Alistair Fairweather

Flash backwards

2010-01-29 09:35

For every fan of Apple there are three anti-fans. Like Crocs or Marmite, its products inspire either ardour or loathing and not much in between. It's hard to take either camp seriously when one is so intent on praise, the other on slander, but two pieces of criticism for the newly launched Apple iPad stuck out amidst the noise.

Firstly, it doesn't support multitasking of applications. In non-geek that means you won't be able to do two things at once, like sending e-mail while listening to music. Since personal computers have supported this paradigm since the '90s it's a significant step backwards for Apple not to offer it in the iPad.

Secondly, like the iPhone, the iPad doesn't support Flash. You may not have heard of this ubiquitous little technology, but since it's installed on 98% of computers world-wide, chances are you've used it many times without even realising. Ever watched something on YouTube? Or sent someone an online greeting card? What about playing free online games? All of that stuff relies on Flash.

Multitasking is something Apple can and will fix in time - just like it added 3G to the iPhone. But not supporting Flash is a business strategy, not an oversight.

With the launch of its app (application) store in mid-2008 Apple created a very cosy and very closed ecosystem. On the one hand it was quite generous and progressive - offering independent software developers a way to get their creations onto Apple's coolest new device, the iPhone, and make money out of them. Indeed several of them made millions of dollars.

But on the other hand, Apple isn't going to let anyone disrupt its tidy little racket. It recently sold its three billionth application, and it takes 30% of the revenue from each sale. Factor in an average price of around $2.50 per app, and anyone can do the sums.

Apple naturally has the final say about what gets approved for its store. Its decisions have ranged from nonsensical (banning a cute caricature app for being "defamatory") to nakedly anti-competitive (banning the Google Voice app because it infringed on their deal with AT&T).

So what does Flash have to do with any of this? Simple: it allows any suitably skilled developer (there are about two million of them world-wide) to create something which looks, feels and behaves like anything in Apple's store and distribute it themselves - cutting Apple completely out of the loop.

Of course Apple denies this, claiming that Adobe (the company behind Flash) doesn't have the technical know-how to properly integrate its software with the theirs. It also claims that Flash is prone to crashing and too resource intensive.

While some of these criticisms may be valid, they are also rather convenient. A company with the technical prowess to completely revolutionise three markets in the span of a decade (MP3 players, laptops and phones) can handle a little software integration. It just doesn't want to.

And why should it? It started this party - why should it have to invite its competitors? One reason: the web has proven that, in the long rung, "closed" loses and "open" wins. By seeking absolute control over its platform, Apple is also stunting its growth.

Google, on the other hand, have made their Android ecosystem entirely open, as have Nokia with their Ovi store. If Apple are not careful they may find themselves beaten at their own game again - just as they were in the 1980s when the cheaper clone PCs destroyed their whole market.

If Google's motto is "Don't be evil" then Apple's must be "Always be cool" - even if being cool means you bounce the less cool kids from your party. The thing is, one of those kids may just be the next Steve Jobs.

- Follow Alistair on twitter: @afairweather

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Read more on:    google  |  apple  |  ipad  |  technology

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