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Adobe: friend or enemy of open source, open standards?

Treading a fine line

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

I’m sitting in a session at Adobe Max Europe listening to Senior Product Manager Laurel Reitman talking about what a great open platform Adobe is creating.

She refers to the open sourcing of the Flex SDK; the open bug database for Flex; the ISO standardization programme for PDF; the donation of source code to Tamarin, the Mozilla Foundation ECMAScript 4.0 runtime project, and the use of open source projects such as SQLite and Webkit within AIR, the Adobe Integrated Runtime which lets you run Flash applications on the desktop, and the fact that AIR will run in due course on Linux, though the initial release will be Mac and Windows only.

So is Adobe the friend of open source and open standards? It’s not so simple. Adobe is more successful than any other company in promoting proprietary standards on the internet. It ceased development of the open SVG standard for vector graphics, in favour of the proprietary Flash SWF.

Adobe’s efforts may well stymie the efforts of John Resig and others at Mozilla to foster open source equivalents to Flash and AIR. View the slides of his recent talk, which include video support integrated into the browser, a canvas for 3D drawing, HTML applications which run from the desktop without browser furniture, and web applications which work offline. Why is there not more excitement about these developments? Simply, because Adobe is there first with its proprietary solutions.

Adobe is arguably more a consumer than a contributor with respect to open source. It is using the open-source Eclipse for Flexbuilder and Thermo, but as far as I can tell not doing much with existing open source projects within Eclipse, preferring to provide its own implementations for things like graphics and visual application development.

It is using SQLite and Webkit, and will no doubt feedback bugs and improvements to these projects, but they would flourish with or without Adobe’s input. Tamarin is perhaps its biggest open-source contribution, but read the FAQ: Adobe is contributing source code, but not quite open-sourcing its ActionScript virtual machine. The Flash Player itself remains closed-source, as do its binary compilers.

Like other big internet players, Adobe is treading a fine line. It wants the world to accept its runtimes and formats as standards, while preserving its commercial advantage in controlling them.

My prediction: if Adobe succeeds in its platform ambitions, the company will come under pressure to cede more of its control over those platform standards to the wider community, just as Sun has experienced with Java.®

A freelance journalist since 1992, Tim Anderson specialises in programming and Internet development topics. His blog is here.

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