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Wednesday, May 07, 2008, 05:00 am PT (08:00 am ET)

Flash Wars: Adobe Fights for AIR with the Open Screen Project [Part 3 of 3]

Flash has plenty of enemies and obstacles, but it also enjoys wide deployment and familiarity. Two areas where Flash can offer real value is in displaying and packaging video on the web, and in serving as a Java replacement for developing applets. Here's a look at how Adobe is working to defend its strengths in the face of competition, and how its efforts to open the Flash specification in the Open Screen Project play into these efforts.

Challenges to Flash Video

Flash rapidly took over the market for embedding videos into web pages and popularized the proprietary FLV video container format. However, as the industry has moved to support the more advanced and open H.264 video codec, Adobe has been forced to drop its obsolete old FLV container and migrate toward H.264 itself, both as a codec and as a container file.

Since nearly all modern mobile devices now play back H.264 content in hardware, any advantage to using the Flash software player is now waning outside of the feeble web environment on PC desktops. Even there, Adobe only owns the playback of largely non-commercial content. Nearly all purchased video content is being distributed by Apple through iTunes, and most streaming content is being delivered by Windows Media, Real, or QuickTime. That reduces Adobe's ability to make enough money on Flash to entrench it as a necessary tool for web video.

Apple's ability to disrupt the status quo in video playback is evident in its deal with Google to vend YouTube videos to the iPhone, iPod Touch, and Apple TV as straight H.264 rather than Google's existing mix of a Flash-based player and its archaic GVI file format based upon AVI. The BBC similarly moved to support Apple's products by serving up standard H.264 video to them.

That rapid erosion of Flash's significance in presenting web videos is a key reason why Adobe is scrambling to create the appearance that Flash is critical infrastructure to the web and mobile devices, even though there is little evidence of any need for Flash outside of the PC browser. As Apple's hardware-based H.264 playback in mobile devices begins to define how to reach affluent customers with content, Flash will increasingly lose any allure on the PC desktop as well, as developers won't want to target PCs and mobiles using two different systems. Apple has already published specifications on how to vend straight H.264 video without relying on Flash, and is itself leading the way with a web presence that is heavy with Flash-free video clips.

Flash Fights for AIR in Rich Internet Applications

Adobe's backup plan is to push Flash as the basis for AIR, the Adobe Integrated Runtime, which allows for the development of standalone applications using Flash tools. But Adobe has a tough fight in that market as well.

Again, Microsoft is pushing Silverlight to do the same thing, and Sun has long been working to do this with Java. Google offers its own Google Web Toolkit for building standards based applications using JavaScript-based Ajax, and there are a variety of other products designed around building Ajax web applications without any dependance upon Flash. In the mobile arena, Google is pushing its Android platform, which essentially uses an open, independent version of the Java VM called Dalvik, without actually using Java bytecode.

The W3C, in conjunction with Apple, Mozilla, and Opera, is working to develop HMTL 5 as a more ideal basis for rich Internet applications, with support for immediate mode drawing, offline data, inline editing, and drag and drop interaction baked right into the web rather than layered on top with a plugin runtime like Flash.

If You Can't Sell It, Make It "Open"

These pressures have forced Adobe to crack open its licensing terms for Flash. While the company has published Flash specifications before, it has done so under NDA and explicitly forbid the creation of alternative Flash content players. The reason for this was likely to prevent Microsoft from creating its own Flash-compatible player, forking it, and hijacking Flash development in the same manner it ripped Java from Sun. Now that Microsoft has created its own Flash replacement; that strategy makes little sense.

Adobe has now begun touting the Open Screen Project, which aspires to partner with a consortium of companies to push Flash as a platform for rich Internet applications. In order to make this happen, Adobe had announced plans to begin working on efforts to:
  • remove the restrictions on use of the Flash file format specifications

  • publish device porting layer APIs for Flash Player

  • publish its proprietary protocols for transmitting data between Flash apps and servers

  • remove device licensing fees for the next major releases of Flash Player and AIR

Will the Open Screen Project Matter?

Adobe lists a variety of phone makers and chip manufacturers as its partners in the Open Screen Project, but notably excludes any mention of Microsoft, Apple, and Google. How will ARM, Intel, and Cisco have any relevant impact on pushing Flash on Microsoft's desktop, Apple's mobiles and the Mac, or Google's web apps and Android platform?

And how are the existing licensees of Adobe's Flash Lite on mobile phones (LG, Nokia, NTT DoCoMo, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba, and Verizon Wireless) going to do anything to promote Flash-based rich Internet apps when their devices can't even run the full version of Flash?

Adobe seems to be hoping that nobody notices these problems and that its vigilant marketing efforts can entrance the public into thinking that a drawing app extended into an animation tool and then retrofitted into a monstrous hack of a development platform is a superior technology basis for building web apps compared to the use of modern open standards created expressly to promote true interoperability by design rather than retroactively.

Given the existing problems of Adobe's Flash Player, will things get any better once we have a handful of different implementations of the Flash platform runtime? And will developers and vendors manage to avoid facing any patent risks after investing heavily to build on top of Adobe's sort-of-open version of Flash? These questions might have interesting answers, but in a world dominated by Microsoft, Google, and Apple, they won't matter.

Earlier segments in this series:
Flash Wars: Adobe in the History and Future of Flash [Part 1 of 3]
Flash Wars: The Many Enemies and Obstacles of Flash [Part 2 of 3]