We know that Apple's CEO is no fan of Flash, the Web animation software. But it sounds like Steve Jobs really unleashed on the Adobe system to try and convince the Wall Street Journal to ditch it for the iPad.
Welcome to the nasty side of Jobs's famous Reality Distortion Field. The fun side had its turn when Jobs unveiled the iPad tablet computer in San Francisco last month. The dark side came several days later, when Jobs sat down with select Journal staff on the third floor of the News Corporation building in New York as part of a broader media tour.
Like other newspapers, the Journal is heavily invested in Flash as a way to deploy not only video but also slide shows and other interactive infographics and news applications. So when Jobs showed off his iPad, editors were sure to ask him about the device's lack of Flash, at least when they weren't pissing him off by posting to Twitter from the device.
Jobs was brazen in his dismissal of Flash, people familiar with the meeting tell us. He repeated what he said at an Apple Town Hall recently, that Flash crashes Macs and is buggy.
But he also called Flash a "CPU hog," a source of "security holes" and, in perhaps the most grievous insult a famous innovator can utter, a dying technology. Jobs said of Flash, "We don't spend a lot of energy on old technology." He then compared Flash to other obsolete systems Apple got people to ditch....
- ... like the floppy drive, famously absent in iMac,
- .... old data ports, including even Apple's own FireWire 400, gone from iPods and now all Macbooks,
- ....CCFL backlit LCD screens, now entirely replaced in Apple's lineup by LED-powered screens (except for this). (Correction: We originally said Apple replaced LCDs with LEDs; LEDs are a type of LCD backlighting.)
- ...and even the CD, with Jobs apparently crediting Apple's iPod, iTunes Store, CD-ripping software and "Rip, Mix, Burn" campaign with doing in the old music medium (sort of: though CD sales are in free fall, around 300 million were sold last year in the U.S. alone, 80 percent of all albums).
No doubt, Flash is a known CPU hog and security problem on Macs, a major source of system headaches that, infuriatingly for Apple, it can't control. Even factoring in the fact that Flash can't leverage graphics processors built into many Apple devices, it's a pig.
But let's compare apples to appples. At the Journal, Jobs claimed the iPad's battery performance would be degraded from 10 hours to 1.5 hours if it had to spend its CPU cycles decoding Flash, we're told. That sounds like an unfair comparison; the iPad would unlikely achieve its advertised 10 hours of maximum battery life while continuously playing video of any sort, iPad optimized or not.
But Jobs offered more than a thorough evisceration of Flash; he also used his Reality Distortion Field to sell the Journal on alternatives to the technology.
Ditching Flash would be "trivial," he suggested.
For one, he suggested the newspaper use the H.264 video compression system ("codec" in geek), which is compatible with both the iPad and the Flash Player installed on most Web browsers.
Jobs reportedly said the Journal would find "It's trivial to create video in H.264" instead of Flash. Depending on how the Journal handled the video conversion, that could be true, and for the moment H. 264 is a cheap and effective way to distribute Web video. But we assume Jobs didn't mention that H. 264 is patented, privately licensed and could get expensive fast.
Even setting that aside, H. 264 does not fully replace Flash. While it can handle video, it does not comprise a system for the rapid development of interactive graphics, as Flash does. Yet Jobs also reportedly said Flash would be "trivial" in this sense, as well — that it would be "trivial" to make an entire copy of the Journal website with the non-video Flash content also redone.
It's not clear to us how assembled Journal honchos collectively reacted to these statements, but its worth noting that shortly after the meeting, on Feb. 10, editorial board member Holman Jenkins issued a WSJ op-ed comparing Apple to Microsoft and saying the company "is in danger of becoming preoccupied with zero-sum maneuvering versus hated rivals." His primary and lead example of this sort of "maneuvering" was Jobs' decision to keep Flash off the iPad.
Jobs' Reality Distortion Field may need a bit of fine tuning, then. But we have a feeling the Journal will swallow its objections and hop on the iPad gravy train. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has had its impressive moments of influence in the history of American conservatism, but these days that's little match for the power of Steve Jobs when he puts on a black turtleneck and strides onto a stage.
(Power aside, if you've got any informed opinions on how difficult it would be to replace Flash in the editorial workflow of a large newspaper or magazine, we'd love to hear them.)
(Update: Added some context on Flash's objectively sucky performance.)
(Top pic: Jobs speaking at Yerba Buna Center in San Francisco, Jan. 27. Getty Images.)