Why Is Steve Jobs Flash-obsessed?

Accounts of his anti-Adobe rants raise questions about what really motivates them

I have no doubt that Steve Jobs is at least partially sincere when he complains to his staff and the gossipy editors at the Wall Street Journal about Flash, the multimedia platform Apple pointedly refuses to support on the iPhone, the iPod touch and the forthcoming iPad tablet computer.

With his penchant for simplicity and elegance, Jobs may very well believe that the ubiquitous Web animation software is “buggy,” a “CPU hog,” “full of security holes,” “a dying technology,” the cause of most Mac crashes, and that the Adobe engineers responsible for it are “lazy,” as anonymous sources have reported to Wired, Valleywag and elsewhere.

But ditching Flash — which generates roughly 75% of the video on the Web — and replacing it with MPEG-4/H.264 is not, as Jobs claims, “trivial,” and I suspect he knows it. Nor would supporting Flash necessarily reduce the iPad’s reported 10-hour battery life to 1.5 hours, as he is said to have claimed.

Of course there are other reasons Jobs hates Flash — business reasons.

As Holman Jenkins pointed out in the
a week after Jobs met with its editors,

“Flash would also allow iPhone and iPad users to consume video and other entertainment without going through iTunes. Flash would let users freely obtain the kinds of features they can only get now at the Apple App Store.”

But Apple makes most of its money selling hardware, not 99-cent apps. What’s really going, according Brightcove CEO Jeremy Allaire, is a battle for power and control among the Internet’s dominant platform companies: Apple (AAPL), Adobe (ADBE), Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT).

Allaire lays it all out in a 2,200-word guest post that was published by TechCrunch two weeks ago:

“Each of these companies seeks to create unique runtimes and APIs that provide a strategic wedge that can drive other aspects of their business,” he wrote. “At one level this is a battle for the hearts and minds of developers and ISVs, but these developers are merely a means to an end. Gaining broad adoption for their runtime platforms translates into their ability to create massive derivative value through downstream products and services. For Apple, this is hardware and paid media (content and apps) sales. For Google, this is about creating massive reach for their advertising platforms and products. For Adobe, this about creating major new applications businesses based on their platform. For Microsoft, it is about driving unit sales of their core OS and business applications.”

For Apple watchers interested in understanding Jobs’ obsession with Flash, it’s a must-read. You can get it here.

NOTE: Allaire spent two years as chief technology officer at Macromedia, where he helped develop the Macromedia MX platform that was released in Flash Player 6.

UPDATE: Roughly Drafted’s Daniel Eran Dilger has posted a comment by Morgan Adams, a developer who knows a lot about building apps in Flash. Adams suggests that the real problem with Flash is that it doesn’t work — and can’t easily be made to work — with the iPad (or for that matter the iPhone) because of the “hover and mouseover” problem. See here.

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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