Apple and Adobe: It Depends on What Your Definition of “Open” is

Lynne Kiesling

I’ve seen two interesting things today in the ongoing debate between Apple and Adobe over Apple’s refusal to allow developers for the iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad to develop Flash-based applications. First is an open letter from Steve Jobs with an extensive discussion of Apple’s long relationship with Adobe (including an ownership share at one point). His remarks emphasize the primary reasons that I have heard offered for Apple’s decision: Flash is a proprietary application that would require Apple and developers to rely on its third-party plugins, which can be very problematic in development; Flash’s security problems (the ability to exploit those plugins) and the closed/open issue have led to development of a more flexible, updated HTML5 video open standard; and empirically, Flash is a contributing factor in a majority of operating system crashes.

Jobs’ comments on open architecture particularly caught my attention:

Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc. While Adobe’s Flash products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Adobe and available only from Adobe. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system.

Apple has many proprietary products too. Though the operating system for the iPhone, iPod and iPad is proprietary, we strongly believe that all standards pertaining to the web should be open. Rather than use Flash, Apple has adopted HTML5, CSS and JavaScript – all open standards. Apple’s mobile devices all ship with high performance, low power implementations of these open standards. HTML5, the new web standard that has been adopted by Apple, Google and many others, lets web developers create advanced graphics, typography, animations and transitions without relying on third party browser plug-ins (like Flash). HTML5 is completely open and controlled by a standards committee, of which Apple is a member.

Makes sense to me, particularly in light of all of the smart grid interoperability standard work I did and how I think such interoperability at shared interfaces is crucial to the development of competitive retail markets, in electricity service as well as in other markets. However, when Steve Jobs talks about open architecture it doesn’t entirely ring true to me, and an article from Daniel Lyons in Newsweek discusses why I sense that cognitive dissonance:

Now along comes Apple with a walled garden. Not only does it produce the iPad’s processor, its operating system, and the device itself, but Apple sells its content, via iTunes, and keeps 30 percent of the money. It also operates the App Store, the only place selling applications to run on the iPad, and it keeps a 30 percent slice there, too. This summer it will start selling ads that run inside the apps and will keep a 40 percent slice of that revenue. …

Part of me is glad Apple is doing this, because someone needs to buck the “everything is free” trend and see what happens. But I think the company is taking things to an extreme, exerting a degree of control that may ultimately undermine its own success. If you own an iPad or an iPhone, you’re aware (and no doubt frustrated) that it won’t run videos created in Adobe’s Flash software, which accounts for half or more of all the videos on the Web. An Apple spokesman says Flash is “closed and proprietary” and that Apple supports other development tools that are “open and standard.” But banning Flash also pushes customers to buy movies and TV shows from iTunes rather than watch them on a free Web site. It pushes developers to write apps that get distributed through Apple’s App Store, rather than through a Web browser.

Lyons then goes on to recall how Apple lost market share to Microsoft in the 1980s by following a very similar strategy. Will repeating this strategy in this dramatically different market and context lead to Apple walling itself off and limiting its market potential?

I am more interested in, and worried about, Apple’s walled garden creating application-based walls within the Internet, while at the same time Jobs is talking about open standards in all web interfaces. In fact, this is one big reason why I don’t own an iPhone and won’t own an iPhone (the other is that I will never give AT&T my voluntary business), despite my Mac computer use and my iPod ownership.

6 thoughts on “Apple and Adobe: It Depends on What Your Definition of “Open” is

  1. Lynne, it is mostly just the AT&T name, adopted by Cingular Wireless after Cingular parent SBC purchased AT&T Corporation. Sure, SBC is one of the former regional Bell operating companies, so not entirely free of the old AT&T monopoly taint, but that was long ago.

    In any case, I’m pretty happy with my iPhone even with Apple’s walled garden. I’d be even happier if there were 3rd party app stores, and may switch to a non-Apple smart phone in the future to break through the walls, but for now I find it worthwhile.

  2. Looks like Apple just made an informal proposal to Adobe….You want Apple to include you in our products, give me a piece of the pie. This really defines the meaning of nothing’s free in the world. Apple’s got a great strategy and hats off to Steve Jobs.

  3. Remember that one of the first things Jobs did when returning to Apple was to kill the clones. Higher quality through control is simply how Apple does thing, at least under his watch.

    Frankly, the lack of Flash doesn’t bother me, it is a zombie technology. Lyons is correct that right now it might drive traffic to the iTunes store, but it also encourages developers to code in HTML5.

    This is creative destruction at it’s finest. Years ago the only way to watch video on the internet was through RealPlayer, aren’t we glad that buggy, slow, awful tech went away? And it was replaced by something far better: Flash. And now Flash is being replaced by HTML5. The consumer is the doubtlessly the winner here.

    (WindowsMedia will be ignored, because it is simply too easy of a target)

  4. Lyons is mixing metaphors (something he does far more effectively in his Fake Steve Jobs blog when writing about the telecoms). He’s also wrong. Apple lost market share to Microsoft by allowing the latter to (a) copy its intellectual property and (b) dominate — and eventually strangle — its office-productivity app market. It’s unlikely Apple will allow such a thing to occur again.

    Apple’s ban on Flash from its portable devices has never forced me to buy _any_ entertainment content from the iTunes store for my iPod touch. On the contrary; I view and listen to all sorts of open-standard video and music from multiple sources, specifically because of Apple’s adherence to those standards. Many of those sources are, oddly enough, free podcasts and videocasts on iTunes itself. And none of it executes with the inefficiency of Flash video attempting to run in a browser plug-in on a Mac desktop computer.

    The “walled garden” people describe only comes into play if consumers choose to buy iTunes media and apps. Music from iTunes has shed much of the DRM it began with, thanks to Apple’s efforts. If only they could make similar headway with the movie and tv producers, we’d see fewer restrictions on other products, too.

    As for the iPhone applications… I am genuinely concerned about Apple’s vetting process. It doesn’t seem to have scaled effectively with the huge increase in submissions, and often appears downright arbitrary. Specifically-stated guidelines would enable developers to decide whether to invest time and effort in creating apps before subjecting them to a black box. I’m hoping Apple addresses this more specifically, especially given the iPad’s early popularity.

    That issue aside, however, I regard iTunes’ App Store the way I would an upscale specialty shop: I’m reasonably confident that all products on display will work as described without quality problems. Should this shop’s management choose not to sell a particular product I’m interested in, I know I have alternatives.

    MikeMcK mentioned Windows Media. Imagine how high that walled garden would be if Microsoft’s PlaysForSure had succeeded in place of Apple’s iPod/iTunes ecosystem.

  5. LOL! Apple isn’t even close to competing with Microsoft. So they might as well compete with someone else.

    “But banning Flash also pushes customers to buy movies and TV shows from iTunes rather than watch them on a free Web site. It pushes developers to write apps that get distributed through Apple’s App Store, rather than through a Web browser.”


    I pad is an awful product. There are already products on the market that destroy it, and at a lower price. What kind of idiot thought a giant iPod Touch would be a good idea. Only Apple sycophants would buy it, and they are amongst the most pathetic cretins on the planet.

  6. @Joe

    Really and you are a fool if you can’t see the numbers and how Apple has overtaken this new market.

    Keep your Fanboy Mentality to its grade school level and start chomping on you words Little Man.

    This just to funny, always a Google, Microsoft Shrill in the mix to try to shake things up but due to your facts being against you as anyone can see, you fail to address the Largest market share ever seen in years.

    Either toy are a 12 year old or very uneducated in how the market works, have you even seen a Stock report Let alone By stock, I think you have Not and you are just a Fanboy that sees his little world failing around him.

    Enjoy Fool

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