Author: Bruce Byfield
From the presentation, you might imagine that Adobe’s announcement of the Open Screen Project was major news. According to the news release, the project’s goal is “to enable a consistent runtime environment” by relaxing some restrictions on the Flash format and releasing some specifications. However, in the free Flash community, the small group of developers dedicated to producing non-proprietary Flash tools, the reaction to the news was polite at best — and serves as a much-needed reality check to the over-enthusiastic announcement.
The release announces the creation of the Open Screen Project, with members that range from major technology companies such as Intel, Motorola, Nokia, and Samsung to influential content providers such as BBC, MTV Networks, and NBC Universal. To foster the project and to promote the use of Adobe technologies, Adobe also announced the removal of restrictions on Adobe Flash formats and an end to licensing fees for those who wished to use either Flash or AIR for development. Adobe also announced the release of the specs on the device porting layer API for Flash Player and the Adobe Flash Cast and AMF protocols. The release ended with a dozen enthusiastic quotes from representatives of the new project, giving the news a degree of emphasis that is usually reserved for major new projects or company news.
For instance, Ned Hooper, senior vice president, Corporate Development, Consumer and Small Business Group at Cisco, enthused, “We share a common vision with Adobe and the Open Screen Project, and expect to work together to help enable the fusion of Web, television and user-generated content delivered anywhere, at any time and to any device.”
Similarly, Doug Fisher, Intel vice president and general manager, System Software Division, chimed in with, “Intel’s broad and rich hardware and software ecosystem combined with Adobe’s Open Screen Project will help us deliver a full Internet experience, whether it be in your pocket, on your lap, at the office, or in your living room.”
After such ringing endorsements, the response in the free Flash community makes for an almost comical contrast. “Our reaction is pretty much, ‘Ho-hum,'” said Rob Savoye, lead developer for the Gnash project, which is creating a free Flash player. “It’s a really good thing when corporations figure out that being more open to the community is important but, at the same time, it’s not a huge deal.”
Similarly, Benjamin Otte, project lead at Swfdec, which is developing a library for rendering Flash animations, remarks that, “The Open Screen Project sounded more like an attempt at building mind share for Flash-like technology than any technical consortium.”
Been there, done that
One reason for the lack of excitement over the project in the free software world is that it omits “huge amounts” of information needed for a complete implementation of Flash. In particular, Savoye points out that the announcement contains no mention of the Real Time Messaging Protocol(RTMP) that is required for the Flash media server. Nor does it mention the Sorenson Spark Codec that is used for video encoding in Flash 6 and 7, and remains the choice of some users still for Flash video because other formats convert easily to it. Both may be encumbered by patents but, without them, the information that Adobe has released is of limited use.
Just as important, what Adobe released is not new to the free Flash community. “Pretty much all of that stuff was known,” Otte says. Savoye agrees, remarking, “We figured that all out years ago, or we wouldn’t have gotten as far along as we have.” Moreover, although Gnash and Swfdec are clean room implementations — that is, developed without the aid of any information from Adobe — Savoye suggests that, “Most of this documentation, if we really wanted it, has already leaked out on the Internet years ago.”
A competitive move
So why did Adobe trumpet the news as if it was a major advance? Both Savoye and Otte doubt that the rapidly evolving free Flash implementations were a reason for the announcement, although Otte does note that by emphasizing the embedded and mobile device market, Adobe may be partly attempting to forestall advances that Gnash and Swfdec have made into this market.
“I think they realize that if they keep things moving ahead enough, then no matter how much time we put into it, we’re going to be playing catch-up for a long time,” Savoye says. “But I don’t think Adobe worries about us all that much.”
Referring to Microsoft’s rival to Flash, Savoye continues, “I think the main thing they’re concerned about is Silverlight because Microsoft is pushing pretty heavily to get Silverlight on Windows Mobile and other devices. Microsoft basically wants to do what it did with Internet Explorer and Netscape. It basically would like to destroy Adobe Flash so that Microsoft can have yet another incompatible format running on devices where they can lock in manufacturers and users.”
Savoye’s opinion is that Silverlight is not “going to run that well on embedded devices, and never will.” All the same, he suggests perhaps Adobe is hoping that “by making the Flash world more open, they hope to increase its rate of acceptance as well as thwarting Silverlight.”
Otte agrees. “I think [Adobe’s] removing of license fees for the player is a move to not lose install-base on embedded consumer devices.” He also points out that Flash’s position as the major media provider on the Internet may also be under siege in the near future by other efforts to implement scalable vector graphics in browsers and by the enhanced media capacities in the HTML 5 draft recommendations.
Both Otte and Savoye do see some limited good coming out of the Open Screen Project. Otte suggests that the growing openness of Adobe might help to reduce the reservations in the free software community about working to reproduce proprietary technologies, as well as “the general ‘flash is evil’ attitude” that prevails in the community.”
Moreover, both Otte and Savoye see the announcement as a hopeful sign. “I think Adobe will open up Flash in the end, or at least the Flash player,” Otte says.
Savoye expresses the same hope, although he notes that, “I’ve been told by people at Adobe that their Flash player has so many other people’s intellectual property in it that they can never free up the code.” However, he adds that examples like Sun’s removal of propriety elements from the original StarOffice code to produce OpenOffice.org and its current efforts with Java indicate that the move is not impossible. “The trick is, are they going to make that kind of commitment?” he asks.
At any rate, before long, Savoye expects that such an announcement will be largely irrelevant to the free community. “At the rate that Gnash and Swfdec are going, it’s kind of immaterial,” he says. “And, deep down, I think our code bases are probably cleaner.”
Savoye concludes, “We want to be supportive of what Adobe has done while adjusting everybody’s realities. But it’s like I’ve been working on a broken car for four or five days, and I finally got it to turn over once. You just think of how much work is still left to do. It’s good that they’re doing it, but it’s pretty much a pure PR move.”