Steve Jobs: Adobe's Flash "has major technical drawbacks"

In an open letter to, well, everyone, Apple tells the world what it thinks of the Flash platform. And it's not pleasant reading for Adobe.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

In an open letter to, well, everyone, Apple tells the world what it thinks of the Flash platform. And it's not pleasant reading for Adobe.

Let's take a closer look at the letter:

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. Adobe has characterized our decision as being primarily business driven – they say we want to protect our App Store – but in reality it is based on technology issues. Adobe claims that we are a closed system, and that Flash is open, but in fact the opposite is true. Let me explain.

The "no Flash on the iPhone/iPad" has been a thorn in Apple's side since the devices were launched. The idea of a web-enabled platform that doesn't support the ubiquitous Flash platform is, at first blush, crazy. So crazy in fact that only Apple is bold and audacious enough to pull that kind of stunt. It's no wonder that Apple CEO Steve Jobs wants to set the record straight.

First, there’s “Open”.

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.

It's an odd argument for Jobs to kick off on since Apple isn't exactly the most open company out there - in fact, many would argue that it's one of the most closed. But, Jobs is right. Flash is closed and 100% proprietary. Period. Just because it's everywhere on the internet doesn't make it "open." 

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.

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 used in all our products. WebKit has been widely adopted. Google uses it for Android’s browser, Palm uses it, Nokia uses it, and RIM (Blackberry) has announced they will use it too. 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.

Ahh, interesting. So Apple wants to replace the closed, proprietary Flash platform by pushing WebKit's HTML5 rendering engine. I'm no fan of the Safari browser but I am a big fan of WebKit, and the capability that it contains does, in many ways, make Flash not obsolete as much as unnecessary.

Second, there’s the “full web”.

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, and viewable on iPhones, iPods and iPads. 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. Add to this video from Vimeo, Netflix, Facebook, ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ESPN, NPR, Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, People, National Geographic, and many, many others. iPhone, iPod and iPad users aren’t missing much video.

It's important to remember that this "Flash is required for a full web experience" is a situation foisted on both the tech industry and users by Adobe. Flash was an important part in the "rich web" experience, but it has to now be asked whether it's still required or whether Adobe is merely trying to remain relevant by pushing an outdated platform onto developers and end users.

Another Adobe claim is that Apple devices cannot play Flash games. This is true. Fortunately, there are over 50,000 games and entertainment titles on the App Store, and many of them are free. There are more games and entertainment titles available for iPhone, iPod and iPad than for any other platform in the world.

After the whole "open" bit a few paragraphs ago, it's a little odd to see Jobs shift gears here and start whoring his own "closed" and "100% proprietary" platform. Maybe if Apple is so committed to gaming maybe it's time to see a way to port the iPhone/iPad games platform to the web.

Or online gamers can stick with Flash ... maybe casual online gaming is Adobe's only refuge for this aging platform?

Third, there’s reliability, security and performance.

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. We have been working with Adobe to fix these problems, but they have persisted for several years now. We don’t want to reduce the reliability and security of our iPhones, iPods and iPads by adding Flash.

In addition, Flash has not performed well on mobile devices. We have routinely asked Adobe to show us Flash performing well on a mobile device, any mobile device, for a few years now. We have never seen it. Adobe publicly said that Flash would ship on a smartphone in early 2009, then the second half of 2009, then the first half of 2010, and now they say the second half of 2010. We think it will eventually ship, but we’re glad we didn’t hold our breath. Who knows how it will perform?

Again, gotta agree with Jobs on this one. When it comes to security and performance (in particular, security), the Flash platform is a complete and utter mess. It's interesting to hear Jobs not only say that Macs crash, but points the finger of blame squarely at Adobe and it's wretched Flash platform.

Fifth, there’s Touch.

Flash was designed for PCs using mice, not for touch screens using fingers. For example, many Flash websites rely on “rollovers”, which pop up menus or other elements when the mouse arrow hovers over a specific spot. 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?

Even if iPhones, iPods and iPads ran Flash, it would not solve the problem that most Flash websites need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices.

Not only is Jobs right on the mark again, he's picked up on another of my Flash peeves ... it allows people with no clue how to create user interfaces to go and create the most horrid, tortuous, painful navigation systems imaginable. Systems that not only wouldn't work well on devices such as the iPhone or iPad, but which quite frankly are execrable on desktops and notebooks too.

Sixth, the most important reason.

Besides the fact that Flash is closed and proprietary, has major technical drawbacks, and doesn’t support touch based devices, there is an even more important reason we do not allow Flash on iPhones, iPods and iPads. We have discussed the downsides of using Flash to play video and interactive content from websites, but 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 and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. 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.

This is the "we don't want your sloppy code to infect out new platforms" speech. If you're a developer, and you want to use Flash to create apps, then it sucks. But remember, it was Adobe who made the promise of "easy iPhone apps" to you, not Apple.

Flash is a cross platform development tool. It is not Adobe’s goal to help developers write the best iPhone, iPod and iPad apps. It is their goal to help developers write cross platform apps. And Adobe has been painfully slow to adopt enhancements to Apple’s platforms. For example, although Mac OS X has been shipping for almost 10 years now, Adobe just adopted it fully (Cocoa) two weeks ago when they shipped CS5. Adobe was the last major third party developer to fully adopt Mac OS X.

Jobs delivers a few more punches to the body. 


Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short. The avalanche of media outlets offering their content for Apple’s mobile devices demonstrates that Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of web content. And the 200,000 apps on Apple’s App Store proves that Flash isn’t necessary for tens of thousands of developers to create graphically rich applications, including games. New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too).

Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

The conclusion is a final scathing assault on Adobe. Not only does it paint Flash as ultimately a FAIL on mobile devices, but also as unnecessary and that maybe it's time Adobe moved on to pastures new.


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