Apple & Flash: Steve Jobs' Don Corleone Moment

There was lots of discussion prompted by Steve Jobs' missive today about Flash:

Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.

The avalanche of media outlets offering their content for Apple’s mobile devices demonstrates that Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of web content. And the 200,000 apps on Apple’s App Store proves that Flash isn’t necessary for tens of thousands of developers to create graphically rich applications, including games.

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.

This should be read not so much as a statement of fact (or facts plural) but as a pitch to the market. I'm not a developer but I see three things going on here and in the larger debate. 

The technical arguments that Jobs makes have some clear merit. It's not all smokescreen for ulterior motives. However there are unexpressed motivations too, which include a desire to maintain control over apps and the ways they get on Apple's devices. And then there's the "revenge factor," which has been written about elsewhere:

In 1996 when Apple was seemingly on the ropes, Adobe made a crucial business decision and one that is coming back to bite them in the ass. They declared that their primary development platform would be Windows; subsequently, every new application or major revision of a product was introduced for Windows first and followed months later, sometimes never at all, by a Mac version.

After Steve Jobs took over and he was charting out a new course with OS X, Apple reached out many times to Abode to introduce a native version of their suite for the new OS. Adobe never committed – standing by its prediction that OS X would never gain momentum or share and it would ride the Windows ascendancy. Adobe thought that it had the dominant hand and displayed its arrogance in public.

Adobe abandoned Apple during a "dark period," in an hour of need. This take on events is all-but-confirmed by Jobs himself in the letter today:

Apple went through its near death experience, and Adobe was drawn to the corporate market with their Acrobat products.

Payback time, implies Jobs. So the "professional" and the "personal" are conflated here. But Jobs is correct that Flash is no longer "necessary" in mobile. It's just that it's expensive and time consuming for everyone to shift course. 

Whether it will matter and how this will all play out will ultimately depend on consumers. When the Google/Android-Flash tablets and handsets come out will consumers opt for them vs. Apple products? That will partly depend on whether Adobe and/or Google and/or the involved carriers (e.g., Verizon) are going to market aggressively on the fact that Flash isn't there on the iDevices.

Verizon's many millions in conventional and anti-iPhone marketing drove Droid sales.

However, if Verizon gets the iPhone in June, which it still very much wants, we won't see any anti-iPhone marketing dollars from the carrier on Adobe's behalf. Google historically doesn't spend big, traditional marketing dollars. It's also hedging with HTML5 (its videos can all be seen on the iPhone/iPad), which is ironically Google's argument against native app stores (iTunes) as well. So Google is unlikely to go to bat for Adobe either. 

So Adobe will probably go it alone on the marketing front -- or maybe another hardware OEM such as HP or Dell might make the "full Internet" argument to consumers. But while some consumers might care that they can't watch all MSNBC or Hulu video (Hulu actually is a big one) on the iPad, for example, most consumers are going to find enough non-flash content and video that it won't really matter to them in the end. 

And in the end, because of alternatives, this isn't really an argument about "content," it's about standards. 

It's also unlikely -- with the possible exception of one or two of the forthcoming Android tablets -- that competitive devices are going to be more attractive to consumers than the Apple handsets and tablets. Thus while no Flash on Apple hardware might be a "bummer" for some, that issue will not be significant enough to trump other considerations.

In the end, I believe, Adobe -- and Flash -- will lose this fight.