The announcements at Adobe’s MAX 2009 conference earlier this month have reignited the conversation about Flash on the iPhone — whether it will ever happen and, if not, why not.
At the conference, Adobe announced plans to bring Flash 10 to all the major mobile platforms — except the iPhone. In order to have some story regarding Flash and the iPhone, Adobe also announced that a forthcoming version of Flash Professional will allow developers to create iPhone applications. As many commentators have pointed out, however, these programs will compile to native iPhone apps in order to run on the device. Adobe still has no solution for enabling the iPhone to render Flash content delivered over the web.
In an article on InsideRIA titled “Could Adobe Potentially Harm the iPhone AppStore“ Scott Barnes outlines the hurdles Adobe faces in attempting to get Flash on Apple’s iPhone, and points out that “[To] Apple [the] iPhone is the same as Windows is to Microsoft.”
As odd as it may seem to compare Apple’s vaunted iPhone with Microsoft’s oft-pilloried operating system, the point is that the iPhone (along with iTunes and Apple’s App Store) is at the center of Apple’s product integration strategy. It is the thin end of the wedge Apple plans to use to expand into new markets and to move its customers onto a broader collection of Apple products. As Barnes states, “All gravity orbits around the iPhone now for Apple.”
At a press event at Adobe’s MAX conference, Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch offered a very different metaphor for the iPhone. Lynch compared the current competition in the mobile space to that of the early days of the personal computer, stating that the “[companies] that are playing well with others will get the largest market share.” Although he didn’t mention any firms by name, the implication is that the iPhone will follow the trajectory of Apple’s Macintosh computer to become a product that, while beloved by many, occupies a relatively small market niche.
To some extent, this is another example of Adobe’s public confrontation of Apple regarding their refusal to help to implement Flash on the iPhone (see “Adobe’s New ‘In Your Face’ Attitude“). But it is also a statement of Adobe’s philosophy for success. By partnering with multiple companies, Adobe hopes to establish a cross-platform solution for application development, much as they have done with PostScript, PDF, and Flash on the PC. In the mobile space, Adobe believes that by supporting products like Flash and Adobe’s AIR, mobile devices can spawn a rich ecosystem for both developers and consumers.
The IBM/Intel/Microsoft architecture did, indeed, succeed in large part because of the ecosystem it fostered. The relatively open hardware and software platform attracted the largest contingent of developers, which provided the largest selection of software, which appealed to a widest swath of customers, which attracted more developers. And, thus, this virtuous cycle fueled its own growth.
In the mobile space, however, it is the iPhone that is benefiting from this beneficial feedback loop. Although Apple’s device does not hold the greatest market share of smartphones globally — that honor goes to Nokia’s Symbian operating, followed by RIM’s BlackBerry — Apple does have the largest selection of software. According to a recent tally by the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, there are 85,000 applications for the iPhone while there are only 10,000 for Google’s Android, 3,000 for the newer models of the RIM BlackBerry, only “a few hundred modern apps” for Windows Mobile, and even fewer for the Palm Pre.
Apple has managed to become the “Windows of mobile” without offering an open architecture, and has fostered the largest ecosystem of developers while retaining tight vertical integration of its products.
Apple has cleverly straddled the fence between an open and a closed strategy by providing a smattering of cross-platform support while assuring the best experience on Apple’s own products. Sure, you can install iTunes on a PC — but it’s smoother experience on a Mac. And it only syncs with Apple’s iPod and iPhone devices.
To date, this hybrid “slightly open but vertically integrated” strategy has worked well for Apple. Will it continue to do so? Adobe’s Lynch thinks not, believing a more open (or, at least, cross-vendor) approach will eventually succeed. What do you think? Have we reached a tipping point that assures Apple’s continued success, or are we are still in the early stages of the evolution of smartphone platforms? Is the iPhone destined to become the next Windows or the next Mac?