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Tuesday, May 06, 2008, 07:00 am PT (10:00 am ET)

Flash Wars: The Many Enemies and Obstacles of Flash [Part 2 of 3]

While widely deployed as a web plugin and among the few web technologies that have become a household word, Adobe's Flash has more than a few substantial enemies that would like to see it replaced, cloned, or erased.

Additionally, Flash faces a number of significant obstacles that are its own fault. These also erode Adobe's position and have helped force its hand in opening the Flash specification. Here's a look at the external competitors of Flash, and how Flash has hurt its own chances to establish itself as a web platform in the future.

The Many Enemies of Flash

Microsoft now sees Flash as a competitor to Windows, as it performs the same cross platform, application deployment role Java attempted to deliver a decade ago. If critical web content is all done in Flash, there's increasingly less need to use Windows anymore, as most platforms can run at least some version of Flash. Microsoft is hoping to sideline Flash the same way it crippled Java on the desktop: by building its own proprietary version, Silverlight, and using its monopoly power to rapidly deploy it and simply choke off Adobe's air supply.

While Microsoft seemed rather invincible in the 90s as it more or less terminated Netscape, client side Java, OpenGL graphics, Office alternatives, and other competition, its more recent efforts to crush rivals haven't been as successful. Plans to destroy and replace iTunes and the iPod, Google in search or advertising, smartphones, and video game consoles have all been expensive campaigns that haven't resulted in monopoly expansion. That certainly makes the struggle between Silverlight and Flash more interesting and harder to call.

Sun may be an enemy of Microsoft, but that doesn't make it a friend of Flash. The company has watched Flash take over the role intended for client Java, and is now competing against Flash in rich Internet applications. Sun is fighting back with JavaFX, a new family of Java tools to push back into that market on both the desktop and in mobile devices.

The open source community has little love for Flash because it is a proprietary standard. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is pushing Gnash as a free alternative player to Adobe's Flash Player (FSF lists it third among its High Priority Free Software Projects), while OpenLaszlo competes against Flash development tools for creating rich Internet applications; it can produce either Java serverlets or binary Flash content that can be played back using the standard Flash Player. Other groups are working to extend SVG and other software in place of Flash entirely.

Apple added support for Flash 4 to QuickTime 5 in 2001, which enabled developers to use Flash for interactivity within QuickTime movies. However, Apple had trouble keeping its support for Flash up to date with the latest release from Macromedia. Additionally, while Flash releases for the Mac were delivered at the same time as Windows, the quality of Macromedia's Mac releases was always a bit behind and problematic.

With Flash 8, released in 2005 just before the Adobe purchase, Macromedia decided to only build support for Flash content playback on the Mac within the web plugin or in the standalone player, and delegate Flash playback from within a PDF to QuickTime. By that time, Apple had given up trying to keep pace with the latest version of Flash, so users trying to view Flash inside a PDF could only play Flash 5 content.

In 2006, Apple turned off Flash support in QuickTime 7.1.3 by default, explaining that "The version of Flash that ships in QuickTime is older than the version available from Adobe and used in Safari, therefore, while we still ship Flash with QuickTime, it is turned off by default." Since then, Apple has removed the option to even turn Flash support back on in QuickTime.

Apple's complete lack of interest in promoting Flash grew even more obvious in 2007 with the release of the iPhone, which not only shipped without Flash support in its web browser, but also introduced an alternative H.264 player for YouTube videos that worked around what has become the most valuable use of Flash on the web: serving as a player applet and container format for web videos.

Throughout 2007, Apple stripped nearly every vestige of Flash from its corporate site and other products, and began recommending that developers use open standards instead. As noted in Gone in a Flash: More on Apple’s iPhone Web Plans, last summer Apple published a document titled "Optimizing Web Applications and Content for iPhone," which not only listed Flash as the single bullet point item under a listing of "unsupported technologies," but went on to explicitly encourage developers to "stick with standards," and use CSS, JavaScript, and Ajax instead.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place and Some Other Obstacle

While Adobe has continued Macromedia's marketing strategy of finding various new uses for Flash and advertising the wide penetration of the Flash Player runtime, it is now up against the three strongest forces shaping the future of computing. Microsoft has already begun leveraging its Windows and Office monopolies to distribute Silverlight as a Flash-killer on both the Windows PC desktop and on the Mac. When Microsoft releases a Mac product, it can only mean one thing: it's working hard to kill a cross platform threat to Windows.

If battling Microsoft on the desktop isn't tough enough, Adobe now has Apple pushing its prominent WiFi mobile platform in the iPhone and iPod Touch as completely Flash Player free. Further, the new Cocoa iPhone/iPod Touch SDK not only offers Adobe insufficient means to develop a Flash plugin, but also clearly forbids the development of runtimes designed to advance competing platforms on top of the native Cocoa environment, whether Flash, Silverlight, or Java.

Apple strategy to leverage the success of its iTunes, iPod, and iPhone to disrupt proprietary control of the web is in full swing. The company is also aligned with Mozilla's FireFox and the Opera browser to advance support for today's SVG and develop the future HTML 5 specification for standards-based rich Internet applications, both of which are direct threats to Flash on the desktop.

On page 2 of 2: A Shot in the Dark with Flash Lite; Weak Cross Platform Flash Software; and Strong Patent Threats.