The flaws in Steve Jobs' anti-Flash attack

Adam Banks dissects Jobs' infamous open letter

Jobs on Flash

So Steve Jobs finally posted the reasoning for his decision to kill Flash, in any form, on the iPhone/iPad platform.

Some of what he says makes sense. It really does. I don't necessarily disagree with the decision not to support Flash directly.

I do think it's a bit like Apple's decision to pre-empt the market by dropping serial and parallel ports, rewrite its OS from scratch instead of crippling it with backward compatibility, and so on. In other words, brave and forward-looking.

Then again, there's stuff here that Steve is Just Not Getting.

For example:

Apple has a long relationship with Adobe. In fact, we met Adobe's founders when they were in their proverbial garage. Apple was their first big customer, adopting their Postscript language for our new Laserwriter printer.*

Love how he makes this sound like Apple supported Adobe, rather than vice versa. The Mac's big foothold in the market was always in the creative industries, primarily as the basis for the DTP revolution. Without Adobe technology that would never have happened. For years, Macs couldn't even render fonts without Adobe Type Manager.

Since that golden era, the companies have grown apart. Apple went through its near death experience, and Adobe was drawn to the corporate market with their Acrobat products.

What a load of utter cobblers. Adobe is still hugely focused on the creative industries and the creative industries are still hugely dependent on Adobe. To portray Adobe as having decamped to the corporate dark side isn't even funny, it's just stupid.

Mac users buy around half of Adobe's Creative Suite products.

Let's put that another way, shall we? Creative Suite users account for [insert your own very significant proportion] of professional Mac sales. If Apple were to piss off Adobe to the extent that Creative Suite disappeared from the Mac, I wouldn't switch to Apple's graphics and publishing software, I'd switch to Windows. You know why? Apple doesn't make graphics and publishing software.

Anyway, Steve, go on?

I wanted to jot down some of our thoughts on Adobe's Flash products so that customers and critics may better understand why we do not allow Flash on iPhones, iPods and iPads.

Oh, you wanted us to better understand that fact? Sorry, I thought you wanted to bury it in clause 3.3.1 of a developer agreement revision that you didn't even publicly announce. Next time I want someone to better understand what I'm doing, I'll write it on a PostIt, stick it up my own arse and blog about it a month later.

Adobe claims that we are a closed system, and that Flash is open, but in fact the opposite is true. Let me explain.

Why bother? Everyone else and their dog have already rehearsed this argument. Blah blah blah. Highlights of Steve's version:

…HTML5, the new web standard that has been adopted by Apple, Google and many others…

Whoa! That's big news. Last I heard, HTML5 was unlikely even to be recommended as a standard for another couple of years, let alone finalised and ratified. It's almost like you're telling us we don't need Adobe's stuff because something to which Apple has made a negligible contribution is going to come along sometime within our lifetime and do similar things. Which would be silly, obviously. Wait, that is what you're saying.

Apple even creates open standards for the web. For example, Apple began with a small open source project and created WebKit, a complete open-source HTML5 rendering engine that is the heart of the Safari web browser [...] Almost every smartphone web browser other than Microsoft's uses WebKit. By making its WebKit technology open, Apple has set the standard for mobile web browsers.

Run that by me again. Developing a browser (software for viewing, not making, web pages) that supports existing standards is 'creating open standards'? Tortuous much?

Adobe has repeatedly said that Apple mobile devices cannot access "the full web" because 75% of video on the web is in Flash. What they don't say is that almost all this video is also available in a more modern format, H.264.

'Almost all'? What? What? This is beyond reality distortion.

YouTube, with an estimated 40% of the web's video, shines in an app bundled on all Apple mobile devices, with the iPad offering perhaps the best YouTube discovery and viewing experience ever.

Agreed (see, I'm not just randomly arguing with everything) – but some YouTube content still refuses to play on my iPhone, and even if you counted their whole 40% of the market, it simply isn't my experience that 'almost all', or even a majority, of web video I try to access on my iPhone will play. That's just video, before we even get into Flash proper.

iPhone, iPod and iPad users aren't missing much video.

Absolutely, totally, utterly, flat wrong. If you put that in an ad, there's no way it would be approved for broadcast. Just not true.

Another Adobe claim is that Apple devices cannot play Flash games. This is true.

As that woman in Catherine Tate's office sketch would say: Yes. It is.


Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009.


We also know first hand that Flash is the number one reason Macs crash.

Would that be 'know first hand' as in 'don't have any evidence to show'? Still, fair cop, it certainly crashes my Mac more often than anything except the operating system, iTunes and Safari. And all Microsoft's software. You still like Microsoft, right?

We have been working with Adobe to fix these problems.

Yeah, you phoned Adobe's main switchboard and got a ticket number.

In addition, Flash has not performed well on mobile devices.

Not really qualified to comment on that, but general impression: true. Hence, I understand the reluctance to pollute iPx.

Fourth, there's battery life. To achieve long battery life when playing video, mobile devices must decode the video in hardware [...] Although Flash has recently added support for H.264, the video on almost all Flash websites currently requires an older generation decoder.

Wait – wait – wait! You don't want Flash now because of a limitation Flash had in the past? Really? Have you been drinking German beer?

Fifth, there's Touch. [...] Apple's revolutionary multi-touch interface doesn't use a mouse, and there is no concept of a rollover. Most Flash websites will need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices. If developers need to rewrite their Flash websites, why not use modern technologies like HTML5, CSS and JavaScript?


Well, here I have to admit I was wrong. I said:

I realise Steve Jobs may have trouble understanding that other people actually have to do stuff to respond to change, not just shout at someone 'Fire Flash devs! Hire iPhone devs!', but I don't believe he's oblivious to the scale of the challenge.

OK, now I do believe it. Totally oblivious.

Finally, to the app packager question.

Adobe also wants developers to adopt Flash to create apps that run on our mobile devices. We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps.

I would interrupt here to insert a list of all the sub-standard apps already approved by Apple that have nothing to do with Flash, but I don't have three months of my life to spare.

If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers.

Sort of get that. Problem: at the moment, for the thousands of developers and creatives who do have the skills to use Flash but don't have the first glimmer of a clue how to code in Objective-C, none of the enhancements of the iPx platform are available. The platform isn't available at all. (I wrote about this in my reaction to 3.3.1.) And the only way it's ever going to be available is via some kind of third party tool. One with full typographical support. You know, like Adobe TLF.

The avalanche of media outlets offering their content for Apple's mobile devices demonstrates that Flash is no longer necessary.

No it doesn't. Because from magazine companies, arguably the content sector most excited about the iPad, there's so far an avalanche of PDF-derived shovelware but only a trickle of original apps with genuinely innovative and appropriate ux. And that now looks like changing very slowly at best. Far from ensuring the predominance of high quality content, removing the Flash route delays it.

Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future.

Agree! But Steve – what about the present?

*Come on, Steve, you can at least put the right capital letters in PostScript and LaserWriter. I bet you wince when people write 'IPOD Touch'.

This post first appeared on 29 April 2010 at

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