How Long Can Apple Hold Out on Flash?

Before I get this tirade underway let me preface it with this, I’m not a fanboy of either of these companies. Apple, in recent times, has grown from the hipster chic underdog to Microsoft 2.0 in its attempts to create a massive walled garden and Adobe has been doing similar things for the past decade. I respect both of their prowess in their respective fields and have used products from both companies for quite some time. It was only a couple weeks ago when I posted my thoughts on the current PR war waging between them on the whole Flash thing which quickly turned into a full blown geek fight over web standards, but even after writing that I still feel like there’s a lot more to be said on this topic. It seems even more relevant since they just released yet another device that will defy the current norms of the Internet.

Apple’s, well Jobs’, position on Flash is no secret and in his statements there are some points that deserved to be talked about. However whilst the apparent motivation appears to be solely focused on user experience it’s something far more obvious than that. I am of course talking about Apple’s bottom line. You see for all the belly aching going on it all boils down to Jobs’ walled garden in which he reigns supreme and reaps all the benefits. From a capitalist point of view I wholly support this motivation as realistically most of Apple’s direct competitors are doing the exact same thing. It makes even more sense when you realise that at its heart Apple is actually a hardware company, with every other endeavour they’ve undertaken done to drive sales of their iProducts. Whilst the App Store might be an extremely lucrative side business its main focus was to drive sales of the iPhone and subsequently provide a massive install base of applications for the iPad.

Flash in this case would undermine their current efforts to drive additional hardware and software revenue through other channels. Whilst I’m sure there wouldn’t be a mass boycott of the App Store there it would definitely see a drop in sales for some channels, particularly games. Additionally once one of these platforms is allowed on you’ll have all the others screaming for their own native implementation on Apple devices, further undermining their revenue streams and increasing their support overhead. It then comes as no surprise as to why Jobs’ has been so outspoken on this since realistically the support he’d gain by implementing Flash would end up costing him quite a lot in real terms. Whilst they’ve managed to generate some decent good will in the past (non DRMed songs anyone?) they’ve only done so when there was a positive impact to their bottom line (that upgrade fee was a bit rough ey?), and Flash really doesn’t have a monetization stream that Apple can realise.

Still their alternative of HTML5 + JavaScript + CSS3, whilst applauded for being an open alternative to the wholly propeitary flash, may in fact end up being their undoing. Apple’s latest volley at Flash was to release a set of HTML5 technology demonstrations hoping to prove to everyone that HTML5 was more than capable of wholly replacing Flash. Strangely however they required you to download their Safari browser to be able to see them which should strike you as suspicious. Whilst any company should take every opportunity to peddle their products when Apple did it here they were not so subtly admitting quite a lot of things and the tech community has been quick to pick up on this.

You see the HTML5 specification is still in draft and will be for quite some time. This means that whilst a lot of browsers support a good chunk of the specification it’s still subject to change and review, meaning things could be added or removed in future versions. Additionally there are many aspects of it that would class as still being in submission status, I.E. they’re not even part of the draft specification yet. Most of these are vendor specific augmentations, some of which have come from Apple. The tech demos they have put out rely on vendor extensions specific to the WebKit framework they have developed, meaning that only Safari and Chrome are capable of rendering them accurately. Many of the demos do work under FireFox (you can trick Apple’s site into thinking you’re a Safari user using this) however the current proprietary extensions based demos will fail in some way.

For Apple HTML5 offers them a comparable level of functionality that Flash provides with the added benefit of being partially under their control. Apple is well known for its iron fist like rule over its App Store and allowing Flash onto their devices would mean relinquishing much of it. With HTML5 they can at least mould parts of it in ways that support their strategic plans, letting them chip away at the functionality that Flash provides with submissions to the new web standard. Additionally it then lets them leverage their current captive audience of developers to put pressure on others to develop HTML5 based sites for their iDevice line, further widening the walls of their garden and swelling their bottom line.

However there’s a storm brewing on the horizon. For every piece of functionality that gets adopted into the HTML5 standard another step is taken towards being able to replicate Flash entirely. Right I’ve alraedy said that but think about that closely for a second there. If the potential is there to mimmic Flash is there also potential to emulate it? Funny I should ask that since it appears that some interpid coders have come up with solutions to run Flash objects in HTML5 and JavaScript, the exact technologies that Jobs would see proliferate all over the web. It doesn’t stop there either with Adobe partnering up with mobile advertising network Greystripe to develop technology to transcribe Flash ads to HTML5, effectively circumventing the restriction. Adobe is poised to take on Apple’s restrictions with devastating gusto and if I were Apple I’d be seriously reconsidering my position.

You see many of the aspects that Jobs mentioned in his thoughts on Flash will unfortunately apply to not only Flash apps transcribed into HTML5 but also native HTML5 applications. Since it’s currently in its infancy HTML5 is not much of a threat to Jobs’ current direction and that, in addition to my previous points, is why his support is behind it. Whilst it might look like Adobe is bending over backwards to satisfy Apple’s restrictions its more likely that whilst Apple will win the battle of getting people to transition to HTML5 they’ll lose the war of keeping their garden walled. With the increased capability of HTML5 comes the potential for all the problems that Flash has to infect the iDevice platform, thereby rendering his current stance completely moot. Just to prove my point go and run some of those HTML5 demos and watch the CPU usage on your computer (the text one is great for this), that alone proves that HTML5 is capable of destroying a mobile device in many of the same ways as Flash.

In the end it all comes down the bottom line of both Adobe and Apple and how willing they are to go to further it. Apple will more than likely continue its stance of no Flash for as long as they have devices capable of browsing the web. Adobe on the other hand seems poised to innovate their way out of this, with the additional help of many skilled programmers who see Flash on the iDevices as a simple programming challenge. I’ll be very suprised if Apple wins out in this one as they’re already laying the ground work for this to blow up in their faces, with Adobe priming the explosives.

Maybe we’ll have Jobs writing a Thoughts on HTML5 post in the future when he bans it from the iPhone.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.