We are “Scrapping Flash and betting the company of HTML5” says the CTO of Scribd (the document sharing service) according to an article published recently in TechCrunch. But this doesn’t seem to be as much of a risk as the headline implies as, according to the article “Adobe’s much-beleaguered Flash is about to take another hit and online documents are finally going to join the Web on a more equal footing“. As the article goes on to say “Scribd is joining a chorus of companies from Apple to Microsoft in siding with HTML5 over Flash. Tomorrow only 200,000 of the most popular documents will be available in HTML5, but eventually all of them will be switched over“. The article goes on to point out that “When it’s done, Scribd alone will convert billions of document pages into Web pages“.
Open Standards and the NOF-digi Programme
Good, you may think, it’s about time we made greater use of open standards. And this sentiment underpinned various standards documents I have contributed to since about 1996 for the JISC and the cultural heritage sector. As an example consider the NOF-digitise Technical Advisory Service which was provided by UKOLN and the AHDS from 2001-2004. These two service were commissioned to document the open standards to be used by this national digitisation programme. So we described open standards, such as SMIL and SVG, and, despite warning of the dangers in mandating premature adoption of open standards, the first version of the standards document did not address the potential difficulties in developing services based on these immature W3C standards.
Unsurprisingly, once the project had received their funding and began to commission development work we received questions such as “Does anyone have any thoughts on the use of file formats such as Flash or SVG in projects? There is no mention of their use in the technical specifications so I wondered whether their suitability or otherwise had been considered“. I can remember the meeting we had with the NOF-digitise progamme managers after receiving such queries and the difficulty policy makers had in appreciating that simply mandating use of open standards might be inappropriate.
Our response was to explain the reasons why open standards were, in principle, to be preferred over use of proprietary formats:
The general advice is that where the job can be done effectively using non-proprietary solutions, and avoiding plug-ins, this should be done. If there is a compelling case for making use of proprietary formats or formats that require the user to have a plug-in then that case can be made in the business plan, provided this case does not contradict any of the MUST requirements of the nof technical guidelines document.
Flash is a proprietary solution, which is owned by Macromedia. As with any proprietary solutions there are dangers in adopting it as a solution: there is no guarantee that readers will remain free in the long term, readers (and authoring tools) may only be available on popular platforms, the future of the format would be uncertain if the company went out of business, was taken over, etc.
However we did acknowledge the difficulties of forcing projects to use open standards and concluded:
To, to summarise, if you *require* the functionality provided by Flash, you will need to be aware of the longer term dangers of adopting it. You should ensure that you have a migration strategy so that you can move to more open standards, once they become more widely deployed.
We subsequently recommended updates to the projects’ reporting mechanism so that projects had to respond to the following questions before use of proprietary formats would be accepted:
(a) Area in which compliance will not be achieved
(b) Explain why compliance will not be achieved including research on appropriate open standards)
(c) Describe the advantages and disadvantages of your proposed solution
(d) Describe your migration strategies in case of problems
Our FAQ provided an example of how these questions might be answered in the case of use of Flash. What we expected (and perhaps hoped for) back then was that there would be a steady growth in the development of tools which supported open standards and the benefits of the standards would lead to a move away from Flash. This, however, hasn’t happened. Instead it seems to have been the lack of support for Flash on the iPhone and the iPad which has led to recent high-profile squabbles, in particular Steve Job’s open letter giving his Thoughts on Flash. His letter points out that
Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.
and concludes by saying:
New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.
It seems, according to Jobs, that it is the requirements of the mobile platform which is leading to the move towards open standards on both mobile and PC platforms.
Eight Years Later
About eight years later it now seems appropriate to move away from Flash and, instead, use HTML5. This long period between initial announcements of new open standards and their appropriateness for mainstream use will differ for different standards – in the case of RDF, for example, the initial family of standards were published in 2004 but it has only been in the past year or so that interest in the deployment of Linked Data services has gained wider popularity. But the dangers of forcing use of open standards is, I hope, becoming better understood.
And this is where I disagree with a recent article by Glyn Moody who, in a recent tweet, suggested that “European Commission Betrays Open Standards – http://bit.ly/bl6HJt pusillanimity“. In an article published in ComputerWorld UK Glyn argued that the “European Commission Betrays Open Standards“. I have skimmed through the latest leak [PDF format] of an imminent Digital Agenda for Europe. What I noticed is that the document calls for “Promoting better use of standards” which argues that “Public authorities should make better use of the full range of relevant standards when procuring hardware, software and iT systems”. It is the failure of the document in “promoting open standards and all the benefits that these bring” which upsets Glyn, who adds that “accept[ing] ‘pervasive technologies’ that *aren’t* based on standards” is “a clear reference to Microsoft“.
But maybe the European Commission have understood the complexities of the deployment of open standards and the risks that mandating their use across public sector organisations might entail. And let’s not forget that,in the UK, we have a history of mandating open standards which have failed to take off – remember OSI networking protocols?
Pointing out that open standards don’t always live up to their promise and it make take several years before they are ready for mainstream use is applying an evidence-based approach to policy. Surely something we need more of, n’est-ce pas?