The Phoney War Turns Real: Apple vs Adobe

Today is the official launch of Adobe’s new CS5 platform, but thanks to Apple many people won’t be talking about what the new suite can do, but rather what it can’t: namely output iPhone applications.

The Phoney War Turns Real: Apple vs Adobe
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In the scheme of things, clause 3.3.1 of the new licence agreement for the iPhone OS 4.0 developer kit might sound relatively unimportant. However, by effectively banning Flash-based development of iPhone applications, the new clause is not just a deliberate spoiler but a declaration of war: Apple is determined to keep the iPhone an Adobe-free space. And Adobe’s unofficial but heart-felt response – “Apple go screw yourself” – shows just how high feelings are running.

So why all the fuss? And who’s in the right?

First some background. After the original announcement at AdobeMAX one of the most hotly anticipated features in the new CS5 suite was expected to be the ability to output Flash applications for playback on the iPhone. However, as I put it in my review of the latest Flash Professional CS5, “after the original fanfare surrounding the announcement, Adobe has been back-pedalling hard. The Packager for the iPhone component is provided only as a ‘preview’, and you’re encouraged to ‘explore’ it rather than use it in anger.”

At the time I wasn’t sure if this was because of unanticipated development problems, but now the reason is clear. The system clearly works but, by pre-announcing the capability, Adobe gave Apple enough time to come up with a response: namely a new OS release and, with it, the new requirement that “applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++ or JavaScript”, with “intermediary translation or compatibility layers” explicitly prohibited. Now it’s not clear whether the Packager for iPhone will actually make it into the shipping version of Flash Professional CS5.

So why does all this matter? Basically this is a battle for the future of mobile-based development and so, by extension, for the future of computing.

Previously this was a comparatively low-level phoney war in which Apple was able to ban web-hosted Flash from the iPhone saying, with some justification, that it just wasn’t good enough. Adobe responded to that with its new Flash 10.1 player that answers many of the criticisms and which is specifically designed for mobile playback. It’s a fundamental advance and, crucially, all the main phone developers – Palm, Motorola, Intel, ARM, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, HTC, Nokia, RIM and Google – have signed up to supporting it via the Adobe-led Open Screen Project.

With one obvious exception: Apple. In other words, two camps have developed and the future for application development comes down to a battle between the respective Apple and Adobe platforms (with Microsoft and Silverlight hovering in the wings).

Of course Apple could still claim the high ground: Flash 10.1 might be better, but it still isn’t good enough for Apple’s demanding high-end users. However that strategy is completely exposed by this latest move. Apple is not banning Flash itself from the iPhone / iPad as Adobe’s Packager for iPhone converts the Flash-developed application into native iPhone code. In other words there is nothing intrinsically different about an  application developed with Flash – indeed some apps available on App Store have already been developed via Flash.

At a stroke Apple’s quality argument is effectively blown out of the water. Apple isn’t banning Flash from its platform, it’s banning Adobe and its creative userbase. The last thing that Apple wants is an influx of thousands of Flash developers flooding the market with free iPhone applications and – the real danger – outputting exactly the same apps for all other phones. Ultimately Apple is exposed as primarily defending the exclusivity and proprietary nature of the iPhone. This is not about the best interest of end users; it is about the interests of Apple. It’s an example of restrictive practices that would make Bill Gates blush and I’m surprised it’s legal.

At first sight Apple’s announcement is a major blow for Adobe, and it certainly takes the shine off the CS5 party. However in the longer run by taking the battle from the Web and directly to the Apple device, Adobe has forced Apple to come into the open and show its hand.

The phoney war is no longer virtual; it’s real and it’s out in the open.

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