How Adobe can (theoretically) get Flash on the iPhone

David Braue
12 February, 2010
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The war of words between Apple and Adobe continued this week, with Apple holding off on the possibility of putting Flash on the iPad and Adobe saying it’s ready to go with iPad and iPhone versions whenever Apple gives the green light.

Which might well be never, unless Adobe cedes a bit of ground first.

Flash, after all, is still a closed, proprietary standard whose features, direction, implementation and support are still handled by Adobe. It is, in short, the Apple model done all over by somebody else.

Like a Christmas visit from the in-laws you really can’t stand, Apple has no real choice but to allow Flash on the Mac; not even Jobs’ patented Reality Distortion Field could make up for a desktop platform that can’t play the majority of animated, interactive content online.

On the iPhone, however, Apple has set the terms – and stuck to them with fervour. One objection to Flash has been that it violates Apple’s developer terms and conditions, which forbid having one application launch another bit of executable code. Performance is also cited as an issue – although while performance of the traditionally resource-hungry Flash may be one reason you’re not seeing the app on the iPhone, progressively faster processors would have fixed that problem.

More pressing for Apple is that Flash has the potential break many of Apple’s other business models by allowing direct streaming of applications that circumvent its own App Store. Adobe, of course, has gone part of the way towards addressing this by building iPhone applications creation capabilities into its upcoming Flash Professional CS5: that way, developers’ Flash apps can be encapsulated into an App Store-friendly wrapper and bought, downloaded and run one at a time.

It’s a good workaround, but in the long term Flash may find itself threatened on the iPhone by the existence of open-standards alternatives such as SVG (scalable vector graphics) eventual rise of HTML 5, a rich content language that will offer a broad range of features that could put Flash out of business.

It will take time, but once there’s an open-standards option with similar functionality to Flash – and a broad range of capable tools for building content in it – the crying demand for Flash applications may well start to subside.

Apple, for one, is counting on it: the company was an early advocate of HTML 5, demonstrating its support for the standard in a beta version of Safari 4 nearly a year ago. The presence of HTML 5 suggests that Apple is more than happy to support alternative rich-media technologies, so long as it’s not beholden to a specific proprietary vendor any more than it has to be.

Adobe, of course, wants to own the world’s multimedia experience with Flash – and for the near future, it will continue to do so. But in the long term, the rising tide of change could well see many developers abandoning it for a single open-standard technology that will render appropriately on all sorts of devices.

If Adobe wants this technology to be Flash, it’s going to have to do what it did for the PDF format it developed all those years ago: offer it to the world as an open standard.

PDF long ago became the world’s standard for document distribution, but it would never have happened if Adobe had not submitted it as an open, international standard (ISO/IEC 32000-1:2008). That approval came in mid 2008, but even with the standardisation process underway Apple had already made PDF support a core part of its OS – as it remains to this day. Even the iPhone reads PDFs out of the box.

This would seem to set a precedent – and fit in with Apple’s philosophy on adding new features. Apple has an aversion to handing the keys to its products to third parties – witness Steve Jobs’ increasingly specious argument that Blu-ray is not a viable option for Macs. Which is, of course, a roundabout way of saying that Apple will add Blu-ray when it’s good and ready – not just because its customers are screaming for it.

Not even the whinging of Adobe, which has long held that Apple is preventing the introduction of Flash, will change things. If Adobe wants Flash on the iPhone and iPad, it may need to consider relaxing its hold on the technology and promoting it as an ISO standard as it did with PDF.

Such a move would open Flash to a broad range of interpretations, which is what Apple loves. Knowing Apple, for example, they’d want to implement a Flash browser with overlay capabilities that could allow charging for downloadable Flash games or videos. However it was done, such an implementation would be on Apple’s terms, and not Adobe’s.

Or, perhaps, not. After all, even if it were standardised, Flash could present such a big threat to the App Store that Apple might continue to hold it back. But standardisation by Adobe would be a major step forward and a seeming way to break the impasse at which the companies now find themselves: even if Apple still resisted the technology on its own merits, developers could seemingly integrate the open-standards support into their own browsers (Firefox for iPad, anybody?) Adobe would get the visibility it wants – and, with support for a panoply of multimedia standards, Apple users would get the best of all worlds.

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