It’s been nearly a decade since Steve Jobs penned his famous “Thoughts on Flash”, 1,685 words’ worth of ranting about everything from iOS development and Mac crashes to cybersecurity and mobile video. Like many cult classics produced in California, the open letter even gets a bit philosophical in the end by casually deconstructing the essence of open technology standards and capitalism, forcing you to think regardless of any pre-existing knowledge or opinions.
The unfiltered screed, in all its entertaining glory, underlines not just what made Flash suck, but also what made Apple great again following years of R-rated flirting with bankruptcies in the ‘90s. From a modern perspective, “Thoughts on Flash” illustrate the secret behind the first and only MAGA initiative led by a controversial figure that didn’t end in flames, protests, and trillions of dollars in added public debt. Right? As if us media industry hacks needed an incentive to keep retelling the history of Apple in frequent and increasingly more dramatic iterations? At ten years and counting, this has to be Jobs’s biggest contribution to the telephone after the iPhone.
On a more serious note, it’s not overly difficult to interpret the entire “Thoughts on Flash” episode as a microcosm of peak Apple and large part of the reason why Steve Jobs is still sorely missed. It’s way more challenging to do so and get everything right, whatever that word even means when it comes to such a polarizing figure. And it’s nearly impossible to expand on any of the above without at least once falling into the trap of romanticizing a person who was clearly pretty crazy overall. So, please keep that in mind or just go away now if any part of this paragraph feels like an attack on your personality, including the following sardonically listed terms: best leadership advice, modern geniuses, personality cults, Sun Tzu, The Wolf of Wall Street, Steve Jobs good, Steve Jobs bad.
Thoughts on Thoughts on Flash
Jobs’s motivation at the time was to respond to the growing influx of Adobe’s criticism over the iPhone’s lack of Flash support. He did so by ripping their argument apart, notion by notion, in a rare display of executive-level attention to detail – or pettiness, depending on who you ask. Because all four pages of “Thoughts on Flash” read like a combination of an executive memo, fan letter, Quora response, press release, pointless Reddit argument, and something from a pocket manual on deconstructive criticism.
Yet it’s all sufficiently coherent and surprisingly factual, at least if your initial perspective is to be skeptical. Many years later, “Thoughts on Flash” and the concepts they illustrate are just as insightful and controversial as they once were, even without considering how their underlying prediction – that Flash is Dead, long live HTML5 – panned out.
Out of all the high-profile responses “Thoughts on Flash” attracted, the only negative ones successfully arguing any point were those focusing on how much of a humbug Jobs was when it came to proprietary technology. How he, himself, even admitted to that hypocrisy in writing. That very same writing, mind you.
Which is true… and deserves a few nods… but does nothing to counter Jobs’s rhetoric. The letter and the events leading up to it come down to Flash being an established technology with many performance, stability, and security issues – on its target platforms. The situation on iOS, whose development team unsurprisingly tested the most popular online video standard as part of R&D, was beyond dire.
That last part is unsubstantiated in the sense it came from Jobs and Adobe responded with “no, u”. But given its record with Flash implementations, especially on Android, a comparable smartphone platform completely unlike the desktop environment it originally targeted, it was always hard to assume Jobs was full of it and Flash was actually still on an upswing and worked great during iOS testing.
Then there’s the fact Adobe was actively encouraging iOS development using Flash by offering a repackager. You don’t need to be a software engineer to understand why things can only get lost in translation, though it helps if you learn that through what Jobs described as a “painful experience” and live to tell the tale.
And oh, one more thing…
As a former Apple engineer revealed many years later, Jobs’s decision didn’t really stem from the fact that Flash was the single biggest security vulnerability posing as a standardized solution since sixteenth-century Venetians first invented transparent glass (even still, they meant to do it, unlike Adobe). The horrible engineering certainly didn’t score any points with Jobs, but the final nail in the standard’s soon-to-become-very-real coffin was when Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen stopped returning Jobs’s calls, as per that testimony.
At the end of this year, Flash will finally be moving to greener pastures where no security vulnerability will be able to hurt it – and, by extent, you – ever again. The demise of Flash is something that should certainly be celebrated on the whole. And the fact that it’s going out in such a controlled manner, i.e. that it won’t be kicking and screaming for years to come is at least partially thanks to Apple. Because the move to exclude the old tech from iOS started a wave that resulted in Adobe killing Flash while saying it’s doing the opposite the very next year, then admitting it wasn’t really doing the opposite in 2017 when it finally yielded with a finalized end-of-life roadmap.
Was Flash really that important though?
Consider, for a second, some entreprenuers who implemented the technology at the right time built whole corporations thanks to Flash; eLearning platforms, online games and slot machines wouldn’t be possible if there wasn’t for Flash.
Popular games developed on that platform included Angry Birds, Starburst, Clash of Clans, Gonzo’s Quest, FarmVille, Machinarium and many more. Between 2000 and 2010 numerous businesses launched their newest offerings through Flash-based sites, with HBO, Disney and Cartoon Network as the best examples in entertainment. Of course, we can’t forget about Newgrounds.
But, even with Jobs’s all-out offensive against Flash, it took Adobe nearly a decade to pull the plug on arguably the largest category of passive threats to technology in the history of the Internet. Imagine how long it would delay the inevitable, continuing to expose hundreds of millions of users to realistic harm, if Flash was abandoned in a less concentrated manner.
The Flash ecosystem
Naturally, we’re already knee-deep in hindsight territory, so it bears repeating that Jobs wasn’t exactly leading a crusade against Flash until penning his proverbial thoughts on the platform.
Even if HTML5 somehow crashed and burned, and even if no other solution arose, leaving only Adobe’s proprietary suite as the gateway between mobile users and apps, games, video, and entire website experiences – Apple would have been… probably fine, really. Ditto for the iPhone, with a worst-case scenario being a late addition of Flash support to iOS. Seriously, Apple survived wrong gambles on much more fundamental tech than what Flash ever was or amounted to be.
And while Jobs’s track record with betting on tech, particularly core innovation meant to enable some grander product vision of his, got better over the years, it was far from perfect. And if he wasn’t willing to take a loss and completely reverse his position if proven wrong, let alone if he considered himself infallible, he’d either be a footnote in Apple’s history or the company would have never taken off in the first place.
Implausible? Well, if selling a computer with no software or first-party interfacing support beyond telling buyers to learn BASIC (duh) didn’t work out but you’re suffering from delusions of grandeur and still have some money to burn, why not make that same thing again, but with incremental improvements that change nothing? Fortunately, the Apple II was far from an iterative product, and was just the first of many successes Jobs oversaw, orchestrated, or lucked into – depending on who you’re asking – over the next 33 years.
The iPhone dilemma
From Jobs’s perspective, Flash was something that he assumed users wanted given its widespread adoption (some three-quarters of online video used it as the primary standard). Or, given his product decision-making style, what users thought they wanted. That’s where the arguments in favor of supporting it on the iPhone begin and end – from the perspective of Apple.
So, when you have a widespread software standard clogging performance and raising security concerns without making third-party development for your hardware easier and actually verifiably reducing its quality (iOS ports of Flash apps, conceptually designed for entirely different devices), while a more promising alternative is rising, you’d really need to suck at your product management gig if you wouldn’t even consider jumping ship. And that’s without even touching on the fact that Flash licensing was costlier than implementing an open-source standard (even if its video codec, h.264, wasn’t free, either) and that there was no dialogue with Adobe which would guarantee those improvements actually materialized.
By ditching the idea of Flash on the iPhone and opting to bet on new technology, Jobs made a decision that was guaranteed to facilitate development and immediately result in a better user experience by design and implementation, while having a decent chance of working out just as well in the long run. He took it. Then he also took elaborate shots at Adobe for understandably moaning about it, scoring free publicity for a bet that was looking better by the day. His public framing of the issue may or may not have contributed to the outcome of this clash but didn’t hurt it, either.
For all the controversy that first surrounded “Thoughts on Flash”, this may have been one of Jobs’s easiest decisions ever. Flash may have been trash on iOS and in general, but if there was no goodwill from Adobe regarding support and the alternative was cheaper, why not continue riding the innovation hype elevator and see which floor you land next? If it’s higher, great. If it isn’t – reconsider.
This line of thinking served Jobs rather throughout the decades and helped shape Apple’s consumer-first vision with pronounced vertical ambitions even while the company was stumbling like a drunk Tesla shareholder. It’s why the firm is nowadays once again making its own chips and despite several wrong bets in the space – it seems it finally got it right with the 64-bit Bionic-series silicon.
That’s the essence of his “Thoughts on Flash”. For wider context, consider the decade preceding and following this episode:
The Steve Jobs effect
What the Steve Jobs effect accomplished over a 14-year period ending in 2011 was concentrating unprecedentedly vast resources on a comparatively small number of products. It was this approach that yielded all of Apple’s biggest hits with relatively little costly misses during Jobs’s CEO run. It was also what allowed Apple to execute a marketing strategy that gets customers emotionally invested with what it’s selling – that would not have been possible had the original iPhone lineup consisted of three distinct models in just as many configurations each, for example.
While he wasn’t in charge of the whole company in his first stint, Jobs’s departure eventually made Apple devolve into a player selling a dozen Mac models every year, on top of failed solo bets on both hardware (Newton) and software (eWorld), all the while trying to become a chipmaker (PowerPC) with Motorola and IBM, and selling printers (StyleWriter) in collaboration with HP.
The Tim Cook effect
Today, ten years following Tim Cook’s appointment as CEO, Apple is selling computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, headphones, earbuds, set-top boxes, and voice-activated speakers. It’s also investing in AR, VR, self-driving cars, maintaining two OSs (three, if you count watchOS), running a suite of creative apps, designing chips, and getting involved in a whole of a lot more.
Granted, it’s in the process of joining the mobile and desktop platforms and the only truly new product category it launched since Jobs resigned – the Apple Watch – is a leader in a market that is slow to grow but has barely existed beforehand. Shares have been hitting record highs for years now, as well.
Yet the only thing all of those positive indicators prove together is that Tim Cook is a way better tech CEO than the likes of John Sculley and Michael Spindler. They are in no way proof that Apple isn’t going through the same motions it did during its first Jobs-less era, just slower.
After all, it’s becoming more content with late entries to emerging markets (HomePod) while announcing stock buyback programs on an annual basis – on top of paying a dividend – which is getting ridiculous to the point that I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple was single-handedly responsible for the below-average inflation rate in the second half of Trump’s dumpster fire of a presidency (aka the half his policies may have affected).
All of these overly simplistic recaps of radically different periods in Apple’s history were only meant to provide context for fully enjoying “Thoughts on Flash”, a highly emotional, intrinsically informative, and utterly entertaining chapter of that same saga.
Life changes in a flash, economist’s forecast in 0.976 flashes
Once again: this is all merely food for thought and I’m in no way claiming Apple’s future is anything but secure. The history of its own earnings forecasts – let alone those from third parties – looks like an EKG chart of a chronic cardiac arrhythmia patient during a 96-hour Adderall binge.
Because the only way to make an economist volunteer a visualized overview of their past market predictions is to find one that’s clinically insane. Failing that, you’d need one who believes you have the credentials to repeat that last sentence under oath, but I’m not impersonating an officer of the court just so that this rant can get even longer.
Predicting the future gets way harder when it has to cover a period longer than the average time between Flash updates. For example, basically every existing indicator of Apple’s growing complacency and crippling fear of failure can also be interpreted as an encouraging sign of maturity signaling a prolonged period of blissfully unexciting 401(k) valuations and boomers posting #stonks memes on whatever platform their debt-laden kids were using ten years prior.
Is Apple’s current situation, therefore, evidence it learned its hardest lessons just in time for Jobs to save it so that it doesn’t actually need saving once he’s gone? Is it the opposite? No and no, but it’s the next best thing after the former, and Cook is totally comfortable with the idea of waiting for that next big thing to just… happen. If anyone can afford it, that would be the world’s first public company to hit a trillion-dollar valuation – eight years following an event some feared was the beginning of its end, mind you.