A couple of days ago there was an announcement that “Apple [is] Ditching Preinstalled Flash On Future Macs“. On the surface this decision has been taken to minimise security problems associated with Flash software – as described on the CultOfMac blog “By making users download Flash themselves, Apple is disavowing the responsibility of keeping OS X’s most infamously buggy and resource heavy third-party plugin up to date on users’ machines“.
The Guardian reported the news in rather more aggressive terms: “Apple has escalated its war with Adobe’s Flash Player by stopping including the browser plugin on the Macintosh computers that it sells” and points out how this will inconvenience many users as “The surprising and unannounced move means that buyers will have to figure out how to download the player and plugin on any of the computers that they buy – a process which Apple has not simplified by including any “click to install” links“.
Since the Guardian article pointed out that “Jobs has criticised [Flash] as ‘proprietary’” and “praised HTML5 and the video codecs available on it” this story might be regarded as a success story for open standards. But there is a need to be aware that Flash’s proprietary nature has been recognised as a concern to those seeking to make use of open standards in development work for some time. The NOF-Digitise Technical Advisory Service provided an FAQ which pointed out in about 2002 that “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 buy generic drugs went out of business, was taken over, etc.“.
In retrospect the FAQ could also be have said that “As with any open standard there are dangers in adopting it as a solution: there is no guarantee that readers will be provided on popular platforms, readers (and authoring tools) may fail to be available on popular platforms, the future of the format would be uncertain if the open standard fails to be widely adopted, etc.”
It is only now, about eight years after that advice was provided, that we are seeing Flash started to be deprecated by major players and open standards alternatives being provided by such vendors. And although the vendors will inevitably cite the benefits of open standards in their press releases, since such benefits have always been apparent, in reality decisions to support open standards are likely to have been made by vendors for commercial reasons – in this case competition between Apple and Adobe.
But what can be learnt from such history lesson? Perhaps that the availability of an open standard is no guarantee that it will supersede proprietary alternatives and that commercial vendors can have a significant role to play in ensuring the take-up of open standards. In which case it does seem that HTML5 will be an important standard and Flash is under threat.
But whilst that view seems to be increasingly being accepted it is worth noting concerns that have been raised within W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, with Philippe Le Hegaret pointing out that “The problem we’re facing right now is there is already a lot of excitement for HTML5, but it’s a little too early to deploy it because we’re running into interoperability issues”.
Hmm, it seems as if the HTML5 maturity debate will continue to run.