Jobs: Why Apple banned Flash from the iPhone

In a rare open letter, Steve Jobs details technical arguments for Apple's refusal to let Flash on the iPhone and suggests Adobe focus on HTML.

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Stephen Shankland
6 min read

In a rare open letter published Thursday, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs has detailed the technological reasons behind his company's refusal to let Adobe Systems' Flash Player onto the iPhone: he thinks it's a relic, not the future.

"Flash was created during the PC era--for PCs and mice," Jobs said in the letter. "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."

Jobs also knocked Flash for being proprietary, sapping battery power, not supporting multitouch interfaces, posing security risks, and being unstable. "Flash is the No. 1 reason Macs crash," Jobs said.

Overall, his message is this: Flash is flawed, Apple doesn't need it, and the company is using its considerable power and influence to make it obsolete.

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen called Jobs' letter a "smokescreen" in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. That there are more than 100 applications available today built with Adobe's tool to translate Flash apps into native iPhone apps shows Apple's objections have "nothing to do with technology."

Narayen also turned around Jobs' complaint about Flash causing Mac crashes, pinning the blame on Mac OS X, and said Jobs' complaints about Flash draining batteries fast are "patently false." In addition, where Jobs complained of Flash shortcomings, "for every one of these accusations made there is proprietary lock-in" that block Adobe from fixing it.

Flash Player, a programming foundation that's ubiquitous on personal computers, is widely used for tasks such as online games, photo editors, and video streaming, and with the upcoming version 10.1, Adobe is trying anew to bring Flash to mobile devices.

The software is designed to work on phones using RIM's BlackBerry OS, Microsoft's Windows Phone 7, Palm's WebOS, Nokia's Symbian, and Google's Android. Adobe has been increasingly vocal about its dissatisfaction with the Apple situation, especially after Apple barred a new tool from Adobe that would let Flash developers turn their programs into native iPhone applications.

A chief benefit of Flash is its cross-platform design that lets programmers reach a multitude of devices easily, but missing some of the highest-profile mobile devices on the market--the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch--weakens the Flash sales pitch. Apple's move comes as a collection of Web technologies--HTML retooled for applications, Cascading Style Sheets for better formatting, faster JavaScript for running Web-based programs--are coalescing into a more viable replacement for today's Flash.

Jobs struck back against Adobe's protestations with a list of six reasons Apple is opposed to Flash. The most important, he said, is that Apple refuses to be beholden to another organization's programming foundation.

"We know from painful experience that letting a third-party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in substandard 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," Jobs said. "We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers."

Adobe is working to improve Flash, notably on the Mac, where the company has acknowledged its performance lags. In addition, Flash Player 10.1 adds support for multitouch, and a new Flash Player 10.1 beta can take advantage of Mac OS X hardware acceleration for playing videos encoded with the H.264 technology.

Jobs' open letters are unusual but not unknown. In 2007, for instance, he wrote about Apple and the environment, and about copy-protected music.

Apple and Adobe 'have grown apart'
The latest letter recounts some history when Apple and Adobe jointly built the desktop-publishing industry. Although Apple and Adobe still have many joint customers in that design arena, the days of the close alliance are over, Jobs said.

"Since that golden era, the companies have grown apart. Apple went through its near-death experience, and Adobe was drawn to the corporate market with their Acrobat products. Today the two companies still work together to serve their joint creative customers--Mac users buy around half of Adobe's Creative Suite products--but beyond that, there are few joint interests."

Adobe has a new close ally, now: Google, which is working closely with Adobe engineers to get Flash working well on Google's Android operating system. Android is a strong competitor to the iPhone OS.

"Adobe claims that we are a closed system and that Flash is open, but in fact, the opposite is true."
--Apple CEO Steve Jobs

"Google is happy to be partnering with Adobe to bring the full Web, great applications, and developer choice to the Android platform," Android engineering leader Andy Rubin said in a blog post on Adobe's Web site a week ago.

Jobs sees things differently about Flash and the "full Web" argument.

"Adobe has repeatedly said that Apple mobile devices cannot access "the full Web" because 75 percent 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," Jobs said. "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."

In other words, Apple has enough clout with its mobile devices that it doesn't need to worry about relying on Flash.

It appears that Adobe's criticisms that Apple is closed also raised Jobs' hackles.

"Adobe claims that we are a closed system and that Flash is open, but in fact, the opposite is true," Jobs said.

Plenty of developers and others in the industry disagree with Jobs that Apple's system is open, though. Most notably, Apple controls the App Store, the sole authorized mechanism to add applications to an iPhone.

But Jobs rightly points out that Apple's work with HTML5 and other "Open Web" standards is open. Apple has helped nurture many new standards with WebKit, the open-source browser engine underlying Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome--and used alongside Flash in another Adobe programming foundation called AIR (the Adobe Integrated Runtime).

Google, a Web powerhouse, is a strong believer in the Web as an applications foundation, and to that end, it is funding work on HTML5 and related standards for Chrome and Chrome OS, and using them in its online services. The Open Web work is even attracting some degree of support from Microsoft, which has pledged HTML5 support in Internet Explorer 9.

It'll take a long time for all the Open Web standards to mature. Many of them are still under development--on Tuesday, Firefox backer Mozilla said it's holding off one new HTML feature called WebSockets until the technology settles down. It will take time for the standards to be hammered out, more time for them to show up in browsers, more time for people to upgrade, and more time for developers to learn and embrace the technology.

In the meantime, Flash is understood by many programmers, and it is widely, if not universally, deployed. Adobe isn't standing still, either.

But Apple is willing to take a stand, as it did with ditching floppy drives, supporting FireWire, and dumping DVI in favor of DisplayPort video connectors. Not all Apple's initiatives succeed, but Apple's influence today is stronger than it has been in years. So although Flash developers won't ditch Adobe tomorrow, Jobs' letter should be taken seriously.

Updated at 7:11 a.m. and 9:06 a.m. PDT with further details. Updated at 12:21 p.m. PDT with Adobe CEO's comments to The Wall Street Journal.