Flash on iPhone Political Calculus

With regard to why I doubt that Apple plans to add Flash support to MobileSafari any time soon, the political considerations are more important than the technical ones. In short: Could Apple do it? Yes, but it wouldn’t be easy. But would they? I say no — even if it were easy.

There are currently two ways to develop software for the iPhone (and iPod Touch): using HTML/CSS/JavaScript web standards, and using Cocoa. Cocoa is proprietary, but from Apple’s perspective, it’s the good sort of proprietary: a competitive advantage completely owned and controlled by Apple. Apple doesn’t control the HTML/CSS/JavaScript web standards, but neither does anyone else. And Apple does control and own WebKit, which is by anyone’s measure the best mobile implementation of these standards today.

Flash, on the other hand, is (from Apple’s perspective) the wrong sort of proprietary — owned and controlled by another company. Apple and Adobe aren’t enemies, but they’re certainly competitors, and the history between the two companies is not entirely warm.1 In the grand scheme of things, I suspect Apple’s executives aren’t happy at all about Flash’s prominent and entrenched role in desktop computing, particularly the fact that Flash, rather than QuickTime, has become the de facto standard for video on the web.

For the desktop web, that is.

The mobile market is wide open in ways that the desktop market is not. E.g., in the mobile OS market, Microsoft isn’t even in first place, let alone a monopoly. And, in the mobile world, Flash is rare, not ubiquitous. Why would Apple help Adobe establish Flash as a de facto standard for the mobile web, too? If Flash does turn into a major force in the mobile world, Apple can always add it later. But why shouldn’t Apple push for a Flash-free mobile web future now?

As it stands today, Apple is dependent on no one other than itself for the software on the iPhone. Apple controls the source code to the whole thing, from top to bottom.2 Why cede any of that control to Adobe? Flash has never performed as well on Mac OS as it has on Windows. Adobe was late to ship native Mac OS X versions of its professional design apps, and was late again to produce Intel-native Universal binaries. What happens if Apple decides to switch the iPhone to a different CPU architecture and Adobe says Flash won’t simply recompile?

And what happens, if, say, Microsoft were to acquire Adobe? That doesn’t seem likely, especially given Microsoft’s pursuit of Yahoo, but it’s certainly possible. From Apple’s perspective, why take a chance? Apple would benefit very little by adding Flash support (again, are they losing any sales at all due to the iPhone’s current lack of Flash?), but would incur several risks, and, even in the best case scenario, would muddle its message to web developers about how to write web-based apps targeting the iPhone.

If there is no Flash support in MobileSafari, and the absence of Flash does not affect demand for iPhones and iPods, then there is no possible way that Flash can turn into a pain in Apple’s mobile ass.

Lastly, perhaps you might be thinking that although Flash-for-the-iPhone may not be in Apple’s interest, it is in Adobe’s — and so perhaps Adobe will port it themselves once the imminent iPhone SDK ships. Think again. The iPhone SDK is not going to be the sort of environment like Mac OS X where developers are free to create system-level plugins. No one is going to get to diddle with MobileSafari without Apple’s approval.

  1. NeXT’s operating system graphics system was built entirely around Display Postscript, a technology NeXT licensed from Adobe. A former NeXT developer told me the terms were such that the source code for Display Postscript never left Adobe’s campus — to work on the code, NeXT engineers had to go to Adobe and work in an isolated room with no outside network access. There are people at Apple who remember this arrangement vividly, and not fondly. ↩︎

  2. Google and Yahoo provide Apple with web services for things like Maps, Stocks, and Weather. But that’s data, not software. ↩︎