Apple, Adobe slug it out

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Apple and Adobe are best buddies, right? Have been for years. Started desktop publishing together. Owned the digital creative market. Mac + Photoshop = graphic design.

Wrong. Apple and Adobe are at each other’s throats—or, rather, Apple is tearing a hole in Adobe’s throat. Adobe, so far, is standing there, looking rather bemused and hurt. But Apple keeps hitting it in the face. With a hammer.

It’s all about Flash, Adobe’s ubiquitous multimedia platform that you can find on most websites offering video and on those sites with annoying percentage countdowns that promise some silly animation that’s in the way of what you actually need to use the site for.

If you’re one of the 4 percent who don’t have Flash installed on your Mac or PC you’ll recognise it as a little blue Lego cube sitting in the middle of a blank box.

It’s called Flash not because it’s lightning fast or particularly ostentatious. It used to be called FutureSplash Animator. Macromedia renamed it by taking the ‘F’ from Future and the “lash” from Splash. Hence, Flash. Somewhere out there in the software ether is a neglected product called utureSp. If you come across it, give it a pat.

Adobe loves Flash. It’s the main reason the company purchased Macromedia for $3.4 billion in 2005. That’s a lot of love. It also got hold of FreeHand, a competitor to Adobe’s Illustrator, and Dreamweaver, a rival to Adobe GoLive. FreeHand was doomed. In return, so was GoLive.

Apple doesn’t love Flash. It hates it. It wants Flash in the pan.

Apple blames Flash for most of the crashes reported by users of its Safari web browser. And it doesn’t want it anywhere near its iPhone or iPad.

To ensure this Apple has changed the licensing terms for developers building applications for iPhone version 4.0. iPhone and iPad developers now can’t submit programs to Apple that use cross-platform compilers. Adobe has just introduced exactly such a cross-platform Flash-to-iPhone compiler with version 5 of its Creative Suite.

In technical terms Apple’s new rule is that iPhone and iPad applications must be “originally written” in C/C++/Objective-C - and that’s bad news for Flash.

Apple wants to establish Cocoa Touch and its App Store as the de facto standard for mobile apps. It doesn’t want any other company establishing another standard that it can’t control on top of Cocoa Touch.

Less technically, Apple doesn’t want a single-vendor independent software standard to run in iPhone or iPad apps.

When Apple updates the iPhone software it wants users’ apps to work with it straight away. If another company is in control of even a little bit of software in those apps, and it’s slow to update for the iPhone/iPad first, the whole update process becomes a mess - a mess out of Apple’s control.

What if that company updated its software for Google’s Android first, BlackBerry, or - heaven forbid - Windows Phone 7? The iPhone suffers.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been quite explicit about this: “Intermediate layers between the platform and the developer ultimately produces sub-standard apps and hinders the progress of the platform.”

As blogger John Gruber has pointed out, Apple can fix anything in the iPhone OS because it controls the entire source code: “If something is slow, they can optimize or re-write it. That is not true for Mac OS X, and Flash is a prime example. The single leading source of application crashes on Mac OS X is a component that Apple can’t fix.”

In 2008 Jobs said Adobe’s mobile-oriented Flash Player Lite was “too slow to be useful” for the iPhone. In January he called Adobe “lazy”. Flash is buggy, and the world is moving toward HTML5 anyway. Whenever a Mac crashes, it is most frequently because of Flash, Jobs blasted.

Adobe’s Flash-to-iPhone compiler in CS5 was meant to placate Jobs and Apple. Instead it is the victim of their wrath.

So Flash for iPhone/iPad is spiked, just days before Adobe’s Flash-to-iPhone compiler is to be released. Adobe has wasted its time and has a major benefit of its new software suite ripped right out in front of its own eyes.

Lee Brimelow, an Adobe platform evangelist, didn’t mince his words when commenting on Apple’s attack. “Go screw yourself Apple,” he wrote on his Web site The Flash Blog.

He says Apple’s action “is a frightening move that has no rational defense other than wanting tyrannical control over developers and more importantly, wanting to use developers as pawns in their crusade against Adobe.

Flash is also a threat to Apple’s tightly controlled App Store. A week after Jobs met with editors at the Wall Street Journal one of its writers pointed out: “Flash would also allow iPhone and iPad users to consume video and other entertainment without going through iTunes. Flash would let users freely obtain the kinds of features they can only get now at the Apple App Store.”

Apple doesn’t want a free market. It owns the place you go to get apps.

Apple isn’t trying to replace Flash with its own proprietary solution. It wants to replace it with open standards H.264 and HTML5.

It’s been working on these Flash busters for some time. Way back in 2004 - three long years before the iPhone - Apple, Mozilla, and Opera started up the independent WHATWG (Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group), focused on advancing HTML, CSS, DOM, and JavaScript to serve as a viable platform for rich web apps. That is, killing the need for Flash.

Everyone’s in favour of HTML 5: Mozilla and Opera so they can compete on a level playing field in the browser market; Google for its web apps and to free YouTube of its dependence on Flash (it works on the iPhone because it uses H.264 for mobile YouTube delivery); Microsoft because its browser share is based mainly on old IE6 standards; Apple for its app platform and to rid itself of what its sees as buggy plugins. Everyone, that is, except Adobe.

Apple’s history with its former close ally is a rocky one anyway. In 1985 the two companies worked together to develop desktop publishing around Apple’s Macintosh and LaserWriter and Adobe’s PostScript.

Jobs immediately saw the potential of PostScript and got Apple to invest $2.5 million for a 15 percent stake in Adobe. In return Adobe founder John Warnock dedicated Adobe to making the Mac a success. (for more detail on Apple’s investment in Adobe, read Jim Carlton’s ‘Apple: The Inside Story of Intrigue, Egomania, and Business Blunders’, 1997, page 111 onwards.)

But things quickly turned sour. Adobe produced digital fonts in a proprietary format called Type 1. Apple had to pay a licence fee for every Type 1 font its LaserWriters could use.

So to save money for its planned low-end products it developed a competing standard called TrueType with Microsoft.

Adobe’s stock dropped to a half of its value overnight. A furious Warnock sneered that this was a deal “with the devil”.

Speaking after Bill Gates had introduced TrueType on stage with Apple at the influential Seybold conference in 1989, Warnock called his speech “the biggest bunch of garbage and mumbo jumbo”. “These people are selling you snake oil,” he hissed.

Apple promptly sold its stake in Adobe for a $79 million profit. Ironically TrueType never really caught on with the Mac, but became a massive success on Windows. Adobe lowered its PostScript licensing fees, but the damage was done.

Adobe had some measure of revenge when Windows became a contender for graphics workstations. Adobe started to release Windows versions before those for Mac. When Apple hit hard times in the mid-1990s Adobe produced Windows-only software, ignoring the Mac altogether.

Planning the launch of Mac OS X Jobs asked Adobe in 1998 to develop a Mac version of its consumer video-editing program. “They said flat-out no,” Jobs recalls. “We were shocked, because they had been a big supporter in the early days of the Mac. But we said, ‘Okay, if nobody wants to help us, we’re just going to have to do this ourselves.’”

The result was the start of Apple’s Applications Software Division - which grew into a 1,000-engineer-strong group.

Thus Apple iLife’s iMovie vs Adobe Premiere Elements, Apple Final Cut Pro vs Adobe Premiere Pro (initially Windows only) and Apple iPhoto vs Photoshop Elements. Apple later released Aperture against Adobe Photoshop.

Apple’s attempt to assassinate Adobe’s Flash is clearly the next step in this simmering war between the two companies. Adobe could take Apple to court to force it to allow third-party iPhone compilers or simply side with competing mobile platforms such as Android, BlackBerry or Windows Phone 7 against it.

We’re all losers until HTML 5 is sophisticated enough to match Flash, and that could take years.

Steve Jobs is the vengeful Emperor Ming to Adobe’s Dr Hans Zarkov in the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. “If I judge that system dangerous to us, I destroy it utterly,” Ming told Zarkov.

In this case Flash is unlikely to save the universe but Apple has quite a fight on its hands in its battle to control it.

Simon Jary has covered Apple for ages, including a long stint as the editor in chief of Macworld UK. He’s now a contributing editor with Macworld UK and publishing director of PC Advisor.]

This story, "Apple, Adobe slug it out" was originally published by PC Advisor (UK).

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