In a well timed move today Adobe announced the Open Screen Project and lifted restrictions on the use of Flash related specifications. The initiative is supported by several industry leaders including ARM, Intel, LG, Motorola, Nokia, NTT DoCoMo, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba, and Verizon. Notably absent from the list were Google and Apple, creators of the Android and iPhone platforms respectively.
While Flash players have always been free of charge and some Flash tools are open source, until now Adobe has kept tight reins on the format that the player consumes. "Previously, in order to look at the SWF specification you had to sign a licensing agreement not to use it to create competing players," writes Adobe's Ryan Stewart, "but in the interest of expanding the reach of the Flash Player we’re removing all of those restrictions."
Adobe is also publishing the device porting layer APIs for their Flash player, and removing all licensing fees. With this change, any handset manufacturer (*cough* Apple *cough*) who wants Flash to run on their device can do so without paying Adobe a dime. That's assuming, of course, a version of Flash player has been compiled for the specific processor used by the device. With ARM and Intel on board, the two major mobile architectures are covered.
The reason I say the announcement was well timed is that it came two days after comments from Mozilla warning developers not to rely on proprietary technology like Flash, and a week before the opening of Sun's JavaOne conference in San Francisco. Java powers many of today's mobile programs, and Java and Linux form the foundation for Google's upcoming Android platform.
"You're producing content for your users and there's someone in the middle deciding whether users should see your content," said Mozilla Europe founder Tristan Nitot at a conference Tuesday. "If Adobe or Microsoft decides to compete with you and you're using their technology, you cannot compete." Nitot says that HTML5-compliant browsers from a variety of vendors will provide much of what people use Flash for today such as audio and video. This is true, though people use Flash for much more than that. Increasingly, it's being used for entire rich internet applications.
The source code for the Flash player is still closed source and proprietary, but removing restrictions on licensing and even looking at the format specifications goes a long, long way towards alleviating fears of vendor lock-in. This will give a boost to open source players like Gnash and swfdec. While it's unlikely that the open source players will ever catch up to the performance and features in the official Adobe player, it's nice to have the option to get the technology from multiple places in case something happens to Adobe such as, say, getting acquired by Microsoft.