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May 10th, 2010

Is Open but Proprietary iFlash Coming?

There are many reason’s to dislike Adobe’s Flash. It’s buggy, it’s a resource hog, and it’s a security risk of Microsoft proportions. But the biggest reason to dislike Flash, the engine behind everything from YouTube videos to distracting online ads, is that it’s proprietary. It’s not free, and most likely never will be.

That’s why, like many, I was happy a few weeks back when Apple announced they were all but forever banning Flash and Flash apps on their mobile devices. I was happier still when Steve Jobs thoroughly trashed the Adobe product in his Thoughts on Flash post on the Apple web site. For once it seemed as if Jobs was on the same wavelength as open source proponents. He recognized that the web needs to be based on open standards and pledged to support standards like HTML5 as Apple attempts to redefine the mobile online experience.


That elation turned out to be short lived, for in no time Jobs & Company were back to their proprietary ways, acting very Ballmer-like by threatening an open source project with patent lawsuits.

The project was Ogg Theora, an open source video codec supported by Chrome, Firefox and Opera, and the threat came in the form of an email Jobs reportedly wrote in response to a query from Hugo Roy with the Free Software Foundation Europe.

“All video codecs are covered by patents,” he wrote. “A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other ‘open source’ codecs now. Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn’t mean or guarantee that it doesn’t infringe on others’ patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source.”

It was head scratching time. Why would Jobs threaten to go after Ogg Theora just days after damning Flash for being proprietary and calling for the Internet to be “open”? The blogosphere experts seemed to collectively agree that this probably had something to do with Apple’s partial ownership of H.264, a proprietary standard adopted by Apple, Microsoft and others, meaning that Apple would make money from H.264’s adoption.

Without doubt this is part of the answer, but only part. On Friday, AppleInsider reported that Apple might be developing their own Flash-like implementation called Gianduia, named after an Italian hazelnut chocolate. According to information leaked by developer Jonathan “Wolf” Rentzsch on Twitter, Gianduia was introduced last year at the World of WebObjects Developer Conference (WOWODC). Rentzsch said Gianduia is “…essentially is browser-side Cocoa (including CoreData) + WebObjects, written in JavaScript by non-js-haters.”

At present, Gianduia’s existence and capabilities are basically only rumor. However, a source close to FOSS Force has told me, “I do know for a fact that a Cocoa based browser side set of tools was introduced last year and Javascript fans freaked. It would not surprise me if Apple introduces a tool to replace Flash functionality on the web. It would go a long way to explain the hostility they have shown towards Adobe.”

AppleInsider also thinks the project is fact, and that it’s ready for prime time. In Friday’s article, writer Daniel Eran Dilger said, “Apple Retail has actually already been using Gianduia to create web app clients…for a variety of popular programs over the last several months, including it’s One-to-One program, iPhone reservation system, and it’s Concierge service for Genius Bar reservations and Personal Shopping programs.”

Like practically all Apple software, there’s little doubt that Gianduia will be excellent. The problem is that it won’t be open, and it’s doubtful that Jobs has any intent on making it so. In addition, it threatens similar viable open source projects like Apple’s own SproutCore as well as JavascriptMVC.

In other words, it appears that what Jobs really wants is an Internet based on “open” standards owned by Apple. I can’t say that I blame him, but it’s not what we need. We need an Internet based on open standards owned by us all. We need to not replace the Internet Explorer fiasco of yore with an Apple fiasco of tomorrow.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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