Adobe's Open Screen Project: Write Once, Flash Everywhere

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Adobe is making a big play to make Flash the de facto viewing environment not only for Web apps on your PC, but also on your mobile phone, your TV, and any other screen you can think of. It is announcing the Open Screen Project to make it easier to develop applications across devices—using Flash, of course. David Wadhwani, general manager of Adobe’s platform business (which includes Flash/Flex, AIR, and Cold Fusion), says:

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We believe it is time for an industry-wide movement for a consistent way to develop across the Web for PCs, mobile devices, and TVs.

To help the project along, Adobe is:

1. Opening up the runtime to its Flash player for the first time so that anybody can create their own customized player. Specifically, it is going to open up the SWF and FLV/F4V specifications. In the past, developers had to sign agreements not to create derivative Flash players because Adobe wanted to avoid the fragmentation that Java experienced during its early years. But now it feels that Flash is a strong enough standard to withstand the introduction of some new evolutionary branches.

2. Removing licensing fees for Flash on mobile devices. While Flash is free on PCs, cell phone makers and other device manufacturers must pay a royalty fee. This was a $52 million business for Adobe last year. (Versions of Flash are on 500 million mobile devices already, and that is expected to grow to one billion over the next 12 months). That business (which represents only 2 percent of Adobes overall revenues) is going away. Starting with the next major release of Flash (and AIR) for devices in 2009, it will be free to device manufacturers. That should help Flash spread even more.

3. Publishing the APIs for porting Flash to other devices. This currently also incurs a royalty fee. By opening it up, there is no reason why every device shouldn’t come with Flash pre-installed.

4. Publishing Adobe protocols for pushing content to devices like Flash Cast and AMF. Adobe will also work with wireless carriers on protocols for over-the-air software updating. (This is actually a hard problem because most software downloaded to a mobile phone gets stored in read-only-memory, where it pretty much stays until the device is replaced. Getting mobile software to update as easily as desktop software is the key to making sure mobile apps keep up with the times.

On the application creation side, Adobe increasingly will be adopting a widget approach. There is not much difference between a widget that runs as a module on a Web page and a mobile app that runs on a small screen. Wadhwani explains:

These things can expand up. Developers are looking to optimize for these small screen sizes. Instead of squashing it down from a desktop experience, it is easier to start small and build up.

The same approach can be used for apps on other devices as well, such as set-top boxes.

The promise of the Open Screen Project to developers is the age-old dream of being able to write an application once and deploy it anywhere across any device. Adobe and its slew of partners in the Open Screen Project (Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Qualcomm, Samsung, Motorola, LG, Toshiba, NTT Docomo, Chungwa Telecom, ARM, Intel, Marvell, Cisco, NBC Universal, MTV Networks, and the BBC) are not alone in this desire. Notably absent from Adobe’s list of partners is Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Each has its own ideas on how this cross-device compatibility will work.

Apple thinks you should just buy Apple products that work seamlessly together (Mac, iPhone, Apple TV). Steve Jobs also notably snubbed Adobe by refusing to put Flash on the iPhone. Maybe his engineers can now make their own version that satisfies their exacting standards.

Google has never been a big fan of Flash, preferring the speed of Ajax in its Webtop apps. On the mobile front, it is betting on Android, its own open operating system. And it also develops mobile apps the traditional way—one device at a time.

But the company with the most overarching and different approach to Adobe’s in this regard is Microsoft. It is pushing its own alternative to Flash: Silverlight. (Although it has licensed Flash Lite for Windows Mobile as a stopgap measure until Silverlight works on mobile devices). More radically, Microsoft differs on how to make apps work across devices. It’s answer ultimately will be Live Mesh. As I wrote last week when Microsoft officially unveiled Live Mesh.:

The basic foundation of Mesh is this feed-centric programming model. A Web developer can build an app using any programming language or tools he likes (Python, Ruby on Rails, Flex) and then sync it across devices and other applications using two-way feeds as the basic data and communication channel. The promise for developers, says product unit manager Abhay Parasnis: “If you Mesh-enable your application, we will let you extend it to other devices.”

In many ways this effort is a counterweight to what we are seeing with Adobe Air or Google Gears, which are efforts to take browser-based apps offline. With Mesh, Microsoft is in effect reasserting the primacy of client-based applications. . . . Developers can customize their apps for whatever device they originally reside on—whether it is a PC, a smartphone, or a set-top box—and then Webify them by syncing them to other applications across the Web.

The more competition we get for ways to bridge applications across devices and screens, the more likely that we’ll actually start to see some of our favorite Web apps on something other than our laptops.

(Photo by AMagill).

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