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Apple-Adobe Feud: Is Flash as Bad as Jobs Says?

By Tom Kaneshige, CIO
May 06, 2010 06:41 PM ET

CIO - At the heart of the great war of words between Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen lies a simple question: Is Adobe Flash really bad technology?

If the answer is yes, then Apple is right to ban it from the iPhone platform. If the answer is no, well, then it's a good bet Apple is trying to sway public opinion and put an end to Flash's reign on the Web for business reasons.

Apple has much to gain with Adobe out of the mobile Web picture: Flash is a popular app development tool that lets developers expose their work across platforms. Apple doesn't want the competition. That's why Apple recently tweaked its developer agreement to forbid developers from using third-party software tools, essentially banning Flash from the iPhone platform.

Jobs, in a rare and lengthy blog post, claims Flash is poorly written software that will drain battery life and drag down the mobile Web experience. There are better and more open ways of rendering video on the iPhone, he says, such as the emerging HTML 5 standard. It's because of poor, proprietary technology that Apple has banned Flash on its iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

In a Wall Street Journal video, Narayen fired back at Jobs's rant, calling it a "smokescreen." He contends Apple is making false technology claims about Flash in order to justify Apple's revised developer agreement. "When you resort to licensing language," Narayen says, "it's clear that it has nothing to do with technology."

So who's right? While the mainstream press has seized on potential antitrust issues stemming from Apple's Flash ban--Feds are reportedly looking into the matter--the core technology controversy continues to go largely uninvestigated. Never mind that the two CEOs have taken opposing views in what should be a fairly cut and dry issue.

I sought answers from the geeks at the InfoWorld Test Center, a sister site of CIO.com. James R. Borck, senior contributing editor and former manager of the InfoWorld Test Center, clarified some of the technical issues. Borck knows the ins and outs of Flash technology. He recently tested and reviewed Flash Builder 4 for InfoWorld and found the toolset to be a sizeable improvement over its predecessor, Flex Builder 3.

Is Flash Reliable or Not?

The main technical issues raised by Jobs concern Flash's performance, reliability and security, as well as battery drain and incompatibility with touch technology.

In writing about Flash's alleged reliability and security issues, Jobs alluded to a spike in Flash compromises last year: "Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009. We also know first-hand that Flash is the number one reason Macs crash."

While Narayen pleads ignorance--"If Flash [is] the number one reason that Macs crash, which I'm not aware of, it has as much to do with the Apple operating system," he says--Flash-based content has indeed wreaked havoc on Macs, says Borck.

Borck points the finger at Adobe. "In Q4 2008 and early 2009, sloppy coding affected certain machines while displaying video-centric content," he says. "Today, Adobe's hardware acceleration hooks appear to be a possible culprit. To be sure, this does not affect all Flash-based content on Macs though."

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