The saga of Apple mobile devices and their (non-) relationship with Adobe’s Flash technology has been revisited by many industry watchers ever since the announcement of the iPad last month and reports (for example, here and here) that Steve Jobs had described the ubiquitous Flash as buggy and overly demanding of system resources.
The lack of Flash on the iPhone and iPad is a concern for many because of Flash’s status as the go-to development platform for rich, interactive programs created by companies large and small, and because Apple has had such tremendous success with its wonderfully elegant portable products in recent years. However, a lot of what has been written has not been for the business-minded CIO but has been more concerned with techies or ‘fanboy’ partisans.
So, if yet another opinion on this very Silicon Valley battle of wills is needed, Jeremy Allaire has more reasons than most to be a trusted source. First, he has deep Flash experience as he was CTO of Macromedia (later acquired by Adobe). Second, as current CEO of online video platform (OVP) pioneer Brightcove he has a keen interest in the various platforms he needs to support to be commercially viable. Third, he’s a straight talker and likeable chap. So I spoke to him by phone yesterday for his views on the subject.
To start, I asked him if he considered this spat to be a serious difference of opinion on technical merits or a dispute aimed at winning the hearts and minds of developers and users.
“The issue is absolutely not a technology issue,” Allaire said. “It’s a political and economic issue and it has most to do with controlling developer runtimes. For Apple it’s about the ability to lock people into the iTunes store and the ecosystem. They’re trying to advance the network effect.”
Does Allaire have any support for the notion that Flash is somehow bad for Apple users?
“Apple is very much trying to retain consistency in user interface standards. To some extent Flash is more open-ended and it’s a creative palette and represents a loss of control in terms of design standards.” Also, he added, because Flash apps don’t go through vetting by Apple, there is more scope for apps that misbehave. However, he is firmly against suggestions that Flash is sloppily coded or a resource hog.
“I think that’s largely just rhetoric. Adobe has made tremendous progress with Flash and it’s a central point of the experience of the web. They’ve had the benefit of working with operating system and device manufacturers and there’s been tremendous work to make sure it’s an optimised experience.”
I put it to him that the current brouhaha has echoes of the so-called font wars of about 20 years ago when Apple attempted to move away from Adobe’s grip on the Postscript page description language and Type One fonts via an alliance with Microsoft. But Allaire reckons this is “much bigger than that” because it is centred on the vast picture of the modern school of application development.
But with Apple and others seeking an alternative approach, how strong is Flash’s position?
“In [the second category of apps described above] I think Flash will continue to be dominant because these businesses are about audience reach and monetisation of an audience, and it’s critical that the end-user has an instant acceptance. Over three or four years you could get to the point where there are comparable open standards with 90 to 95 per cent audience reach but three or four years is an awful long time in the internet space.”
Apple and some others are pushing HTML5 as a potential replacement for Flash but Allaire believes that that level of maturity is some way off.
“Google is trying to advance HTML5 but also Flash because they’re trying to come from behind and will do anything possible to write applications that are not tied into Apple. Apple wants people writing [to the Apple environment] to control their own ecosystem. On the other hand, especially for video, Apple is driving a wedge and the vast majority of publishers and brand marketers are absolutely going to want a consistent experience across Apple devices. If I’m the New York Times or Time Inc., I have to make sure my website content works consistently across the iPod, iPhone and iPad.”
How about Adobe’s attempt at a workaround in the form of Flash Professional CS5 and the Packager for iPhone technology that converts Flash apps to native iPhone apps?
“For creating lightweight apps the workaround works fine but it doesn’t address the video issue,” Allaire says.
With plenty of competition from Google Android and others in the mobile device sector, could Apple yet bend? Unlikely, Allaire believes.
“Apple is making a bet that although they’re creating a lot of work for people to re-tool they’re going to be able to sneak through that and not budge.”
Incidentally, Brightcove has not yet received an iPad test machine but he believes that the iPad will prove “a great device for online video consumption”.
The conclusion to all the fuss? Alliare contends that, for the medium-term at least, developers of mobile applications that want to address the widest possible audience of owners of state-of-the-art devices will have to back all the fancied horses to be confident of success.