“Flash is as open as HTML5” – No, it isn’t.

Lately, Adobe representatives and Flash fan boys alike became more vocal than usual about the alleged openness of Flash. This is probably spurred by the proposed feature set of HTML5, as well as the decisions of a certain vendor to ban Flash from some of their products, both potentially being threats to Adobe and the Flash Platform.

I originally posted the following article as comment to an article by Serge Jespers, “Flash is as open as HTML5“. Serge is an Adobe Platform Evangelist. I thought this comment deserves its own post, so here we go.

No, it isn’t.

And it is beyond me why so many independent Flash Platform developers fail to see it. I completely understand of course why Adobe evangelists downplay it.

It is irrelevant for the so called “open web” whether the Flash Player is going to get open sourced or not. That’s not the point. Microsoft won’t open source their browser, Opera won’t open source their browser, etc.

Relevant is who decides about the development of the data format that a runtime consumes, and the APIs a runtime provides to access that data. In the Flash world that’s SWF and the Flash Player APIs, both controlled by a single vendor: Adobe. In the HTML world that’s HTML and DOM, controlled by many vendors, including you and me, via standards bodies.

Adobe neither provides formal means for other companies and individuals to participate in the development of SWF and Flash Player APIs, nor does it provide detailed work-in-progress specs to the general public for discussion. This effectively rules out the possibility for third parties to provide alternative runtimes. The runtime and its specs are released to the public at the same time.

This is the exact opposite of “open”.

To make matters worse, the specs released by Adobe are incomplete and buggy (e.g. the SWF spec fails to explain how exactly shapes are supposed to be rendered and leaves out information on codecs, the ABC spec is plain wrong on some things) and generally infested with patented technologies.

Of course i understand why it is how it is (and likely always will be). If Adobe were to become truly open and put the development of SWF etc in the hands of standards bodies, the 1.5 year release cycle would become a 10+ years release cycle. Innovation would slow down significantly. I as a Flash Platform developer wouldn’t want that to happen.

However, sorry to say that, but to tout “Flash is as open as HTML5″ is pure FUD.

9 thoughts on ““Flash is as open as HTML5” – No, it isn’t.

  1. I took the original “Flash is as open as HTML5” post title as “both Flash and HTML5 are not as open as we’d like them to be”. So, if both are “not open” why prefer the inferior one (I mean HTML5)?

    There are W3C fan boys as there are Flash fan boys as there are Apple fan boys… I have seen worst decisions coming from W3C and much better ones from Macromedia (and Adobe). In theory W3C should be more open, but in practice Adobe listens more.

  2. Hi Claus.

    Well put. It is really ironic to see Flash, a closed plataform, even though it’s less draconian than it used to be. It’s sad because I’ve seen much of those folks now claiming for openess that always though OSS people were zealots and lunatics. Nobdy cared much when Adobe didn’t support Linux…

    I just hope their take away from all this is that corporations are really hard to trust.


  3. It’s hard when an argument is based on labels… people argue about what the definitions “should” be.

    Instead, in terms of behavior, anyone can use Flash, deploy atop it, built it however they want, build their own engines (harder w/Flash due to codec licensing)… it’s indeed parallel to HTML. I’d argue that you can get a change-request across to the SWF governors more easily than you can to the HTML governors. There’s definitely partner cooperation in new implementations… probably more open than the WebKit process, where committers are controlled.

    SWF isn’t optimized for a world of fragmented renderers — our goal is predictable rendering, to complement the fragmentation of the HTML world. Still, if you can point out a meaningful difference between HTML & SWF “openness” it would be good to hear, thanks.


  4. Hi John,

    Adobe reserves for its exclusive use Flash player extensions like screen sharing and echo cancellation. It has also baked patent-pending protocols like RTMFP into the Flash player that require access to either an Adobe rendezvous service or Adobe server to work.

    In that sense Flash is much more closed than HTML 5. Adobe has more control of Flash than any one company has control of HTML. Changing HTML requires some level of cooperation between companies. Adobe decides what goes into Flash and Adobe has a clear track record of making decisions that are only in its strategic interest. Adobe can and does reserve Flash player features for its own use at the expense of competitors. There is nothing analogous to those restrictions in HTML/CSS/ECMAScript. Even Canvas will effectively be donated by Apple when HTML 5 becomes a recommendation.

    I don’t understand why Serge would try to argue that Flash is more open than HTML 5. I don’t think it benefits Adobe at all. In my opinion you are better off pointing out that Flash is part of the Web and how it continues to be relevant. For example offering a better, more efficient, way to create well performing animations, or in the case of RTMFP, providing a way to multicast live events at a scale that was not possible in the past and with a huge reduction in bandwidth costs.


  5. John, i think in my post i made very clear what the key difference between HTML & SWF’s “openness” is.

    And to be absolutely clear, i am convinced that giving SWF et al into the hands of a standards body (as others suggest) would be a very bad idea. Flash’s success is bound to its proprietary nature. As you said, “our goal is predictable rendering, to complement the fragmentation of the HTML world”. I’ve always seen Flash as a complement to HTML, amongst many other things, not as a replacement. And as such the two are not really comparable, thus the statement Flash is as open as HTML is not only wrong but lacks a common base to start with.

  6. Currently, as far as I understand it, for the WHATWG’s HTML5 spec you need to convince Google employee Ian Hickson of any additions or changes to the HTML5 spec. Hickson is the self-described “benevolent dictator” of HTML5 and if he disagrees with you, then the overall consensus doesn’t matter. There’s been a number of controversial decisions where Hickson has gone against the general consensus.

    That said, the spec then goes from the WHATWG to the W3C’s HTMLWG and I still don’t quite understand how that process works and what input the W3C’s HTMLWG provides.

    Although it could still be argued that these discussions happen in the open and we don’t see the discussions for the direction of the Flash Player.

    I think a better argument would be not that Flash is as open as HTML5, but that HTML5 is not as open as many people think it is and a lot more controlled with it’s own set of gatekeepers.
    Or to argue that HTML5 is a mess:

    That said, as a single developer is seems to be easier to get involved in the direction of the Flash Player, voting or adding new features in Adobe’s JIRA than trying to get involved in the direction of the direction HTML5 with various message boards, chats, mailing lists and huge amount of documentation.

  7. Hi Matthew,

    There is no question that coming up with an HTML 5 recommendation has been difficult and that there are still problems around moving an HTML 5 draft to the W3C. You can read it in some of Ian Hickson’s posts. For example:

    “If we want to continue the trend of making W3C copy a smaller and smaller subset of the HTML spec hosted on the WHATWG site, I don’t mind hiding the controversial example from the W3C copy. However, there comes a point where if we keep taking things out when anyone is in the least bit offended by it (microdata, vocabs, ping=””, examples, etc) that the W3C copy will basically be pointless: the least offensive common denominator. Attrition by committee.”

    So you can see the W3C decision making process is having an impact.

    Which version of HTML 5 matters? The more verbose and politically motivated one Ian Hickson edits or the one the W3C will eventually recommend? I’m betting on the W3C, though it seems that without the work of the WHATWG they would never have got this far.

    Anyway, Ian Hickson’s political beliefs about what is good and bad for the Web are clearly and openly stated. In the same thread he remarks:

    “We’re talking about plugins here. There are no good authoring practices, only bad ones and worse ones.”

    You may not like it. And, I don’t agree with his views on the role of plugins in the Web, but there it is in the open as is the W3C’s process for making decisions.

    Now, how does Adobe make decisions? Say around mxml name spaces, echo cancellation, how much to charge to use RTMFP, or if the screen sharing codec should be blocked in FMS? I don’t have a clue. Sure, I can vote for screen sharing or a better video encoder in Jira, but I still don’t know how a decision is made.

    I think it is pointless – maybe even terribly counter productive – to argue that Flash is more open than HTML 5. But I think it is really easy to argue that Flash enriches the Web and will continue to do so years after HTML 5 becomes a recommendation and IE 9 has shipped. I also think its easy to argue that the Web is a big place capable of supporting more than one good answer to a technical challenge.


  8. Pingback: Adobe rimanda al mittente le accuse di Steve Jobs su Flash | setteB.IT

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