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Adobe's Flash technology has long played a major role in delivering compelling graphics online, but a shadow hangs over its future.
Three powerful technology companies -- Apple, Google, and Microsoft -- and open-source companies like Mozilla are working to make Flash unnecessary. At least that's the way some view the situation, although Adobe sees things differently.
In the case of Microsoft, it's a matter of wanting to see its own technology and tools, from Silverlight to Expression, gain market share at the expense of Flash and Adobe's Web development tools. Toward that end and to blunt the adoption of open-source development tools, Microsoft on Thursday launched WebsiteSpark, a program that offers Web developers free Microsoft development software for three years.
Microsoft has also committed to participating more actively in the HTML 5 standards debate. HTML 5 includes tags that allow Web sites to present audio, video and rich graphics without a plug-in technology like Flash.
Apple, which competes against Adobe with a number of its professional media applications, has stymied Adobe's mobile ambitions by refusing to allow Flash on the iPhone. Although Adobe's CEO has confirmed that his company is working to develop a version of Flash that meets Apple's restrictions on interpreted code and API access, Flash's absence from the iPhone has hurt. The iPhone's unprecedented success has proven that game makers don't need Flash, at least on the iPhone.
Google meanwhile has been declaring that "the Web has won" and has been evangelizing the possibilities of HTML 5. It has developed a version of YouTube that, unlike the live version, can display video using HTML 5 technology rather than Flash. It has been building hardware-accelerated 3D graphics capabilities into its Chrome browser and has backed the WebGL spec for "enabling hardware-accelerated 3D graphics in Web pages without the need for browser plug-ins."
Flash of course is the browser plug-in that's being referred to.
Google is also pushing the envelope in terms of expanding the availability and utility of 3D imagery online. Two different patent applications filed by Google on Thursday, one in the EU and one in the US, foretell the company's ambition to bring 3D panoramic driving direction imagery to Google Maps and to bypass browser file-system access limitations in order in to generate rich 3D graphics "without needing special software such as a Flash plug-in or the like."
Adrian Ludwig, group manager for Flash Platform Product Marketing, acknowledges that a certain portion of the development community sees HTML 5 as a threat to Flash but argues that Adobe supports browser innovation and has done so for years.
A lot of the innovation that has been happening with browsers, he said, "has been strongly inspired by what we do with Flash. ... The browsers are going to have to get better and we're all for that."
"We think it's going to take a long time for anything to be standardized," he said, suggesting it could be five to ten years before HTML 5 stabilizes. "It doesn't feel like a threat. There are certainly parts of the community that have positioned it as a threat."
In downplaying that threat, Ludwig says that much of the focus has been on the client when there's also consideration that needs to be given to the server side of things. Flash of course isn't just about rendering pretty images; it's also about delivering those images at scale, through streaming servers.
And Flash is evolving. On Monday, Adobe launched Flash Platform Services to provide a platform for promoting, measuring and monetizing Flash applications on social networks, desktops, and mobile devices. Viewed in conjunction with Adobe's recently announced acquisition of Web metrics company Omniture, it's clear that Adobe's vision for Flash and other Adobe development technologies involves empowerment on the server side -- think content management -- at least as much as advances on the client side.
Andrew Crow, senior experience designer with online design firm Adaptive Path, believes Flash isn't under any immediate threat.
"I know that a lot of developers are extremely excited about things like HTML 5 and the new capabilities that will be made available in the future," he said. "But people still use Flash and will continue to use Flash for while because it does provide some options that browser-based interaction does not."
For Crow, it's a matter of using the right tool for the job.
With regard to Microsoft's WebsiteSpark announcement, Ludwig suggests that Microsoft isn't so much aiming at Adobe as it is the entire Web-centric development community, of which Adobe considers itself a part.
"I don't see them with that particular announcement thinking about Adobe," he said. "I see them thinking about everything on the Web and the preponderance of interest in Web technologies. I think it is being driven by losing their developers to Web development inclusive of Flash."
Perhaps the real problem that Adobe confronts is that it's caught in between the open-source and the closed-source world. Flash, for example, is mostly open source, but not completely. "It's as open as we can make it," said Ludwig. "There are some constraints on some of the codecs...but we're committed to making it as open as possible."
Unfortunately for Adobe, being in the middle of things can be dangerous. "We tend to get hit in the crossfire a little bit," said Ludwig.
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