Apple is the New China

The recent war between Apple and Adobe and the justifications made in Apple’s defense (ignore the predatory behavior in the tech space because it is too big a market to ignore) bring to mind the attitude that most large American corporations have regarding China (ignore the civil rights abuses because it is too big a market to ignore).

The closed environment

For years now, I have worried about Apple’s tendency to prefer closed environments to open ones when it came first to its iPod line of products, then its iPhone line, and now it’s iPad one. Each of the product are terrific consumption tools but that’s where they stop and my worry stems from the trend they create, one where Apple is creating an increasingly closed environment, more in line with the type of thinking that permeates the consumer electronics, movie, and telephone industry than the one that exists in the computer world. It seems that whenever Apple enters a new industry, it may have a small impact on that industry but the industry itself has a big impact on Apple.

Of course, one could see this as a natural evolution as the counter-culture 1970s Steve Jobs was booted out of Apple and, after a long exile, came back as Steve Jobs, founder of Pixar and eventually morphed into Steve Jobs, largest Disney shareholder. The net result is that the Apple leader has now learned to turn his company into the new Disney, bringing safe products to the masses in a highly sterilized environment that may not appeal to all.

And a Disneyworld version of computing is OK for most people. Most people love the magic kingdom but, for a portion of the population, Disneyworld is a place you visit, not one you live in. And that’s where conflict arises.

For people who have lived in the mostly free-for-all environment of the computing industry (and its cousin, the anything-goes world of the Internet), the idea of a Disneyified world is as close as you will get to their concept of hell. And those people tend to be the ones that develop applications.

Two Impulses

So developers now find themselves conflicted between two impulses:

  • On one hand, Apple is created this Disney-like environment that increases the level of control Apple asserts in many spaces including the music, video, and mobile space.
  • On the other hand, this type of environment attracts large crowds who really enjoy the safer experience. As an added bonus, the space actually looks very clean and the interface components are very slick.

The market size issue is one that larger technology companies are starting to grapple with in another arena: China. For example, Google has been trying to figure out the right balance between insisting that China stop censoring internet content and protecting its chances at getting into that market. Many of Google’s competitors, in the meantime, stood on the sideline, arguing that China is too large a market to ignore and that corporations should not get involved into politics, a position that is often at odds with their own actions in the US.

But back to Apple.

Apple vs. Adobe

For those who have not been following what’s happening between Apple and Adobe, here’s what’s happening. Adobe owns Flash, a product that allows for video or more interactive type of content  on the web. Thanks to the Flash technology, distributing video on the internet became a reality because the Flash player ran on most browsers and, thanks to strong marketing by Macromedia (the company that was managing Flash at the time and was acquired by Adobe), the Flash player became ubiquitous on computers.

When Apple first released the iPhone, it presented it as a different type of phone because it offered a browser that gave its users access to “the full Internet,” a statement that highlighted how poorly other mobile phones rendered web pages. This was a major advance  but there were a couple of things that were not included: in order to ensure that the browser ran quickly and reliably on the lower-CPU phones, Apple made a technical decision to remove Java and plugin support from its browser. For the most part, that was OK but many people started complaining that Flash was not included because a large amount of internet video was delivered using the flash player. Apple said, at the time, that its partnership with YouTube should offer with enough video content and that the other groups were pretty much fringe.

Over the years, the discussion continued in tech circles and Adobe, now owners of Flash, decided to reposition it as a tool that would allow for creating interactive content that could run on any platform. It was widely known in development circles that Adobe was working on a version of Flash that would help developers create iPhone applications with the Flash development tools. So Apple upped the stakes by banning its development community from leveraging such tools. Because of the tight control Apple has over what gets on the iPhone and iPad, it essentially killed any chances of using Flash to create programs for those platforms.

As one would expect, Adobe was very unhappy. They had made the ability to create iPhone applications with Flash a key feature of their new offering. So they huffed and puffed enough to get the tech community fired up.

The controversy has now gotten so strong that it got a response from Steve Jobs himself, which resulted in Adobe abandoning their strategy of distribution on Apple devices.

Apple: Standard bearer for openness?

Jobs’ note is interesting in many aspects. On the one hand, he does seem to address many of the issues that have been raised and explain why Apple’s position is the friendly one. On the other, people with enough knowledge of the underlying technologies can see some cracks in the arguments made:

First, there’s “Open”

That Apple would lead with the concept of openness is ironic at its best and deceiving at its worst. While it’s true that Adobe Flash is not open, Apple’s selective list of standards it is supporting reveals some of the politics surrounding web standards. Yes, HTML5 is completely open but the issue of video in HTML5 is a small developer skirmish in which Apple is backing a horse that is not necessarily the most open one.


It’s interesting that, in the paragraph about openness, Steve Jobs mentions HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript but leaves the issue of video codec for later in his note. That comes in the discussion of “the full web” where he mentions support for H.264.

That name represents a standard that is not an open one. In fact, it’s one that needs to be licensed in order to be used and, while many people use it (as Apple’s note demonstrate), it’s one that could generate royalties for many companies when the agreement to make this standard royalties-free for internet video ends in 2015. And one of the companies that would get some of those royalties is….

(if you haven’t guessed, you must have skimmed throught the rest of the article)

surprise, it’s Apple Inc., a company that happens to own some proprietary intellectual property that is included in this standard.

And, surprisingly, the best tool for authoring content for the H.264 standard is Quicktime, a piece of software that is distributed by… Apple.

I’m not going to deny that the rest of the arguments (around security, performance, and battery life) may hold value. I’m also not going to claim that Jobs is wrong in saying that the “Touch” experience is not fundamentally different from the experience that Flash was initially created for.

But I am going to go out on a limb and say that this whole fight between Apple and Adobe comes down to a single thread: Who will control video on the web. Jobs is probably not thrilled that Flash has usurped Quicktime as the main contender on the web and is working on changing that.

Reasserting closed systems

While the war between Adobe and Apple is an amusing soap opera, the last reason Jobs gives for not supporting Flash ought to be the most chilling to the development community. I could paraphrase but I wouldn’t do it justice so here’s what he said (emphasis is mine):

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

Our motivation is simple – we want to provide the most advanced and innovative platform to our developers, and we want them to stand directly on the shoulders of this platform and create the best apps the world has ever seen. We want to continually enhance the platform so developers can create even more amazing, powerful, fun and useful applications.

At first read, an innocuous set of statements but one that has potential implications for the future of computing. If the thinking in Cupertino is that third party development tools are bad, then what about the Mac and non-Apple development tools on OSX? Where would those stand. And, while the introduction of new features are great, what happens if Apple decides to remove old ones? That is question left unanswered by this note and one that may leave the door open for more concerns.

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