Jobs, Flash and Elitism: Why Apple Doesn't Care About the Digital Underclass

Jobs’ reasons for barring Flash sound reasonable enough. But what does it say about Apple’s values?

As you will have likely heard by now, today Steve Jobs wrote a long post on why Apple refuses to integrate Adobe’s Flash into its mobile products.

For people who have heard the incessant chatter about Adobe and Apple’s feud, it was nice to get an explanation straight from the horse’s mouth. Jobs, in his carefully worded note, outlined six reasons Apple chooses not to implement Flash, and would rather stick with standards like HTML5, CSS and Javascript. They were as follows:

  1. Flash is proprietary. HTML5 and other standards are open, and open is better.
  2. Lots of web video is available in non-Flash formats now because companies are changing, mainly because of Apple.
  3. Flash is not secure enough. This is well-documented.
  4. Flash drains too much power, and battery life is key for mobile devices.
  5. Flash is designed for a mouse and keyboard era of the PC, not the touch generation.
  6. Relying on a third-party development tool means that people are dependent on Adobe for upgrades. Apple does not want another layer between apps and the user experience.

And you know, from a business perspective, all of these sound pretty level-headed to me. To Jobs and his team at Cupertino, the user experience is paramount, and Apple will do what it has to so that owners of iPhones, iPods and iPads get the best experience they can. And let’s be honest – if Apple has a specialty, it’s producing good user experiences. Fair enough, Steve.

Why Are People Going Open?

Still – simmering underneath Jobs’ diatribe against Flash was a set of values about what the internet should look like and who is using it.

After all, when Jobs points out how much video content is now available in more open formats – YouTube, Netflix, the New York Times etc. – he skirts around the issue that these companies have had to switch so that they work on Apple products. Apple may not own the mobile market, but they are the arbiters of cool in the tech world, and in order to be seen as forward-thinking and appeal to that oh-so-important Apple demographic, the New York Times and others almost had to make that move.

For Jobs to claim that these companies’ actions represent a shift in thinking may be true. But it’s also is a little like a supermodel walking into a crowded bar and, half-an-hour-later, loudly exclaiming to her friends “see, all those ladies who say guys never come up to them are just doing something wrong”. It’s kinda’ missing the point that, well, in the tech world, it’s Apple’s milkshake that brings a lot of players to the yard – and in doing so, it’s Apple that gets to make decisions that affect everybody.

So Who Gets Priority In This New Open Web?

But just as importantly, there’s the question of who all this ‘open’ content is aimed at. I mean, it’s much easier for the New York Times to pay a team to rejigger their website for HTML5 than it is some small independent website who used some free tools to do so.

And here’s the thing: both of my parents, who are immigrants from India, sometimes like to connect with the things they know by streaming music online, whether classical, Bollywood or religious. But they can’t do that on their ‘hand-me-up’ iPhone because almost all of it is in Flash – and Apple has decided that they don’t matter. To Apple, they should be content to enjoy the ‘mainstream’ things they like. When those smaller sites can catch up, fine. But until then, unless you exist firmly in the middle of society, you’re outta luck.

But so much of the Internet’s potential is that you don’t have to abide by the mainstream. Indeed, one of the great things about the web is that immigrants, outsiders, queers, geeks and loners could finally find themselves and their cultures represented on a medium that wasn’t just about ‘the norm’. And sure, you could argue that Apple is a publicly traded company and as such has only a commitment to profit and its shareholders. But when a company, by the admission of its own CEO, is attempting to steer the direction of web, there’s something a little sad about the fact that it’s the mainstream and the privileged who are being looked after.

Apple: Not Just a Business

You know, a while ago here on Techi, I argued that I would eventually buy an iPad because its ease-of-use and accessibility was the perfect thing for my 70-ish father. In a way, that still holds. But there’s just something a little off-putting about the strident, self-righteous nature with which Jobs has insisted on his vision. Apple designs some great stuff, and usability is a big deal – but to have the ‘it just works’ mentality be aimed at squarely at the mainstream means that, for a large swath of society, Apple is also saying that right now, this stuff isn’t really for you.

Nothing about this is black and white. Apple’s commitment to efficient, open web standards is commendable, and the faster all those scattered sites around the web can move to open, accessible web technologies, the better. It will be a fairer, better web when that happens. Yet, by placing the emphasis on what the web might be and not what it is right now, Apple are also saying that this new slick, open web is either for those who can afford it or who are part of the mainstream.

As a business decision, it’s not a bad one. But as a social and cultural one – well, it’s just a little disappointing.

Written by Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang
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Comments
  • http://scamper.com/ scamper

    For me it’s not really about a device’s ability to “run Flash,” but about the pitfalls of using something like Adobe’s Flash-based AIR as a cross-platform development environment. This inevitably leads to a lowest-common-denominator experience, as we’ve all seen before. Remember Java? And I’m sure you’ve seen the Ars Technica piece detailing the UI inconsistencies in their CS5 product, pieces of which were developed using AIR.

    Jobs himself says this is the most important argument, and I admire him for defending the user experience. Because Adobe isn’t going to do it.

  • http://quietbabylon.com/ Tim Maly

    There are zero, ZERO, mobile devices that play Flash available on the market. There is no phone in existence that you could hand to your Bollywood-loving parents that would allow them to stream the music they want to hear if it’s all trapped behind Flash. People and companies are switching to non-Flash because it’s the only way to reach the mobile market. Has been for years.

    Flash is a proprietary platform that requires access to a very, very expensive suite of tools to author content. HTML5, CSS, AJAX, etc are all open and editable in text editors by people with the knowledge to do so. And while the tools for non-mainstream users are lagging, consider the existence of platforms like Tumblr and Posterous or WordPress that allow anyone with no HTML knowledge to publish images and text to the world. Super-user-friendly video editing is not far behind.

    Arguing that people should stick with Flash to allow the edges of society to flourish is like arguing that we should all stay on Windows because most people are already on Windows. It’s a weird argument from convenience.

    If you want to talk about Apple’s elitism and mainstream-focus, let’s have a conversation about the App store and the secretive rejection policy that no one understands or can predict. But on the web side? Insisting on a global open standard that will have a wide range of free tools and implementations is the most fringe-friendly Apple could be.

    • AceTaikula

      ‘There are zero, ZERO, mobile devices that play Flash available on the market.’

      You need to get out more. Android phones have been running Flash for months. The user has the option, in the ‘Settings’ menu, of allowing or not allowing Flash programs to run. The same for pop-ups and the like. I can watch YouTube video on my phone.

      Jobs could have given Apple customers a similar option. He didn’t. So much for his love of everything ‘open’ and his commitment to ‘the user experience.’

  • milo minderbinder

    What is disappointing is the elitist attitude of the author thinking that his parents are entitled to an iPhone. If they need their Bollywood music so badly, they should go download it on a PC that uses Flash or go buy it on a CD.

  • cleawalford

    I have to agree with Adam.

  • Pingback: Who Will Win The Battle Over Open Web Video? | Techi.com

  • http://www.grumblebeestudio.com mikeo

    don’t get mad because apple decides not to support flash, they all seem like valid points to me. never really liked flash in the first place, but that is besides the point. it’s apple product and if they don’t want to support flash it is their business model not yours. it’s a gamble that they are willing to take, and i guessing not to many people will really miss it. and i for one welcome our new apple overlords…..

    .mike

    • AceTaikula

      Welcome your new Google overlords. Apple is repeating history: fast out of the gate, then loss of market dominance to a competitor willing to sell to all the people Apple can’t be bothered with. Which is most of the people in the world.

  • http://www.joehowarddesign.com Joe Howard

    Apple is progressive towards standards it sees as beneficial to the widest possible audience. It is also early to adopt a position for progress. I remember everyone up in arms because Apple decided to ship computers without floppy drives and 56k modems.

    For mobile I think that adopting Flash “as is” is trying to push 12lbs of crap into a 10lb bag. Why lower the user experience trying to force it. As stated, content publishing will change, and more importantly, should change to more open source platforms and years later we can all look back and say “plain Flash video?” like we did with the floppy drive.

    • Josh

      I definitely agree with you Joe, I remember thinking that it was crazy not to include the floppy drive in computers. This is more or less the same thing, floppy drives grew to be outdated and unnecessary – the same direction Flash is headed.

      The exclusion of floppy drives forced the tech world to move forward, as will the exclusion of flash. It’s just something your parents, grandparents and anyone else is going to have to get used to if they want to keep up to date with it all.

      • AceTaikula

        The exclusion of floppy drives didn’t ‘force the tech world to move forward.’ Apple was emerging from a near-death experience and wasn’t selling enough computers to ‘force’ anything. It doesn’t sell enough computers today to force anything, either, though Steve Jobs obviously thinks he’s in a different position with mobile devices.

        Personal computers at the time had reached an awkward stage where one could store data on 3.5 diskettes or on zip drives or on CD-Rs or on Mini-Disks, with USB storage cards on the horizon and web storage becoming a realistic option. No one really knew which devices were going to win out. Apple punted on the whole question. The candy-coloured iMacs were targeted at college students who might need their computers another 2-4 years. The machines left it up to the students to hook up whatever storage devices they found useful.

        The punt made news but, design-wise, it was still a punt.

    • AceTaikula

      Flash will pass, certainly.

      So will Apple.

      • AceTaikula

        That was a reply to Joe Howard.

        All technologies are transitional. One supports present technologies while preparing for the emerging technologies. Failing to support popular technologies entails a decision, as the writer points out, about which potential customers are worth pleasing and which are OK to alienate.

        Anti-trust ethics and laws enter the picture once a venture reaches a certain size. So no, Steve Jobs does not have an automatic right to support what he wants and lock the door on everything else. Not after his enterprise starts operating at a certain scale. (See ‘Microsoft,’ subheading ‘Browsers’.)

  • Amanda

    @milo:

    “What is disappointing is the elitist attitude of the author thinking that his parents are entitled to an iPhone.”

    This goes into my list of “most retarded things I’ve seen/heard recently”.

    Elitist attitude? Do you know what “elitist” means?

    Elitist: the belief or attitude that some individuals, who supposedly form an elite — a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight.

    They aren’t wanting the iPhone to be restricted to their own interests; they’re wanting to be shown some consideration as people who are outside of the mainstream/elite.

    On top of that, are you saying that someone’s personal taste and sentimentalities are determining factors in whether or not they deserve the honor and privilege of having an iPhone? With that “entitled to an iPhone” bit? Give me a break. Who’s the elitist here?

    All that being said, I actually agree with most people here about the adaptation of open standards as opposed to Flash. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to be insulting his parents, saying that they don’t *deserve* an iPhone because they like different music, and therefore demonstrating exactly the Apple-elitist stand that the author is trying to point out.