Steve Jobs Talks About Flash (And Why Apple Should Embrace Its Inner Control-Freak)

Last Updated Apr 29, 2010 3:36 PM EDT

Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs finally detailed in public his objections to Flash and Adobe (ADBE). It's nothing that hasn't spilled in less delicate terms in the past. The irony, though, is one of his big objections to Adobe -- that it sells and promotes proprietary and closed systems -- applies as much to Apple itself, which has used the approach brilliantly. So why did he bother with the rant? To deflect pressure to become open.

Jobs called his essay Thoughts on Flash, but could as easily have called it Thoughts on Adobe. Forget about the technical criticisms of Flash for a moment. His main criticism is about how Adobe does business:

Adobe's Flash products are 100% proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc. While Adobe's Flash products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Adobe and available only from Adobe. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system.
All that is true, but by that same definition, Apple also runs a proprietary system with the iPhone OS, over which Apple maintains complete control. However, Apple's control goes significantly beyond anything Adobe has achieved. Consider:
  • Paid apps for iPhone OS are only available from Apple. Developers must agree never to sell their apps through any other venue. Adobe doesn't approach that level of control over independent developers using its platform.
  • Apple dominates its ecosystem, going so far as contractually restricting developers from using broad classes of cross-platform tools.
  • Jobs notes that Apple uses open standards. Absolutely; many companies do. Nevertheless, Apple does not restrict itself to open standards. They all sit atop the closed and controlled platform.
  • Apple has the final say on whether a developer can bring an iPhone app to market, because Apple controls the only distribution outlet via iTunes and the App Store. If Apple decides something is not worthy -- and there are many examples of the company having unevenly exercised arbitrary judgment -- then it sends the app back and the developer has no recourse, even after having invested the time and money to create a product. Whether you think this is right or wrong, it's clearly a closed system.
Apple has total control not only over its platform, but also over the entire platform ecosystem. Toward the end of his essay, Jobs gets into what he calls his most important argument:
We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers.
Concern about developers dependent on third party tools that don't fully support Apple's platform is, in a way, nonsense. Apple can approve or deny apps for any reason, as developers well know. If Jobs wants no "substandard" apps, he can wave them away. No, his real point comes in a later paragraph:
Flash is a cross platform development tool. It is not Adobe's goal to help developers write the best iPhone, iPod and iPad apps. It is their goal to help developers write cross platform apps.
That's the real problem. Apple has no problem with closed platforms and even entire ecosystems -- so long as Apple owns and controls them. Cross-platform development threatens its control, and so cross-platform tools are something it cannot allow.

None of this is a knock on Steve Jobs or Apple. Jobs and his company have made brilliant use of this strategy, driving revenue, profit, and market share growth beyond what Apple's competitors have managed. That's powerful evidence of success. So why bother to pretend otherwise?

A company should openly embrace what it is and what makes it a success. For Apple, that means being closed. Complaining about another company being closed only comes across as phony and wastes everyone's time.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.