Does “A VC” have a blind spot for Apple?
Mon, Feb 16, 09
We don’t do formal take-downs of uninformed polemics here, but it’s a bank holiday today so we’ll take the case of “Does Apple Have A Blind Spot About Flash?” by Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures:
Wilson: I think the news that Flash is coming to smartphones over the next year is a big deal.
“News”? According to various estimates and projections, Flash has already been on one billion cellphones (cumulative) and 40% of all new handsets shipped in 2008. I’ll leave it to Wilson to untangle all the versions of Flash/FlashLite and their respective limitations on any given mobile device. But it’s not for trying: Adobe has already struggled to make Flash a “standard” on mobile devices for several years now.
It’s the UI, stupid!
Wilson: Now almost every video site on the web uses a Flash video player. The same is true of audio.
The word “Flash” has become a Rorschach inkblot test. Mention the word and some may think it’s those annoying display ads. For others it’s audio/video delivery widgets all over the web. For a different demographic, it’s interactive casual games. For some e-commerce sites and enterprise intranets, it’s a drill-down data delivery platform.
Adobe has had a problem of defining and then decisively promoting Flash, FlashLite, Flex and AIR. Wilson is apparently bitten by this confusion. In userland reality, there is no Flash “player.” Sure, users have to download a web browser plugin, but once that’s done, the “playback” of audio/video media is, to Adobe’s credit, a fairly seamless part of a web page.
Codec != UI
So what’s so special about the Flash plugin then? Not much. In fact, as a simple audio/video delivery medium, nothing at all. It’s just H.264 video. Now what company is the principal promoter of H.264? According to none other than Adobe:
The broadest distribution of H.264 is via QuickTime from Apple, which is included in iTunes, iPods, iPhone, and the QuickTime Player on Mac and Windows. H.264 is also integrated into everything from mobile phones (Nokia, SonyEricsson) to HD-TV and Digital Radio. There is a wide range of interoperating products supporting this standard. Visit http://www.mpegif.org for updated news about H.264.
What did Adobe use for video prior to H.264?
Flash Player supports the Sorenson Spark video codec (based on H.263) and On2 VP6. H.263 is the predecessor of H.264 and was designed for teleconferencing applications, at 64k rates. H.264 delivers even higher quality at lower bitrates. H.264 will deliver the same or better quality when to compared to the same encoding profile in On2.
It’s interesting to note that Adobe’s adoption of H.264 was greatly accelerated by Google’s arrangement with Apple to convert YouTube videos from various Flash codecs to H.264 for playback on the widely popular iPhone, and Microsoft’s impending “Flash-killer” Silverlight that featured HD quality video.
It’s the UI, stupid!
Wilson: It’s also true that a lot of the interesting new desktop apps like Twhirl and Tweetdeck are written for AIR, Flash’s runtime cousin for the desktop. I’d love to have apps like this on my smartphone too.
There’s nothing whatsoever about these apps that can’t be implemented on the iPhone without having to use Flash.
Flash is proprietary
Wilson: So it’s very exciting to me that Flash is making a big move over the next year onto smartphones. I’m also very excited to see Nokia and Adobe creating the Open Screen Project and Open Screen Fund to promote an open and consistent experience for web browsing and mobile apps across mobile devices. The mobile web needs to be just like the web for innovation to flourish and capital to flow.
I wonder if Wilson even reads the source material. Here’s what the press release says:
“The Open Screen Project Fund encourages the use of Adobe tools and existing developer skills to create exciting and unique Flash applications for millions of Nokia devices,” said Tero Ojanpera, EVP, Nokia Services.
Developers are invited to submit concepts for applications that are based on the Adobe Flash Platform, will run on Nokia devices… [emp]
Good luck with taking Nokia’s money to create “open” Flash apps that take unique advantage of, say, Palm Pre devices. After a decade, Adobe cannot even get the Flash player to run equally well on Mac OS X. So much for “openness.”
The open vision
Here comes Wilson’s most egregious misdirection:
Wilson: I believe Apple doesn’t share in Adobe and Nokia’s vision of an open and consistent experience for web browsing and mobile apps.
As we have covered previously in Runtime wars (2): Apple’s answer to Flash, Silverlight and JavaFX Apple’s answer to Adobe’s proprietary Flash is open HTML5. In fact, Apple has been by far the largest company dedicated to the promotion of open standards on the web. It’s contributions on HTML5 with <canvas>, CSS animation and various other interactive features duplicating many features of Flash have been exemplary. Its foundational work on WebKit is the reason why Nokia and Adobe themselves have adopted it as their mobile browser! It’s really preposterous for Wilson to mention Flash and “open” in the same breath.
Competition is Apple’s best friend
Wilson: It seems to me that Apple is interested in replicating its iTunes/iPod strategy it used to dominate digital music to dominate the mobile web.
What on earth might Wilson be referring to here? If “mobile web” refers to the iPhone accessing the web via Safari that would be WebKit, the same browser used by Adobe and Nokia and practically every other smartphone manufacturer other than Microsoft. If he’s referring to “native” apps accessing web services, we fail to see his point. All “native” apps running on a mobile device are by definition proprietary to that platform. Open source/native Android apps won’t run on iPhone, Nokia or Pre devices either. But all these apps, native or not, can and do access available web services. Flash-based propriatery apps that may run on multiple platforms bring no discernible advantage. After all, Java has already proved that the ability to run on multiple platforms alone doesn’t translate into user demand and popularity. Already “iPhone [is] making 51 percent of online ad requests among smartphones in the US, and 32 percent worldwide,” says AdMob.
Wilson: I don’t think the iTunes/iPod strategy has much life left in it. Things like Pandora, MySpace Music, music blogging, and other forms of streaming music will eventually chip away at that franchise.
Well, wake us up when that happens. Incidentally, while Pandora may work on 50+ devices, guess which platform is the most popular by far.
Wilson: …the mobile web is not going to be dominated by a single device and a single app ecosystem.
Frankly, Wilson hasn’t grokked the iPod/iTunes strategy. Apple didn’t win that war by eliminating all of its competitors, a la Microsoft. Apple, in fact, needs and exquisitely leverages competition so that the battlefield is sufficiently divided into the iPod and all the other iPod-killers. The trick is to equate a market segment with a product: people walk into stores to buy an “iPod” even when they mean to purchase a non-Apple product. The iPod has become a category definer, rendering its competitors irrelevant. The iPhone is in the process of doing the same, whether Wilson likes it or not. In Act II, there is the iPhone and all the other iPhone-killers. While the fat lady hasn’t sung yet to be sure, it’s Apple’s curtain to drop.
Mobile web is and is not just the web
Wilson: I don’t even think an app ecosystem is the long term solution for the mobile web. It’s a bridge enviroment that allows for rich experiences on devices that don’t have reliable high bandwidth connections yet.
There’s very little connective logic among “app ecosystem,” “rich experiences” and “high bandwidth.” Actually, the gating factor for iPhone-class mobile devices currently is battery life, not bandwidth. Sure AT&T 3G coverage is spotty but a lot of iPhone-class device users have access to WiFi and do use it in abundance, as long as their batteries last. But what an app ecosystem has to do with bandwidth per se is a mystery to us.
Wilson: But the mobile web will eventually just be the web.
Yes and no. Yes, because for the iPhone-class mobile devices running WebKit, it already is. No, because user experience on a mobile device will always be different from desktop devices with larger screens, more computing resources, infinite power source and larger storage, but with little use for location, movement or environment-centric sensors.
Rich media is not Flash
Wilson: And a big part of getting it there is to get the tools that allow us to seamlessly consume rich media on the web onto mobile devices. To me that means Flash.
Once again, iPhone users are already consuming rich media as seamlessly as any other, notwithstanding the lack of Flash. The iPhone is about to become the largest mobile platform for games, perhaps the “richest” media experience we know. “Rich media” is not the same as Flash, especially in regards to video which in its H.264 glory is available on the iPhone, albeit without the proprietary Flash wrapper.
Flash versus Open
Perhaps one thing we can all agree on is that the future of the web, mobile or otherwise, will be more or less open. That would be HTML, MP3, H.264, HE-AAC, and so on. These are not propriatery Adobe products, they are open standards…unlike Flash.
In confusing codecs with UI, Wilson keeps asking, “why is it tha[t] most streaming audio and video on the web comes through flash players and not html5 based players?” The answer is rather pedestrian: HTML5 is just ramping up, but Flash IDE has been around for many years. Selling Flash IDE and back-end server tools has been a commercial focus for Adobe, while Apple, for example, hasn’t paid much attention to QuickTime technologies and promotion in ages. It’s thus reflected in adoption patterns.
Hopefully, this summary will clear Wilson’s blind spot:
Apple is betting on open technologies (as it makes money on hardware) while Adobe (which only sells software) is betting on wrapping up content in a proprietary shackle called Flash.