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Adobe Executives Respond to Steve Jobs's Flash-Bashing

apple open standards

Apple's leading man himself, Steve Jobs, posted a long explanation of why his portable OS (iPhone OS) doesn't support Adobe's Flash, a contentious omission that's led many to call the iPhone's browser "incomplete." Characteristically, his arguments are clear and easy to understand, but pull no punches.

The six main reason he cites:

• Adobe's products are "100% proprietary"
• Most web video is also viewable, in some form or another, on iPhone OS. You may need to use a separate app, but with the notable (some would say point-negating) exception of Hulu, web video is mostly watchable without Flash.
• Flash basically sucks. "Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009," says Steve, and he also claims Flash is the number one reason Macs crash. Further: he says Flash has never performed well on mobile devices.
• Flash kills battery life. Using the supported H.264 video, an iPhone can get 10 hours of battery life. With Flash, it's half that.
• Flash isn't designed for touch. Especially in games, it relies on the "rollover" concept, in which the position of a mouse cursor triggers certain actions (like a popup menu). That concept doesn't work in touch.
• Apple banned Adobe's cross-platform app development tools because use of those tools "ultimately results in sub-standard apps."

Pretty damning. So what does Adobe have to say in response?

In an oddly stiff yet chummy interview with the Wall Street Journal, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen rejected many of the above six arguments but with little elaboration. For example, there's this tidbit: "Responding to a question about Mr. Jobs's assertion that Adobe is a closed platform, Mr. Narayen chuckles. 'I find it amusing, honestly. Flash is an open specification,' he says." That assertion that somehow Flash is "open" is not repeated in any of the official releases.

Correction: An earlier version of this post branded Flash as uniformly proprietary, which is not accurate. Neither Narayen of Adobe nor Jobs of Apple is accurately presenting the case: some aspects of Flash are open-source (including the SWF and FLV video formats and the Flex SDK), while some are proprietary (Flash IDE). The open-vs.-closed argument isn't really what we're talking about here, anyway: Jobs only mentions it to negate the accusations that iPhone OS is "too closed." His real problems are technological (like battery life and touch). Thanks to commenter Matthew Fabb for the correction.

Most of the response from Adobe consists of flat denials with no evidence or examples to back their side up. I'm not saying they're wrong, either—I don't know enough about software coding to confirm or deny. But when Apple says "Flash delivers half the battery life of its H.264 equivalent on the iPhone," and Adobe says nothing more than, "That is patently false," I'm going to tend to side with Apple because they're giving me something—anything—to go on.

The official responses from Adobe are brief and vague. "Any attempt to position this solely as a technology issue is a smokescreen," says the statement I was sent in an email. Could that be less convincing? In a post from Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch, Adobe simply says that they're choosing to "shift our focus away from Apple devices," focusing on competing mobile OSes from Google, Microsoft, RIM (BlackBerry), and Palm/HP.

I don't want to give the impression that there's a simple right and wrong here. Apple's blocking of any third-party development tools strikes me as bad for developers and thus bad for users. But if all Adobe can come up with are vague rejections and borderline-paranoid statements about Apple's dictatorial control, the timbre of this debate is going to shift from "why can't I watch Hulu on my iPhone?" to "why can't Adobe make Flash good enough for the iPhone?"

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in San Francisco (no link for that one—you'll have to do the legwork yourself).

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