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Inside Apple's iPad: Adobe Flash

Is Apple being unfair to Adobe and restricting choice?

A second issue being raised about the iPhone OS' intentional lack of support for Flash is whether platform vendors like Apple have the right to decide which software partners they want to support. Adobe's stance is that Apple should give its customers options, which means that the iPhone should include a Flash runtime just like nearly every other device that uses the web.

Interestingly, the history of Flash indicates that Apple isn't just persecuting it as a bully. If anything, Apple is just reclaiming its position in media delivery. After all, it was Apple that introduced video, animation, and multimedia on the desktop with QuickTime in 1991, back before Microsoft was even able to get reliable audio playback working across the spectrum of Windows PCs.

The Origins of Flash

Flash sprang from a tool called SmartSketch, originally conceived as a drawing app for handheld pen computing devices. It then moved to the Macintosh and PC to become a drawing tool competing against Adobe Illustrator and Aldus Freehand. In order to survive against those entrenched rivals, it morphed into an animation tool called FutureSplash Animator in 1996.

As the web started to emerge as a new platform of its own, FutureWave, the developers behind FutureSplash, first worked to create animations that could play on the web via Sun's Java, which was notoriously slow. When Netscape launched its own API for browser plugins, the company created its own native plugin for FutureSplash content. Apple had already delivered a similar plugin for Quicktime that enabled users to play videos and other content within web pages.

Microsoft's war on the open web

As the web gained in popularity, Microsoft began working hard to take over the medium to prevent it from competing for developer's attention in preference its own Windows platform. It worked to destroy Netscape via Internet Explorer, which tied the web to Windows; it partnered with Sun to sidetrack the company's Java and lace it with dependence on Windows; and it also attempted to clone Apple's QuickTime as a medium for delivering video.

Of its three primary foes related to the web, Microsoft was only unable to kill QuickTime. Part of the company's efforts to do so involved code theft from Apple related to the San Francisco Canyon scandal. This armed Apple with the legal leverage to aggressively bargain with Microsoft, and was a key element in getting Microsoft to reinitiate support for Office on the Mac after a long hiatus of focusing entirely on Windows apps.

At the same time, Microsoft also used its new power with Internet Explorer to invent compatibility issues with QuickTime and simply fail to load Apple's plugin when rendering web content designed for QuickTime. In 1996, Microsoft partnered with Disney, Macromedia and FutureWave to create animated content that replaced the open web with proprietary content. This resulted in Macromedia buying FutureWave and rolling the product into Flash.

Flash displaces QuickTime

Even as Apple's QuickTime was adopted as the container specification for the open MPEG-4 specification in 1998, Microsoft worked to use its monopoly position with Internet Explorer to widely distribute Flash as a proprietary way to deliver video and animations on the web.

Adobe, once a direct competitor to Macromedia and Flash and a key rival to the Microsoft-Macromedia alliance to oppose SVG as an open specification for web animation in preference to Flash, has since purchased Macromedia, primarily to obtain Flash.

After Flash became the dominant method for video playback, Microsoft started work on Silverlight, its own proprietary plugging for replacing open web standards with binaries dependent upon a web plugin. Apple, Google, and other companies supporting open web standards have worked to push HTML5 as an enhancement to the web to allow it to deliver multimedia without a plugin, with the browser itself rendering video via the MPEG-4 open specification.

In view of all this, Apple's opposition to Adobe's Flash isn't an attack on a popular plugin to limit choice, but really an effort to restore the use of open standards on the web, which creates a real marketplace for consumer choice. If Adobe were really interested in supporting open standards rather than being a gatekeeper wielding proprietary control over multimedia playback on the web, it could have opened up Flash just as it once did with PDF.

Instead, while making comments supporting HTML5 in general terms, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen has answered the question of how his company plans to deal with HTML5 by saying, "I think the challenge for HTLM 5 will continue to be how do you get a consistent display of HTML 5 across browsers. And when you think about when the rollout plans that are currently being talked about, they feel like it might be a decade before HTML 5 sees standardization across the number of browsers that are going to be out there."

On page 3 of 3: Is Flash critical to the web?