. Open? The iPhone is about as closed an environment ad I know. Sure, go ahead and complain about Flash being closed. Apple loves being closed. It’s all about control and money, not about being open. And frankly, the Apple I knew that was “nice” has long since been replaced by the same greedy attitudes elsewhere. They do good spin. But, Apple open? Hardly.

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