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Apple v. Adobe – and we are the losers

February 2, 2010

As pointed out in the New York Times and by many others, Apple chose not to support Flash video on the iPad. Anyone who owns an iPhone or iPod Touch is already familiar with this particular issue, but somehow it takes on entirely new dimensions (pun intended) on a larger screen device.

Apple claims that Flash is a battery hog and is too slow, but offers little evidence to support these assertions. What is undeniable is that Flash is one of the most ubiquitous technologies for Web content, present on virtually every personal computer as with Acrobat Reader. Moreover, many of us consume incredible amounts of Flash content, whether it be sports highlights, magazine content, or just random videos from one of the many video sources on the Web.

Apple touts the newish HTML5 as the savior for online video. Great. It bears noting that Apple is a part owner of the patents for HTML5. So what we have here is a standoff between two media giants, each battling for control of the marketplace.

Adobe, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of media creation knows, is by far the largest publisher of software for media development, from text to video and everything in between. They have a near monopoly in certain segments of that world, and applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and Dreamweaver are part of the fabric of our modern landscape. They make a ton of money with these applications, and protect their assets with vigor.

In the popular mind, Apple is primarily a maker of hardware, but somewhere back around the launch of the first iPod, Apple clearly decided that the future was in becoming a media giant. By selling apps for the iPhone (most of which are simply media content, e.g.- books, games, etc.) and by selling video and audio (and now books) through the iTunes store and soon via iBooks, Apple has created revenue streams that go beyond the life of any particular hardware device. There is also a much larger margin with digital media than with hardware.

As a normal consumer and non-stockholder in either Adobe or Apple, I really do not care about their margins or stock dividends. What I do care about is consumer choice, and keeping content as low-cost as possible. All of this wrangling over Flash will ultimately cost consumers more money as we line up to purchase our media from fewer sources or, in Apple’s greatest fantasy, from Apple alone. This is not a fantasy I am spinning. Within days of its launch, Apple’s platform rewrote the rules for ebook pricing. The loser: readers.

Somehow my enthusiasm for the iPad is waning by the second. Microsoft took a beating back in the days because, oh horror, they tied the browser (and their media player) to the operating system. For most consumers, it didn’t matter a rip. We happily used Netscape until it died, and picked right up when Firefox came on the scene. Cost to me: a few minutes for installation. Benefit: browsers galore, and free choices. Even if one uses Microsoft’s software, the differences for users are negligible, of concern only to Web designers and sys admins.

Not so with Apple. By spreading their tentacles into our media consumption and creating revenue streams for themselves, they have fundamentally altered the game, and we will be the losers. Where is the backlash? I suppose when the “press” applauds giddily when a guy in a black turtleneck introduces a large-screen iPhone, we cannot expect much objectivity.

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