Apple v Adobe and network externalities

May 3, 2010 at 2:37 pm 2 comments

| Gabriel |

Many people are aware that the iPad doesn’t display Flash and so many websites have big “plug-in not loaded” boxes in areas where streaming video and interactive features would normally be. This is just the tip of the iceberg of Apple’s attempt to kill Flash. Not only does the iPhone OS not directly process Flash (as an interpreted language), but the Apple app store has created a new policy that it won’t even allow compiled code that was originally written in Flash — only software written in Apple’s own C compiler XCode. This sounds esoteric, but in plain English, this means that if you’re a software developer it’s much harder than it used to be to develop apps for both the iPhone and Android.

Apple claims that this is about preserving the quality of the user experience and I think it’s worth taking this seriously. Cross-platform development is efficient on the supply side but the results are ugly and slow as an end user experience. For instance, on my Mac OpenOffice (which is written in Java) is much slower and uglier than either MS Office or Apple iWork (both of which are true Mac native applications). Most of the speed hit comes from being interpreted, but note that Apple is forbidding even compiled Flash code, which in theory should be almost as fast as software written in C. Thus the most charitable interpretation of this policy is that Apple is run by such massive control freaks that they are willing to impose huge expenses on developers to avoid the relatively minor speed hit and aesthetic deviations implied by allowing compiled Flash code.

The more sinister interpretation is that from Apple’s perspective the difficulties the policy imposes on software developers aren’t a bug but a feature. Flash makes it almost as easy to make software for the Android and the iPhone as it does to create software for only one or the other. Thus under a regime that allowed Flash, the end user would have available the same software with either kind of phone and so the Android and iPhone would be in direct competition with each other. This would drive the smart phone market into commodity hell. So by killing Flash, Apple is raising the costs of cross-platform development and forcing developers to pick a side. Assuming that many developers pick Apple, this will increase the availability of software on the iPhone versus the Android and so many consumers will buy the iPhone for its better software availability. Apple is familiar with this dynamic as traditionally one of the main disadvantages of Mac (and Linux) is that many important applications and hardware drivers are only available for Windows, thereby locking users into that platform.

This has been the speculation among geeks for a few weeks now (here, here, and here) but according to the NY Post, the government is taking the sinister interpretation seriously and may well sue Apple.


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  • 1. gabrielrossman  |  May 4, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    ps, more coverage at WSJ which gives a very good outline of why Apple’s practices are anti-competitive and Megan McArdle, who notes how antitrust policy follows a bootleggers and baptists model

  • 2. Mark  |  May 11, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    Interesting — good explanation of the dust-up. I’ll be curious to see if the government decides to sue, or if Apple just relents first.

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