Why the UK was Wrong to Ban the iPhone "Just the Internet" Ad!

Casey already told us about how an iPhone ad was banned in the UK for "misleading consumers" about providing "just the internet", and based on how many ZOMG! No Flash Vidz! comments we get, I'm going to go out on a limb and say most people probably share the belief that MobileSafari - ( Flash + Java) != the internet.


But allow me to retort. As a long time web (and Flash) developer, however, I'm calling shenanigans on that, and on the UK Advertising Standards Authority. Flash and Java are factually and empirically NOT part of the open, standards based Internet (i.e. HTML, CSS, Javascript/AJAX). Flash and Java, along with things like SilverLight, Real, ActiveX, and a host of other proprietary add-ons are plugins, extensions, and otherwise additions to the Internet -- with all the benefits and drawbacks that go along with that.

Like what? Read on after the break!

Okay, so Flash, Java, et. al. allow for some neat multi-media effects and interactivity (though HTML 5 and CSS are catching up), and some measure of portability (though never as much as they claim), but they bring in additional security and cross-platform problems as well.

The web is supposed to be a structured container (CSS) through which content flows (HTML), which is why MobileSafari can subtly reformat font sizes, line wraps, and other elements to suit the smaller screen and multi-touch interface. As an open standard, Apple can also integrate their own containers and attributes to, for example, define the screen size for rendering.

Flash? Kinda sorta sometimes if the developer puts the effort in. Being proprietary (even "open" proprietary), however, Apple can't exactly make changes to the source to, you know, make a version that's not as bloated and greedy as Adobe has long allowed the Mac OS X version of Flash to remain. To prove that point, Apple has significantly developed the plugin they do own, Quicktime, creating Quicktime X to better fit their mobile vision of the future.

All this to say that there are several very good reasons why the iPhone doesn't support Flash, Java, and the other plugins. They may be reasons that can eventually be overcome with newer/better technology, or reasons some people may even disagree with, but for the UK to randomly pick those two plugins as being "the internet" just because they happen to be ubiquitous (compared the aforementioned Silverlight, for example) is as capricious as it is wrong headed.

Apple, as they themselves rightly point out, is delivering the full standards-based Internet to the iPhone. Any site coded to conform to those standards will work just fine on the iPhone. Any site deviating, or depending on plugin extensions won't (as anyone whose ever tried to get a secure installation to "just add this Java widget" or "just download this ActiveX control" to enable some web conferencing or like utility will all too readily tell you).

Bottom-line, the UK is showing ignorance of the real web. Sure, I wants my vidz as much as the next Viddler, but I understand the issues behind these technologies, which is something the Advertising Standards Authority might want to do before banning commercials, right?

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Why the UK was Wrong to Ban the iPhone "Just the Internet" Ad!


I agree. If it's an add-on to the internet, you can't say the internet experience isn't "complete" without it. Btw, when I surf the web on my iPhone I have no complaints.

While I agree in principle with what you're saying, a de facto standard is still a de facto standard. Saying the internet to regular folks doesn't include flash multimedia means nothing.

Flash is an important piece of the internet but I totally agree, the iPhone didn't go with it probably due to working with simplest version first. How many times does Flash hog up memory anyways? I could only imagine how bad it could be on the iPhone.
Regardless, I think Apple should be thinking of this as a feature upgrade regardless. It wasn't in Version 1 or 2 and I get that but not putting it in Version 3,4,5 wouldn't be addressing the marketplace and holding high regard for the Flash Player.
Put yourselves in there shoes, they didn't get H264 support from Macromedia till Flash 9.

Complaints with the iPhone mobilesafari

  1. Crashes to home 65% of the time browsing
  2. Really slow/sluggish typing in fields.
  3. Distorted text size.

Sorry guys, but which one of you is a UK lawyer? It's all very well to theorise about whether Flash is part of the Internet, blah blah, but this is a simple legal issue. Why make a fuss anyway? It's just an ad. With a bit of smarts, Apple can totally turn this into a positive.

Something being wrongly interpreted by a UK court/agency doesn't make it right. That's why decisions get reversed and both precedents and laws get struck down.
Using this logic, IE 6 is the de facto Internet standard, then, which means the iPhone needs to enable Flash, Java, ActiveX, Silverlight, AND go back and gut their CSS engine to completely sod up the box model while removing proper support for PNG and any number of "standards based" containers and attributes.
Great job, that!
Only if you go to retarded-ly over bloated websites (like a teenagers Facebook page). That should be discouraged, which makes MobileSafari's behavior pretty good. (And there's no such thing as distorted text fields in the accessible web standard...)

I actually posted on another blog a while ago, that Apple won't be able to claim to give access to the whole web for very long without supporting Flash. I must have had a hazy idea that that was in fact a claim made at some point by Apple, or else it's a coincidence.
In defense of the UK decision, any public agency is meant to look after the public, many of whom don't know anything. So, while this or that might not be technically part of the basic internet, the public isn't expected or required to know that at all in making their decisions to spend money based on advertising. And in many ways, I concur that the sentiment expressed by indicating that the iPhone gives access to "the internet" (understood in its totality as it would be potentially understood by the generic consumer, possibly with no college degree or high school diploma) is a misleading sentiment. As someone who frequents the big tech websites, I know how much Flash has replaced Youtube as the means for linking and posting videos, because of its enhanced feature set. It used to be Youtube 100% of the time; now it seems like it's Flash maybe 75% of the time.
If Apple had not made that claim, but said "the mobile internet" or something along those lines, or not even mentioned it as a selling point in the advertisement, they wouldn't be in this situation.
I'm not saying I'm a big fan of the UK government. But as long as the iPhone doesn't support some version of Flash, it does not access all of the things that people believe are part of the internet. All of the Myspace pages post audio and video content in a Flash player. None of that is accessible from the iPhone. People have come to expect that kind of thing, and if they are led to believe in an ad that they can access those services but they can't, they're going to complain. The UK is saying that because it is apparent that the ad is already misleading, and could serve as the basis for a justifiable complaint by a British consumer, it is appropriate to pull the ad as soon as possible.
Since when did any government use understanding of technology as the basis for decisions about technology, anyway?

Also, it might be worth checking to see how the UK government services websites, BBC, etc. are constructed. It may be, for instance, that BBC is obligated to post video and audio content available for the public, and has done so using certain advanced internet protocols. That will reveal the UK's bias in making determinations about what enables someone to claim that a device can access the internet or not. I mean, you can make an FTP terminal and say off hand that "accesses the internet" to transfer data, and everyone will know what you mean. But that doesn't mean you can say it on TV. Apparently.

Er.. YouTube pioneered Flash Video. Until the iPhone and Apple TV, YouTube was 100% Flash video, cr@ppy codecs and all. That there are now other Flash-based video services doesn't really mean too much in that regard.
Likewise, the bar has to stop being set so low people can stumble over it. If enough people (choose to) misunderstand something, it doesn't make it true. For example, jaywalkers can still get ticketed ;)
Besides, the UK is a particularly savvy market. I remember an award-winning campaign there: "People don't buy insurance, they buy white sofas"

Yes, didn't the BBC flash player use Microsoft DRM which made it incompatible with Mac OS X for a while? Does that mean the iPhone would need to support PlaysForSure (now PlaysNoMore, of course) to be "the internet"?
Slippery slope...

You guys are making too big a deal of this. Listen. In the U.S., what the government would do would be jack. Then someone would sue, and then there would be a class action law suit. And then some judge would say, Apple has to make the iPhone compliant with the claim to access "the internet" and/or pay up lots of money, most of which will go to lawyers. Even if the lawsuit failed, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars would go to some lawyers.
The UK is saying, just don't advterise the phone in that way, which is in fact misleading, and advertise it in another way such that you will not be liable for having mislead someone who doesn't know and doesn't care what a software developer or programmer thinks is "the internet," and who isn't required to know that to make a justifiable claim.
Which is the better way of handling the situation?

That is the single most awesome compound example of a question begging a Hobson's choice I've seen yet. +! :)
I choose neither. "You're complaining about this ad based on what again? Sorry, Flash and Java are extensions to the Internet, not "just the Internet". Move along..."
What's next, banning Tide because there's nothing whiter than white?
Don't let them act as if consumers are stupider than we are, lest we become so.

I don't understand your objection to my argument. People are gullible. That is in fact the entire basis of advertising. A person doesn't have to prove that they SHOULD OR SHOULD NOT HAVE BELIEVED that they could access their favorite artists on Myspace on the basis of the Apple ad. They just have to claim that they were MADE TO BELIEVE THAT by the ad, and to show that the ad did in fact present information in a way that contributed to their misunderstanding. This has nothing to do with real people and what is really the internet or not. It has to do with how the UK sets up its laws in distributing the responsibility for a misunderstanding in a dispute of this kind. In this case, the customer BEARS NO RESPONSIBILITY for the things you're talking about. It doesn't matter what you or I think about what a person SHOULD believe.
"Don't let them act as if..." What? They are a sovereign nation. They can act as if they want to. It's just obvious that this is an action that will potentially save Apple time, money, and court costs, at no loss whatsoever except to edit their existing ad in some minor way. If it is in fact true that Apple is opening themselves up to liability in the UK over making some unnecessary claim, then it is in Apple's benefit to know in advance that they are better off running a different ad. They're not shutting down Apple stores and confiscating iPhones for not accessing Myspace or anything.
This is my big question. What is the big deal here? If you like Apple, you should be glad they're not going to run afoul of the UK system over some stupid claim about what the iPhone can do. They could say it gets information from the internet, or it shows you information on the internet, and they would probably be fine. If you hate Apple, then you're probably not reading and posting on this blog. So, who the hell cares if the wording needs to be slightly different on an ad that they can change right now?

Haha, I like that Tide example! What about the Jolly Green Giant. That ad is misleading because there is no real giant. Are people really stupid enough to where they need everything spelled out for them by law? No. The ad did not specifically say they offer everything available on the Internet.

Yup, I pretty much fundamentally disagree with your argument, and I've already stated the reasons as to why, so no worries. Disagreement is how we learn.
It's is in Apple's benefit to stand up for their right to present factual information without censorship, and if we don't defend their right, who'll be around to defend our rights when we're the ones who get trampled?
Overly dramatic? Sadly, history has proven it not so. Erosion is a slow and dangerous process. Apple is correct here. The UK is wrong. Not stating that "because it's no big deal" is even more wrong.
I guess we have to agree to disagree.

Correct. Infantilize people and they will increasingly act like infants.
Did the UK ban Microsoft's "People ready business" because it's meaningless? Is ING's "Unmortgage" confusing because people could expect not to have to pay it back?
Bad enough Red Bull has to disclose it doesn't really give you cartoon wings...

I'm not trying to single you out in particular. I know that this story is all over the internets, and you're providing some commentary on this backdrop. And I can appreciate that you're an idealist in this matter. But, I can assure you that Apple will not act idealistically in this regard. Instead, they will act like any large U.S. corporation when it runs up against UK and EU laws: they'll cut their losses, comply with the decision, and sell a lot of iPhones. If you feel so strongly about it, Apple is the one that has to make the next move anyway. You can contact Apple and encourage them to fight the UK decision in UK court instead of changing two words in their ad if you think that's what Apple should do.

1) The internet != The World Wide Web. What about FTP/NTP/IM/POP/P2P/etc/etc? I have no idea whether the iphone supports these, but the advert seems to think so!
2) If an advert tells me that the iphone gives me "the internet on my phone", then I would expect to log onto the BBC website and watch the news bulletin. Especially when the ability to watch youtube vidoes has been advertised so much (what, you expect people to realise that youtube is a "special case" and all other web video will not work?)
It's a misleading advert.

The people who are targeted by the ad in question are not interested in what is technically classed as the internet. They want to browse their favorite sites without large parts of them missing. I'm still supprised how many people say to me "I'll buy one when they have added flash". I know Apple have sold lots of iPhones and iPod Touch but I think they would double that with Flash support. Murph

1) That's an excellent point, and if they'd found the add misleading for not including FTP or some other protocol beyond web and mail without specifying only web and mail, then personally I would have little to argue about. That they didn't cite FTP, etc., but chose Flash and Java, shows it was a wrong-headed decision. ("Oh, the public understands they can't IM, but sod it all, we wants our vidz!")
2) When the BBC uses Microsoft DRM that won't work on the Mac, does that mean the Mac can't say it supports the Web, or is it the Beeb that doesn't support it? Likewise, the iPhone will play any compatible Quicktime video as well as "YouTube". It's a question of format only, not whether or not it can play video (which is clearly can). Demanding support for other companies proprietary extensions is again a slippery slope.

The ASA are right.
Its a bit like selling you a a round the world plane ticket with the advert "Buy a ticket from our airline and visit the entire world" and then giving you a ticket that allowed you to fly around europe.
A ticket around europe is good... but it not an around the world ticket!
The Iphone Internet Experiance is good... but it's not the full Internet Experiance .

The ASA are not saying apple have to support flash. Their just saying, don't make it sound as if you do in your ads.

I totally agree. While popular and widely installed, Flash, Java, and Silverlight are like bloatware for the internet.

Not to beat a dead horse, but given how the iPhone replaces the input "internet" with "Internet," I'd say that Apple was kind of asking for it.

Just stumbled upon this entry. I agree, but the iPhone browser isn't interpreting the open-standards scripts correctly. So sites like www.paythegame.net which are "the Internet" because they use only CSS, HTML and JavaScript, don't work correctly.