Saturday, 22 May 2010

Apple versus Adobe

What does it mean? Who is in the right, and who is going to win?

At first glance, the high profile skirmish between Apple and Adobe appears to be nothing more than two big corporates fighting hard for a competitive advantage. But both parties are arguing that their positions represent more than just naked ambition. Apple claims to be safeguarding the interests of their users, while Adobe claims it has the moral high ground, as if the right to use Flash is akin to the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

At the heart of the argument are two dichotomies:
  • Devices versus content
  • User versus developers
Devices versus content

Put simply, Apple's vision is one of proprietary devices accessing content in open formats, whereas Adobe is arguing for open device platforms accessing content in proprietary formats. In this respect, there's certainly a lot of self interest going on in both camps.

Apple makes the vast majority of their income from selling devices, (they've long argued that they make little money on selling content, seeing this as a means to an end in making their devices attractive). Open device platforms like Android are a threat to Apple because they commoditize innovation (often Apple's own innovation, such as multi-touch), making it widely and cheaply available and taking value out of the market, and market share away from Apple, as a consequence.

Open standards for content, on the other hand, are good news for Apple, since they add value to Apple's devices by enabling them to interoperate with other platforms. Contrary to received wisdom, Apple has been a consistent promoter of such standards. Mac OS X supports more file sharing standards than any other client OS. iPod's early success was in part due to its support of MP3, when competitors such as Sony were promoting proprietary forms. And today, with their use of H.264 video and AAC audio, they are continuing this tradition. Apple's visionary development the WebKit project has been pivotal in driving the adoption of web standards for mobile devices through the industry.

Users versus developers

From Adobe's perspective, however, things look very different. Flash was an early pioneer of interactivity online. Open standards for content, such as HTML5 and JavaScript commoditize this innovation, eliminating the need for the Flash plugin. But Adobe is not really concerned with end users, since this is not where they make their money. Adobe monetizes Flash by selling expensive authoring tools to developers. In the past, a key benefit to developers has been the ability to "write once, run anywhere". In other words, if you develop using Apple or Microsoft's tools, your app will only work on one platform. If you develop in Flash, it will work on all of them. Apple's new found truculence has undermined this proposition.

So who wins the moral argument?

While developers are important to a platform, at the end of the day, without users, there is no platform. It is all about the user. They lie at the end of the value chain, and it is therefore their behavior that will shape the entire market. This leads me to favor Apple's argument over Adobe's, since Apple is concerned with the needs of the end user, while Adobe is concerned with the developer.

If we were to test the argument in Adobe's moralistic terms, their position seems fairly weak from the end user's perspective. No user has ever been forced to use an Apple product, after all. If you don't like Macs, you can use PCs. If you don't like iPod, there are Zunes. If you don't like iPhones there are any number of other choices. However, users are forced to use Adobe's products all the time. If you want to watch the BBC iPlayer or Hulu, you must install Adobe Flash and Adobe Air. If you want to deal with the government, you're going to need Adobe Reader.

As such, the "moral" argument, if there is one, is surely on Apple's side. Adobe's argument simply amounts to offering developers a cost saving at the expense of locking in end users.

And who will prevail?

Ultimately, this battle will be won or lost on end user sentiment, and right now things don't look good for Adobe. If Flash was so important, then the iPad wouldn't be.


  1. Things would be much better for Flash if Adobe had delivered a superior user experience. Flash is quite problematic on a Mac; I would guess that this is intentionally so. If, as Steve Jobs says, Flash is the major cause of crashes on a Mac, then how would this induce Apple or the Mac users to want Flash? This seems to be a problem of Adobe's own making.

  2. Definitely a hog and crasher on my iMac. Flash ... crash. Coincidence? I don't think so. :)

  3. Great article, distilling this argument down to users vs. developers.
    Court of public opinion definitely seems to favor Apple, but will depend on success of Adobe/Google partnership with Flash-on-Android.