Switched On: Apple's brash Flash clash rehash

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|07.31.07

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Switched On: Apple's brash Flash clash rehash
Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

For all the attention on the love-hate relationship between Apple and Microsoft, there's another software superpower with which Apple is increasingly butting heads. Apple was an early investor in Adobe and an early supporter of PostScript, which drove the first LaserWriters and launched the desktop publishing market. When Steve Jobs left Apple and founded NeXT, that company used Display PostScript as the imaging engine for the company's black boxes.

Photoshop and other members of Adobe's Creative Suite remain some of the most popular creative tools on the Mac. For years, Photoshop made cameos at Apple keynotes as the company argued the superiority of the PowerPC architecture.

But the relationship has been strained at times as well. After going on lots of minor quests involving the slaying of forest creatures, Adobe released PostScript Level 2. But Apple surprised nearly everyone when it partnered with Microsoft in 1989 to position TrueType and the now-forgotten TrueImage as a rival to Adobe's technology. Apple would later try again to surpass Adobe's font technology with QuickDraw GX before adopting PDF as the graphics lingua franca for Mac OS X.
Adobe, for its part, angered Apple when it, like many leading Mac developers, decided to serve multiple masters and bring its applications to Windows. (Nowadays, though, Apple itself isn't shy about spreading the ice water around Hell.) And Apple has circled its wagons bringing out pro applications for the Mac such as Final Cut and Aperture that come nervously close to Adobe's turf.

Amidst these developments in 1993, a startup co-founded by one of the Mac's earliest third-party developers showed off a product called SmartSketch, later to be renamed FutureSplash Animator. The FutureSplash plug-in enabled Netscape Navigator to display vector graphics and even animations, garnering the attention of Macromedia.

Over time, this plug-in, renamed Flash, gained the ability to display documents and even play back video, powering YouTube and many similar sites. Since Macromedia's acquisition by Adobe, Flash has become a cornerstone of the Adobe integrated Runtime, a way to move beyond simply playing back content and an emerging development environment for creating cross-platform connected applications. As with PDF, Microsoft's response has been to compete with a rival initiative called Silverlight. But what about that other PC operating system vendor with the big cat code names?

AIR and Silverlight both run on the Mac (and Silverlight will even run on Linux), but neither run on Apple's most recent closed devices that use Mac OS X -- Apple TV and the iPhone. In fact, neither even supports Flash. Apple's reluctance to let in a rival development and video platform, though, may be causing it more harm than good.

One could argue that, particularly with Apple's newcomer status to the world of the carrier-dependent, it wants to err on the side of safety in the case of the iPhone, but Apple TV doesn't have a similar defense. Because Apple TV and iTunes lack Flash, YouTube is transcoding its entire video library to H.264, Apple's preferred codec for QuickTime. A lack of support for Flash weakens Apple's argument that the iPhone does not provide, as its ads claim, "a watered-down version of the Internet."

Microsoft may be competing with Flash and taking on Adobe on more fronts than Apple, but even Windows Mobile devices can support Flash. Apple is always careful about what it includes in its products but, for the good of its users and ultimately for at least the iPhone itself, it should come to terms with the ubiquity and usefulness of Flash.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.
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