How Open Is Adobe`s Open Screen Project?

A development guru questions Adobe?ö?ç?ûs openness.

SAN FRANCISCO-Despite Adobe Systems' move to open up some of the Flash formats to enable a more uniform experience for users on devices and desktops, some are questioning just how "open" the design tools maker actually is.

On May 1 Adobe announced it was spearheading the Open Screen Project, an effort to push a consistent runtime environment across devices to make the user experience of shifting from desktop to device smoother. Adobe is using Flash and Adobe AIR as the cornerstones of this effort.

However, some observers questioned Adobe's commitment to openness.

Dion Almaer, co-founder of and an engineer at Google who often works with Adobe on such concepts as the Adobe AIR integration with Google Gears, said he was "ecstatic to see the news of Adobe opening up."

Almaer spoke with eWEEK here on May 5 at the Sun CommunityOne preview to its annual JavaOne conference. He said his initial enthusiasm was tempered when he looked under the covers, particularly the licensing details.

"I was ecstatic to see the news on the wire, because I think this will be great for the Web," Almaer said in a May 5 blog post. "If we could get Flash to be part of the Open Web, I would love to see it as a win-win. Unfortunately, when I looked into the details, there wasn't much to see. The claim was that the FLV/SWF/F4V binary formats will be open, and there will no longer be the restriction that said you can't run the code."

However, "The problem was that there was no license to go along with this claim, which means that we can't actually do much with it yet," Almaer said. "Adobe isn't more 'open' today than it was the day before the announcement. This will hopefully change very soon when we actually see the license, and hopefully see even more."

Moreover, Almaer admonished vendors to be more forthright. "All we can really ask is to have the clear communication," he said. "Just be honest with us. Be clear with your intentions. The ramifications really do affect us too. I may get more involved in a project that isn't just run by one company, where they can change things on a whim."

In a statement, Adobe responded: "We have received a few questions from developers about the request for a license and we are addressing this now. We will have more information available soon."

Meanwhile, Al Hilwa, an analyst at IDC, said, "First of all this is not a traditional open-source project as the name might possibly suggest; it is really a multipronged initiative."

Hilwa said there are three general parts to the Open Screen project. One is more openness through API and protocol publications. The second is a broad lineup of partners including handset makers, carriers and content providers. And the third component is "the 'show me the money' part, which is the removal of licensing fees and restrictions."

In addition, Hilwa said, in high-technology partnerships, "much like in politics, it is key to follow the money, and here Adobe is transitioning to a royalty-free model for Flash on embedded devices. What is going on here is a land grab for platform real estate. Everyone is making a bid for this new multibillion device opportunity, which when combined with [the] Web, rich desktops and many devices sporting a screen in the future, could actually exceed the population of the planet on a per-unit basis."

Yet, the time frame is long and the players are established in various segments for this opportunity, Hilwa said. Microsoft is working its way into this from the desktop with Silverlight and the Windows Embedded platform, while Google is going in with Android, and Apple with its developer initiatives on the iPhone and iTouch. In addition, major device players such as Nokia and Qualcomm also are making a play.

"There is definitely -coopetition' here as most of the partners Adobe lined up have their own initiatives and platform ambitions, and most see Flash as restricted to graphical and rich Internet applications versus a universal platform," Hilwa said.

Moreover, this could be a boon for developers. "Application developers would definitely appreciate some streamlining in the number of platforms available to provide congruent development across the form factors-desktop, Web, device-and a consolidation of the options is inevitable in the long run," Hilwa said. "However, the battle rages right now making this an exciting time to live in if you are a developer."

Michael Cot??«, an analyst with Redmonk, said, "Vision and plans aside, making the Flash Player free to use is a huge, tangible step. The Flash Player is, analogously, Adobe's Java VM [virtual machine], 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.

Indeed, the goal of having a more consistent development environment across mobile devices, PCs and other devices is "a dandy plan," Cote said. However, at this point, there's not so much technology ready to go as a statement of intent from Adobe, he said.

"While you could dismiss that as mere -marketecture' at this point, the important event for Adobe watchers is seeing their desires coalesce around delivering a development platform," Cote said. "Adobe is also composed of PDF and Creative divisions, so having this be a large, stated initiate for Adobe and 'The Platform Guy' Kevin Lynch [Adobe's chief technology officer] as the entire company's CTO are pretty easy-to-read tea leaves suggesting 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. Rather, this is a pumping up of their development division, largely built from acquiring Macromedia."

Now the company just has to deliver on that plan, Cote said.