Monday, September 15, 2008

Adobe owns the web and they don't even know it.

The last ten months I have been hacking on a little cross platform WebKit based browser call Arora. Users try it out and are mostly happy, but near all of them end up asking me the same thing:
How do I get flash to work?
Arora uses the Qt and the current version (4.4) does not ship with support for netscape plugins. After the release of Qt 4.4 this feature was added to QtWebKit and will be part of Qt 4.5 this winter. To get it today all you have to do is compile Arora against WebKit trunk. Every few days someone pops into the Arora irc channel asking how they get get plugins. They say "plugins", but they really mean flash, and by flash they really mean video. Every day users are willing to download a development version of WebKit, built it and then build Arora just so they can get their YouTube fix. Users! These are the people who are not willing to do anything are willing to go through all that pain on their own. Big red alarms should be going off at the w3c that a binary plugin is required for browsing these days. Arora has pretty clear documentation on how to get plugins working so I can only imagine how many users went through the hassle and didn't have to ask for a pointer to the instructions. There was even a developer who after putting Arora on an arm device asked how to get Flash working. After discovering that he could not just copy the flash libraries to his device I got the distinct impression that no matter how good Arora was if he couldn't get flash it wouldn't be good enough. The majority of flash on the web for me seems to be 1) videos 2) ads 3) movie websites. I even had a user tell me that Arora was fantastic and would use it every day, but only once Qt snapshot had flash. In the last three years flash has gone from just another plugin to the only plugin on the web browser that matters. I myself never installed flash in Linux until two years ago. This is of course all because of video and specifically YouTube.

But here is where I am puzzled. Adobe is acting like they deserve to be the standard rather then what they should be which is scrambling to make sure they keep their foothold in the browser. Today flash is installed on nearly every browser, but "almost all" should not be good enough. They should have binaries for every platform under the sun, a QA team like no other, and paid developers on every open source browser to make sure the integration is perfect. Adobe should make sure that there is no geek out there who is fed up with flash and willing to dedicate their time to hacking on video on HTML 5.

Flash as a product is pretty bad. It frequently causes the browser to crash and Konqueror (and now Chrome) even ran flash in its own process so that when it crashed it wouldn't take down your whole browser. Flash ads frequently cause your CPU to spike and cause your page loading to freeze. As a user experience they are pretty bad to boot and until recently Google couldn't even index them. Adobe regularly make releases that break browsers and only release binaries for a insanely small set of platforms. Want to run 64bit Linux, or any BSD? No flash for you.

So what might the future hold? It was pretty clear from the Chrome presentation and literature that Google dislikes flash's presence in their browser. It cuts through their security model and in general doesn't play well with what the goals of their project are. But just like me probably found that their initial user base didn't care about their design goals, but just want to see videos of ninja cats. Video through HTML5 is real and coming. It will be in FireFox and WebKit browsers very soon. Up until now I hadn't thought much about this because of the YouTube problem. Even if I.E. supported HTML5 video why would YouTube go through the hassle of upgrading? With Google's Chrome there is finally a very compelling reason for Google to apply internal pressure to get support for HTML5 Video in YouTube. Once YouTube can stream those videos then Chrome could ship with plugins off by default (or disabled until your click on it in some fancy javascript way) creating a more stable, faster, and secure browsing experience. And what about those flash ads? Google uses text ads so they would be hurting competitors to boot. Once YouTube switches the other video sites will follow suit and copy this feature crushing flash's primary reason for existing. Of course only time will tell what really happens with YouTube.

Adobe has bet big on Flash and I mean huge. Six years ago they were a desktop company producing desktop software. But the past few years they have changed. They bought Macromedia and along with flash got their board of directors. For them flash, flex and the web is the future. They want to be the Microsoft of the web. They are directly completing with every cross platform toolkit out there in an attempt to create the new way that desktop and web software is created. They are riding the wave of flash installed and enabled on your browser and if that starts to change they will not be happy. If the golden goose (video) stops laying eggs before some killer flex apps are released there will be problems. Who knows how unhappy they were when the iPhone was released without flash and a dedicated YouTube application sat on the main screen. Perhaps they wanted too much money? There is a video on YouTube a short while back where on of the Adobe sales guys was giving a presentation at Google about flex. There was around ten people in the audience and near the end of the presentation he started saying
Just between you and me Adobe plans to ... platform .. web .. embedded .. flex
My jaw hit the floor when he did that and he was no doubt reprimanded if not fired when he returned to Adobe for the plans he spilled*.

No doubt Adobe will try to flight, maybe create their own YouTube clone, maybe fight with patents to keep HTML5 video off the web. Already they have announced that they will be removing the license fees on the next major releases of Adobe Flash Player for devices. You can read it for yourself in the Adobe quarterly report where they expect to get more money from "an increased demand for tooling products, server technologies, hosted services and applications". Now what happens if people disable flash, developers don't use it, and device manufacturers no longer want it? If YouTube even hints at HTML5 video I would short their stock.

*This has happened several times on Google tech talks that I have seen, it is amazing what people will say when they think they are only speaking to ten people and not the web.


Yert said...

Flash is facing some competition that would squeeze the attitude out of Adobe.

Sure, there is the video tag, and much more, but I'm talking about Silverlight.

Silverlight has the spec opened up unlike Flash, making it not only possible to write a Linux version without Microsoft's support, but Microsoft is paying for one to be made.

Silverlight can be indexed without an special tools (XML is wonderous!).

Silverlight can use a real programing language vs. a scripting language that you must learn just for Flash.

The advantages go on, but it is worth a look.

Of course, that isn't to say others shouldn't try to shoot down Adobe...
Stage6 was a better YouTube then YouTube, no Flash attached.
Google Gears is working to be more flexible then Flex and lighter then Air.
AJAX and the video tag.
And oh so much more...

Sean said...


MS is going to be unwilling to take Silverlight to its logical conclusion, which is to make the desktop irrelevant. If you look at the course Adobe has plotted, its heading into waters that MS will have to go through alot of politics to be willing to enter, and as a result they will always play catchup. As for your other points.

Indexing content is not the same as deriving meaning from that content. Search engines must learn how to derive meaning from any new spec, whether its clear text or compiled binaries.

They both run in a VM, would you really like to argue the difference between a 'real' vm language vs a 'scripting' language?

AJAX is actually quite weak when you look at everything else thats possible with sockets.
And the < video > tag is already outdated compared to the scriptabily of Flash and Silverlights media objects.

shaurz said...

Flash works great on 64-bit Linux, even better since it runs in a seperate nspluginwrapper process so it won't crash the browser.

shevegen said...

Personally I have given up for Linux + Flash. Firefox just crashes all the time for me and the advertisement in flash takes so much load time that I am no longer willing to pay for this - since it is MY computer's CPU time i am paying for, I dont want to ruin MY browser experience.

Browsing now takes less time and I am glad for this. I do have a little windows machine and flash works there reliably, but I use it only seldomly.

al said...

I think Apple is helping the situation out by not having Flash on the iPhone. Switching over to a dedicated video player when you want to see a youtube movie is a much nicer way of handling video than cramming it in a flash window. Higher video quality, too. So hopefully that will lessen the notion that everyone has Flash.

Robert Robbins said...

I'm a big YouTube fanatic and I think the Internet is becomming an entertainment platform where video will rule over text and images. How the browser delivers video is going to be critical. MediaRSS is an interesting alternative to the current use of plugins. The Adobe Media Player does a beautiful job of subscribing to a YouTube MediaRSS feed. Miro also supports MediaRSS as "channels" and it is clearly a superior way to subscribe to a YouTube channel.

LeMadChef said...

I agree with what you are saying... Mostly. Another big "win" for flash is all those little online games. It's not enough to replace YouTube (although that would go a long way) you still need to allow for interactive content. Perhaps Chrome's Javascript improvements will allow this.

rutka said...

"Adobe is acting like they deserve to be the standard" - and Google? ALL companies act this way, its sort of what capitalism breeds.

As for this sudden turn of events, Flash has been the embedded standard a lot longer than 3 years, more like 6.

After reading your article, I think you meant to title "You Tube owns the web and they know it". Which may be true, but knowing it and timing it are very different matters on the web.

Jeff said...

So what's the news here? Adobe is making a play using its technology and it is operating in a hotly competitive enviroment where things are in flux and nothing is a given. There is a need for solid RIA solutions now and Adobe is filling that need. If a company has an application built in Flex/Flash that is compelling enough people will pay the price of entry (an install).

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