Why Adobe and Apple are bypassing traditional media outlets to wage war in the blogosphere

When Steve Jobs responds to a random person’s email — an event occurring more frequently of late — the sender is usually shocked that such a tech titan has reached into his mailbag to pluck his message from the ether and deem it worthy of a reply. But Greg Slepak had elicited an email from Jobs a few years ago after contacting him with a software question, so the Apple CEO’s response last week didn’t come as much of a surprise. What did surprise Slepak was when Jobs replied to a follow-up email.

“Obviously he doesn’t usually reply twice,” he told me in a phone interview. “It might have just been the timing. My guess is that he has maybe an hour a day he spends trimming through his inbox, and you may have an hour and a half to catch him. I’m pretty sure if you get a response from Steve Jobs, you just got lucky.”

Slepak was respectful in his emails, but their subject was contentious. Apple had received ire recently for adding in wording to its iPad terms of service language that set what some considered draconian — and arbitrary — restrictions on app coding. Many read this as a direct attack on Adobe’s Flash, alienating any apps that were originally written for it. Slepak, a software developer who normally writes for Macs, called Apple out on this move in his emails. Jobs’ responses were defensive of the TOS and characteristically short. “We’ve been there before, and intermediate layers between the platform and the developer ultimately produces sub-standard apps and hinders the progress of the platform,” he wrote in his second email.

Slepak posted the back-and-forth email on his blog and received over 20,000 hits the first day. The second day, after it made it on every website ranging from Mashable to Digg, he received over 80,000. Jobs’ responses are notable for two things: First, they were sent to a random software blogger instead of a technology reporter at, say, the New York Times. Secondly, his first email directly references the writing of John Gruber, a popular Apple fanboy blogger. If there was any doubt that the Apple CEO is very much aware of what’s written about his products in nontraditional outlets, this incident dispelled it.

But Jobs was not the only player in this fight to inject his opinion into the blogosphere. Lee Brimelow, a “platform evangelist” for Adobe, fired his own shots in a blog post published Friday titled, “Apple Slaps Developers In The Face.” The post itself was so raw in its attacks that he subsequently had to redact sections of it and add additional disclaimers stating that these were his own opinions and not his employer’s. “Speaking purely for myself, I would look to make it clear what is going through my mind at the moment. Go screw yourself Apple,” he concluded.

Like Jobs, Brimelow didn’t bother with a traditional journalist but used his own blog as a communications platform. But why is this particular issue being hashed out in the blogosphere while the mainstream press lags so far behind?

“I think there are multiple reasons for that,” Slepak told me. “It sort of goes both ways, in that the mainstream media isn’t very much interested in this debate. It’s a fairly technical debate and most people just don’t know what the issues are; even if they’re told, they don’t care or understand what they are.”

By waging this battle, Slepak argued, Apple will harm companies other than Adobe. “[The TOS] do limit Adobe’s authority to make these applications, but they also cause huge collateral damage to a bunch of other companies, people who have been writing great software for the iPad.”

But even though Jobs decided to respond to an Apple fan, one who certainly knew the issues, Slepak said that the CEO’s response was no different than what would have been delivered to a traditional reporter from an Apple spokesman.

“His response, that this is somehow simply a strategy to ensure quality is simply not true. From my entire analysis, it’s sort of a PR statement. It’s a classic PR statement. And it’s going to get quoted by the mainstream media as, ‘oh he’s just doing this for pure quality on the iPad, and we know this because look how well the iPhone has done.’ And people will say, ‘let’s just trust Steve Jobs is always right.”

But given that Apple is currently faring badly in a Consumerist poll on the Worst Company in America, fans may not be buying his excuses. While the customer is not always right, neither, it seems, is Steve Jobs.