Adobe’s Flash move: The good and the bad for e-books

So, from an e-book perspective, what are the pros and cons of Adobe's making the Flash standards not quite so closeFlash among other things is the multimedia technology behind videos such as this YouTube version of an interview with Philip Roth. You can install it on a number of machines running a number of operating systems. Adobe's Digital Editions e-reader is built around Flash. No need for hara-kiri if you're caught creating a rival player after seeing the specs First, here's a review of a few of basics associated with the Open Screen Project: If you're a techie, you'll now be able to look at some important Flash specs without promising to commit hara-kiri if Adobe catches you creating a rival player. "We have...made the Flash SWF and FLV video file format specifications completely open, no strings attached," says Adobe's Bill McCoy. image You'll be be able to get your own version of Flash going on, say, a mobile device without having to pay license fees to Adobe if ready-to-be-ported code already exists for the chip you're using. Among the processors covered are products from Intel and ARM. Cisco, Motorola, Nokia, NTT DoCoMo, Qualcomm, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba, Samsung, and Verizon Wireless---those are among Adobe's other allies, although Google and Apple are missing. And, yes, Adobe's new approach could make it easier to include videos, fancy animation and more sophisticated interactivity in e-books, given Flash's versatility. Good thing for the most part but... For the most part, then, this is a Good Thing. Still, from an e-book perspective, Adobe bears closer watching than ever. A few questions: 1. How open is "open"? ZDNet blogger Ed Burnett notes that "source code for the Flash player is still closed source and proprietary." Adobe acted not out of charity but to be protective of its sales of authoring tools for e-books and other media. The positive side, of course, as Burnett says, is less vendor lock-in. Great!

2. Will Adobe use the loosening as an excuse to try to weaken the fallbacks in the IDPF’s ePUB spec, so that the standard is inextricably wed to Adobe? The IDPF needs to show backbone against this. I’d feel much better if, instead of relying on Flash, publishers and others arranged for the open SVG format to be developed to the point of true usefulness. Publishers should worry less about the latest frills and more about the long-term durability of e-books as a serious medium. The less proprietary the technology is in e-books, the more trustworthy they will be for the long term. Right now the IDPF specs are not Adobe specs in disguise. It is important they stay that way. Vigilance, please! This is one reason why I want to see the IDPF link up with the open source movement, so that any perversion of such a valuable standard would bring howls of outrage. No, ePUB isn’t perfect. But it’s far better than the current eBabel.

3. Will book publishers resist the temptation to clutter up their wares with unnecessary animations and other, er, flash? You bet, I’m partial to old-fashioned text for novels. And serious nonfiction books should stay focused on genuine analysis or narrative, even though Flash and the like may at times be useful in summing up complex ideas—for example, through charts that can reflect numbers you plug in. Want to know what a map of the earth could look like with X amount of global warming reducing the amount of dry land? Flash-style tech could help. But let’s not just turn books into cartoons.

4. What becomes of Flash if Microsoft someday buys Adobe—a very real possibility in time, considering Microsoft’s eagerness to take over Yahoo? In the publications area, the two companies for now continue to do a mongoose-and-cobra act. One wonders if Adobe would have opened up Flash if Microsoft hadn’t opened up Silverlight‘s specs and let others build their own players. In the IDPF’s place, I would go out of my way to make ePUB as Silverlight-friendly as Flash-friendly, while betting long-term on SVG.

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