A Parable

Preview.app
Preview.app uses Apple's PostScript implementation to do a better job of rendering PDFs than Acrobat

Once upon a time there was a software company called NeXT that had an operating system which had a key software component licensed from another software company called Adobe. The key software component was called Display Postscript, and it was one of the latter company’s “crown jewels”.

Apple bought NeXT with the intention of replacing its consumer OS with a version of NeXT’s enterprise-focused NEXTSTEP. But to do this it needed to reduce the licensing fees NeXT paid for Display Postscript. Adobe wouldn’t budge (or wouldn’t budge far enough) so Apple simply wrote its own Display Postscript implementation called Quartz. Quartz is actually superior to Display Postscript in many ways, notably speed.

One of Adobe’s crown jewels these days is the Flash runtime engine. This is the virtual machine on which SWF applets (because that’s effectively what they are) run. Flash’s runtime runs badly on Macs. Apple would like the iPad to offer a fabulous web-surfing experience without having to (a) license anything from Adobe or (b) rely on Adobe to write — and maintain — a Flash runtime for its platform that doesn’t suck. Apple has been carelessly showing promos of the iPad correctly displaying web pages with correctly rendered Flash components.

When I watched the launch presentation (actually I skipped through most of it; these launches are a lot more fabulous in retrospect than actuality, especially if Phil Schiller is involved) I distinctly recall Steve Jobs reacting oddly to seeing the lego brick icon when he browsed the NYTimes website, almost as if he hadn’t expected it. Everyone knows what a fanatically well-prepared presenter he is, so why would he go to a website he knew would display a brick?

So, there are three possibilities:

  1. Apple’s PR people were simply careless. Perfectly possible, perhaps even probable. (And perhaps when Jobs rehearsed NYTimes.com didn’t have any Flash on the pages he tried. I usually don’t see Flash on NYTimes pages — I have ClickToFlash running so I’d notice.) Edit: even so, if there was carelessness involved it seems more likely to me that the carelessness was revealing shots of unpublicized — or perhaps removed — functionality in action. After all, faking all that stuff in post seems kind of painstaking, not careless.
  2. Or Apple is in the process of making or has already made a deal with Adobe to include Flash on the iPad, but for some reason couldn’t or didn’t want to let on during the launch presentation. (If so, Adobe is helping Apple with this cunning ruse by allowing some of its less gifted employees to bash Apple in public.)
  3. Or Apple has a skunkworks Flash clone* which it plans to whip out as “one more thing” to make the naysayers look even more foolish than they will anyway. Now, this wouldn’t fix the Netflix (which you may recall works best via Silverlight and not Flash) or Hulu issues unless Apple has secretly convinced them to offer their content as H264 with QuickTime-compatible DRM (given NBC’s pathological desire to lose money on streaming video build the Hulu brand, not bloody likely) … or something, but it’s a fascinating possibility.

* it might be a complete clone, or simply enough of a clone to allow non-video flash games to work and Flash video to be bypassed and fed straight to QuickTime. There were a lot of rumors from the 10.6 closed beta that QTX was playing Flash video directly. Addendum: there is at least one pretty mature open source Flash glone (Gnash) which Apple could conceivably embrace the way it did KHTML, although the GPL license makes this seem unlikely (KHTML is LGPL). They could just hire Gnash’s development team… FlashSWFkit anyone?

The beauty of this “embrace and extend” tack is that Apple could even do to Flash what Microsoft did to QuickTime. Because Microsoft’s Video for Windows (now Windows Media Player) would try to play QuickTime movies and usually fail miserably it gave QuickTime an undeserved reputation for suckage on the Windows platform. Apple could implement Flash well enough to shut most people up, and incompletely enough to (further) tarnish Flash’s reputation.

Addenda

From Wired’s article on this topic:

We’ve just got word from our source at Chiat/Day Media Arts Lab that they make fake optimized web pages for all of Apple’s commercials — which load faster. In this case they made optimized images to take the place of Flash and are redoing them as we speak.”

Sounds plausible. Did Steve practice his presentation on fake websites too?

Addenda 2

Well, I’ve slept on this idea. While I think it’s technically viable, in the end I think Apple will only do it if they feel forced to (e.g. by a sufficiently compelling competing device). It’s a game of chicken — is Flash going to get displaced in time for Apple to be able to ignore it, or is Adobe going to be able to cling to enough key websites (they’ve lost YouTube and halfway lost Netflix, so essentially it’s down to Hulu — and Hulu is probably going to turn off the lights or radically change business models within a year).

One key thing for those of us in the US to remember is that this desire for Flash is largely — almost entirely — based on Netflix and Hulu, both of which are irrelevant outside North America. The rest of the world is already not getting Netflix or Hulu, so Flash can eat its shorts.