Glass Maze Every jumbled pile of person

26 March 2010



Ever since it became apparent that the iPad isn’t going to support Flash, John Gruber has been on a tear, throwing up post after post about Flash’s obsolescence, trying to single-handedly usher it into an early grave. And more power to him! I have no love for Flash. It’s a closed product that breaks the web in fundamental ways, overtaxes my CPU, makes online advertising even more annoying, and tempts web designers to do unseemly things.

But there is one area where Flash really is quite necessary: video. This is where Gruber has been mounting his harshest assault. His basic point is that the emerging HTML5 video standard — already supported by most browsers — is more than a capable substitute. This is true. The problem is that most sites still don’t stream HTML5 video. Flash is still, far and away, the most prevalent technology for watching stuff on the net.

Apple is going out on a limb here, dropping support for something before there are really any well-establishment substitutes. This is something they do. They were the first computer maker to drop internal floppy drives, back in 1998, and they did it before there were any good alternatives — this was the era before widely available broadband, USB sticks, cheap CD-R drives, etc. It was the right decision, if slightly premature, and the rest of the industry eventually caught up. Apple’s doing the same thing here.

I don’t really have a problem with any of this. I mean, yes, I would like to see the iPad fail, but that’s only because it’s going to be another platform for their horrible App Store. But as far as the Flash issue goes, I really can’t help but admire both Apple’s chutzpah and Gruber’s indefatigable cheerleading — because I suspect that this is at least partly an irrational decision on Apple’s part. There are good technical reasons to turn your back on Flash, but I can’t help but think that Apple’s main motivation is aesthetic: someone important in the company’s executive suite (whose name may or may not rhyme with Cleave Hobs) finds it distasteful. This is one of the things I love about Apple: aesthetics are at least as important as financials in their worldview.

Gruber’s kind of jumped the shark of late, though. He’s getting down into the weeds in recent posts, making the argument that H.264 — the proprietary, patent-encumbered video format that Safari’s HTML5 implementation supports — is preferable to its free, unencumbered-by-patent alternative, Ogg Theora. More specifically, he’s been ridiculing the Mozilla corporation for refusing to support H.264 in Firefox:

The practical effect of Mozilla’s current position will not be to drive adoption of Ogg Theora. What’s going to happen is that Safari, Chrome, and even IE9 users will be served HTML5 video, and Firefox users will get Flash.


So, even those using the latest version of Firefox will be treated like they’re using a legacy browser. Mozilla’s intransigence in the name of “openness” will result in Firefox users being served video using the closed Flash Player plugin, and behind the scenes the video is likely to be encoded using H.264 anyway.

I don’t disagree with the substance of what he’s saying here — the imperatives of the market really do trump open source idealism, more often than not. What boils my blood is his casual ridicule of openness — dismissively enclosed in snark quotes — in the face of market realities. This is a remarkable thing for an Apple enthusiast to say: the modern Apple would not really exist without open software. OS X is based on BSD, a free and open operating system developed in the seventies. Safari started out as KHTML, an open source Linux browser written by the good folks at KDE. Apple Mail, Aperture, and both the iPhone and iPod Touch use SQLite for data management. And there’s more: a lot more. It’s no exaggeration to say that Apple’s technology stack is predicated on openness.

The story of the modern internet is, at its core, a story about idealism: people with a passion for writing great software and sharing it freely with the rest of the world gave us the backbone of the internet, and the unprecedented, egalitarian explosion of information that it precipitated. Companies have made huge profits off of that idealism. The computer I’m typing this post on, the blog in which it will appear, and the web server that’ll distribute it, are all children of openness.

So I really admire Mozilla for sticking to its guns here. They may have to back down, eventually, but it’s nice to see someone at least trying to stand behind an idealistic commitment to the openness that built our networked world.

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