Apple/Adobe Kerfuffle Goes Federal; FTC To Investigate iPhad Development Clauses

A few weeks after Apple announced its revised programming rules for iPhad devices, Adobe dropped the bombshell that it was abandoning Apple's platform. Up until late April, Adobe had tirelessly pledged Flash support for the iPhone, but certain changes to the developer license made it too risky for the company to continue development. Apple and Adobe have publicly sparred in the last week and the Flash developer may have deliberately upped the ante. Sources at the FTC revealed today that the regulatory agency is preparing to investigate Apple's developer license to see if it unfairly restricts competition—purportedly at Adobe's request.

The troublesome section of Apple's developer license is 3.3.1, which states:
Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs. Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited.
The limitations above add up to a big, blinking "NO FLASH" sign on the side of the digital highway. Flash isn't the only API effected by the new rules, other developers, like Unity 3D, were also impacted—but Adobe was obviously Apple's target when Cupertino revised its terms and conditions. Jobs recently defended the company's "No Flash" position in a lengthy rant on Apple's site; his sixth reason for avoiding the standard is pertinent to our discussion.

"We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform," Jobs wrote. "We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers."

He continues:

"This becomes even worse if the third party is supplying a cross platform development tool. The third party may not adopt enhancements from one platform unless they are available on all of their supported platforms. Hence developers only have access to the lowest common denominator set of features...we cannot accept an outcome where developers are blocked from using our innovations and enhancements because they are not available on our competitor’s platforms."

There are two ways to read this excerpt. From Apple's point of view, Jobs is saying that the company can't afford to be chained to a cross-platform framework that could prevent Apple from designing products that deliver an optimal user experience. To an outsider, however, Jobs' position sounds awful anticompetitive. Even if we grant Jobs' point regarding multiplatform development tools—specifically, that they cater to the least common denominator—Apple is scarcely reliant on third parties to provide software for the App Store.

If the FTC deems to investigate this issue, Jobs' sixth point will make a lousy legal defense. It relies on certain assumptions regarding Flash and the behavior of Adobe (or any third-party API developer) without proof that such problems have ever existed. Apple isn't blocking Flash because Adobe has hindered iPhone development, they're blocking it because Adobe could. If an antitrust violation has occurred (and that's a huge if), the argument won't fly.