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Friday, May 14, 2010, 12:00 pm PT (03:00 pm ET)

Adobe-Apple war on Flash reminiscent of PostScript struggle


Adobe's scorn, vilification and trash talking from today

Apple realized that it could either commit to Adobe's mobile Flash in the way that Google is now doing, or it could go its own way. In contrast with Apple's previous decision to stick with Adobe's PostScript, a decision that did not make the company competitive in printers, Apple is now focusing entirely on open standards, leaving the market to decide whether Adobe's mobile Flash efforts will gain any traction and attract any interest from developers. If Adobe is able to create a high quality Flash Player for mobile devices over the next year, Apple will likely eventually adopt Adobe's software for its mobile platform.

If on the other hand, Adobe fails to launch Flash on Android this summer, the company will likely never have a chance to relaunch it again on any mobile platform. That failure will endorse Apple's current strategy of pursuing open web standards, and likely push Google, Microsoft and other companies away from their current support for Adobe's yet unfinished mobile Flash product and toward exclusive support for web standards.

Adobe is expressing outrage that Apple is not leading its efforts to promote Flash on mobile devices, characterizing Apple's disinterest in pioneering support for the as yet unfinished mobile Flash Player, and its disinterest in becoming a testbed for mobile apps created using Flash CS5's code generating tool, as an assault against choice.

Currently however, Adobe isn't providing a suitable choice for Apple to adopt. While Apple continues to work with Adobe to improve its Flash Player for the Mac, there is no finished, optimized, secure, or mature version of Flash Player for mobile devices that Apple can adopt even if it desperately wanted to. And it appears that it is in Apple's best interests to support open technologies for its users, rather than chasing Adobe to get whatever level of support the company decides to give it.

The challenge for Apple has been to convince web publishers to change from having standardized on Flash for nearly all their web interactivity and video playback, to embracing a new open standard that would require lots of new encoding of their video and the updating of their existing web properties: no easy task.

Apple started down this path in 2007 by creating a dedicated player for YouTube on the iPhone and Apple TV and convincing Google to encode its videos for raw playback on those devices without Flash. That resulted in a plurality of the web's videos being available without Flash. It also demonstrated that H.264 was both viable on the web, and far superior to Flash for video playback on mobile devices, because H.264 benefitted from hardware encoding.

Apple has also demonstrated that interactive media and Rich Internet Apps don't require Flash. The company has built a series of sophisticated web applications using web standards, including its SproutCore based MobileMe suite, and its retail WebObjects client apps built using the Giandula framework. It has also developed a series of tools for building web apps for iPhone and iPad, as well as interactive content sold in iTunes under the iTunes Extras and iTunes LP brands.

Adobe branches out into apps

While Adobe planned to incorporate the H.264 codec into Flash as well, the fact that most videos would need to be encoded into H.264 began to erode Adobe's position in serving the Flash middleware that paved the platform for video playback between web developers and end users. That has prompted Adobe to think up other uses for Flash, an effort that has primarily focused on Rich Internet Applications.

Adobe hoped to relaunch its Flash platform, under the name Flex, as a development API for creating RIAs. But RIAs were the main point of HTML5, which was originally crafted under the working name "Web Applications 1.0." While Adobe participates in the development of HTML5, there isn't any way for Adobe to merge with its competition and put it out of business, because HTML5 is an open standard.

This is resulting in Adobe being far more upset about the prospects of losing its control of the web via Flash than it was about losing its control over desktop publishing via PostScript. In both cases, Adobe blamed Apple for its loss, rather than viewing it as its own failure to deliver a product its customers could use.

Three years after the launch of the iPhone, Adobe is still not ready with a full, functional version of Flash that can run on mobile devices. While it advertises that Flash runs on "more than 800 million devices" from "all the top 20 handset manufacturers except for Apple," the truth is that figure can only count Flash Lite running on mobile devices, which simply can't play the majority of Flash content.

The first real version of Flash capable of running on a mobile device (and not merely a desktop system such as Windows 7 running on a small form factor device) is not due until the end of June, when Adobe plans to ship the initial Flash Player 10.1 for Android. It hopes to deliver Flash Player 10.1 for Symbian, BlackBerry OS, webOS and Microsoft's forthcoming Windows Phone 7 later this year.

Flash fails to take over the mobile web

However, Adobe now faces a herculean task in convincing its Flash developers to upgrade all their content while working to deliver five new mobile versions of its Flash Player and attempting to attract Flex developers to its proprietary platform in preference to HTML5. In Adobe's favor are a full set of tools for graphical authoring in Flash (currently lacking for HTML5) and lots of vendors signed up to license Flash.

On the other side however, there is mounting interest in supporting HTML5 from operating system and web browser vendors, from Apple's WebKit and iPhone OS to Google's Android and ChromeOS to Opera and Mozilla's Firefox to Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9. Apple's significant share of the smartphone market and (currently) near total share of the sophisticated MP3 and tablet markets is a major thorn in the side of Adobe, as none of Apple's iPhone OS devices can play Flash.

While Adobe points to all the competing mobile platforms that will soon be able to run Flash, it isn't advertising the fact that its new mobile Flash Player requires a very fast processor. So while Android and Symbian and BlackBerry will all eventually support Flash in theory, the majority of the installed base of those vendors' phones won't. Only the very latest high-end models can possibly run the new Flash Player, making it a middleware platform that will only address a third or less of the installed base of those platforms.

Google reports that only about a third of Android users visiting its app market are on the latest version of Android, which is preinstalled on its new phones. Nokia reports an Average Selling Price for its smartphones that indicates that its huge volumes of Symbian phones as the leading smartphone maker are mostly low end models that will not be fast enough to run Flash. Similarly, BlackBerry's most popular devices are not its iPhone-like high end touchscreen devices, but rather its iconic texting-oriented models.

So unlike the desktop web, where Adobe enjoys an entrenched position (installed on around 96% of PCs) over the best way to deliver dynamic content via its Flash Player plugin, there's no way Adobe will be able to scrape together even a 30% installed base over smartphones, even when not counting the leading position of Apple's iPhone OS.

Additionally, unlike the market forces that are attracting both users and developers to Apple's iTunes App Store, there is no real compelling reason for mobile developers to flock to Flash, as there is no real marketplace for Flash apps other than the adware business model promoted by Flash games presented through Facebook and other online sites. That's not enough to generate widespread interest in creating sophisticated Flash titles.

On the other side, if Flash can manage to slowly gain share as a suitable cross-platform development tool for making titles that work across Android, ChromeOS, webOS, BlackBerry OS, and WP7, there will likely be efforts initiated by those vendors to promote native development over Flash, in order to prevent Flash from drowning out any proprietary advantage Google, RIM, HP/Palm, and Microsoft have attempted to create in developing their mobile platforms in the first place.

Apple's refusal to serve as a guinea pig for Adobe's mobile Flash experiments is therefore a huge problem for Adobe, as it hints to other Flash licensees that they might be better off developing their own native software markets, rather than ceding their mobile software business to Adobe's yet unfinished mobile Flash platform. Only a huge public outcry that presents lots of irrelevant facts about Flash Lite while ignoring the core problems with the real mobile Flash (notably its current failure to exist as a shipping product) can possibly distract attention from that reality.