So I Doubt We’ll Get Flash or Java on the iPhone

…at least, not in their current forms.

There’s been some buzz about Flash coming to the iPhone. The problem is, that the problem is not technical – for both Flash and Java.

The Backstory

First some history:

  • Apple (Steve Jobs) has said that Flash is too big and slow on the iPhone, and that Flash Lite is too cut down, and thus not useful
  • Jobs also says that “Java’s not worth building in. Nobody uses Java anymore. It’s this big heavyweight ball and chain.” NY Times
  • Adobe has been pushing to get Flash on the iPhone, saying “it works”, etc.
  • Sun committed to provide Java on iPhone with the SDK, but when they saw the SDK restrictions, they had to backpedal to provide Java on the iPhone “if at all possible.”
  • Apple didn’t want to provide a native apps SDK – keeping all app development in-house.
  • Apple only provided a native apps SDK when it became clear that the jailbreak apps were wildly popular, completely outside Apple’s control, and thus threatening to take control of the iPhone platform away from Apple
  • Apple provided the SDK with very stringent restrictions – both the NDA, which has since been reluctantly lifted, and strict limitations on the applications developed with the SDK – including requirements that applications do not call any non-SDK APIs and do not download executable code or provide any interpreters. This last restriction is aimed directly at technologies like Flash and Java that execute code from third parties.

Apple the Monopolist

This pattern makes it clear that Apple is very intent on keeping control of the applications provided on the iPhone platform. They have some legitimate reasons for this (i.e., protecting their brand, protecting the user experience, protecting the cell network of their carrier partners), but I think the dominant reason is just protecting their very profitable monopoly.

Apple has a monopoly on the distribution of iPhone applications (barring the jailbreak apps), and they are determined to retain that. This monopoly is what allows them to do that other protection – of brand, experience, and network. It also is what allows them to charge every application developer 30% of revenue plus $99 per year. And what allows them to prevent applications that compete with iTunes, another big money maker. And also what allows them to limit iPhone development to being done on Apple hardware, another big money maker.

I’m quite confident that both Sun and Adobe have been working the back channels to convince Apple to allow Java and Flash on the iPhone, but that Apple will not budge.

What Will Work

I see three things that can get Apple to change their position:

  • Widespread public outcry for the other technologies. This seems to be what Adobe and Sun would be hoping for. However, Apple doesn’t really listen to customers. “Uncle Steve knows best.” The only leverage Apple customers have is their dollars, hence the next two possibilities.
  • Widespread adoption of a competing platform – namely, Google’s Android. This could be viewed as the ultimate loss for Apple – thousands, millions of potential customers going with a competing platform – but Apple has played the elite-user-friendly-minority-platform-where-we-have-a-monopoly role before, and I think they’ll be willing to do it again on the iPhone if that’s what it takes to retain control.
  • Widespread defection of users and developers to the open jailbreak technologies. This is what got the SDK and the degree of openness we have now. If Apple feels it is going to lose control of the iPhone platform, Apple releases partial control – first the SDK, then lifting the NDA, next… What? How can Apple retain control of the platform and give users and developers Flash or Java?

Apple-Friendly Flash and Java

So, how can Apple retain control of the platform but allow users and developers Flash and/or Java?

Well, they could allow Java as just another language to produce SDK applications sold through the AppStore. AlcheMo translates compiled JavaME applications to C++ code that is then compiled on the SDK. The resulting application can only run on the iPhone after going through Apple’s AppStore vetting process.

Flash? Frankly, the web’s model of flash widgets embedded in web pages isn’t going to fly on the iPhone. It just doesn’t have enough memory to support that use model. Flash Lite? Does anybody think that’s enough? Steve Jobs said there’s a “missing product in the middle.”

How about Adobe Air, letting users run Flash applications on the iPhone “desktop”? Well, if Adobe produces a version that makes these apps standalone, without the ability to download additional code to run, we have the “product in the middle” that Steve indicated could be worthwhile – and that let’s Apple preserve it’s control over the platform.

When users and developers defect to other platforms, and Adobe and Sun deliver versions of Flash and Java that let Apple control the applications delivered to the iPhone, Apple will let it happen.

kb

2 Comments »

  1. So I Doubt We’ll Get Flash or Java on the iPhone Said,

    October 5, 2008 @ 6:36 am

    [...] iJohn wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt…at least, not in their current forms. There’s been some buzz about Flash coming to the iPhone. The problem is, that the problem is not technical – for both Flash and Java. The Backstory. First some history: … [...]

  2. Keith Said,

    October 5, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

    I always felt Apple should just buy Adobe, its a perfect match. Now may not be the perfect time, but think of the Photoshop issue, Final Cut Pro VS. Premiere & After Effects, now to Flash or not to Flash? I think the deeper they go, the better for Apple and the media companies, especially if they get a locked-in grip via a technological or hardware patent. Apple will be able to lead and somewhat dictate or have a say about content provision. They already have the lead, they have to keep it, before everybody else catches up, and they will.

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