Gruber, Paczkowski, Geschke, Flash

John Gruber comments on an interview by John Paczkowski with Adobe co-founder Chuck Geschke, in which the following exchange happened:

JP: Why isn't Flash an open standard?

CG: It is. What are you talking about?

I would like to join the meta-meta-conversation to address this statement by Geschke:

With the standards that we have built and made open to the entire world, we’ve tried our best to get them to the point where they’re mature enough so that we’re not doing design by committee. If you look at the amount of time it will take HTML5 to become a reasonably solid platform, it’s going to take a long time because there are an awful lot of vested interests trying to influence its development.

When he talks about Adobe-developed "standards" like PDF and (now) Flash being "mature enough so that we’re not doing design by committee", the committee he's referring to can be described, in a nutshell, as 'folks who aren't Adobe'. In other words, before submitting proprietary Adobe technologies for standardization, Adobe wants them to meet two criteria:

  1. The technologies should be already so dominant in the market that standardization is basically pro forma.

  2. They're so mature, and so widely adopted, that no outside party will ever be able to change or influence them.

By these, Adobe's basically using the standardization process to preserve its interests the same way parents sometimes use bronze to preserve baby shoes. Standardization gets Adobe out of anti-trust problems (Acrobat and Flash can't be illegal if their core file formats are "open"), and ensures that even if some other company manages to come up with a better tool for consuming plain-vanilla PDF, Adobe will always have a competitive advantage having defined the PDF "standard" to suit their needs.

Geschke's defining HTML5 in these terms makes it seem like it's a competing vendor's product, and not a truly open technology that belongs to all of us. As Gruber points out, HTML5 is a standard in the sense that its specs are being edited and published by a respected standards-making body (the W3C), and when an implementation of HTML5 exhibits flaky behavior it's pretty well understood that that's bad, and the implementer did something wrong by not following the standard.

The point he's missing is that "design by committee" is the point of the standards-making process. HTML is flawed, just like SWF, but it's always been open, and because of that openness many of those flaws are being addressed by the community in the HTML5 spec. If Adobe's approach to standards is that they shouldn't evolve, then the limited version of the SWF format specs Adobe has already published is all we're ever gonna get. I shouldn't have to tell you that that's worse for us than a flaky, inconsistent, but truly open HTML5.