Quote from review of Karim Rashids book Digipop

Apple vs Flash: a publisher’s perspective

Blogged on 11 April 2010

So Apple has finally done it: having prevented Flash Player from coming to the iPhone (and iPod touch and iPad), it’s now, with the revised clause 3.3.1 of the iPhone developer agreement, closed the door to Adobe’s constructive and innocuous workaround of allowing Flash developers to convert their projects to iPhone/iPad apps.

The Flash app packager in Creative Suite 5, which Adobe is still promising to launch intact on Monday (shipping in May), provided a very simple way to produce content visually and convert it into apps, with little or no coding required. As of last Friday, Apple’s only permitted route is to code from scratch in the iPhone SDK, a totally different proposition requiring skills alien to a whole sector of the content industry.

What’s Apple’s reasoning for all this? We don’t know, because there’s been no public announcement; nor have any of us in the tech press so far managed to extract any statement from Apple. My call to the UK PR office was met with a request to email; the email was met with silence. Two days later, that silence remains unbroken worldwide.

Apple had already established (despite recurring rumours to the contrary) that it wasn’t going to allow Flash content to play on iPhone using a plug-in player, the way it works on Macs, PCs and other mobile devices. The difference here is that it’s not even going to allow apps that effectively have their own built-in player, simply because they were created using third party tools (the restriction doesn’t just apply to Flash, though it’s by far the most significant technology affected.)

Everyone can see the business case for keeping Flash Player and its mobile version, Flash Lite, off iPhone. Apple controls content (other than websites) on its mobile platform via the App Store. It only allows apps that it thinks are of a suitable nature and quality, and it takes a cut of every app’s purchase price, while generously distributing free apps without charge. It doesn’t want users installing Flash Player once, then using it to access a zillion unvetted third party apps. I get that.

But none of the same arguments seem to apply to allowing developers to use Flash to make apps, then delivering them, using the packager, as approved apps via the App Store. Apple still gets to say yes or no to every app. Not every natively coded app is good. Not every Flash-originated app will be bad. I don’t buy the view that Flash apps are bound to be rubbish because they can’t call the iPhone’s built-in user interface. Plenty of existing apps don’t. Plenty of existing apps are written for multiple platforms or converted to iPhone from elsewhere; it’s just that the porting is done via donkey work rather than a multi-platform authoring tool.

That’s why most people see this less as a technical response to a threat to Apple’s control of its platform and more as a petulant ‘hands off’ to Adobe. As one mobile developer (by no means exclusively wedded to Flash) put it to me: ‘It’s a big “up yours” from Apple.’

The trouble is, it’s not just an ‘up yours’ to Adobe, but to Adobe’s users. Ironically, these are the same creative industries that propped Apple up for so many years when it was still making its money from computers. Even more ironically, they’re arguably the most important new source of content for Apple’s shiny new iPad, to which the same restriction will inevitably apply.

What’s not great about Adobe’s position

Adobe aren’t really commenting either. They’ll need time to digest this, of course, and no doubt they’re talking to the lawyers, who always discourage you from talking to anyone else. They also have very little to comment on, since Apple hasn’t clarified exactly what it means by the new conditions. But some attempt at dialogue might have reassured their reeling users that not everyone is out to get them. In the first 48 hours, the nearest thing to a corporate response came from Lee Brimelow, the Flash evangelist already notorious for an earlier diatribe that unwisely cited a hardcore porn website as one of the Flash treats Apple users were missing. While not endorsing his rant, Adobe allowed it to remain online after the redaction of a claim that Apple timed the iPhone OS 4 T&Cs release to spoil the launch of CS5.

Paranoid? Well, I’ve not yet seen a more plausible explanation for the bizarre timing of the OS 4 announcement. Would Steve stage the whole thing just to leak the Flash kill clause? It does seem a bit far-fetched. Even so, when Lee concludes ‘Go screw yourself Apple,’ a lot of people know where he’s coming from.

Adobe eventually gave an official response in the form of a couple of sentences in a release about the impending CS5 announcement:

Yesterday Apple released some proposed changes to their SDK license restricting the technologies that developers can use, including Adobe software and others such as Unity and Titanium.
[...]
We intend to still deliver this capability in CS5 and it is up to Apple whether they choose to allow or disallow applications as their rules shift over time.

That’s not tremendously reassuring. Rather than saying, ‘We’d rather Apple had allowed us to do it this way, but since they won’t, we’re going to make sure our users have some other way to deploy to iPx,’ they’re just saying: well, we’ve done our bit, let’s hope Apple change their minds.

I put this to someone within Adobe’s Flash team who’s familiar with the issue. He was kind enough to respond, and said, among other sensible things:

I really do think ‘we’ve done our bit’.

My preference is to have Flash Player and AIR directly on the iPad. Apple has dug in its heels about it, so we created the packager to make native apps. Now they appear to be saying no to this too. We could go another round of trying to meet their demands, but who’s to say they won’t find some new thing to object to? There’s only so much time we can spend chasing moving goalposts.

An understandable reaction, matching that of many native iPhone developers to Apple’s whimsical App Store rejections. But developers are only responsible to themselves. Adobe is responsible to all the people who’ve invested time and money in Flash – and they’ve had three years to twig that (a) iPhone was the biggest single mobile platform everyone wanted to target and (b) Apple didn’t want Flash on iPhone. If they haven’t come up with an effective response in that time, they could at least tell us they’re working on it. Let’s face it, everyone always knew Flash, as a delivery system, was a stopgap technology.

On the other hand, it’s been a very useful stopgap technology. It’s easy to wish we could do all this stuff with open standards, but that’s still some way off. People like to bang on about HTML5 as if Adobe is lazy for not adding an ‘Export to HTML5’ button, or suggest developers should ignore Adobe and make HTML5 content – but those who know estimate that HTML5 won’t even be ready for W3C candidate recommendation until 2012. I won’t attempt to comment any further on that because, although I’ve done some reading in this area (and wouldn’t foist my opinions on anyone if I hadn’t), I’m not an expert on it. I’m just saying: I get that Flash achieves some things that are genuinely difficult to achieve other ways.

What’s even less great about Apple’s position

Apple, as the owner of one mobile platform, is somewhat justified in ignoring the issues of others and pointing out that its SDK enables all the features that can be created with Flash and more, so nobody can say the lack of Flash is a limitation. But apps don’t just happen; developers have to produce them. By restricting the tools developers are allowed to use, Apple is, in practice, limiting the apps that get developed.

Will banning Flash help to maintain the quality of iPx apps? That’s often cited as Apple’s motivation. True, there are thousands of Flash games on the web that I don’t particularly want to see cluttering the App Store. Jelly-limbed stick men knocking seven bells out of each other with a variety of offensive weapons is not what my generation hoped information technology would deliver. But most of their makers are doing quite nicely on other platforms, and probably have realistic views of their chances among the growing number of excellent iApps. Meanwhile, there are people wanting to bring superb content to Apple devices who’ve just been waiting for the right tool – which has now been snatched away before it properly arrived.

I’m talking about the people who create what ‘content’ used to mean when it really was content, not gewgaws: publishers. You’d think Apple would be pleased that everyone sees its new product as the future of magazines. Not a bit of it: the company has made no public reference to this that I’ve seen. There’ve been no magazines in its public demos, despite several publishing giants busting a gut to pre-develop digital editions. Its blurb for the new iPhone OS makes no mention anywhere of text or typography. That claim we just made that the iPhone SDK supports all the stuff you could do in Flash? Doesn’t apply to type.

Most publishers create all their content in Adobe software. (QuarkXPress is still used by a sizeable minority, but it has good links to Flash too.) To go from print to iPad via the Flash packager looked like an extremely promising route. Wired magazine built its already legendary (though not yet, and now perhaps never, released) iPad edition with Adobe, though its publisher, Condé Nast, saw the writing on the wall even before 3.3.1 and made noises about the Apple/Adobe scrap most likely killing the project, as now seems inevitable. Other publishers could have leveraged the skills already under their roofs to build apps via Flash. They simply don’t have people who can write Objective-C in the Apple SDK. Of course, they can hire them or partner with them, but they have little or no experience of those processes either.

That’s why most publishers dipping their toes in the iPad waters at the moment are using third party solutions such as PixelMags and Zinio, which take the finished PDFs of any magazine and package them for iPx, basically just showing each page of the magazine onscreen until you perform a page-turny gesture to flip to the next. You also get a little filmstrip of thumbnails so you can jump to another page. Does it work? Yes, and all credit to PixelMags in particular for kick-starting this market. Is it a good user experience? No.

On iPhone, you have to zoom into the page to read the text, pan around between columns to get through a story (incredibly awkward), then zoom back out to find the next thing you want to read. Nobody would ever come up with this system from scratch as a good way of presenting content on this device. I haven’t tried it on iPad yet, but given the less-than-A4 format and relatively low screen resolution I’d guess you still need to zoom for comfortable reading – and being able to display nearly a whole page is hardly impressive when magazines are designed as two-page spreads. Just making the same layouts visible on screen is not enough.

What’s needed is a way for publishers to reformat the content they already have into iPhone- or iPad-sized chunks, then devise new navigation methods to get around it easily, without any “pretending to turn a pretend page” nonsense. InDesign+Flash would be not just a route to this, but in many ways the perfect route. The pages are already in InDesign. InDesign users can reformat them without learning any new skills. Basic interactivity can even be added within InDesign before transferring to Flash Pro – which implements Adobe’s new Text Layout Framework, so you get full control over typography instead of Apple’s strangely clunky text engine. Then you can add as much clever ActionScript as you’re capable of before running the end result through the packager and testing it via the Apple SDK.

But no. Apple doesn’t want that. Apple wants a handful of big-budget publishers to hire development teams to write fancy native apps, and everyone else to either plough on with page-turny PDF shovelware or piss off.

Is this a recipe for higher-quality content?

The implications of excluding Flash

It’s not just about print publishers, of course. Flash originally grew out of the 1990s ‘multimedia’ boom. The kind of thing that was then done often very well – but expensively, and ultimately not suffiiently profitably – on CD-ROM could today be done on iPad: reference works that combine words, pictures, animation, video and interaction. Of course, some people are doing this, such as the people behind The Elements, the lovely book of the Periodic Table. But these are exceptionally geeky people. For the mass market, you need tools that the kind of people who design books can use. Apple doesn’t provide those tools. Adobe does.

Apple’s message is not simply ‘Do it our way’. No, Apple must be very well aware that many talented individuals and illustrious organisations won’t be able, in the foreseeable future, to do it their way. Many (most?) Flash users can’t code anything except ActionScript; coding from scratch in Objective-C demands different skill sets. (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. He’s, you know, quite clever.) So in effect Apple is saying ‘Don’t do it. We don’t need you here.’

This insult to the creative community comes accompanied by injury. Although the new clause has emerged (not ‘been announced’, remember; it’s buried in a long technical document that Apple didn’t refer to during the iPhone OS 4 event) before the official launch of Adobe CS5, the Flash packager beta has been out for months and many devs were already gearing up for Flash-to-iPx development. There are already quite a few apps approved and in the App Store that were built this way, and devs are still reporting approvals (the new conditions only apply to OS 4, which doesn’t arrive until autumn). All this work is now effectively trashed. Thanks to Adobe, it looked as if Flash developers were going to be able to get into the iPx market; now, thanks to Apple, they can’t. End of.

So…

Should Apple allow Flash Player on iPx? Not if it wants to maintain total control over the way content is delivered, and in particular the way content is paid for. Should it allow developers to create apps submitted via the App Store using whatever tools they’re comfortable with? Yes. I really don’t see the big problem with that, and, as we’ve seen, there are lots of problems with imposing restrictions. Apple always has the final say on whether an app goes into the App Store or not, so if there are problems with memory usage or performance, for example, the app can be rejected. There’s nothing to stop developers making native apps that don’t work properly. Banning whole classes of apps based on the way they were made, not the end result, is arbitrary and destructive.

In summary: nobody is covering themselves with glory here, but Apple is wronger than Adobe and it’s Apple that needs to change its policy. There’s no cost involved in doing so, except to its pride. Which comes, as the saying goes, before a fall.

Speaking for himself and not his employer, my correspondent within Adobe concludes:

I’ve been an Apple fanboy since the Lisa, I use OS X 90% of the time, but I can’t squeeze myself into their new walled garden. My hope is that Apple finds a way of backing down without losing face.

I hope so too.

* * *

UPDATE: Steve has now responded privately to a developer enquiry about the new policy, summarising Apple’s objections to tools such as Flash:

We’ve been there before, and intermediate layers between the platform and the developer ultimately produces sub-standard apps and hinders the progress of the platform.

Which is a disappointing combination of cliché and insane generalisation (and also re-opens the question of why, if this clause was introduced deliberately and knowingly to destroy an entire developer community, nobody at Apple thought it might be a good idea to make some sort of public statement about it). Greg Slepak, who elicited this response from SJ, comments:

Everyone fears The Ignorant Boss

For developers, this is the person who knows nothing about programming yet insists that you use X tool and write it in Y language. Now, suddenly, it is as if the formerly independent iPhone developers all have such a boss, and the worst part is that they can’t even communicate with this one. He lives several thousand miles away in Cupertino and isn’t even aware of their existence…

Quite. In the same correspondence, Steve endorses this post by Gruber, so if you want to understand Apple’s strategic motivation, that’s probably a good place to start.

{ 4 trackbacks }

What’s Apple ever done for us? (Apart from the mouse, desktop publishing, digital media, and computers that are actually cool…) — AdamBanks.com
23 April 2010 at 1:49 am
Five reasons* to be excited about Adobe CS5 — AdamBanks.com
25 April 2010 at 11:09 pm
Thoughts on ‘Thoughts on Flash’ — AdamBanks.com
29 April 2010 at 3:10 pm
Ten reasons to doubt the Telegraph’s linkbait — AdamBanks.com
7 June 2010 at 2:22 pm

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Lomax 12 April 2010 at 2:38 pm

Personally I think the real reason Apple don’t want Flash to be able to export to iPhone is that they want to keep the entry-barrier for multiplatform apps as high as possible.

All the iPhone device advertising in press and on TV talks about the apps more than the phone. They sign off the iphone TV ads with the phrase “only on iPhone!”. If developers can suddenly export apps to a multitude of devices using Flash/AIR, then they can no longer claim “only on iPhone”.

And if you don’t have the skills or resources to develop multi-platform apps natively (which is probably most publishers), then you’re going to have to pick one platform to focus on. And Apple are betting that you’ll choose iPhone. And they’ll be right.

Ian Betteridge 12 April 2010 at 7:51 pm

Rewind to the transition between 68K and PowerPC. There were, as you probably remember, a plethora of development tools for the Mac. Unfortunately, only one of them – Metrowerks CodeWarrior – supported PowerPC code, so just about every Mac dev moved to CodeWarrior.

CodeWarrior also happened to be a great development environment and a slick compiler. Only one problem: Every time Apple updated Mac OS, developers had to wait until Metrowerks updated Codewarrior, and there was usually a lag. Now Metrowerks was a good company, and worked closely with Apple, but it meant that Apple’s release schedule was essentially at the whim of a third party - if Codewarrior didn’t support a new API, developers couldn’t use it.

Apple, in short, was no longer in control of the development of its own OS cycle. No Codewarrior support, and a new feature was dead in the water.

Fast foward to now. Suppose, for a minute, that some significant proportion of iPhone apps start to be developed using CS. All of a sudden, when Apple updates its operating system, those apps will break – and they can’t be fixed until Adobe decides to update CS. Adobe suddenly has the power to dictate Apple’s OS release schedule, and that’s something that Apple, thanks to its earlier experience, is simply not going to allow.

So yes, there is a cost to Apple to allowing developers to create apps in Flash (or any other non-Apple language): losing control over its platform, what features it can implement, and when.

This isn’t hypothetical: from what I hear, CS-generated apps can’t take advantage of multitasking in iPhone OS 4, and there’s no indication when (if) Adobe would have supported it. That’s a major feature of OS 4 which, instantly, Apple would be relying on Adobe to implement. And if they didn’t, for either technical or business reasons, a big bunch of apps would fail when OS 4 is released.

From a user perspective, it’s not Adobe that would get the blame for that, or even in most cases the developer of the app: it’s Apple. “I installed a system update and it’s broken my games!”

I can understand the desire of the Flash community for this kind of functionality. But it’s not going to happen, and the best advice if you want to target the iPhone is “build apps in Objective C”.

n0wak 17 April 2010 at 12:19 pm

That’s kind of bullshit, Ian. The CS5 packager is using public APIs so if Apple is going to make OS changes that would break those, they’re going to break a whole lot more than just Flash authored apps. Yes, the authors of those won’t be able to fix the problem unless Adobe themselves address it, but do you think that *all* the authors of native Objective C apps will have time to fix, publish, and go through the whole approval process too? Especially with old apps? Especially with old apps that didn’t sell all that well?

Apple keeps talking about the quality of native apps with no “middle” layers, but have you actually looked at the app store beyond the recommended stuff? Things like this? http://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/the-most-annoying-app-ever/id320681161?mt=8 That really speaks to Apples quality right there.

It’s just politics. Power plays, board-room dealings, and ego stroking. The only people that pay the price in this battle between Apple and Adobe and Apple and Google are the consumers and the developers, the very people that gave them the power to pull shit like this.

And, finally, if Apple is so dedicated to quality then why, in the same breath as 3.3.1, do they go and ban all outside analytics? Analytics that can give you good information about how people are using your apps and how to improve them? Why? Well, conveniently enough, they’re launching their own ad service. Fuck everyone else. So much for being the underdog.

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