Flash

Here’s a simple summary for bottom line readers:

Hey, Steve, once we give you our money it’s our toy. You don’t own it anymore. We can break it if we want to.

I also discuss the very subtle difference between righteousness and hypocrisy. pit Wittgenstein against dungeons masters, show a total lack of reverence for the Gods of iPad and come up with an ad Apple could use if they would just make friends with Adobe.

My own thoughts on Flash

I recall a Bible story from when I was a kid. It’s in the Bible in the same book as the verses “God helps those who help themselves,” “spare the rod and spoil the child” and “put the Lord thy God above all others unless (or especially) when it will turn a profit.”

Two women came to Solomon because they wanted the baby to wear two different sets of clothes. The mother wanted the baby to dress in flannels and the step-mother wanted the baby in linen. It seems the women came from two different tribes that fought the Philistines from the kingdom of Microsoft a generation before but now were preparing for war.

Solomon took a diaper and split it in two with his sword and said “Get over yourselves.”
The two women turned to each other and said, “I told you he would take my side.”

Carol says she doesn’t remember any such story, but she was raised Episcopal and I was raised Baptist and when it comes to what’s in the Bible, Baptists always win whether it’s actually in there or not.

My point is that this Biblical parable speaks directly to the Apple Flash wars. Adobe wants iPhone and iPad to play Flash content. Apple says the iPad is their machine and they designed it so Flash will never ever be necessary. Both have gone to great lengths to make their cases sound reasonable to the public. To me they look like two kids who can no longer play in the same sandbox and are perfectly willing to piss all over it leaving the rest of us wet and out of the game.

Before I continue, let me assure you that my criticisms aren’t intended to imply Steve is dissembling or being any way hypocritical. On the contrary, Steve is a righteous guy. The problem is that righteous guys expect us to adhere to the same high standards they expect for themselves.

This is, in fact, the opposite of a hypocrite who holds us to high standards they don’t apply to themselves. Unfortunately, neither ever has a clue why we don’t appreciate their standards.

The Dungeon Master Syndrome

When Steve Jobs posted his open letter “Thoughts on Flash,” I have to admit that his thoughts seemed reasonable. At first. Basically Steve claims to just want to give the world a device that works the way he intended it to work. Adobe can’t be trusted to deliver applications that will do that. The more I thought about it, however, the more it sounds like Jobs wants everybody to play with his toy his way, and they better not use it in ways he didn’t intend.

When my son Bryan was eight, my ex-wife would let him come visit in the summers. He brought a board game version of Dungeons and Dragons with him, mainly so he could be dungeon master. Since his cousins in Austin are all girls, they would quickly become bored with the fact that he kept telling them they were playing wrong and he would become frustrated that they didn’t want to listen to him.

Being a big fan of Wittgenstein, I suggested we change the rules so the game would be more fun for the girls to play. After all, as Wittgenstein might argue, board games like Dungeons and Dragons are nothing more than social conventions with arbitrary rules we can redefine at any time. Okay, I didn’t actually mention Wittgenstein, Bryan was eight for goodness sake. But I took that general approach.

“We can’t, Dad,” he said, with all the gravitas of Steve Job’s Thoughts on Flash. “Those are the rules.” So Bryan got to be dungeon master of a solitaire game. And that’s what Apple wants to do with the iPad. Steve Jobs wants us to play but he wants us to remember we’re playing with his toy. In the past computer users were expected to tinker under the hood and soup up our software and hardware as long as we did nothing illegal. Not when we play in Steve’s sandbox.

Oh, for the good ole days

Steve tries to sound conciliatory with stories about warm happy memories of his childhood friends: “…we met Adobe’s founders when they were in their proverbial garage. Apple was their first big customer, adopting their Postscript language for our new Laserwriter printer. Apple invested in Adobe and owned around 20% of the company for many years.”1

Steve’s memory is somewhat self-serving, perhaps because he wasn’t with Apple at the time; he was off promoting his NeXT computer (you know, the computer the rest of us forgot). He did encourage John Warnock and Adobe to develop PostScript as a laser printer language, but by the time Apple released their laser printer with PostScript drivers, he was gone.

It could be argued that Adobe saved Apple and not the other way around. Desktop publishing was in its infancy and without the PostScript printer language, which translated complex graphic information into printable dots, DTP applications would probably have suffered from crib death. HP and raster based laser printers would not have done the job because they were primarily about text.

Many major publishers tinkered with DTP in the back shop, but they still stripped negatives and reproduced photos with halftone cameras because they even Apple couldn’t provide high quality prepress. In the meantime, many business analysts believed Microsoft, Compaq and Hewlett Packard would kill Apple, who was clinging to life with about eight percent of the market.

Then Adobe released two revolutionary programs, Photoshop and Illustrator, and bought PageMaker, which (with a little help from Quark Xpress) made digital prepress a reality. Suddenly publishers could reproduce photographs and high resolution line drawings.

Adobe developed those products on the Mac and ported them over to Windows, but the combination of Windows and DTP proved clumsier than web press printing with tempera paint. Once the world realized that the computer industry was about design as much as crunching numbers, Apple found a niche where Microsoft couldn’t compete.

The bottom line is, no matter who propped up who, it’s possible that neither Adobe nor Apple would have made it without the partnership. And I suspect more people buy the Mac to use Adobe’s Creative Suite Products than they do to use Office (or iWorks).

Has the web passed Flash by?

In the world according to Steve, evolution is about to leave Flash in a discarded digital gene pool. “HTML5, the new web standard that has been adopted by Apple, Google and many others, lets web developers create advanced graphics, typography, animations and transitions without relying on third party browser plug-ins (like Flash).”

This is a red herring. Flash will adapt to HTML5. Adobe is too smart not to, and they will most likely make their Flash compilers web compliant with reduced memory and battery requirements. Maybe not today, maybe not immediately on release, but they will catch up. Mainly because Flash is not about graphics, typography, animations and transitions. These are small pieces in a much bigger picture–fully user interactive applications. And Flash still provides developers with interactive tools that HTML and CSS won’t approach for at least another generation.

ActionScript 3, the heart of Flash, is a robust programming tool. Many developers already know it well and have years of experience using it to develop web-based and stand alone applications. Even if HTML5 offers true interactivity (and not just advanced image swapping as I suspect) it will be behind the learning curve. It will take developers some time to catch up, and Flash will continue to fill the gap.

In addition, a number of visual design departments in colleges around the country teach Flash and ActionScript as design tools. Even if Apple’s development tools could be adapted to the web, it will take departments some time to find staff members up-to-date with Cocoa and the iPhone SDK. This means students will hit the streets with Flash as their development tool of choice.

I’m beating you for your own good

Job’s main argument is that Apple is being kind to Flash developers by not forcing them to rewrite web apps for a touch based system. “Most Flash websites will need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices,” he said. By denying them access to Flash they will be forced to avail themselves of “modern technologies like HTML5, CSS and JavaScript.”

Gee, Steve, how kind of you. As a former developer myself, I can tell you how thrilled I would be to told to give up years of experience with ActionScript and use Dreamweaver for my web apps. And this statement illustrates my point. Dreamweaver, another Adobe product, does incorporate HTML, CSS, javaScript and SQL database access. It still hasn’t replaced Flash because HTML remains, by definition, a markup language and not an object-oriented program language.

Steve’s comments about Flash being for programs that use mouse clicks instead of touch screens totally ignores the fact that Adobe is testing a touchscreen oriented Multitouch Class for ActionScript developers. Flash developers will probably have an easier time incorporating multitouch capabilities into ActionScript code they’ve already written than they would by shooting the horse and jumping to HTML and CSS only.

If Jobs thinks people are going to forget Flash because they can’t run Flash apps on iPad, he’s delusional. My iPad has become my go to day-to-day device, but when I sit down for serious graphic design work and web-development, my iPad’s going in the desk drawer.

Nor should we want the iPad to offer professional level graphic design and web development capabilities. I don’t want my iPad to grow into a hefty behemoth I have to lug around in a back pack. I just want it to run Flash.

Open development?

Apple and Adobe both like to point fingers and claim the other offers a “closed system” while they provide an open development environment. Sorry guys, one way or another, both iPhone OS and Flash are closed systems:

  • You have to buy Flash Pro or iPhone SDK to develop applications. You can’t program in C++, Ajax, or any other open language and port the code to iPhone. Flash makes you pay a licensing fee to distribute desktop apps, but you can distribute for any platform. You pay no distribution fee for apps that run on the web.
  • Apple requires no licensing fee, but you have to distribute through their network and they take their cut. You have to completely rewrite iPad apps to run on desktop computers or as web apps.

One person enterprises that develop for Flash and iPhone SDK are far less likely to develop apps that run smoothly under both. I’m no fan of the open market, but I have to say we’re more likely to get a better product if we let the developer choose his tools (assuming, of course, he didn’t buy his tools from the lowest bidder and farm the work out to non English speaking developers).

Security, battery life and stability

Jobs believes, and with good reason, that Flash is an underachiever when it comes to developing stable, secure apps that maximize the battery use on mobile devices. I’m not going to argue with any of this. As far as I can tell, Flash claims mobile device capabilities, but I would never trust apps to work because I couldn’t test the apps on multiple smart phones and PDAs.

I don’t think this is in any way important to the question. I would rather have the option of viewing a Flash enabled web site and choosing not to, than be denied access to Flash web content altogether. To me this is the same mentality that warns App Store users that downloading a non-Apple web browser could expose them to adult web sites (and ignoring the fact that they run the same risk of exposure with Safari),

This is where I think Steve Jobs is missing the point entirely. Apple should let the Flash plug in run on iPad web browsers. It’s okay to warn users that Apple refuses to accept responsibility for compromised security, excessive battery usage, and browser and device crashes. I want that information when making that decision.

If developers don’t want to rewrite Flash apps for touch screen devices, fine. If they want touch screen users to buy their products, they will.

Get Adobe back on the team

I’ve seen some graphic apps that are surprisingly sophisticated for a touch screen device like the iPad. I’m really impressed with some of the vector drawing apps. Given my experience with iPhone apps, I figured the iPad would probably not be a suitable environment for graphic design. (I’m not talking about scaled down low memory apps, I’m talking about any serious graphic design work that I can do on the road and port back to my Mac.)

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve downloaded apps such as PixelGene, PhotoMagic and OutColor that can perform color correction, filters, layers and (most surprisingly) real image masking. None of them can do everything, and certainly not do everything well, but when I look at the combined features they have all of the most frequently used capabilities of Photoshop 3 (except for text). SketchBook Pro reminds me of later versions of Painter.

Granted Photoshop 3 is nine or ten generations behind Photoshop CS5. But would you have imagined, when the iPad was announced, that you would even be able to do that?

Vector drawing apps are even more impressive. Two apps I’ve played with, iDraw and FreeForm, perform amazing stunts. Between them they offer object grouping and alignment, numerical scaling and positioning, layers and text formatting and rotation. Furthermore, I can send the paths back to Illustrator and finish the illustration on my laptop. Their pen tools are clumsy, but these guys aren’t Adobe. And that’s my point.

Throw Adobe a bone, Steve. Let them have Flash. At least enable Flash for web content in Safari. And I don’t see what it would hurt to let developers distribute Flash apps.

Go ahead, post a big warning on Flash based apps in the App Store: “The Apple General has determined that Flash-based apps could be hazardous to the health of your iPad, including….” But get a grip. How could they possible crash my iPad more than Farm Frenzy 2?

If users don’t like what Flash apps do to our iPads, Adobe will be forced to fix the problems or we’ll stop using them. But it will be our choice. Will they pull it off? Who knows? They may fall flat on their faces.

But then we’ll point our fingers at Adobe if Flash fails, not Apple.

In the meantime, Adobe might deliver scaled down versions of Photoshop and Illustrator once they’re allowed back into the sandbox.2 I’m not talking about 300 ppi professional prepress, but images for the web or video backdrops. Imagine the TV ads: “Your own photo studio on the road. Send your picture from iPhone to iPad and let Photoshop make it sing.”

Remember if you bar Adobe from the Playground, you’ll always be the bad guy. Any press releases explaining your position will just look like products of a guilty conscience. If you let them in, and they piss all over the sandbox until the other kids ask them to leave, you’ll be the good guy that gave the little kid a chance. There’s no way you’ll come out the loser.


1By “proverbial garage” I think Steve means, “when Adobe wasn’t as big as we were yet and we never really thought they would be without us.”back
2And here, I suspect, may be the real reason Jobs doesn’t want to support Flash. He has never wanted developers to use Apple’s consumer devices for application development. Remember the Lisa? You can’t develop iPad/iPhone apps on your PC, you have to buy a Mac and spring for the Software Developers kit (which sounds suspiciously like that third layer of software between application and machine he was criticizing Flash for).
Once Flash runs on the iPad, not only will developers be able to bypass Apple for software development, I can see a day when Flash apps can be written on the iPad. Then Apple would have to come out with an iPad app like Hypercard and we all remember what happened to that. Oh, wait, most people don’t.back

Jenny rates the Flashless iPad

Jenny Manytoes bunches her tail whenever she discovers she can’t run Flash enabled web content on my iPad.

The Jenny Manytoes Rating System

Jenny Manytoes, our polydactyl cat
  • When Jenny makes biscuits on a product she thinks she’s in heaven.
  • When Jenny purrs over a product she’s very happy.
  • When Jenny naps next to a product it’s okay with her.
  • When Jenny bunches her tail she can live with a product, but she has higher expectations.
  • When Jenny leaves it in the litter box….I don’t think I need to explain this one.

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About Phillip T Stephens

Phillip T. Stephens disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle twenty years before he was born, creating a time travel paradox so confusing it remains unspoken between physicists and sci-fi writers to this day. Follow @stephens_pt
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