By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
March 20, 2008

Adobe has tipped its hand, and it now seems clear that it needs Apple’s iPhone more than Apple (AAPL) needs Adobe’s Flash. But it’s not at all clear that Adobe (ADBE) will get the foothold on the device it seems to want so badly.

Two weeks ago Adobe turned the other cheek when Steve Jobs’ publicly slighted Flash and Flash Lite, describing the first as “too slow to be useful” on the iPhone and the second as “not capable of being used with the Web.” See here.

Nonetheless on Tuesday, during Adobe’s quarterly conference call, CEO Shantanu Narayen announced that his company has begun development of a version of Flash specifically for the iPhone — surprising even his PR staff.

“We believe Flash is synonymous with the Internet experience, and we are committed to bringing Flash to the iPhone,” he said. “We have evaluated (the software developer tools) and we think we can develop an iPhone Flash player ourselves.” (link)

Presumably Adobe intends this version to fit what Jobs described as “missing product in the middle” between Flash and Flash Lite.

But there are other ways to deliver rich-media applications to the iPhone. Sun Microsystems (JAVA) has announced that it is developing a version of Java for the iPhone, for example, and Apple has some home-grown solutions of its own. (See Kontra’s Runtime Wars (1) and (2) for a summary of Apple’s options.)

And it’s not clear that even this new version of Adobe Flash will thrive in the iPhone ecosystem unless Apple decides to allow it.

Daniel Eran Dilger at Roughly Drafted Magazine has already expressed his skepticism, arguing that it’s no more in Apple’s interest to become dependent on Adobe than it would be to become dependent on, say, Microsoft (see here).

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber is even more dismissive. “Adobe Smoking Same Dope as Sun,” was the headline of his post on the subject. He points out that the iPhone SDK explicitly states that no “interpreted code” can be downloaded and used in an application except those that are run by Apple’s published program interfaces (APIs).

“Without approval from Apple (including APIs beyond those in the current third-party SDK),” Gruber writes, “they can distribute it in the same alternate universe as Sun’s supposedly-in-the-works Java port.” (link)

UPDATE: Gruber is right about that, as Adobe acknowledged in the clarifying statement it issued on Wednesday:

Adobe has evaluated the iPhone SDK and can now start to develop a way to bring Flash Player to the iPhone. However, to bring the full capabilities of Flash to the iPhone Web-browsing experience we do need to work with Apple beyond and above what is available through the SDK and the current license around it. (link)

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