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Robert X. CringelyBack to OpinionRobert X. Cringely

What’s fueling the feud between Apple and Adobe?

You probably missed this unless you are a geek, but the equivalent of a nerdy blood feud has been taking place between two Silicon Valley giants — Adobe Systems and Apple. The fight is over an Adobe product called Flash that is running right now in your computer but doesn’t run — and apparently never will — in Apple iPhones, iPods and iPads.

Adobe Flash is the most ubiquitous software in the world appearing almost everywhere except for these Apple devices.

Who cares, right? Well, a lot of people care. Google cares because Google owns YouTube and most YouTube videos use Adobe Flash to play. Hulu cares, too, as do most other video sharing sites. But Apple says Flash is buggy and slow and — dagnabbit — they just can’t let it in their mobile devices which they claim would crash more often and suck more juice as a result.

Some of Apple’s concerns are legit. Flash IS antiquated in some respects, and isn’t nearly as cool as the HTML5 technology that Apple is using instead. But since Flash is everywhere it will probably remain popular for years to come.

To lend a Shakespearean slant to this story, Apple was an early investor in Adobe, and no two Silicon Valley companies owe their success more to each other than these two. Apple money allowed Adobe to survive and invent desktop publishing, which was the bread and butter for Apple’s Macintosh computers for their first 20 years of existence.

So what turned these two companies so ruthlessly against each other that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is writing anti-Flash essays on the Apple web page while Adobe is giving all of its employees free Google Android phones that run Flash?


What’s behind this entire beef is electronic book technology that Apple wants to dominate. A decade from now Steve Jobs is convinced that paper books will be rare and electronic books will be the standard. He wants to be sure those eBooks come from Apple.

There are two vying eBook technical standards — one clearly owned by Adobe and the other not owned by Apple but Apple’s version is the most developed. Apple doesn’t feel the need to OWN the eBook standard, but they don’t want Adobe to own it, either.

And so they fight.

Ironically, Microsoft last week made a statement largely supporting Apple in this ain’t Flash terrible? campaign. Yet Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser in its current version doesn’t support HTML5, and the company of Bill Gates would appear to have as much to lose here as Adobe.

Sometime soon they’ll settle this technical argument. They always do. And the settlement will probably put just enough HTML5 inside Flash to allow Apple-standard eBooks to play anywhere. Because in the end it isn’t the player that really counts. What counts are the electronic book files, which are the razor blades in this story that purports to be about technology but is really about business. Apple intends to sell more eBook files than any other company and will do whatever it takes to win yet another $20 billion market.

More of Robert X. Cringely’s writing can be found at I, Cringely.


  • Apple and Flash Developer

    Respectfully Mr. Cringely, I think the argument in your editorial has missed the mark.

    First, regarding video, let me start by directing your readers to the article posted on Apple’s own website entitled “Thoughts on Flash” ( )– where one of your first points, that Google cares because their youtube videos run in Flash, is specifically addressed. As Steve Jobs has articulated, the Apple iPhone, iPod, and iPad devices all come bundled with a youtube video player which enables users of those devices to access the content on youtube without the need for flash. Most of the other large video providers out there with the current exception of Hulu also provide access to their content on these devices without the need for Flash. Sadly one place where it is not possible to watch videos without flash is right here on the PBS website. Why hasn’t PBS — an organization dedicated to serving public interests decided to support open standards like h.264? A lack of resources I’m sure, but a problem nonetheless.

    Looking beyond the video issue, I also think your statement that “Flash IS antiquated” isn’t really what Apple is saying. It’s not that HTML 5 is “cool” as a developer using Flash, HTML5, and Apple’s XCode, I can say that I think Flash is actually cooler. The primary concerns voiced by Jobs are:

    1) The standards that Apple supports (HTML5, etc.) are OPEN, and anyone can build tools to work with them, but Flash is not.

    2) Flash IS slow, and has the capacity to crash devices, and drain the battery of mobile devices.

    Again, speaking as a developer familiar with these technologies, I think a key point to understand is that the REAL reason Flash is bad is the same reason that it is so popular. Flash is very easy to use. People with little or no programming training can build flash applications. Flash allows even experienced developers to be lazy. This results in flash applications which are not optimized and can easily slow down a device. The strict development environment for native Apple device applications enforces standards on a developer so that it is much harder to make an application which can cripple the device.

    While this may seem like an overly technical argument — from the user’s perspective, it is simple: well written applications result in a better user experience, and by upholding these kinds of standards, Apple is protecting its own customers.

    Finally — you’re gross oversimplification of the ebook side of this argument is a disservice to your readers. You didn’t seem to mention the eBook elephant in the room, Amazon — who continues to dominate the market for electronic books, despite an arguably inferior reader product. Perhaps it is because they decided to embrace Apple’s products as well, and have made it possible to read a book on a Kindle, an iPhone, an iPad, as well as a desktop mac or PC.

    This IS NOT about eBooks, but it is about more than inferior technology — it is about CREATING a legitimate content marketplace. With the suite of stores Apple has developed — the iTunes music/video store, the App store, and now the iBookstore, Apple has created a place where content creators (like YOU) can offer content which has effectively become free on the web, so you (and I) might once again find ways to make profit from it. These stores aren’t going to save newspapers, or make bloggers rich, but they have begun to retrain consumers that high-quality rich-media and interactive content is worth paying even a little bit of money for. How does this relate to Flash? The real value that Flash adds to the web is in rich interactive applications. Because it has been very difficult for web publishers to put up paywalls to control access to web content, and each content producer had to develop their own payment systems, paid web content of all kinds has generally failed. With the App store in particular, the kinds of tools and content previously created in Flash (and given away for free) can now be rebuilt as iPhone and iPad apps, and sold for enough money to create a revenue stream for content creators and developers.

    While this side of the issue truly does reflect Apple’s drive to be profitable — Apple isn’t the only one who will benefit if and as they succeed — you and I, and the millions of other content creators out there will benefit as well.

  • missingxtension

    “it is about CREATING a legitimate content marketplace”
    First of all that is apples idea of a legitimate content marketplace.
    A legitimate marketplace for me means that I can take my stuff and run it anywhere. As a consumer, not a developer.
    Why should I have to call apple to reauthorize my computer?
    You should not have to beg to use products that are already bough. You can already tell that I dont like kindle either. I would think that developers dont like that either, especially the ones that target multiple platforms. What other non apple platforms does cocoa target?

    “The standards that Apple supports (HTML5, etc.) are OPEN, and anyone can build tools to work with them, but Flash is not.”
    Again I ask what other non apple platforms does cocoa target?
    I also want to point out that the .swf file is well documented and open by adobe. Its not open source, but I doubt apple will want to support gnash.
    If apple was so worried about supporting open standards then why did they release the 80211.b wireless card with no g drivers that supported g speeds, then charge $9 dollars for the drivers that have G support? Another thing YOU should also point out is that HTML has always been slow at developing. There is a reason Netscape navigator had their way of implementing things and IE had their own. “As of March 2010[update], the specification is in the Draft Standard state at the WHATWG” Yeah its not even a standard yet. Then I also have to point out that apple drop support for most Iphones by the time the final draft is released. So again html5 in Iphones of today is vapourware since they will probably never fully support HTML5.
    “Flash IS slow, and has the capacity to crash devices, and drain the battery of mobile devices.”
    I seriously doubt that the maker of such wonderful software like photoshop, illustrator, and everything adobe cant make a decent program for the Iphone. More like its in apples best interest not to let them, There are mobile version of everything, including websites for the iphone. If Steve wants the Iphone to run full version flash content then he would be helping adobe and making exception (unsupported libraries) like he did with google. The reason google wants their flash hulu is becasue of ad revenue, the only money flow for youtube. Apple on the other hand, well they want to run their on ads on Iphones.
    If real developers were so worried about making money. They would target the mass market, not just fruity products.
    No one more than me hates bad ports, I play games like DIRT and GTA4 and just cringe. Then again most programs for apples mobile products are things like the new york times apps or the cbs 11 Iphone app. If youre going to hold other apps to a standard, then they need to fix the safari browser

    Finally “you’re gross oversimplification of the ebook side of this argument is a disservice to your readers”.
    Its not a gross oversimplification at all. You are talking about a guy who worked with apple when their head quarters was a garage. I am sure he would know how Steve thinks. Also the Ipad was a result of the booming ebook market. It is very difficult but not impossible for apple to market a 3 inch screen as an ebook reader.

  • Jaylah

    But it’s based on a false premise from the get-go:

    “A decade from now Steve Jobs is convinced that paper books will be rare and electronic books will be the standard.”

    While I don’t doubt that e-books will make inroads on the sale of paperbacks, etc., I truly don’t believe that a mere 10 years from now e-books will be “the standard” or that paper books will be “rare.”

    First of all, the technology is going to have to get a darned sight (pun intended) better before reading an e-book, off of any reader, won’t cause more eye-strain than reading a paper book. (And with the increasing number of boomers getting ever older, we’re actually concerned about things like eye-strain.)

    Second, humans are creatures of habit. I love to read and one of my favorite activities is curling up in bed at night with a good book. Not curling up in bed with a good Kindle or a good i-pad. It’s just not the same. As new generations grow up with e-book readers, that will probably change. You can hardly miss what you never got used to. But that’s going to take more than 10 years.

    Third, the technology is going to have to eventually deal with the idea that libraries aren’t going to invest in a bunch of Kindles or i-pads to check out to patrons. Libraries used to buy Video Cassette Players, available to patrons checking out videos. However they soon discontinued the practice because those players far too often came back to the library damaged, and the repair costs to keep them working were too great. Also, library staff didn’t have the time to check each player as it was returned. Patrons were understandably frustrated when they checked out some videos and a VCP, sat down that evening to watch a video, and discovered that the VCP didn’t work. Neither will staff have time to check over each Kindle or i-pad as it’s returned. And libraries aren’t going to be willing to spend that much of their budget having them constantly repaired.

    And, frankly, even if an e-book costs less than a paper book, I’m still not paying for the new best-selling novel, which I only intend to read once. Not when I can check it out from my library, read it, and return it for free.

    With all the wonderful up-to-date technology that I own, if something is *really* important to me, I keep a “hard copy” of it. Things like the addresses and phone numbers of those nearest and dearest to me (in the same sort of address book that my great-grandmother kept), or that wonderful understanding e-mail that a girlfriend sent to me during a particularly tough time in my life. I don’t back up data on my computer every day. If I print something out and put it in my file, I know I don’t have to worry about losing something important if a power surge comes down the line and wipes my hard drive out, or I set down my cell-phone somewhere and lose it.

    When I go to start planning my flower beds for each year, I like to sit at my dining room table with garden catalogs and my favorite half-dozen gardening books spread out around me, open to the appropriate pages. I don’t want to have to keep flipping screens on a reader, and — even then — I can only see one page at a time. I also don’t want to have to buy a dozen i-pads so I can accomplish the same thing.

    And lastly, paper books are “forever.” They don’t accidentally get erased, or degrade to the point where they’re unreadable, or rely on technology that evolves to the point where no reader can read them anymore.

    By the time e-books actually become “the standard” and paper books become “rare”, the Kindle, the i-pad, Flash and even HTML5, will have all gone the way of Betamax videos and 5.25″ floppy discs.

  • Chris

    Robert, if I’m not mistaken, Hulu does not allow mobile handsets to access its services even if they have flash installed. There are rumblings of a Hulu app coming on a new phone from Dell called Thunder (Android OS), however that has yet to be seen. I can understand Job’s argument that Flash is too processor intensive and would cause crashes, however I too believe that there is more to this feud than meets the eye.
    I see no good reason why these to great software companies can’t come up with a good piece of software that can be run reliably in the apple ecosystem. Apple has seen a boon in sales due to its content creation software from Adobe, Digidesign, and the like, however knowing the relationship between the the two companies, their history and the clear fact that over 75% of the online videos are using flash “containers” leads me to think that there must be a monetary interest for the big leap to a technology that hasn’t been fully standardized yet, let alone had time for any time of useful market saturation.
    I had not heard the argument about ebooks and found it quite revelatory, but I still think more is yet untold in this story. Whether from a personal feud, further market interests or just a plain old miscalculation Apple has decided to bar its mobile users from most of the video content on the web today.
    Personally I would have found great use for larger access to free video content . I suspect many would feel the same. That might actually be the problem, in its own way. Could the mobile carriers be influencing this discussion? Are the mobile networks even ready for that much traffic? I personally could see the usage of data increase 10 times what I’m using now. Granted, I’m an avid purveyor of online media and not the norm, but I know many couch potatoes that would be liberated from the living room if flash support were to be enabled on Apple products………….Food for thought

  • Chris

    Oh, and I forgot another point. Would Apple see a decline in revenue from games if free flash games ran on their mobile platforms? Absolutely. Apple’s continued success is owed to a few factors. For the consumer, Apple products carry with them ease of use and a certain level of social status. Economically, the proprietary nature of the company has been its cornerstone from the very beginning and I cannot imagine a day when that will cease to be the case. Apple does what Apple wants because it is a business with very few other businesses to answer to. The same couldn’t be said about Microsoft who has to involve more interests in its decisions. No matter what decision Apple makes, no matter what limitations it implements, the true genius of Apple is its marketing strategies. Consumers will go for it. Its Apple.

  • Anonymous

    Having a Kindle myself and sometimes needing to have several books at hand as information is being demanded, it is very convenient to have 10 or 15 books available at any time, so yes, paper books eventually will be rare.

  • Anonymous

    Well said, diplomatically, down to the facts, and in a very intelligent way, my respects for you! Great companies have great people behind, you definitely prove this concept.  Steve must be smiling at you from up there.

  • Steynvdv

    Awesome comment, I completely agree!