This morning I read that Apple has passed Motorola to become the largest US phone maker, as measured by units shipped. Apple shipped 8.8m iPhones while Motorola sold 8.5m of their various devices (apparently down from a peak of 46m devices sold in a quarter). Then the next thing I saw was Steve Jobs’ Thoughts on Flash in which he lists six reasons why Flash isn’t supported on iPhones, iPods and iPads. The thing that bugs me is that they are mostly user oriented reasons – it uses more battery life, it isn’t optimised for touch – I would far, far prefer that Apple supported Flash and let me decide not to avoid sites that used it, or let developers decide not to use it because the iPhone experience wouldn’t be great. The iPhone is a hugely mainstream device with a highly varied audience and this one-size-fits-all paternalistic attitude is inappropriate in my view.
But what bugs me more is that to my mind it is more than a little likely that Jobs’ real motivation is cynical market exploitation rather than maximising the user experience. Apple is in an incredibly powerful position in the mobile value chain right now and it makes business sense to exploit that strength to weaken potential competitors – but if a company is going to go down that route then they shouldn’t pretend that their motives are pure.
Tellingly, Jobs’ sixth and ‘most important reason’ for not supporting Flash is that he doesn’t want developers using third party cross platform development tools. He would rather that developers write directly for the iPhone and then incur further expense if they write for other devices. As you may have seen Apple recently updated the Terms of Service for the iPhone SDK to effectively ban the use of third party compilers that create cross-platform apps.
The reason Jobs gives for disliking third party dev tools is that they might not support all the latest iPhone features and innovations, putting Apple at the mercy of the third party. I’m not sure this is a good argument. If the features and innovations are good enough then developers will find a way to use them, even if it means ditching the cross party dev tool and writing direct for the iPhone again – otherwise their apps will lose out in the app store to developers who do take advantage of the cool new stuff.
I think the upshot of this approach is that Apple’s period of dominance will be extended and fewer apps will be available on Android and third party platforms, but only for a while. Over time there will be more smartphone users on other platforms than there are on the iPhone and developers will want to reach them, and then it will start to become cheaper to reach non-iPhone users than iPhone users and apps will start to appear first on other devices. At this point Apple’s closed system will start to become a major competitive disadvantage. They might then choose to open, but that will be increasingly hard if Jobs keeps writing posts like his Thoughts on Flash.