Government // Enterprise Architecture
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5/20/2010
07:41 PM
David Berlind
David Berlind
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Strange Bedfellows, Google And Adobe Gang Up On Apple

Mortal enemies one day. Bedfellows the next. That's how it felt at the Google I/O 2010 conference when, in the course of two days, Google drove two stakes (HTML5 and VP8) through the heart of Adobe's Flash, and then announced unflagging support for Adobe, particularly in its battle against Apple.

Until this year (2010), getting a Google spokesperson (let alone a Google exec on stage) to say something about the competition was an impossible task. Somewhere in the "Do No Evil" section of the employee handbook, it must have said "Googlers shalt not comment on or speak derisively of other companies." But, as evidenced by this week's Google I/O conference where the gloves came off against Apple, Google appears to have stricken the proviso from its employee handbook. Whenever (ok, not every time) Google engineering vice president Vic Gundotra made a point about Google's mantra of openness, he seized the opportunity to sucker punch Apple whose charismatic CEO Steve Jobs wasn't there (for obvious reasons) to defend himself.

As if the big laughs and applause that Gundotra drew with each sucker punch weren't enough, the drama took on a new dimension when, on the second day of the conference, Gundotra led-off the announcement of Android v2.2's (code-named "Froyo") support for Adobe Flash by saying "It turns out that on the Internet, people use Flash." To make his point, he showed an Apple iPad attempting to access a Flash-based page on Nickelodeon's Web site that resulted in nothing but a "sea of orange." But on an Android 2.2-based smartphone running Flash 10.1, the site appeared to run flawlessly.

The demonstration of Flash running on an Android-based smartphone was followed by an encore presentation of it running on Google's new (also Android-based) Google TV technology. With Google TV, Google is attempting (and may have come closest so far) to providing a seamless experience between broadcast television, video on the Net (not just YouTube), and the Web in general.

Minutes after the keynote demonstrations concluded, Google CEO Eric Schmidt led an on-stage parade of key-to-Google-TV's-success CEOs that included none other than Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen. A persistent theme and message to Apple on this second day of Google I/O was loud and clear: Yo Apple -- If you're going to pick a fight with Adobe and play the "open card" (as Apple CEO Steve Jobs did in his open Thoughts on Flash), then you're picking a fight with us too."

Although Google clearly took more offense to Jobs' claim of "open computing" superiority over Adobe than it did his outright bullying of Adobe, this was really Adobe's moment of vindication -- an opportunity to bask in the glow of Gundotra's love and the 5,000 Google-adoring developers in the building who were clearly feeling that love too (Gundotra mentioned that 24,000 more Google fans watched the live stream of the first day's keynotes on YouTube).

Speaking of the first day, had you asked me yesterday what the odds were that Adobe would play a starring role on day two, I would have thought you were making some kind of joke. Whereas Google appeared to be pulling Adobe Flash up by its britches today, it was just yesterday that the Mountain View-based search giant was driving a stake right through its heart. That's when, in the course of a couple of hours Google used HTML5 and a $120 million "gift to the Internet" (the open sourcing and royalty free terms of the VP8 video codec) to reduce the future outlook on Adobe Flash and Flash Video (the latter highly marginalized by VP8) from a "Hold" to a "Sell" to a "Dump-as-fast-as-you-can." Earlier this year, citing the H.264 video format as being non-free and saying "the real party starts when you begin to encourage users' browsers to support free formats," the Free Software Foundation wrote an open letter to Google asking it to set VP8 free. Google was apparently listening.

As Gundotra put it during a press briefing after today's keynote presentations, "We're all about making the Web easier." He was responding to my question as to whether or not HTML5 was largely about a Web that was free from the complications of plug-ins like Flash and Silverlight. From Google's perspective, plug-ins are one big drag on the Web's user experience -- particularly with more and more people accessing the Web from their mobile devices where plugs-ins often don't work (by fiat in the case of Apple's iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad). The chief selling proposition of HTML5 is to have an open, royalty-free approach to the kind of interactivity found in Flash and Silverlight that can be easily supported by the HTML, Javascript, and CSS processing capabilities of any modern browser on any device (desktop, mobile, etc.) without plug-ins (Google estimates that most browser will be up to full HTML5 speed by year's end).

During a press briefing on the first day of the conference, Google director of engineering Linus Upson emphatically stated to me that within two years time, HTML5 will be equal to or better than Flash. Perhaps sensing the direction I was taking the conversation (or me salivating over Upson's prognostications), Google product management VP Sundar Pichai quickly jumped into to cut my thought process off saying "It's not linear though. There will always be some things that Flash will do that HTML5 won't and vice-versa." Looking to strike a balance in the tenor of Google's messaging between HTML5 and Flash, Google clearly doesn't want to come off as being the same big bad wolf to Adobe that Apple is.

But earlier on the first day, Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch was on stage uttering nary (see update below) a word about Flash and instead demonstrating enhancements to Adobe's Dreamweaver that included toolings for HTML5, Javascript, and CSS3 (cascading style sheets play a key role in the presentation of HTML5 applications). It was confirmation of what many of my contemporaries whom were in the building seem to agree on -- Adobe's future may lie less in Flash and more in the development tools needed to build killer HTML5 sites and applications through widely used products like Dreamweaver and Illustrator.

Update from David: Kevin Marks (@kevinmarks on Twitter) pointed out to me that Lynch did in fact mention Flash. Please see more details in the comments section at the end of this column.

For Adobe's Narayen, the totality of the Google I/O conference had to be surreal. At best, the enemy (Google) of his enemy (Apple) is his friend. Today's demonstrations of the various Android/Flash integrations were, as Gundotra put it, about what was "pragmatic." In today's post-keynote briefing Gundotra admitted that most people need Flash to experience the Web and Google has little choice but to support it if it wants to offer the very best user experience to users of Android-based devices.

However, when I asked Gundotra and Narayen how HTML5 vs. Flash will play out over the long run, especially given Upson's comments about the two-year horizon for HTML5 to catch up to and maybe even pass Flash, Gundotra wouldn't speculate saying only that Google is about making the Web easy to access and that the company was about "openness, inclusion, and choice." But when it was Narayen's turn to respond, he admitted that it was up to developers and that "we will see what developers do."

David Berlind is the chief content officer of TechWeb and editor-in-chief of TechWeb.com. He can be reached at dberlind@techweb.com and you also can find him on Twitter and other social networks (see the list below).

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