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Flash: The New Computing Platform?

The newly-merged Adobe/Macromedia is rolling out ambitions plans for Flash, its Web animation tool. Most of the tech community is expecting there to be a battle between Adobe and Microsoft over Web graphics, but we think the competition goes a lot deeper than that, to the heart of the Windows franchise. We think Adobe is trying to make Windows irrelevant, and it might work.
To explain what’s happening, we have to spend a little time discussing what exactly an operating system like Windows is. To a computer scientist, an OS is the software that enables computing hardware to work. It manages the basic operations of the system (thus the name), so applications can perform the tasks desired by a designer or user.

The OS is irrelevant

But to a user, the underlying plumbing of the operating system is irrelevant. It’s just part of the hardware. What matters is the user interface, because that’s what the user has to learn; and the application programming interfaces (APIs), because they determine which software programs you can run on the device.
Interfaces and APIs together are often referred to as a “platform,” because they are the thing on top of which application software is built. Windows is a platform, as is the Mac OS. The distinction between platform and OS is important because the underlying operating system plumbing doesn’t generate much value. It’s the platform that users and developers are loyal to. If you separate the platform from the underlying OS, the user interface and applications can run on any OS. The OS itself becomes just commodity technology.
That’s what Adobe is trying to do.
Adobe is expanding Flash from an animation playback environment into a full-fledged application development platform. Adobe recently announced Apollo, a software program that will let a Flash program run outside of the browser, even if the user is not connected to the Internet. This converts Flash programs from little presentations that run inside a web page into applications that the user can store on a PC and run anytime by clicking an icon on the desktop. The Apollo program takes care of managing the underlying operating system, so a single Apollo application could run on a Windows PC, a Mac, or a Linux box.
A version of Apollo will also run on mobile devices. Unlike the PC world, there’s no OS standard for mobile phones and smartphones. But if you could put Apollo on all those phones and handhelds, the OS wouldn’t matter any more. Developers could just write their applications in Flash, and they would run anywhere.
This is a very attractive proposition to IT managers and in-house developers within corporations, who want to span the range of devices in the marketplace with as little investment and support burden as possible. Adobe’s strategy potentially gives a very seductive message to them — deploy Apollo on your PCs and mobile devices and you won’t have to worry about anything else.

Apollo + Flash = The brave new world

Apollo and Flash don’t kill Windows directly, but they are an attack on its financial model. People pay a lot of money today for Windows because you must have it to run Windows applications. If the applications of the future are written for Flash, Windows turns into just a bunch of plumbing (and pretty insecure, jury-rigged plumbing at that). Its intrinsic value drops tremendously, and hardware vendors will feel free to substitute Linux or something else for it.

Microsoft’s entry: Windows Presentation Foundation

Microsoft isn’t sitting still for all of this, of course. It’s developing Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), which will include graphics, text, video playback, animation, and a lot more. It’s the graphics engine built into the next version of Windows, Vista. A derivative version of WPF called WPF Everywhere will be ported to Macs and mobile devices in addition to older versions of Windows. So like Flash, WPF/E will be a platform that runs on top of other operating systems. Like Apollo, it will also enable applications to run independently of the browser. It’s basically a new platform.
But there are important differences. To protect the Windows business, Microsoft is holding some features out of WPF Everywhere (in particular, 3D and graphics acceleration). That means applications written for the full WPF may not run on other devices. This makes sense for Microsoft — it wants the Windows version of its software to be the most powerful, so people have an incentive to buy Windows. But that makes WPF/E a second-class citizen. If Adobe does a better job of adding features to Flash, and keeps its implementations consistent, developers and IT managers may prefer its fully cross-platform software over the “intentionally crippled” WPF/E.

Possible outcome — pyrrhic victory, Google steps in

At this point it’s impossible to predict who will win. Adobe might make Windows irrelevant, or Microsoft might crush Flash.
There’s also a pyrrhic victory scenario in which Microsoft defeats Adobe, but in so doing gives away the differentiation of Windows and permanently weakens itself. In this scenario, Microsoft would have to fall back on Office and Outlook/Exchange as its main moneymakers.
It’s also possible that Google will try to assemble its own open source answer to both Flash and WPF. In fact, we would be surprised if Google’s not working on it. Google doesn’t benefit if either Microsoft or Adobe controls the app platform of the future.

Platform transitions kill incumbent companies

The situation with Flash is one more example of how the growth of the Internet is undermining old standards and creating new competitive opportunities. Historically, this sort of transition in high tech has killed off most of the established leaders and cleared the ground for a new generation of companies and standards to take root. The companies with the best chance of succeeding in this new world will be those that are willing to re-think their franchise businesses and aggressively pursue new opportunities.
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Full disclosure: Adobe Systems is a client of Rubicon Consulting. However, we haven’t done any projects for the Flash business unit, and this commentary is based entirely on publicly-available information

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