Flash republic

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a giant technology company stands accused of using its dominance to push a smaller player out of a juicy new market. No, it’s not the ’90s and I’m not talking about Microsoft vs Netscape. I’m talking about Apple vs Adobe.

It’s already looking every bit as serious as the Microsoft case. After a complaint by Adobe, U.S. antitrust regulators are considering an investigation into Apple’s App Store policy.

The App Store allows independent developers to sell useful add-ons (applications or “apps”) for Apple’s mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad. They have sold over four billion apps already, making both Apple and the developers a lot of money.

So what’s the problem? Apple is stubbornly refusing to accept applications created using Adobe’s tools. Given how wildly popular Apple’s mobile devices are, Adobe naturally feels aggrieved that it can’t join the festivities.

The issue has been brewing ever since the iPhone was first launched in mid-2007 without support for Flash — Adobe’s software “plugin” that enhances web browsing. People assumed it was just a matter of time before Apple got around to adding it. After all, Flash is hugely popular and used all over the web for everything from games to animated greeting cards to video players.

But two years passed with no sign of Flash, and Apple remaining ominously silent on the subject. By early 2010 Adobe began to vent its frustration in public, and complain that Apple was unfairly targeting Flash because it wanted to retain absolute control over its platform.

Then, on the April 8, Apple made itself abundantly clear by updating the agreement that all developers must sign when submitting apps to the store. In essence the terms went from a quite general warning not to use third party tools, to very specific criteria: Apple approved tools and standards, and nothing else.

But it seems the final insult that sent Adobe squealing to the regulators was an open letter by Apple CEO and founder Steve Jobs in which he called Flash restrictive, inefficient and downright unreliable.

Jobs makes some good points. Adobe owns and controls the Flash platform, so why should we trust them over Apple? And most Flash apps are not suitable for Apple’s touch-based interfaces — they are designed for use with a computer and a mouse. This means many Flash apps would be effectively unusable on an iPhone.

But some of his points are more contentious. He claims that Flash has proven to be unstable and that it reduces battery life. He also implies that Adobe’s technology is so bloated that it can’t cope with the special needs of mobile devices. These kinds of technical quibbles are hard to prove absolutely, but they must sting Abobe nonetheless.

Yet despite landing several solid blows, Jobs fails to knock out his opponent with his final point: that Adobe’s tools will “come between the platform and the developer” and that this will hinder “the enhancement and progress of the platform”.

What Jobs is really saying is: we don’t want anyone messing with our turf. He may couch it in cuddly prose about allowing developers to “stand directly on the shoulders of this platform and create the best apps the world has ever seen”, but it’s still about retaining monopoly control.

The big question here is, does Adobe have any right to complain about that monopoly? Apple wholly owns its platform — both the device and the software — and that platform is only one of many. This is quite different from the Microsoft case where a single company controlled over 90% of the market. Should Apple be forced to open up, as Microsoft were?

And while that question is important for the industry, its customers will remain oblivious unless it affects their experience. Regardless of what Jobs may say, most people aren’t going to be pleased when they shell out upwards of R6 000 for a device only to discover they can’t play Farmville on the damn thing.

Follow Alistair on Twitter, or read his blog.

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