We </3 Adobe

Adobe have stepped up their war of words with Apple over Flash with a large ad-buy and an open letter from the big guns: the company's co-founders Chuck Geschke and John Warnock.

There's been so much written on this that a recap would fill several entries, and I'm not going to do that, but I should declare where I stand. I use Apple products and enjoy them. I use Adobe products and enjoy them. Some Apple products are better than others. Some Adobe products are better than others. And I think both companies have the right to build their products any way they like, on whatever platforms they like, incorporating whatever technology they like, and if anyone doesn't like that, they don't have to buy them.

I should also clarify that I've interpreted the content and tone of this latest campaign as being primarily about Flash support in the browser, rather than about Section 3.3.1 and compiling to iPhone binaries. The material is ambiguous enough to go either way, but because Adobe seem to have publicly drawn a line under the other issue, and don't mention anything about it here, or refute any of the arguments that have been made against it, it's my educated guess that they're now talking specifically about the Web. So that's what I'll do here too, or I'll be here all night.

Here's the ad:

Adobe's Apple ad

"What we don't love is anybody taking away your freedom to choose what you create, how you create it, and what you experience on the Web."

Whoa there, guys! Bring that rhetoric back here.

Let's go point by point, starting with the last where their case is strongest.

"taking away your freedom to choose... what you experience on the Web."

Funny, I thought people were choosing what they experienced on the Web. (With the freedom they don't have.) It's not as though it's a well-guarded secret that the iPhone and iPad don't display Flash. (And they're hardly unique devices in that regard.) Jobs' unmistakeable lingering on a zoomed blue lego brick during the first iPad demonstration is a guarantee that some people see this not as a deficiency but as a selling point.

But maybe Adobe scores half a point here. Maybe there's an expectation among consumers that of all the many third party plugins that exist, Flash is uniquely privileged to ship as standard on devices. (I don't think it's realistic to insist that mobile browsers support the same installable plugin architecture as desktop browsers — they're right to strip that out — so it would need to ship.)

But I think the only solid cause for complaint about a browser's format support is if it doesn't have a decent implementation of web standards. If the CSS is buggy and layout is broken, then you've been given a lemon of a browser, and that's unacceptable. But if you want third party plugin support, you can't take it for granted. You're going to have to look for it. In two senses of the word, Flash isn't a standard. It's a closed, proprietary implementation. (In the letter, Warnock and Geschke state that 'anyone can make their own Flash player', but I'll let other people tackle that claim.) And it's also an extra — it's not part of the core functionality of the browser.

"your freedom to choose what you create"

What? What have creators' rights got to do with this? Nobody's stopping anybody from creating anything. I genuinely don't understand why this statement is even here or know what to make of it.

"your freedom to choose... how you create it"

And people can choose to create stuff in whatever form they like.

But they have to weigh up the pros and cons. Like some people not being able to see it as intended. This is why so many people are still designing for IE6. Certain choices exclude certain users. Nothing about this problem is new!

I could create something today in VRML if I wanted. It would be stupid, but I'm free to do it. So why is this statement phrased in terms of freedom when the issue is actually that it changes the terms of the equation? It makes Flash less of a viable proposition for web developers trying to reach the largest possible audience.

That's not diminished freedom. That's just change. The Web is a moving target. A few years ago, I thought SVG was the future of web graphics. The Adobe SVG viewer plugin hasn't been updated since 2005. I'm not annoyed, because on the Web, technologies fall out of favour, or just never make it. That's how it works. Ask RealNetworks.

Okay, maybe in a couple of years it's going to start to suck for designers whose only experience is in designing Flash sites. But whose fault is that? Believing that there's a guarantee that your marketable skill is going to be worth a damn tomorrow when your workshop is the Internet is a quixotic activity, to say the least. The Web doesn't owe you a living. Making money off it today doesn't mean it respects your business model.

Adobe are bitchy about this because it undermines a part of their business, and unlike most gradual changes in the landscape of the Web, they have an obvious target to blame. That's fine, they have the right to be pissy. But I do wish they wouldn't make out that there's a threat to anybody's 'freedom' here except their 'freedom' to push their software on everyone.

I've no doubt that Geschke and Warnock truly see Flash as the best hope for a new era of cross platform rich internet applications, or something. I don't think they're being purposefully disingenuous. But this latest salvo has an unpleasant undertone of entitlement, and they're out of touch with many people's experience of their product. Yes, there are people who love Flash. There are also a hell of a lot of people who can barely tolerate it.

We don't need to bury Flash, as it clearly still has its uses. It'll continue to drive brilliant web games for years, no doubt. But the things that it is uniquely good at will be slowly eroded by technologies like HTML5, which are friendlier, more compatible and far more weblike. If, as a result of maturing technologies, unnecessary use of Flash diminishes, how is this not a win for the web? More importantly, if Adobe can't figure out how to make it a win for them, what kind of person do they have steering the ship? Isn't this a gigantic opportunity?

I think Adobe needs to do at least some, and ideally all, of the following things:

  • Prove they can do a good job of a mobile implementation of Flash. From the game they talk, you'd assume their credentials on this are solid. But although they've been arguing with Apple over this for 2+ years, no mobile platform has a full Flash implementation. The one they're working on for Android 2.2 may finally be the fulfilment of this.
  • Stop the pissing match. Apple has every right to do what they did. If Adobe doesn't like it, then hurt them in the marketplace, not with classless and misleading attacks. It gains nothing.
  • Prepare for a shrinking market for Flash. The writing is on the wall in letters fifty feet high. Screaming at the tide isn't productive. Retool Flash (the creation tool) into something which also outputs rich, optimised HTML5.
  • Yield control of the Flash specification to a multivendor standards body on which Adobe sits in a non-privileged role. Open source the Flash player, contributing the source code to projects like Firefox and WebKit. Usher in an era of competitive innovation in Flash runtimes similar to that recently seen in JavaScript interpreters. Rebuild the reputation of Flash. Keep making money from best-in-class commercial authoring tools.