AIR, Flex and the Open Web
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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