Apple reels as Steve Jobs Flashturbates
Inside the HTML5 traveling roadshow
Comment There was a time when Steve Jobs and Apple were cool. Jobs built a genius-like persona that was founded on his rare appearances and statements, and this was bolstered by his ability to deliver products that looked good, worked well, and forced others to follow.
But 2010 is turning into the year Steve Jobs and Apple lost that cool.
Jobs squandered it when he ignited a heated fight with Adobe Systems about Flash. In so doing, he hitched his reputation, and that of Apple, to HTML5. He risks damaging Apple in the eyes of the very people it needs most: developers serious about open technologies and programming for the web.
Jobs has always been a somewhat combative tech leader — sharp tongued, yes, but he was mostly an aloof figure who'd only ever appear at Apple events or dispatch the odd, single-sentence email slap-down.
That ended in January 2010, when Wired reported that Jobs slammed Adobe's player for being buggy, and for its publisher's laziness — presumably for not being as inventive or creative as he.
What might have been excused as an outburst of boisterous competitiveness on the eve of a major product initiative has now dragged on for six months.
Attackers in war portray themselves as the wronged party, and this is the case here. Jobs has cast Apple in the role of victim, the reluctant fighter in a war it didn't start with Adobe.
He said last week that his 1,600-word "Thoughts on Flash" open latter was a response to Adobe's bashing of Apple. "They came after us... We were getting tired of being trashed by Adobe in the press," Jobs told the D8 conference.
As is common is such attacks, this aggressor is airbrushing history. During the three years that Flash has been blocked from the iPhone, Adobe — like every other tech company desperate to get on the device — has been tiptoeing about, whispering that they are in talks with Apple, but not daring to speak too loudly in case they said the wrong thing and ruined their chances.
Adobe, however, finally grew a pair with its bleeding Adobe "hearts" Apple ads campaign and open letters from the company's rarely seen founders once Jobs made it clear they had nothing in common and there was no way they'd ever be together.
Jobs might have a problem with Flash — and from a security, performance, and proprietary nature of the technology perspective he could be justified, But that's been overshadowed by the ferocity of the attack and another factor that's becoming increasingly clear: Jobs' attacks seem to be personal.
Nothing personal... except that it is
Apple's chief revealed how personally he takes things last week when recounting his decision to ban an entire class of applications — third-party analytics — from the iPad. The privacy-obsessed Jobs was furious that Flurry Analytics revealed the existence of the iPad in his Cupertino workshops during its development and testing. Jobs blocked third-party analytics out of revenge, and only unbanned them this week — although making them subject to Apple's "written consent".
The proxy for Jobs' war with Adobe and Flash is HTML5, and it's Jobs' obsessive conviction that the next iteration of the web mark-up language that is starting to hurt both his reputation and Apple's.
Jobs' line is that HTML5 is the future for graphics, video, and presentation, and that Flash is history. Jobs, though, is misrepresenting and damaging HTML5.
Open ain't what it used to be
The Showcase looked good, but there was a disconnect: it only worked with Apple's Safari browser — but not because those browsers don't support HTML5. Most of the demos would work just fine in Chrome and Firefox, but the Showcase won't let them. It instead checks to see what browser you're using, and if it's not Safari, it pops up an error message telling you to download Safari.
The event riled browser rivals Mozilla and Opera Software that use the same HTML5 media tags. No big deal — they are, after all, the competition — but their entry into the argument was nonetheless a significant escalation, given that this street fight had only been between Apple and Adobe until that point.
Further, the site caused confusion in the market. Opera's Haavard Moen posted a counter blog saying he'd been bombarded by queries from Opera users "and others".
It's not just browser rivals who are miffed. Ordinary coders are also becoming increasingly alarmed at Jobs' boosting of HTML5, saying that he's damaging the yet-unfinished spec by focusing on just its media tags and CSS.
By riding HTML5 so hard, and by publicly mischaracterizing HTML5 to win a war he initiated, Apple's chief executive is on thinning ice among coding practitioners.
For decades, Apple produced advances that such people couldn't — religion aside — really argue with: the reliability and ease of the Mac, the convenience of the iPod and iTunes, and the breakthrough of touch on the iPhone. People overlooked the closed nature of these systems, or at least forgave them, especially if the alternative was an unreliable PC or standards-loner Microsoft.
Mischaracterizing technologies to prove a point is a fast track to losing credibility among coders and other experts in the biz. There are plenty of marketing people who can obfuscate and inflate, and whose words technologists have to pick apart to understand what's really being said.
The man behind the Mac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad is held to a higher standard, and is risking his credibility by deliberately muddying the message on a spec that everybody has access to and theoretically "owns" simply in order to win a personal fight of his making.
The focus on open technologies will also backfire on Apple. Jobs' escalation of the HTML5 versus closed and proprietary Flash battle, and his crudely partisan claims about Safari's support for "open" standards are forcing a debate on open and closed systems.
Part of that means looking at the closed and proprietary nature of Apple and whether it's something developers can benefit from and live with, or whether it's bad for them and the web because it means building different versions of their software for Apple's walled garden and for the rest of the web.
There's a group in our industry that is already familiar with this kind of fragmentation and whose members know that it means they'll be forced to build different versions of the same application: the people who build applications for mobile phones.
Jobs might be right to damn Flash, but his Ahab-like pursuit of Flash player and his stretching of the truth on HTML5 to win a personal war will ensure that Flash publisher Adobe is not the only company that will lose supporters. ®