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

A Shot in the Dark with Flash Lite

The fact that Adobe has only delivered fair to poor Flash support for any platform outside of Windows is also a significant problem. While the company likes to rattle off the number of devices and operating systems that "support Flash," it hides the fact that few of those actually support the latest Flash 9, with many stuck at support for Flash 5, 6, or 7.

Mobile devices typically run Flash Lite, which targets a minimal subset of Flash interactivity; the existing Flash Lite 2.0 is based upon the 2003 Flash 7 runtime. The recently announced Flash Lite 3.0 will be the first version that can play Flash video, the primary attraction of Flash on the web.

Flash Lite does not run on the iPhone. At Apple's recent shareholder meeting, Steve Jobs noted that the Lite version of Flash "is not capable of being used with the web," meaning it can't play back content developed for the desktop web browsers, while the full desktop runtime "performs too slow to be useful" on the iPhone.

While Adobe has bundled Flash Lite players for devices running Symbian, Sun's Java ME, Qualcom's BREW, and Microsoft's Windows Mobile, it also competes against those platforms for native development attention. It should come as no surprise that once those companies discover this, they will likely react the same way Microsoft did on the Windows desktop. Certainly, once Microsoft can deliver its own mobile version of Silverlight, it will attempt to displace Flash Lite. That's apparently not too far away; the company recently demonstrated a beta of Silverlight 2 running on Nokia's Symbian S60 and Windows Mobile devices.

Weak Cross Platform Flash Software

Outside of smartphones and PDAs, other non-PC devices that supposedly run Flash are often similarly outdated and buggy. The Sony PlayStation 3 (which uses the NetFront browser) and Nintendo Wii (Opera) web browsers offer "Flash support" that only works with content developed for older versions of Flash. The Xbox 360 does not ship with Flash support, and it sure looks as if Microsoft has no interest in providing it at any point in the future.

Adobe provides a Linux Flash Player 9, but it only works on 32-bit x86 machines, which rules out its use on 64-bit PCs, game consoles and desktops using PowerPC processors, or most devices running on ARM chips, although Nokia has adapted Adobe's Flash Player 9 for the Linux and ARM-based Internet Tablet 800.

Adobe's Flash support on the Mac also carries on the tradition of Macromedia's second rate support for platforms outside of Windows. While Macs have fewer problems playing modern Flash content than other platforms outside of Windows, the Flash plugin Adobe supplies for Mac users has significant problems with memory leaks and stability. Apple can't be pleased that Flash distracts from the overall experience of Safari and the Mac desktop.

Strong Patent Threats

Adobe's hit and miss support has created interest in third party implementations of the Flash player. However, Gnash and other open source projects designed to supply Flash player functionality to platforms where it is lacking or outdated have run into two major roadblocks common to most every effort to duplicate proprietary software.

First, they must reverse engineer the moving target of the existing Flash specification while Adobe independently works on new versions. Gnash currently only supports the features of Flash 7, released back in 2003, along with limited support for some elements of Flash 8 and 9.

Second, in a world where every software concept is now being patented, even successful efforts to "clean room" duplicate something like Flash can be hit with submarine patent infringement lawsuits long after the work is done. That threat often prevents commercial third parties from joining or supporting open efforts to clone existing technologies, out of fear that patent trolls will attack once the bridge is crossed. That fear not only applies to independent implementations of Flash but also the Mono and Moonlight open source projects that attempt to provide open compatibility with Microsoft's .Net and Silverlight on both the Mac and Linux.

Rather than flattering Flash with imitation, the open source community could be flattening Flash with innovation. Why copy proprietary software when open standards can provide a better, safer foundation for developing upon? On one hand, that's exactly what Google, Apple, and its W3C partners Mozilla and Opera plan to do: obviate any need for Flash. However, at the same time there are significant market pressures behind Flash that will take some time to deflate, considered in part three: Adobe Fights for AIR with the Open Screen Project.