Fragmentation and the RIA wars: Flash is the least bad solution

The latest salvo in the Adobe Flash wars comes from the Free Software Foundation, in an open letter to Google:

Just think what you can achieve by releasing the VP8 codec under an irrevocable royalty-free license and pushing it out to users on YouTube? You can end the web’s dependence on patent-encumbered video formats and proprietary software (Flash) … Apple has had the mettle to ditch Flash on the iPhone and the iPad – albeit for suspect reasons and using abhorrent methods (DRM) – and this has pushed web developers to make Flash-free alternatives of their pages. You could do the same with YouTube, for better reasons, and it would be a death-blow to Flash’s dominance in web video.

Fair point; but one thing the FSF misses is that Apple’s stance has not only “pushed web developers to make Flash-free alternatives of their pages”. It has also pushed developers into making Apple-specific apps as an alternative to web pages – which to my mind is unfortunate.

The problem goes beyond web pages. If you have an application that goes beyond HTML and JavaScript, maybe for offline use or to integrate with other local applications or hardware, there is no cross-platform solution for the iPhone, iTouch or forthcoming iPad.

While I understand that non-proprietary platforms are preferable to proprietary platforms, it seems to me that a free cross-platform runtime is less evil than a vendor-controlled platform where I have to seek approval and share income with the vendor just to get my app installed.

More broadly, it is obvious that the days of Windows on the desktop, Web for everything else are over. We are seeing a proliferation of devices, each with their own SDK: alongside Apple there is Palm WebOS, Nokia/Intel Meego, Google Android, and when Windows Phone 7 comes along, Microsoft Silverlight.

The question: if you have an application and want to reach all these platforms, what do you do? A web app if possible; but otherwise?

It is the new fragmentation; and frankly, Adobe Flash is the closest thing we have to a solution, particularly with the native compilation option for iPhone that is coming in Creative Suite 5.

I don’t like the idea of a single company owning the runtime that unifies all these platforms. That’s not healthy. Still, at least Adobe is currently independent of the obvious industry giants: Google, Apple, Microsoft, IBM and so on.

Dealing a death-blow to Flash is all very well, but the end result could be something worse.

9 thoughts on “Fragmentation and the RIA wars: Flash is the least bad solution”

  1. Could not agree more. According to the FSF, proprietary is automatically evil, and open automatically good… Sounds very narrow minded to me.

    And what exactly does the user gain from all this? Does web video really need ‘fixing’? What’s not working for whom right now, outside Apple’s walled garden?

    Lastly, even an open-sourcing of VP8 would not be the solution. The moment that would happen, the patent trolls would be all over it. To suggest otherwise is totally naive. There is a reason why we’ve not yet seen a decent, open video codec (and no, Theora does not count as decent, and has similar patent-swords hanging over its head which is also one of the reasons Apple has rejected it and is supporting H.264 instead).

  2. A lot of people seem to forget that video isn’t the only thing that Flash does… My colleague Ted Patrick sums it up nicely in his recent blog post ( “In creative hands Flash can be used to build advertising, documents, video experiences, games, applications, art, music, graphs & charts, meetings, graphics, 3d content, and much much much much more. Flash was a success long before video arrived on the web and given open ended capability of the medium it will be around for a very very long time.”

  3. I couldn’t agree more as well. The situation in which developers need to convert their web apps for the iDevice, is absurd. Majority of those apps are just dupes of the web platform. Tools exist for the iPhone app dev that take the same web technology into iPhone apps. And by doing so each and every developer is being billed for the conversion at the rate of $99.

    I think it is actually something that European Commission should investigate other than greet the use of open standards. Guys behind Free Software Foundation should really rethink it. Just because Apple failed to build their own browser engine and switched for the most convenient LGPL (note the Lesser prefix there) WebKit engine, doesn’t really show their love for the open standards. These are just circumstances. Stop being so naive guys.

  4. In future if something replaces Flash (which I do not believe in to happen), all these people who want to kill Flash will feel the same thing for that platform too, unless they are not the master of that platform. Here is a blog post by me which I have posted a couple of weeks ago.

    They should realize that Flash is one of the basic elements of web development which brought the web where it is today.

    And a quote from my blog post for those people who sent that open letter:
    “Just do your work, work it really well, put something on the table with the web technology you use and people will admire you too. There are many people building cool web applications without Flash and many of them do not waste their time to defame another technology. If some web technology brings your application to the point which you will it to be, than it is the best technology for you to use. Whether it is Flash or not.”

  5. The idea that proprietary == evil doesn’t stand much scrutiny when there is open competition and evolving standards. The “problem” with Flash was that it was so successful while HTML/CSS/JavaScript was largely stuck in deep freeze for so long. But that has more to do with Microsoft’s decision to take their bat (IE) and go home after defeating Netscape.

    Now that browser providers like Mozilla and Google are making better browsers and the EU has reduced Microsoft’s ability to decide what browser a lot of people will use, the competitive pressure on Microsoft to do more with IE is increasing. So HTML 5 will progress in some form. Silverlight and perhaps one day JavaFX (or something else) will also provide competition for Flash. That’s how it should be. Competition should be encouraged as should adherence to evolving Web standards (W3C recommendations).

    When it comes to standards, Apple has a responsibility as a Web browser provider to fully implement HTML. And that includes the Object tag that is used to embed plugins in Web pages. Apple needs to step up to that responsibility. Otherwise they should say clearly through an official statement why they are not fully implementing HTML.

  6. I don’t see the concerns with the Flash Player being proprietary. Sure it would be nice to have an open source AVM3, but in all the years of Flash’s existence the player being closed hasn’t created any realworld issues to anyone that I know. The only benefit I fantasize about if the flash player were open source is that it could potentially be more tightly intefrated into the browser, and be updated through the OS’s native software update channel. Although the likely downside is that Firefox would implement a different version than IE would than Safari would than Chrome would and we lose the huge benefit of a consistent cross platform, cross browser experience. Plugins are cool even being close sourced and competition is good, but its annoying to hit the olympics page and have no access to video unlesa I install yet another plugin.

  7. The whole argument about open and closed source will go on forever as each person has their own thoughts.

    Personally I do not like one entity to control what I use, view or create, so my philosophy is for the PC world to follow what has been done with Html. That is for a group to create a common standard for all to use and no-one entity to own and profit from. Everyone can use it freely and openly that is great part of html, so why can’t we have a similar new standard for video tagging/encoding.

    What about a new improved open standard for the equivalent of Flash/Silverlight/Quicktime or whatever closed equivalent platform is out there. Why can’t these groups work towards a common goal of creating a superior platform together and create a truly ISO standard for this medium. There are too many vested interests in the OS/browser market and way too much money from certain arena’s to impose their opinions/developments upon the world on the hope of excluding other entities in the same arena.

    I guess it’s all about domination by various companies rather than real innovation and interoperability.

  8. I think this article says all that need be said for Flash, locking out all non-Adobe clients is not a feature I want to see in a format I depend on.

    As for Silverlight/Moonlight and Mono once I see a license that gives me the right to use any of the required components to view content without having to purchase a license from vendor I might be interested.

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