Pot, meet kettle: a response to Steve Jobs' letter on Flash
Steve Jobs's "Thoughts on Flash" is the latest volley in this bout between pot and kettle, and while it makes many dead-on criticisms of Adobe and Flash, it does not change the fundamental character of this disagreement, nor does it solve any concerns about Apple's broader intentions.
What's strangely absent from "Thoughts on Flash" is any explanation for why proprietary technology on the web is bad, or why free standards are good. Noting this omission helps us understand why, though we agree with his assessment of the problems with Flash and the importance of free web standards, Jobs is led to a solution that is bizarre and unacceptable.
If he had said anything about why user freedom on the web is important, his hypocrisy would have been explicit. In a nutshell, he says, "Don't use Adobe's proprietary platform to engage information on the web. Use Apple's." He doesn't want users to freely wander and creatively explore the web or their own computers; he wants them to move from the fenced-off "Freedom Zone" based in San Jose to the one based in Cupertino.
Freedom on the web has multiple elements. Free standards like HTML5, which govern web publishing, are critical and have amazing potential, but they are only one element. Standards are not enough on their own, because there is another layer between them and the computer user -- the software used to interact with the web, and the operating system surrounding it. Freedom in terms of web publishing does no good if the software with which you access the web filters it before it ever gets to you, or restricts you in other ways in order to grant access to the web. Proprietary software can be compatible with free standards while simultaneously undercutting the values those free standards seek to achieve. Such "freedom" will always be contingent. In order to have an actual, irrevocably free web, both the web publishing standards and the software which accesses them will need to be free.
Although Jobs talks part of the talk when he says, "we strongly believe that all standards pertaining to the web should be open," his walk goes the opposite direction, advocating both a proprietary video format, H.264, and proprietary software for engaging it -- iPhone OS.
The definition of proprietary software is software which restricts users' freedoms to view its source code, run it for any purpose, share it, or modify it. Jobs himself defines proprietary software when he says:
Adobe's Flash products are 100% proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc. While Adobe’s Flash products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Adobe and available only from Adobe. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system.
The dreaded fine-print EULA is a primary tool software companies use to implement such restrictions. Looking at the EULAs for Apple and Adobe, we can see that they look pretty much the same, and that "iPhone OS" and "Apple" could be substituted for "Adobe" and "Flash" in Jobs's own quote. His implicit admission of this, that "Apple has many proprietary products too," is a comical understatement.
Adobe's license says:
You may install and use one copy of the Software on your compatible Computer.
This license does not grant you the right to sublicense or distribute the Software.
You may not modify, adapt, translate or create derivative works based upon the Software. You will not reverse engineer, decompile, disassemble or otherwise attempt to discover the source code of the Software except to the extent you may be expressly permitted to reverse engineer or decompile under applicable law.
Apple's own terms of service document covering all applications downloaded from the App Store, says (in Section 10b):
(ii) You shall be authorized to use the Products only for personal, noncommercial use.
(iii) You shall be authorized to use the Products on five Apple-authorized devices at any time, except in the case of Movie Rentals, as described below.
Part of the reason why Flash and iPhone OS are proprietary is that Adobe and Apple agreed to the terms of the H.264 patent license. H.264, despite Jobs's claim, is not a free standard -- patents necessary to implement it are held by a group who requires all users to agree to a license with restrictive terms. Those terms have previously even been unavailable for examination online. We are publishing them on fsf.org today in order to comment on their unethical restrictions. The fact that H.264 is a commonly used standard does not make it a free standard -- the terms of its use are what matter, and they require all licensed software to include the following notice:
THIS PRODUCT IS LICENSED UNDER THE AVC PATENT PORTFOLIO LICENSE FOR THE PERSONAL AND NON-COMMERCIAL USE OF A CONSUMER TO (I) ENCODE VIDEO IN COMPLIANCE WITH THE AVC STANDARD ("AVC VIDEO") AND/OR (II) DECODE AVC VIDEO THAT WAS ENCODED BY A CONSUMER ENGAGED IN A PERSONAL AND NON-COMMERCIAL ACTIVITY AND/OR WAS OBTAINED FROM A VIDEO PROVIDER LICENSED TO PROVIDE AVC VIDEO. NO LICENSE IS GRANTED OR SHALL BE IMPLIED FOR ANY OTHER USE. ADDITIONAL INFORMATION MAY BE OBTAINED FROM MPEG LA, L.L.C. SEE HTTP://WWW.MPEGLA.COM
Any web that can be engaged only after agreeing to such terms, whether for software or a standard, is not "free" or "open". It is gated, and its use restricted. Jobs himself explains the problems with giving up the freedom to use your computer and its software to another, when he says, "[Apple] cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers."
We agree with that statement, and it's exactly why users should not place themselves at the mercy of Apple or H.264 either. If you buy an iPhone OS computer, there is no recourse if Apple makes a decision you do not like. You'll wait on Apple to approve or not approve the application with features you want to use, you'll never be assured that Apple won't remove the application once it's accepted, and you'll wait on Apple to implement any bug fixes or new features, or to take care of your security -- even though it's ostensibly your platform, your computer, and part of your life.
A free web needs free software. You cannot have a free web if your access to the software you use to engage the web is limited to an arbitrary number of computers, or if you are not allowed to conduct business on the web using the software, or if you are forbidden from asking someone to develop additional features you need.
Jobs has hit the nail on the head when describing the problems with Adobe, but not until after smashing his own thumb. Every criticism he makes of Adobe's proprietary approach applies equally to Apple, and every benefit attributed to the App Store can be had without it being a mandatory proprietary arrangement. Apple can offer quality control and editorial selection over available free software, and encourage users to exclusively -- but voluntarily -- use their store. Instead, Apple chooses to enforce legal restrictions, the transgression of which is punishable by criminal law, on users who want to make changes to their own computers, like installing free, non-Apple, software.
Fortunately, the way out of the Adobe vs. Apple cage match is straightforward, and exists already: free software operating systems like GNU/Linux with free software web browsers, supporting free media formats like Ogg Theora. To make things even better, we can continue urging Google to release their new media format, VP8, under a free license as well.
The language of the GNU General Public License, used by thousands of GNU/Linux developers worldwide as the terms for distributing their software, stands in stark contrast to the proprietary EULAs cited above, and provides a useful tool for building and sharing software to actually engage the free web:
The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed to take away your freedom to share and change the works. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change all versions of a program--to make sure it remains free software for all its users.
When Jobs defensively points to Apple's involvement in WebKit, he inadvertently makes the case for the superiority of free software over his own proprietary App Store approach. WebKit is indeed free software, and Apple did help make it happen. But the success of WebKit is neither Apple's success alone (in fact some of its advances have been achieved in spite of some uncooperative behavior by Apple) nor is it a result of their proprietary approach. They are one contributor among others, and those others are able to contribute because the software is freely licensed. WebKit users are not at the mercy of Apple -- the source code is available and can be legally modified, so anyone is entitled to make and distribute new features or fixes. WebKit is an example of what the free web can actually be. But, sadly, Jobs can't stand to let it be that -- while the core of Safari is WebKit, it is engulfed in other proprietary code, giving Apple leverage we should reject.
So, the correct decision in the dispute between Apple and Adobe is "none of the above." The past we need to leave behind is not just Flash, it's Apple's proprietary software as well. There is plenty of room for them to join us along with everyone else in the free world -- but they must stop pretending that their little cages are the free world.
- HTML5 video and H.264 -- what history tells us and why we’re standing with the web
- Well, I'm Back: Video, Freedom, and Mozilla
- FSF's iPhone campaign
- 5 Reasons to avoid iPhone 3G
- Why free software and Apple's iPhone don't mix
- Apple says you can't have freedom because you might be clumsy, evil, and a drug dealer
Copyright © 2010 Free Software Foundation
This article was originally published on ArsTechnica: http://arstechnica.com/apple/2010/04/pot-meet-kettle-a-response-to-steve-jobs-letter-on-flash/
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