Sunday, February 07, 2010

To keep Flash relevant, Adobe must resort to the nuclear option

I keep asking myself over and over again whether Flash has a reason to live, aside from sheer legacy momentum (which is analogous to the "muscle memory" that keeps a dinosaur's tail wagging for a week after it is officially dead). The longer we go in the direction of HTML 5 and AJAX, the less reason I see for software companies (and individual developers) to dump time and resources into things like Flex and Flash. The technology is too nonstandard, too proprietary. The mere fact that you need a browser plug-in to run Flash is a huge liability for all concerned. It creates deployment and provisioning issues for the IT crowd, backwards compatibility issues for users and developers, messy browser-testing matrices for QA, etc. The upside to Flash (the benefits of Flash) just don't seem to be that compelling compared to the costs. To me, anyway.

Flash finds itself at a crossroads now: It has two huge hurdles to overcome if it is to survive as a mainstream platform. One is Apple: Steve Jobs has made it quite apparent that he doesn't want Flash on the iPlatform. The other challenge is HTML itself (specifically HTML 5).

The lack of a common approach among browser makers on what format to use for the HTML video object has provided a stay of execution for Flash by ensuring a period of ongoing technological diversity as the format wars settle out. Apple has decided to put its weight behind MPEG-4/H.264, which it uses across its device platforms. Microsoft has stayed with VC-1, its own de facto standard video codec. With around a 25% share of the browser market, Mozilla Firefox proposes to standardize on the open-source Ogg Vorbis codec. This is a bit of an anomaly, for what people tend not to realize is that while H.264 seems to be an open and free standard, in reality it is a technology provided by the MPEG-LA patent-pooling cartel, and as a result it is governed by commercial and IP restrictions. (In fact, in 2014 it will impose royalty requirements on all users of the technology.)

The elephant in the room, of course, is Google. Some think Google will attempt an end-run around the others by launching an open video format with a well-defined open source license for the technology. According to industry experts, Google's new format, which is based on On2 VP8, delivers almost all of the same technical benefits as H.264.

From a practical point of view, no one can really be declared the "winner" of this kind of battle until the technology in question reaches an adoption rate of at least 90 percent. That's obviously a ways off.

Which means Adobe still has time to ward off Google's end run. But to do so effectively means adopting a brave -- in fact, radical (for Adobe) -- strategy. Adobe must make every aspect of the Flash platform open source, with the most liberal possible licensing terms -- and put the technology under community governance. In other words, Flash needs to be under the stewardship of something like the Apache Foundation. (And please, keep the licensing clean. We don't need a replay of the Sun/Java 7 fiasco.)

I personally don't see Adobe having the kind of foresight and community-mindedness needed to make this kind of dramatic preemptive move. But I'm convinced that if they don't, Flash will peak in popularity (which I believe it already has) and begin to recede into history -- like other perfectly good (and at one time pervasive) Macromedia technologies that have gone before.