Why Steve Jobs is Playing Tough With the iPhone

Apple Inc. Chairman and CEO Steve Jobs gestures on stage during a preview of iPhone OS 4.0 at Apple Inc. in Cupertino, Calif., Thursday, April 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Jean-Louis Gassée is a Silicon Valley veteran and currently general partner for the venture capital firm Allegis Capital in Palo Alto..

The short version:

Who in his right mind expects Steve Jobs to let Adobe (and other) cross-platform application development tools control his (I mean, the iPhone OS's) future? Cross-platform tools dangle the old "write once, run everywhere" promise. But, by being cross-platform, they don't use, they erase "uncommon" features. To Apple, this is anathema as it wants application developers to use and promote its differentiation. It's that simple. Losing differentiation is death by low margins. It's business. Apple is right to keep control of its platform's future.

The longer version:

The upcoming 4.0 release of the iPhone OS will come with licensing language that prohibits the use of Adobe's Flash-to-iPhone compiler. The compiler is a clever way around the absence of a Flash interpreter on Apple's smartphone OS. It takes Flash code in and outputs iPhone OS code, allowing Flash content and apps to run on the iPhone (and iPad). Problem solved.

Not so fast, says Apple; we'll only allow applications that are written "natively" with our tools. No cross-platform tools, no Flash-to-iPhone compiler, no Flash.

Less than 24 hours later, an Adobe employee, Lee Brimelow, posts a virulent critique of Apple's latest prohibition, titled "Apple Slaps Developers In The Face". He concludes with a vigorous 'Go screw yourself Apple' and then adds a postscript: 'Comments disabled as I'm not interested in hearing from the Cupertino Comment SPAM bots.' Ah, yes. The one-way mirror…

[What the irate gentleman fails to say is this: The only developers slapped in the face are those who don't use Apple development tools because they want to write a cross-platform app that may or may not use the particular features of the iPhone OS.]

He's not alone in condemning Apple. In his blog, called "Why does everything suck?," Hank Williams asks if "Steve Jobs Has Just Gone Mad" and wonders about "Insane Restraint of Trade".

Adobe appears to be worried.

In its latest SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission, the stock market regulator) filing, the company admits that its 'business could be harmed'. If Apple succeeds in turning developers away from Adobe's tools, a new version of which, CS5, is about to be announced, well, the money pump will stutter.
There are calmer minds, however. In his highly-recommended blog, Daring Fireball, John Gruber explains why Apple changed the iPhone OS licensing agreement. It's strategic, really: Apple doesn't want anyone else to have control over which OS features the applications have or don't have access to. I'll explain in a moment why it's rational for Apple to fend off cross-compilers, and why it's not too rational for Adobe employees and others to criticize Apple for keeping control of its future. But first, a bit of history.

Apple and Adobe are an old couple, going all the way back to the early Mac days. Adobe had created beautiful fonts, a PostScript interpreter, and had absorbed Aldus for its seminal program, PageMaker. That's how the LaserWriter was born and the era of desktop publishing began. Besides being crucial to the Macintosh by creating so much desktop publishing software, Adobe also acquired and published Photoshop in 1990, at first exclusively on the Macintosh.

One is tempted to say that without Adobe there would be no Macintosh and no Apple. Steve Jobs and John Warnock, one of Adobe's founders, were close, even if things didn't always go swimmingly. An Apple engineer, Gifford Calenda, began to develop TrueType, an alternative to Adobe's "mathematical" fonts. I was at Apple when we had to make the buy-or-create decision. The basic set of Adobe fonts cost about $30, if memory serves. If Gifford and his colleagues succeeded, which they eventually did, we could get our fonts for "free". To make sure the fonts got industry-wide adoption, Apple licensed the TrueType technology to Microsoft for free. The business model wasn't font revenue but Adobe license fee avoidance. Adobe, understandably, wasn't too pleased with this.