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.