AIR, Flex and the Open Web

26 February 2008 by Matthew Gertner - Category: Rants and Ruminations

With the official release yesterday of Adobe AIR and Flex 3, it’s worth taking another look at the question of what these products mean for the evolution of the web. Criticism of Adobe for the proprietary nature of its technology is hardly novel. A widely read piece by Ted Leung calling Adobe the “Microsoft of the Web” is about to celebrate its first birthday:

If web applications liberated us from the domination of a single company on the desktop, why would we be eager to be dominated by a different company on the web? Yet, this is what Adobe would have us do, as would the many who are (understandably, along some dimensions, anyway) excited about Flex? Read Anne Zelenka’s post on Open Flash if you don’t think that Flash has an openness problem. I’m not eager to go from being beholden to Microsoft to being beholden to Adobe.

Ted’s thesis is echoed by many proponents of the “open web”. Microsoft has had a huge influence on this way of thinking both because they were so dominant for so long and because they abused this dominance in so many unappealing ways. The web has finally liberated us from Windows bondage, and naturally we are in no hurry to find ourselves locked once again into a proprietary environment.

Nevertheless, there is a worrying tendency to promote the open web for its own sake as well as for the real advantages that it brings. This is particular true among the open source software crowd, which sometimes treats openness with a quasi-religious reverence that ignores the many benefits of the proprietary approach. Since nothing should be accepted on faith alone, let’s explore some counterarguments to the “open is good, closed is bad” doctrine.

First of all, Microsoft’s hegemony in the 80′s and 90′s was an aberration. It stemmed from a lock on distribution (through OEM agreements with hardware manufacturers) and a lack of plausible competition at the platform level. This gave Microsoft exceptional market power, which it duly abused. None of this is applicable to vendors like Adobe. People use Flash because there are compelling applications built on top of it, not because it was pre-installed on their computer when they bought it. And Adobe will be hard-pressed to take undue advantage of its technology’s popularity since we can always fall back on healthy competitive alternatives (both open and closed).

And the flip side of the open vs. closed debate is that proprietary approaches can be instrumental in advancing innovation. This was even true of Microsoft, who arguably accelerated the widespread adoption of personal computers by providing a much-needed uniform platform (a standard, if you will) for independent software vendors. Of course, many will counter that open ecosystems are most conducive to innovation, as in the piece by Anne Zelenka cited above:

Decentralized, emergent development models work better than central planning for broadly applicable technologies like Flash. Why? Because the people who might come up with the next great enhancement to Flash may not be within Adobe. Flash is a foundational technology for Internet development–because of its broad use, it should have an equally broad community evolving it for the future.


It is a bit akin to the difference between a centrally planned and a market economy. In the centrally planned economy, the oligarchs and eggheads who make decisions think they know better than what the aggregation of individual decisions might come up with. In fact, market economies beat centrally planned ones over and over again. You have a certain dynamism in market economics that’s not present in centrally planned one. The same goes for the development of technology.

Seen from the perspective of Flash, this is doubtless the case. But with respect to the broader web, the market vs. centralized planning argument takes on a different dynamic. In order to benefit from the Darwinian principles that Anne evokes we want as many parties as possible in the fray, duking it out for dominance. One of the most powerful forces in real markets in the profit motive, and it is naive to think that this consideration evaporates just because we are talking about software and the web. In other words, letting companies deploy their proprietary technologies and fight for profits will enrich the web by offering more and more compelling alternatives.

This may be anathema to some, but a level-headed look at what Adobe has accomplished reveals much to evoke envy in its open counterparts. Flash runs uniformly on all platforms, unlike Ajax (which still requires much tweaking and tailoring depending on the operating system and browser being used). Its interfaces are beautiful, sometimes jaw-droppingly so. While the open crew are still hashing out standards for video on the web, Flash video has crushed the competition and enabled a generation of popular video sites like YouTube.

Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich made an interesting point about Flash and other closed formats:

I assert that there is something wrong with web-like “rich” formats that aren’t hyperlink-able or indexable by search-engines. You could argue that these bugs could be fixed, and Flash is wisely becoming more URI-addressable and view-source-able over time. But it still ain’t the Web. It is not hand-authored, easily tweaked incrementally, copy-and-paste-able. It’s hardware.

Well I would assert that some hardware-like characteristics would do the web (and computing in general) a great deal of good. We’re leaving the last vestiges of the hobbyist era behind us. If normal people are to get full benefit from the web, it has to be as easy to use as a refrigerator or toaster. Is it really a bad thing if Adobe and others like it are bringing us closer to this state of affairs?

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  • Chris Hubick

    “letting companies deploy their proprietary technologies and fight for profits will enrich the web by offering more and more compelling alternatives”

    I disagree.

    I think this just fragments the web. Developers and companies not knowing which platform to use. Developer skill-sets not being transferable between projects. Users needing a complex mishmash of plugins from a variety of sources, few if any of which can be distributed Freely like Linux. No universal client platform developers can target. No developer having the ability to modify and ship changes to proprietary vendor solutions to meet their own needs. Fragmented content tool support lagging behind. And if the best proprietary alternative eventually wins in the marketplace, this leads to maintenance nightmares for companies that invested in the then dead-end alternatives, and ultimately leads to a vendor based proprietary web based on that technology.

    You think they are gonna magically sign over all their patents on their platform if their tech comes out on top? Ha!

    No thanks.

    What exactly can’t the open standards do that these proprietary alternatives can? To me, this is mostly about needing better tools for creating open formats. Maybe Mozilla co should be investing more in that area? (Developers! Developers! Developers!)

  • enefekt

    The whole “Open Web” talk seems just like marketing spiel to me.

    Wikipedia defines “Web” as:
    “a system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed via the Internet”

    I don’t see why people think this is under assault? For document-oriented browsing and hyper-text linking purposes, web browsers are working great.

    If there are stakeholders wanting to create advanced RIAs to reach the widest audience possible, and meet specific gaols, then choosing the tech based on what meets those goals best is the way to go.

    Adobe is providing a set of awesome solutions. Which BTW include … da-da-da-dummm … open source!

    BTW, there is a Mozilla logo on the front page Adobe’s new open source website:

  • chromatic

    “Flash runs uniformly on all platforms, unlike Ajax…”

    Did you mean to write “Flash runs uniformly on only those platforms which Adobe deigns to support, and not at all on platforms they don’t care about”?

    That may subvert your point somewhat, however.

  • Matt

    “All platforms” was perhaps an overstatement, but what percentage of users do you think use a platform that doesn’t run Flash?

  • Luis

    We’re leaving the last vestiges of the hobbyist era behind us.

    Oh yes, thank god. Because what have they ever given us, besides Wikipedia, and Linux, and php, and so on. Bring on the TV-ified web, where we can all just sit and consume as god intended us to instead of doing all this nagging ‘writing’ and ‘publishing’ and ‘creating.’

  • FFD

    I find one of the most intriguing and eye-opening issues the introduction of DRM to Flash as discussed in How do you bring that into the picture?

  • Matt

    Good question. I had that open in a tab but I never know where these posts are going and it didn’t make the cut. It surely deserves a whole post to itself anyway.

  • Chris Hubick

    “but what percentage of users do you think use a platform that doesn’t run Flash”

    Matt, the point chromatic is making is not how many platforms Adobe supports – even if they did support every single one ever made. Rather, the point is that the platforms that do get support are decided by *them* – rather than whoever out there is willing to port the code. That difference goes to the very core of what defines “open web”. I think that type of difference is similar in ideology to that of Free Software vs Open Source:

    p.s. I’m posting this from my pure 64 bit Linux workstation, unsupported by Flash. I could probably install some compatibility libraries and try to hack it up to work. I could also install VMware, Windows Vista, IE7, and install Flash in that (and MS Word while I’m at it). As an Open Web and Free Software supporter, I’m not doing either.

  • Pseudonymous Coward

    Yes, of course it will be a bad thing. Why should Mozilla bother creating Prism at all? Why don’t we all just sit back and let Adobe, Microsoft and Apple work their magic? Yes, let’s do that. Who cares about freedom, we want magic. While we’re at it, let’s make Firefox proprietary software. Who cares about freedom when YouTube owns all our videos and Flickr all our photos?

  • Joerg

    To FFD
    We know Matt never argued for a world totally free of content creators rights, but I can’t wait for the post dedicated to DRM and Flash. The article you quote is quite interesting at least it did not only make statements to stir up the “all must be free” community. It mentioned that any number of FLV files can be hosted by a simple web server. What it failed to mention clearly is that “DRM” is an option the content publisher decides to use. It is not Adobe’s decision what gets encrypted. Without ‘some reasonable’ form of copy protection over time you would not be able to watch silly American sitcoms in Europe at the same time we get to see them. The publishers would simply withhold the popular shows if there is a proliferation of TiVos for IPTV. They are the ones that push so hard to add copy protection.
    The article mentioned the creative uses of YouTube videos. I doubt that Google has an interest to encrypt the videos on their site, since they are promoting remixing. You already gave away your rights to the content when you uploaded it, presumably content you created.

    The biggest confusion of the article is the usage of the term DRM itself. The addition to the player is actually not really DRM, its a form of wire encryption for video streaming, hey SSL provides transfer encryption. So it is a very basic copy protection mechanism that **can** be used to prevent modification to the content (like cutting out ads). Rights are not really managed by this mechanism except that you lack the right to make copies of the video stream. However you can watch it over and over again by going back to the web site :)

    For instance take the Apple DRM method, they encode in the movie file I rented that I have the right for 30 days to start watching it, once I started watching it I have 24 hours until the content I paid for becomes unusable for me. I can also make only a limited number of copies of the content for which I paid in full.

    Wire encryption is not concerned with whether the content was paid for or is rented or add supported or totally free. It is mostly concerned with whether the *creator* (or owner) wants to retain authenticity.

  • Chris Cunningham

    It’s important to point out that the reason for a lack of coalescence around a standard format for open video on the Web is not due to a kerfuffle about not having a standard, it’s about lacking a viable technology which wasn’t going to get anyone sued.

    Had mp3 and DivX been available under open licensing terms in 1998 then support for both would have been integrated into Netscape and IE in the same way as support for common image formats and we’d never have had this problem. So it wasn’t that we required a strong proprietary vendor to force a de facto standard on people for the sake of progress, it was that *only* a proprietary vendor could bear the burden of the licensing fees for the patents being used in the only viable technology.

    – Chris

  • dave

    I think more money has been made (and more value generated) by users of the open, hobbyist web than ever has been by users of Flash, Windows Media or other proprietary dongles. Anyone disagree?

    I have nothing against profit motive and don’t see why standards (whether we’re talking power plugs, ball bearings, food safety or web) are anti-profit, anti-capitalist or anti-competitive. Quite the opposite in fact.

    I would however assert that network effects and the “natural monopolies” they create had a big impact on both Microsoft’s rise and Adobe’s current dominance of web video.

  • steve

    The problem with Flash (and Windows in some cases, too) is, that the users, who buy/use the software, aren’t the same as the real end-user. The opinion of man-in-the-street is not interesting for Adobe. They only listen to the developers wishes.
    Open-Source, in contrast, is mostly “from users for users”; so there are no lockins, restrictions or “disable right-click” features.

    I would like a option to mute flash-applets. There are numerous threads about this feature in the Adobe forums. But Adobe is never going to implement it, simply because ads must be loud to attract attention. And the ad-making companies buy software from Adobe; so Adobe won’t scare them off.

    Firefox allows me to alter websites, block ads, change css or javascript. IE will never incorporate such features, simply because big companies would ran amok…

  • piclens

    Sorry, but piclens is not Flash. It’s a binary-only add-in for Firefox.

  • Matt

    Ack, my mistake. Note that it’s available for Safari and IE as well, and that there is a Flash-based “Piclens Lite” for use on websites. Nonetheless I removed the hyperlink to avoid misleading anyone.

  • Brendan Eich

    Luis and dave said everything I wanted to say. :-) Well, almost.

    Enough with the myth of the dumb happy consumer blissfully using the closed system. PCs and Windows suck!

    Macs are better but (a) open source played a part there; (b) Steve’s good taste rules, if you disagree you lose. Why is Firefox doing well on Mac in spite of Safari? Could it be the add-ons?

    Sure, the middle of the market bell curve doesn’t know or care — until the winning lead user innovations become must-have feature wanted (if only to follow the crowd) by the mass market user next year.

    Evolution is not predictable or (in the long run) determined by the giants. Look at all the giant dinosaur bones.


  • Matt

    We can rail about how we would like to build a world true to our idealistic vision, but that simply isn’t the real world.

    Once again, I think open source is great and I don’t have an issue with most of what Luis, Dave and Brendan have to say.

    But I don’t think that open source will win the whole market and push out proprietary software entirely. Let’s try to have a balanced view and appreciate all the great software that traditional companies have produced as well. Money is part of what drives the system, and those big successful open source projects (including Mozilla) wouldn’t exist without the support of evil faceless capitalist conglomerates.

  • Brendan Eich

    Nobody attacked “capitalism” here, and using such a dreary 19th century term just aids and abets the “open source is communism” slur that Microsoft has put forth in the past.

    Open source is multi-layered, at its roots a cultural system prior to politics — nearer to religion. But the dominant practical aspect of it (wide peer review and QA, no hiding the ball, scratch your own itch) is just good science and engineering.

    Expect to see even more such “open source” praxis from Microsoft and other for-profit outfits.

    Sure, money makes the world go ’round, it will remain the root of all evil. Open source would not be growing if it meant making no money. Can we get past the false dilemma and back to what makes a great product?

    In software, quality comes from one or a few designers, but for large systems the review and testing benefits of open source matter as much.

    Beyond that, the lead user innovation toolkit angle (cf. Eric von Hippel) comes to the fore. While successful closed source platform-like products tend to be extensible through APIs and SDKs, the ultimate in extensibility is to publish source code and take back patches.

    We’ll see how the iPhone SDK works out. I am betting that in ten years, the mobile platform will be much more “open” and use significant open source than it is today. All while people still make money from for-profit businesses building products on top, and in the cloud.


  • Matt

    Yikes, I may be starting to agree with you. You make some great points. (Obviously “evil faceless capitalist conglomerates” was tongue-in-cheek. We can still be lighthearted here, can’t we?)

    What I’m hearing is that open source is a superior software development model for platforms and other infrastructure. You make a strong case which is supported by my own experience with Mozilla. If so, it’s likely that Adobe will end up open sourcing the Flash player of its own accord as it would be beneficial for them to do so. Considering the gestures they have made towards open source recently, this isn’t unimaginable. Sun Microsystems certainly seems to have seen the light, to take one example.

    I tend to be allergic to the knee-jerk “companies are bad” vibe that I sometimes get from open source advocates, which was the motivation for my post. But it’s hard to argue with the idea that the highly effective collaborative practices of open source will seep into the proprietary nooks and crannies of the software world. In fact, they will probably have an impact that extends far beyond software.