Adobe’s Messed Up Metaphors

I ran across this article on TechCrunch by M.G. Seigler regarding a recent statement made by Adobe’s CTO Kevin Lynch. Regarding, what else, the iPhone and Apple’s refusal to allow applications built using Flash on the platform. Kevin’s full remarks are available here, but here is the part that M.G. focuses on, and that I want to address:

But look at the iPhone helicopter we just saw—why should I only be able to use an iPhone for that? Why can’t you do that with any phone? If you look at what’s going on now, it’s like railroads in the 1800’s. People were using different gauged rails. Your cars would literally not run on those rails. That’s counter to the web. The “rails” now are companies forcing people to write for a particular OS, which has a high cost to switch

M.G. does an adequate job of demonstrating why Lynch is wrong by delving into the history of the U.S. railroad system and by looking at the Japanese model, but he makes the mistake of accepting the metaphor in the first place.

Lynch is crafting a metaphor where the development environment used to produce smart-phone applications is equivalent to the gauge of the rail that trains run on. This metaphor is utterly wrong. If we are going to compare the smart-phone market to the railway system, then the equivalent of the rail gauge would be the infrastructure that the phones operate on. It just so happens that that infrastructure is standardized. It’s the cellular networks that the phones operate on (sort of, ignore CDMA vs. GSM for the moment) and the Internet that data is delivered to the phones over.

Again, keeping to Lynch’s metaphor, the equivalent of the framework used to develop applications for the phones would be something like the manufacturer of the seats in the rail cars. Apple would rather that it’s rail cars be appointed in fine custom seating, instead of cheap self-assembled Ikea chairs. As an iPhone user, I prefer the former.

The real issue here, though, isn’t the specifics of Lynch’s argument. It’s the fact that Adobe constantly makes these sorts of metaphorical mistakes. The sad thing is that they ultimately do nothing but weaken their argument. Steve Jobs himself stated exactly what Adobe needs to do to “win” in his letter about Flash: demonstrate Flash running excellently on an actual shipping product. It won’t change Apple’s mind, but then at least the market can intelligently decide.