When the little people make enough noise, Apple CEO Steve Jobs switches his mode of public interaction from terse e-mail replies to open letters. That's what happened on Thursday when Jobs finally articulated his disdain for Adobe's Flash technology in a rare public post.The letter confirmed what had been reported through unnamed sources for months, that Jobs doesn't like Flash.
Jobs previously resorted to this mode of communication in February 2007, when the controversial issue of the day had to do with the digital locks on music files.
He also published an open letter to defuse complaints about pricing changes for the iPhone.
And when the Federal Communications Commission asked for an explanation about Apple's refusal to approve the Google Voice app for the iPhone, there was another letter, though attributed to Apple rather than Jobs.
(This is a questionable distinction. As Needham & Company Charles R. Wolf once told The New York Times, "Apple is Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs is Apple.")
Apple treats communication as something to be done only when necessary. In contrast to its loquacious ally-turned-rival Google, which publishes several blog posts per day about its activities, Apple speaks only when it has products to announce, or when hectored by the press to the point of embarrassment or annoyance.
The strong, silent act works well for Apple, mostly. The public can't get enough Apple news and the tech press, starved of substantive communication from Apple, churns out thinly sourced rumor and speculation about the company to meet consumer demand.
But Apple's silence is simply disrespectful to the developers that support the company. The company set of a bombshell in the development community recently when news broke that its iPhone OS 4.0 SDK agreement contained wording that disallows the use of most third-party developer tools for iPhone applications.
With the publication of Jobs' letter on Thursday, it's clear that Flash is the main target of the revised developer agreement.
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.
This becomes even worse if the third party is supplying a cross platform development tool. The third party may not adopt enhancements from one platform unless they are available on all of their supported platforms. Hence developers only have access to the lowest common denominator set of features. Again, we cannot accept an outcome where developers are blocked from using our innovations and enhancements because they are not available on our competitor's platforms.
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. And Adobe has been painfully slow to adopt enhancements to Apple's platforms. For example, although Mac OS X has been shipping for almost 10 years now, Adobe just adopted it fully (Cocoa) two weeks ago when they shipped CS5. Adobe was the last major third party developer to fully adopt Mac OS X.
That's a perfectly valid stance for Apple to take.
However, Apple creates the very conditions that make it impossible for third-party developer tools to implement Apple's "innovations and enhancements." By keeping its work so secret, Apple guarantees that no maker of third-party tools can keep up.
Apple could very easily work with makers of third-party tools under NDA to ensure support for new APIs and operating system features on Apple's time line. The fact that it doesn't suggests Apple's stance has more to do with fear of competition than anything else.
Indeed, the reason third party tools like Adobe's Flash, Unity Technologies' Unity3D, Ansca Mobile's Corona, Appcelerator's Titanium, and others exist is that Apple's native tools, Xcode and Objective-C, aren't right for everyone.
Developers have different abilities and different needs. If Apple is going to insist that it's Xcode or the highway, the company should follow Jobs' advice to Adobe.
"Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind," Jobs wrote.
Perhaps Apple should also try to create some great iPhone development tools, because developers clearly want alternatives to what Apple is offering.
Better still, Apple should treat those who want to build on its platform with respect.
It should clarify which tools it will allow, rather than keeping mum and expecting developers to roll the dice with their investments of time and money.
It should create clear, consistent rules for the kinds of apps it will accept for its App Store, instead of rejecting apps based on subjective and changing criteria like political ideology.
It should present developers with the opportunity to comment on contractual rule changes rather than simply changing the rules as if Apple's opinion is the only one that matters.
If Apple actually engaged with the Internet community, if it emerged from its cone of silence and began an honest dialogue about things that mattered to its customers, developers, and the media, it might not have to worry about comedians like Jon Stewart musing that the company risks becoming the Howard Hughes of the tech world.
"It wasn't supposed to be this way," lamented Stewart in a recent broadcast. "Microsoft was supposed to be the evil one."
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