A great deal has already been said about Section 3.3.1 of the latest iPhone SDK Terms and Conditions, and the apparent standoff between Apple and Adobe over the Flash platform. Adobe has launched an aggressive PR campaign last week in support of their position. Both companies continue to argue over who is more “open.”

Michel Fortin recently proposed open sourcing any tools or runtimes on the unfavorable side of 3.3.1, as a means of reducing the “threat” of external control. John Gruber correctly points out that corporate ownership is irrelevant to the issue. In many ways, open sourcing these intermediary libraries would be worse: with Flash, Apple at least knows who to call when the roof collapses.

A much more interesting question is: why does Apple continue to promote HTML5? Doesn’t an open standard with a glacial committee process produce the same problems? Won’t web apps take Apple’s control away?

First, it’s important to restate what’s been said in a few places: this whole saga is much more about Apple’s ability to control its own destiny than it is about revenge, cynicism, or pride. Apple nearly died in the 1990s. It was so far gone that it took money from Microsoft and had to pray that second-class ports of Internet Explorer would keep the Mac relevant in an increasingly online world.

Apple is not going to let anything like that happen again. The iPad launch clearly demonstrated that iPhone OS is the future of the business. The software that runs on it is a huge piece of that future, and right now that software is powered by Cocoa Touch. If the Cocoa Touch app empire crumbles before a next-generation replacement is ready, the next best thing is an open standard. The alternative is that someone else’s proprietary technology wins—either on Apple’s platform, or worse, on another hardware platform entirely. An open web is a safe, neutral fallback.

Yes, HTML5 is an open standard. Yes, the W3C process can be frustrating. But Apple is a W3C member, and more importantly, it has a product in Safari / WebKit that not only tracks the standard, but drives it. WebKit has been a leader in modern web technology adoption for years. Apple happily gives its improvements back to the public WebKit branch, because leading is the next best thing after owning.

The problem, of course, is that the web is only a standard on paper. Thanks to quirks and implementation details, every web browser is a platform of its own. This introduces the same exposure as any other external runtime. Apple, then, is doing everything it can to limit the list of Cocoa Touch replacements to:

  1. A newer native Apple framework
  2. Safari

That’s right: Safari. Not HTML5. Not even WebKit. Safari. The latest 3.3.1 fallout has provided additional insight to the third party browser issue: if the web does supplant the dominance of native apps, and the most popular browser on iPhone OS comes from a third party, then Apple has completely lost its independence once again.

Apple spent nearly a decade trying to unshackle the Mac from Internet Explorer. It will not hand over iPhone OS so easily.