Monday, June 09, 2008

Single Consistent Platform for Mobile Application Development

In the mobile development community there has been a constant uproar to find a platform which is supported by many, if not all, mobile manufacturers.

Recently Adobe announced a series of changes. The changes include:

--The next version of the mobile Flash runtime will be free of license fees. Adobe also confirmed that the mobile version of the Air runtime will be free.

--Adobe changed its licensing terms and released additional technical information that will make it easier for companies to create their own Flash-compatible products.

--The company announced a new consortium called Open Screen supporting the more open versions of Flash and Air. Members of the new group include the five leading handset companies, three mobile operators (including NTT, DoCoMo and Verizon), technology vendors (including Intel, Cisco, and Qualcomm), and content companies (BBC, MTV, and NBC Universal). Google, Apple, and Microsoft are not members.

Adobe said that the idea behind the announcements is to create a single consistent platform that lets developers create an application or piece of content once and run it across various types of devices and operating systems. That idea is very appealing to developers and content companies today. It was equally appealing two years ago, when then-CEO of Adobe Bruce Chizen made the exact same promise:
If we execute appropriately we will be the engagement platform, or the layer, on top of anything that has an LCD display, any computing device -- everything from a refrigerator to an automobile to a video game to a computer to a mobile phone.

Microsoft had tried to do the same by the launch of Microsoft Silverlight and in that sense Adobe has still to do a lot of follow up with Microsoft.

Also, the most important changes appear to apply to the next version of mobile Flash and the upcoming mobile version of Air -- meaning this was in part a vaporware announcement. Even when the new runtime software ships, it will take a long time to get it integrated into mobile phones. So once again, Microsoft has a long runway to maneuver on.

Still, the changes Adobe made are very useful. There's no way Flash could have become ubiquitous in the mobile world while Adobe was still charging fees for it. The changes to the Flash license terms remove one of the biggest objections I've seen to Flash from open source advocates. The Flash community seems excited and the list of supporters is impressive. Looking through the obligatory quotes attached to the Adobe release, two things stand out:

--Adobe got direct mentions of Air from ARM, Intel, SonyEricsson, Verizon, and Nokia (although Nokia promised only to explore Air, while it's on the record promising to bundle Silverlight mobile).

--The inclusion of NBC Universal in the announcement will have Adobe people chuckling because Microsoft signed up NBC to stream the Olympics online using Silverlight. So NBC is warning Microsoft not to take it for granted, and Adobe gets to stick its tongue out.

What does it all mean?
Nothing much in the short term. As I mentioned earlier, this is mostly a vaporware announcement (other than the license changes). Some people are speculating that this will put pressure on Apple to make Flash available on the iPhone. That's possible, if Apple's real concern was that they didn't like Flash Lite. Now they can port full Flash, or someone else can do it. But if Apple is in reality unwilling to let anyone else's platform run on the iPhone then we'll see other objections to Flash emerge.

The marketing competition to control the future of mobile apps is continuing to heat up. Microsoft is trying to take the whole thing proprietary by creating a comprehensive architecture, Adobe is trying to drive its own platform, Sun is trying to re-energize J2ME, Google is making its own moves with Android, and so on. Plus, of course, most mobile app developers today are happy with what they're using now and have little economic interest in switching to any unified development platform.

It's an enormously complex situation, and it's going to take months, if not years, before we can start to see who's winning and who is losing.

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