Steve Jobs published a note called Thoughts on Flash today, almost certainly as a direct result of my previous post, HTML 5: Not any Time Soon, in which I pointed out that I think Apple is making a mistake by not supporting Flash on the iPhone and iPad.
Steve’s rebuttal contained a few points. Number one is that Flash isn’t open, it’s a proprietary standard (obviously true) and that for some reason Apple has decided that while everything else they produce should be a proprietary standard, web-based ones need to be open. It’s a double-standard with no clear reason as to why that one proprietary works everywhere but there, but it is what it is.
Ironically he then goes on to tout the performance benefits of using h.264, a proprietary video encoding standard that Apple relies on heavily. You can argue the finer points of video compression (whether Ogg Theora is sufficiently high quality at given bitrates, or potentially subject to potential IP problems) until you’re blue in the face, but you just cannot reconcile the fact that Apple feels that animated graphics and interactive interfaces need to be created in an open standard like HTML 5 but video in a proprietary one like h.264. Apple could create both a video compression standard (and open source it like they have with Webkit) and hardware encoder/decoders for it if they wanted, but they do not. Of course, they’re a member of the proprietary licensing group that collects h.264 licensing fees, so once again we’re left with Apple just wanting to use their proprietary standards.
Really what it comes down to is Apple is winning the latest version of the Great Technological Dick-Measuring Contest (heretofore abbreviated GTDMC): the app count. Apple can boast 180,00 apps or however many, a multiple of the number for Android and everyone else. Just like previous GTDMCs, including megapixels in digital cameras and clock speed on processors, the app store GTDMC is not at all meaningful by itself but sells product to the uninformed. Ask anyone who has sold electronics (I did back in the days of MP and GHz). Average Joe Sixpack doesn’t know or care about anything but the number.
This is the real reason Apple is banning anything not programmed in their developer tools from their devices. Really, who cares if later versions of the iPhone OS make your fart apps stop farting? Not Apple certainly. Probably not users either, they’ll just upgrade the ones that the developers felt valuable enough to upgrade and simply replace the rest. The average lifespan of any given app on a particular device is about that of the common houselfy, so I can’t imagine breaking compatibility is a concern to anyone involved.
What Apple doesn’t want, and Steve Jobs neglected to mention, is to let the App Store become a cheap commodity. If Adobe can make their Creative Suite export your flash program to an iPhone app, what’s to stop them from letting it export to an Android one, and a WebOS one, and a Blackberry one as well? The answer is nothing, in fact it’s almost certain they’d do this given that Adobe’s mission from day one, when they were doing this with printable documents, is to make it so that developers can write their code once and run it anywhere.
And then what happens to all of the exclusive “Made for iPhone apps”? Just as gaming console makers love games made solely for their platform, Apple wants your location sharing service to only run on iPhone. This is the real reason why they’re cramming Xcode down your throats.
Another point Steve-o (that’s what we call him at the poker table) makes is battery life. To me this is a fallacious argument. The device supporting Flash does not have to equal the device not supporting h.264. Battery life could be maintained, such as it is now, when viewing YouTube or any other site with h.264 files ready to go. And for sites that still have their content in only Flash for whatever reason (Hulu being the most notable by far) the customer can simply choose.
Also, if there’s one thing that Apple products have been notorious for it’s poor battery life. Apple was the first OEM, way back in the early days of the iPod, a line of products which has had worse battery life than every major competitor ever since its inception, to realize that people don’t really care about it that much. They just need enough to get through the day. The iPhone (like most smartphones with large screens) gets abysmal battery life compared to the clamshells everyone had before, and guess what, nobody cares. You just plug it in every night and you’re happy.
On the whole though, all of his points illustrate exactly why all of us web developers want Flash to die. Though most of the ones I’ve talked to tend to agree with my statement that it won’t happen soon, we’re all hoping it does. But that doesn’t mean it’s sensible to not support it now.