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.

By navneetalang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang

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