NY venture capitalist Fred Wilson notes eight advantages of using the iPhone’s Safari browser over iPhone apps to access content. Fred’s arguments seem pretty sound to me and help to illustrate the point I was trying to make a few months ago in a heated exchange over Adam’s post on Apple’s App Store, Porn & “Censorship”: Although Apple restricts pornographic apps, it does not restrict what iPhone (or iPad or iTouch) users can access on their browsers. (And it’s not censorship, anyway, because that’s what governments do!)
As I noted in that exchange, the main practical advantage of apps right now over the browser seems to be the ability to play videos from websites that require Flash—which is especially useful for porn! Apple has rejected using Flash on the iPhone on technical grounds, in favor of HTML5, which will allow websites to display video without Flash—including on mobile devices. But once HTML5 is implemented (large scale adoption expected in 2012), this primary advantage of apps over mobile Safari will disappear: Users will be able to view porn on their browsers without needing to rely on apps—and Apple’s control over apps based on their content will no longer matter so much, if at all.
Of course, it may take several more years for HTML5 to really become the standard, but what matters is that all Apple products, including mobile Safari, already support HTML5. So it’s just a question of when porn sites move from Flash to HTML5. That seems already to be happening, with major porn publishers already starting the transition. The main stumbling block seems to be HTML5 support from the other browser makers. But Internet Explorer 9 supports HTML5, and is expected out early in 2011 with a beta version due out this August. Mozilla’s Firefox 4.0 (formerly 3.7) also promises HTML5 support and is due out this November. Since porn publishers have always been on the cutting edge of implementing new web technologies, I’d bet we’ll start seeing many porn sites move to HTML5 by this Christmas. And by Christmas 2011, as we all sit around the fire with Grandma sipping eggnog and enjoying our favorite adult websites on our overpriced-but-elegant Apple products loading in HTML5 in the Safari browser, we’ll all look back and wonder why anyone made such a big deal about Apple restricting porn apps.
Oh, and if you get tired of waiting, get an Android phone! Anyway, here are my comments on Adam’s February post:
I do understand why, as a practical matter, it’s a real inconvenience for a porn-lover not to be able to get a porn app on the iPhone. I think we can have a legitimate debate about what Apple needs to do to make this limitation transparent to its customers. But, as I noted above, users now have lots of choices for other platforms that either allow apps stores with porn (e.g., Google’s Android) or simply those that support Mobile Flash. Again, the practical importance of the apps store from a user interface perspective will diminish significantly when mobile Flash comes out this year for the various mobile OSes (except Apple, sadly) because users will be able to watch porn video through their mobile browser without needing a porn-specific app. (Of course, it’s still possible that an app might handle scrolling through photos better.)
Now, as a practical matter, it’s not easy to view porn on mobile browsers, especially since they don’t currently support Flash, so video playing is limited to videos you either (i) download or (ii) stream from the web in a special app, such as for YouTube. Since Flash is used by the vast majority of video streaming sites, including for porn, this means that the abundance of online porn isn’t particularly accessible on a mobile phone. Scrolling through images, pornographic or otherwise, isn’t terribly easy either, especially since even fast data networks suffer from much greater latency than fixed broadband services. But Adobe recently announced that Flash 10.1 would be coming to Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile 7, Nokia S60/Symbian and Palm WebOS. While it appears that Microsoft won’t be rolling out Flash for Windows Mobile 7 anytime soon, it does appear to be planning to do so at some point in the near future, and Google is already hard at work on rolling out Flash for Android sometime soon. Once these platforms roll out Flash, the Apps stores will no longer have any meaningful “gatekeeper” control over easily accessing video content, since users will be able to view or stream whatever they like in the browser. But today, the historical moment when restrictions on Apple’s app store had anything like the censorious effect claimed by Apple’s critics has passed (even assuming one believed “private censorhip” isn’t a contradiction in terms). Specifically, I’d say it passed sometime in the last year, when Android became a more viable option and, even more specifically, on this issue of mobile access to porn, on November 30, 2009, when MiKandi launched. Sure, it’s true, that Android users can’t access all their favorite porn sites, and MiKandi app offerings are limited, but more are coming—so to speak! And when Android phone gets Flash this year, this important distinction between mobile Internet browsing and desktop Internet browsing will largely disappear. (I only hope the wireless data networks are prepares for the upsurge in video streaming on their networks that will, to be sure, be driven largely by mobile-browsing porn sites.) So… who really cares what Apple does with their app store? Yes, I understand some app users with long-term contracts may be itching for porn right now, and don’t to pay an early termination fee to jump to Android but, well, too damn bad! You may have a right to access porn if you want to, but that certainly doesn’t give you a right to force Apple to offer it to you in the most convenient way possible. Finally, it’s worth noting here that Apple has not removed sexually-oriented social networking apps, such asGrindr, a mobile gay-cruising app from the iPhone store. I’d be a little more concerned about Apple removing such apps, whose functionality is harder to replicate from the browser, than simply removing apps for viewing pornography.