Apple, Adobe, Flash, and MPEG LA

John Gruber has a great post explaining why Apple has been so adamant about the keeping Flash off of the iPhone and presumably the upcoming tablet device. He’s right that Flash performance is sub par and most people just want video. 99% of the other Flash experiences you see are just ads that suck precious battery life and CPU.

He is also right that third-party plug-ins do cause architectural issues for browser vendors. As of 10/2009 plug-ins accounted for at least 30% of Firefox crashes, a motivating factor for the new plug-in checker.

I will however object to a sentence:

Why? At the core, because Flash is the only de facto web standard based on a proprietary technology. There are numerous proprietary web content plugins — including Apple’s QuickTime — but Flash is the only one that’s so ubiquitous that it’s a de facto standard. Flash is the way video is delivered over the web, and Adobe completely controls Flash. No other aspect of the web works like this. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are all open standards, with numerous implementations, including several that are open source.

Apple isn’t trying to replace Flash with its own proprietary thing. They’re replacing it with H.264 and HTML5. This is good for everyone but Adobe.

I included an earlier paragraph since I think the context is important. H.264 is not like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It’s patent-encumbered much like GIF was. Your trading Adobe for MPEG LA. The difference between H.264 and Flash is browser/OS vendors can control the implementation. It’s still proprietary technology.

I should note that I’m not a fan of Flash either, as a result there’s none on this blog. Even videos I link to are static images for performance and aesthetic reasons.

7 replies on “Apple, Adobe, Flash, and MPEG LA”

All Apple is doing is to first force Adobe to expose the fact that Flash Video is H.264 but made proprietary by the Flash container. Then all Adobe has to do to maintain compatibility is to remove the Flash container on its video in order to allow anyone to play Flash Video – not just Flash Readers.

When Adobe does so, Flash will have breathing room for a time before it dies. But in the meantime, no one will need Flash to run Flash video, aka H.264.

(And why the heck is this site incompatible with WebKit (aka Safari and Chrome web browsers)?)

Agree with James. Additionally, as soon as Adobe and particularly Apple pay royalties to MPEG LA, Google will add its own video format to YouTube HTML5 support, made open sourced and based on VP6 codec acquired with On2. Multiple codec options supported in HTML5 format will be possible by harnessing On2’s Flix Cloud on-the-fly transcoding.

@James Katt: I found the problem already (I might blog that at some point). It’s a bug in jQuery 1.3 when serializing HTML5 forms. I’ve reverted that code until I can update jQuery to 1.4.x which fixes the problem.

Thanks for the report.


Don’t forget that MPEG-LA licensing applies not only to the software/device manufacturer but also to the “broadcaster” – in the Internet case, the video hosting provider. This has been free until 2011, but MPEG-LA have stated they intend to charge thereafter, in an amount comparable to traditional broadcast rates. Actually, they were supposed to announce what the post 2011 regime will be by end of Jan 2010 – which basically means today!

I think the only possible scenario which keeps Flash alive is now for Adobe to open source it so it can be ported, optimised and secured by the “many eyes”.


Nice article Robert, but may I make one tiny tiny correction. You say: “It’s patent-encumbered much like GIF was”, but it is in fact patent-encumbered in a manner that is not very like GIF at all.

Firstly, Unisys charged only implementers for their LZW patent – MPEG LA reserves the right to charge both implementers AND commercial broadcasters of video (that’s anyone with videos on their AdWords leveraging webpage).

Secondly, Unisys charged implementers a percentage of the sale price of their product – meaning if your product was free you paid nothing. MPEG LA don’t do this, which is why it would cost Mozilla $5million to implement H.264 in the free Firefox browser.

The one thing they are similar in is the manner in which they were brought in – the patent owner reserves the right to change the licencing fees, so Unisys didn’t charge any royalties on LZW until 1994 – 7 years after it was released. Yet that’s still 16 years of royalties they’ve been receiving – nice deal. Similarly, while I mentioned MPEG LA can charge broadcasters (i.e. average people posting video to the web), they have said they won’t until 2016 – as they say, the first hit is free.

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