Apple Gives Adobe The Finger With Its New iPhone SDK Agreement

Earlier today, Apple held its iPhone 4.0 event, where it showcased some of the new features the latest release of the mobile OS will offer. Just after that ended, Apple released a new beta SDK to developers, complete with a new developer license agreement. And nestled in that agreement is a passage that may have major implications for developers, and disastrous consequences for Adobe’s latest release of Flash: Apple has banned “applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer”.

So what does that mean? Apple may have just made the flagship feature of Adobe Flash CS5, which allows developers to port Flash applications to the iPhone, totally useless. John Gruber of Daring Fireball was the first to point out the change in the License Agreement. Here’s the relevant text:

3.3.1 — 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 ban appears to directly apply to the new Flash feature, but Adobe said it was still “looking into” the change when we asked them about it. Here’s the brief statement they sent us:

“We are aware of the new SDK language and are looking into it. We continue to develop our Packager for iPhone OS technology, which we plan to debut in Flash CS5.”

Should this affect Adobe, as Gruber believes it does, it would be a huge loss for the software maker — Adobe CS5 is due to launch in less than four days. It’s also an especially vicious move on Apple’s part, because it seems quite clear that Adobe didn’t know this was coming (they’ve spent many months marketing the upcoming feature, and it obviously took plentiful developer resources to build it). Adobe and Apple have been waging a vocal battle over the last few months, with tensions mounting as Apple announced that the iPad would not offer Flash support. The fact that Google and Adobe are now working tightly to improve Flash integration in Google Chrome probably doesn’t help.

There is still quite a bit of ambiguity as to who this might impact. One increasingly prominent tool that could be affected is Sequoia-backed Unity Technologies, which offers a platform for quickly designing three dimensional applications. In the original version of his post Gruber theorized that Unity may be affected, but he’s now less sure. Reached for comment, Unity gave us this statement:

“We have no indication from Apple that things are going to change. We have a great relationship with Apple and will do everything we can to comply with Apple’s TOS (also, these are ‘beta TOS’, and these easily get changed) so that we can provide uninterrupted service to our more than 120K users.”

In other words, nobody seems entirely sure what this means quite yet. But the backlash has certainly started. Many developers have taken to forums like Hacker News to voice their opinions, with the most up-voted comment stating “What a horseshit maneuver by Apple.” Some have taken to Twitter to denounce the move, with prominent developer Joe Hewitt (who was responsible for Facebook’s iPhone application for years) tweeting “So much for programming language innovation on the iPhone platform”.

If it wasn’t abundantly clear before, it certainly is now: Apple is playing dirty. It doesn’t care what the developer community thinks. It has the users, it has the media’s undying love, and it has an incredibly impressive line of products. If a developer decides to quit the iPhone over this move, that just means less competition for the rest of the developers looking to capitalize on the flourishing platform. The media may pick up on the story briefly, but most people don’t care, so it’ll move on. And the iPhone will keep selling like hotcakes.