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Adobe's Open Screen Project – A Plan & Lower Barriers to Using Flash – Checking Up On the RIA Wars

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Adobe’s Open Screen Project, announced today, is two things:

  • Vision, road-map, and partnerships for building out the Adobe software development platform.
  • Loosening IP restrictions on (in the most broad use of the term) Flash – really, doing everything short of open sourcing Flash.

The Vision: Develop for More Devices

The stated vision of Open Screen is deliver a platform that makes it easier for developers to make software that’ll work on all sorts of devices (“screens”): mobile, desktops (RIAs), the web (video and RIAs), TVs (Java has an interesting lead here on Blurays), or whatever “devices” has some need for programming in it, like Chumbys. Adobe’s Flash technology serves as the common ground and foundation for this desire. It’s Adobe’s Java VM: their foot in the door of any environment the want to work in.

The goal of having a more consistent development environment across devices is a dandy plan. Indeed, you can expect to hear this same plan for the next 1-2 years from all the RIA players – Microsoft, Adobe, Sun, and all the other folks. I’m sure they’ll all continually carp about how “those other guys” are copying them.

At this point, the bulk of platform is more a statement of intent from Adobe, along with pledged partners. Sure, there are all the parts laying about – Flash, Flex, AIR, FlexBuilder, etc. – but pulling those into a single, unified platform that does all this seamless, unified experience bit across multiple platforms is another thing.

Open Screens Creating the Adobe Platform

While you could dismiss Open Screens as mere marketecture, the important event for Adobe watchers is seeing their desires coalesce around delivering a development platform. Adobe is also composed of PDF and Creative (PhotoShop, etc.) divisions, so having this be a large, stated initiate for Adobe and “The Platform Guy” (Kevin Lynch) as the entire companies CTO are pretty easy to read tea leaves of what Adobe wants its future to be largely made up of: software development. Now, they’re not going to dump PDF and Creative, of course, at all: that’d be insanity. Rather, this is a pumping up of their development division, largely built from acquiring Macromedia and then folding in the mobile division.

Now, they just have to deliver on that plan, which as always, is 99% of the effort. The partner lineup is good, but we’ll need to see some milestones – and quickly – over the next year to move from vision to reality.

Vision and plans aside, making the Flash Player free to use is a huge, tangible step for this. As mentioned above, the Flash Player is, analogously, Adobe’s Java VM, so wherever Flash is, Adobe has a chance to reach in and establish a market. Adobe is just one short step away from establishing a pretty solid development platform: open sourcing the Flash Player.

Closer to Open

To be clear, there is no major open source thing going on here. Instead, Adobe is (all but) saying “hey you open source people, if you want to make a Flash Player, OK. We ain’t gonna do it (now), but feel free to knock yourself out.” Adobe is clearly not ready to make the OpenJDK jump – but, hey, it took Sun of all companies way too long to do it themselves.

In talking about the issue with Kevin Lynch last week, though, Adobe seemed more open to the idea than usual. Instead of complaining about how it would bust-up the “write once, run anywhere” aspect of Flash (due to Adobe controlling the only players), he talked more about the hope that Adobe would always have the best player available. Giving up that grip on the “what if they fork the runtime?” freak-out is usually the last step.

Why the focus on open source here? There’s all sorts of stuff to repeat here about open being better – back when she worked with us at RedMonk, Anne Zelenka got that conversation going. To cut out the religious aspects and other nuanced debate that goes nowhere fast, the key issue is this: if Adobe doesn’t open source their stack, they’re really not that much different than Microsoft in respect to developers and architects choosing a stack. To be fair, Adobe has a much better cross-platform tool-story than Microsoft – Adobe has one. But, without the open source angle, a developer deciding between Silverlight and Flash-land is choosing between two closed worlds. In that scenario, you choose the biggest gorilla and go with it hoping he’ll take care of you if the Sun goes down.

Eventually – and soon – Adobe will have to open source their entire platform along with getting some viable open source tooling if they’re going to continue to sell closed source tools. Eclipse anyone? Sun, technologically, would be a natural ally here – uniting the Java and Adobe RIA world would kill [update: what’s this?] – but I suspect those two won’t be able to get along too well until one of them gets desperate. Their cultures and UI-level desires conflict too much to make it an easy match – believe me, RedMonk has tried and will continue to do so in our own sysiphean way. Let’s see if we can get Sun to embrace OSGi and Spring first. Those would be some robust tea-leaves there.

The Specs

Getting to the news, here’s what “more open,” from their FAQ:

  • Removing restrictions on use of the SWF and FLV/F4V specifications
  • Publishing the device porting layer APIs for Adobe Flash Player
  • Publishing the Adobe Flash Cast protocol and the AMF protocol for robust data services
  • Removing licensing fees – making next major releases of Adobe Flash Player and Adobe AIR for devices free
  • Getting to a More Open World

    How open source, the web, RIA, and Microsoft relate

    Let’s look at the wider context here. Is this “open screens” idea even possible?

    Gambling on Utopia, Adobe Style

    Even more important is achieving the open utopia that Sun themselves is gambling on. While Europe, Asia, and, well, every one except North America – I’m told – may enjoy open mobile platforms, aside from the iPhone, the mobile devices experience in North America is crap. It might as well not exist for the purposes of being part of a broader development platform. North American developers only have desktops and the web to play with.

    Which ever of the RIA vendors can get the North American telcos to open up their networks and handsets to be more, if not exactly, like the web will have most of the battle won.


    Apple is the current lead here, though they’ve hoisted themselves up there with plenty of high barriers – a high price and their own penchant for owning closed platforms – that could quickly put Apple back in the “boutique” market slot it’s been in much of it’s life.

    Finishing up the Apple point: don’t get me wrong, Apple seems to be finally wising up to what it means to own double digit market share (letting the dorks and nerds sit at your cool-kid lunch table, actually pretending like you care about them as you count their money) and benefiting. If they can hold onto the more inclusive view of the world, Apple will do great. Think of how whacky it’d be if Apple actually worked enthusiastically with Flash, Silverlight, or Java. That’s how far Apple has to go.


    Upgrading Chumby

    And back to the non-computer device market. Remember WebTV? Setup-boxes? While it gave us OSGi and (I guess you could argue) TiVo, back in the 90’s, that vision was kind of foul from the beginning. The Bluray boys are going for something similar here, and we’re always looking towards internet connected gaming consoles to become the next computer in disguise. But let’s be honest: if the North American telcos are wicked locked down and impossibly closed, these new devices – with notable exceptions like Chumby – will probably be even worse. I wager it’ll be hard to replicate the freedom available on PCs and the web.

    Cashing in on Freaking Out

    On a more optimistic bent: there’s an interesting window of opportunity at the moment with how freaked out, the folk-lore goes, incumbent gate-keepers are. The going word on the street is that the entertainment industry has no idea how to make money with these new opportunities, maybe even that telcos are starting to get jittery.

    Basically, any technology based market that hasn’t evolved in the past 10-20 years is thinking, “oh, wait, I should evolve, but I laid off, out-sourced, or otherwise got rid of the people I used to pay to do that.” If the RIA people can cash in on that fear, then maybe they can get a crow-bar into that window and break the lock.


    From the Sun playbook, there’s The Whole Rest of the World ™: Brazil (Sun loves those guys!), China, India, the rest of Asia, etc. The thinking goes something like: if the locked down business culture of North America myopic Globostan is the last one standing, maybe they’ll finally get the message, and in the meantime, we can post good enough quarterly numbers to siege it out. Make them pink dots green, baby!

    Sun, of course, has the advantage of being open source here. They’re problem is just getting the attention that Adobe enjoys when it comes to the RIA vanguard. To get there from here, Sun’s critical step is getting out into the world and working with whoever helps them spread their IP and foot-print around. There’s much value in the Java world as it wraps around a huge amount of “legacy” data and process that RIAs would want to layer on-top of.

    Very soon now, RIA vendors are going to be left with great UIs that don’t connect to any sort of back-end – they’ll just have endless Google Maps and Salesforce integrations to point to…<yawn> Sun, and the greater Java world, on the other hand knows back-ends and middle-ware like nobody’s business. If they can sugar-coat access to those back-ends with something SnapLogic-y, Sun will be in a good position to connect RIAs to enterprise systems that make a lot of money. The big font, round corner kids in SAP land are up to interesting things here, but the RIA crew hasn’t quiet slummed enough in the enterprise side of town to notice. Of course, Adobe smartly hired one of those guys away, and has been doing well building up their java and enterprise connections.

    Let’s be fair though: JavaOne is a scant few days away. Or, as Dion has appropriately dubbed it, nevermind where his tongue is: JavaFXOne. See further previewing here.


    So where’s Microsoft here? My working assumption is that if things stay as they are – Adobe’s no open source, Sun is too slow to bring their Java ecosystem into all of this, and the little RIA players are, well, little – Microsoft has a damn good chance of winning. As much as I might like things more open, it’s not my job to think things that help me sleep well at night. Microsoft still makes its own gravity. They could still pull a Netscape on Adobe, Sun, and all the other RIA people. While Flash holds the title for most widely available, it’s just those anti-trust jitters that holds Microsoft back. Look at their Hyper-V pricing: $28/server looks a lot like a giant rolling over and crushing those whipper-snappers VMWare, except it’s probably legal.

    What if you could run Silverlight in Flash, or vice-versa? What if Microsoft actually had a cross-platform tools story? There’s a lot of these “what if”‘s that depend on the Redmond leopard changing it’s spots, but they freaked everyone out with Silverlight on OS X. Now Microsoft just needs to drop a few more spots and get that cat to run faster to catch up. To pull MMS back in, Microsoft is actually working directly on open source now. There’s a long bleed-back path from System Center to Silverlight, but maybe they sneak in something under the cover of Moonlight, eh?


    Not to be myopic, there’re are a lot of other people running around here: WaveMaker, Curl, Bungee, Appcelerator, others, and, hey, what about Google? We’ve covered Apple above. The gravity makers there – Google and Apple – have their own gravity making agendas to play around with. The smaller people can either go the JBoss path, start glomming onto powerful friends (how ’bout EC2 or another cloud?), or win big.

    Establishing the Scorecard

    If what we’ve got is a bunch of potential, what to do next? There are two things to keep track of in the near-term:

    • Partners – the more partners each of the RIA people have, the better positioned they’ll be to truly open up all those screens. Adobe has a nice list of logos already, but it’ll have to keep growing. Each of ’em need more of this. It’s like Bluray vs. HD-DVD for nerds.
    • Multi-platform tool support – I like this one as a black-horse of adoption. When figuring out which RIA platform is doing well, being deploying cross-platform is just the price of admission. The real advantage is being able to develop on any platform. A huge portion of the early developers that matter develop on OS X and Linux. Sure, not all of them by far, but having to use VisualStudio or even a for-pay Flexbuilder will turn of droves of first-wave developers. Adobe is hampered here pretty strong as, ostensibly, selling tools is their revenue source. If Microsoft can make being “a Sliverlight developer” not mean being “a Microsoft developer,” they’ll do all right – but I suspect that’d be a hard one to swallow. Sun’s got this one nailed, but still has that certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to adoption.

    To wrap up, as it stands, there’s lots of fine intention and vision banging around from all sides. Assuming Sun will finally finish showing up the RIA ho-down next week, it’ll be time for everyone to strap in and get to the finishing line.

    On that note: next week, I’m hoping to have an RIA panel at RedMonk’s CommunityOne track. Hopefully with a mix of JavaFX and Adobe folks in attendance – sadly, I didn’t round up and Silverlighters – we can continue speculatin’ and score-carding.

    Disclaimer: Adobe, Sun, Microsoft, and Eclipse are clients.

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