Why Steve Jobs will Never put Adobe Flash on iPhone OS Devices
[First a quick disclaimer: although I worked for Adobe in the past and I still have many friends there, I have no inside information on this topic. This post represents my personal opinion based on publicly available information.]
Given the launch of the Flash-less iPad and the leaks from Apple’s post launch employee meeting most industry insiders have finally concluded that Adobe Flash is not coming to iPhone OS devices. Over the last two-and-a-half years the conversation has shifted from
- When will the iPhone support Flash? to…
- Will the iPhone ever support Flash? to most recently…
- Why won’t Apple devices ever support Flash?
The question in most people’s mind now is why not? That is the question I want to address with this post.
While most of the debate in the blogosphere centers around technical reasons, the real reason is not technical at all. It is a calculated business decision made by Steve Jobs.
There is a lot of discussion about the technical issues that are keeping Flash away from Apple devices. Here are only a few:
- Flash drains the battery
- Flash is buggy
- Flash performance is too poor
- Flash Lite does not support web based Flash content (Flash 9+)
- Steve Jobs: Flash Lite is too constrained, Flash Player does not perform in mobile, we need a “product in the middle”
- Steve Jobs: Adobe is lazy (well, this one is not really a technical reason)
- Steve Jobs: Flash is obsolete. HTML5 will replace it.
The latest technical argument to garner a lot of attention in the bloggosphere is:
- Flash does not support touch and requires a visible mouse with hover effect.
While many of these technical arguments are accurate, they don’t explain Steve Job’s stubbornness toward Flash. These technical arguments are only excuses used by the Apple camp. The lack of touch support is indeed a big problem, but if this were the real reason, Apple would have already stated this and would be working with Adobe and its community to address the issue. After all, updating a Flash application to support touch is easier for a Flash developer than having to create a brand new application using Objective C and Apple’s native SDK.
So what’s the real reason?
Adobe Flash will not come to iPhone OS devices because Flash would limit Apple’s ability to differentiate its devices.
Adobe’s vision is to turn its Flash Platform (including both Flash and AIR) into THE consistent runtime across devices. For more on this vision see the Open Screen Project, launched by my team while I was at Adobe. It’s a great idea. Developers target the Flash Platform (instead of the native SDKs) and their applications run consistently across devices, eliminating device fragmentation. Sounds great, right?? Yes… unless you are a device manufacturer looking to differentiate with applications (can you say Apple?).
It’s clearly evident in Apple’s marketing that its catalog of native iPhone applications is a significant differentiator. We’ve all seen the “There is an App for That” campaign. It is in Apple’s interest to encourage developers to create native applications that take advantage of Apple proprietary APIs. As an example, multi-touch and the accelerometer were important differentiators of the iPhone early on and it was important for Apple to have developers target those APIs. The same applies to the proximity sensor. As Apple continues to innovate it will want developers to target native device capabilities that run best on Apple devices. Supporting Adobe’s Flash Platform would compromise this objective. Apps developed on Adobe Flash or Adobe AIR would offer a similar experience across Apple and non-Apple devices. Note the tagline on Adobe’s Open Screen Project web site: “singular experience, multiple devices.” This is not what Apple wants.
The strategy to differentiate with applications is not limited to Apple. RIM and Samsung have made recent moves that point to their aspiration to differentiate their devices with applications (although neither can afford to pick the Flash battle at this time; their positions are under attack by Apple and Google and are too busy playing defense). Unlike Motorola who chose to forgo differentiation with applications by adopting Android as its platform going forward, Samsung launched its own mobile platform called BADA. With BADA, Samsung hopes to build its own developer ecosystem and differentiate in this way.
RIM’s strategy to differentiate with apps is clearly evident with the launch of its recent “Super App” campaign. Super Apps are apps that take advantage of RIM’s proprietary APIs and enable tight integration with RIM’s own applications like the inbox, contacts and calendar. I was at the latest RIM developer conference in Barcelona where the top message for developers was: “develop your applications to integrate deeply with the RIM platform.” I suspect that RIM will be running contests to promote Super App development and maybe even reward developers who create them with better placement on its App World store. In this way RIM (like Apple) can ensure the availability of many applications that run better on its platform.
Although most in the industry cite device fragmentation as a top issue in mobile, device OEM’s need to differentiate results in increased fragmentation instead. Apple has chosen to differentiate its devices with applications and this is why Steve will not support the Adobe Flash Platform on Apple devices.
Please share your thoughts on this topic. What do you believe is the main reason Apple devices will not support Adobe Flash?
11 May 2010 Update:
I posted this article at a time when most were pointing at technology issues as the key reasons Apple would not adopt Flash. Since then Apple has made two moves that confirm the premise of this article (that this was a calculated business decision by Steve Jobs):
- Apple updated its SDK agreement forbidding developers from using other programming languages
- In a very unusual move, Steve Jobs himself published his rationale for banning Adobe Flash
It is very interesting to note that Steve Jobs contradicted himself in his own letter. He initially argued that the decision was “based on technology issues,” but later cites “the most important reason” as purely a business reason. I suspect Steve got caught between the outdated “party line” to blame Adobe technology and the reality of the situation. I’m not trying to minimize the technical issues with Flash. They are real. But as I stated in this article, they are used as convenient excuses by the Apple camp. Given “the most important reason” that Steve cited, you can be sure that even if the technology issues did not exist, Steve would not have allowed Flash on his devices. The business reason he cited trumps all the technical arguments.
In case you have not read Steve’s letter, he cited the most important reason pretty much as predicted in this article. In Steve’s own words: “Flash is a cross platform development tool. It is not Adobe’s goal to help developers write the best iPhone, iPod and iPad apps. It is their goal to help developers write cross platform apps.” Steve also writes: “We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers.”
In other words, supporting Flash would limit Apple’s ability to differentiate its devices. As Apple continues to innovate with its devices, it will publish new proprietary APIs and encourage developers to adopt them, ensuring that the resulting applications run best on Apple devices.