iPhone can take a lesson from Opera browser

Eventually, cross-platform Flash or Flash-like rich multimedia document player technology will spread to cover all popular desktop, mobile, and consumer electronics platforms

Opera Software's plans to beef up its browser so that Adobe Flash Player-like functionality will be intrinsic to the program are a move in the right direction.

At present, Web developers have no consistent way to deliver media-rich content to the unlimited variety of platforms and browsers used by surfers worldwide. Using client- and server-side scripting, Web developers can divine which browser and operating system a user is running, but that's of little help. Safari, Firefox, Mozilla, Internet Explorer, and the rest all require plug-ins, also known as Browser Helper Objects, to present content that's richer than W3C standards demand.

Media player plug-ins, with Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, and QuickTime leading the category, are not consistently implemented across platforms. Each has its own style for wiring into browsers, its own terribly annoying traits, and its own set of proprietary formats that the others can't play, and yet each wants to take control of in-browser media playback when it's installed. And while all of these players have the ability to mix text, video, audio, scripting, and GUI interaction, these features are hardly ever used. Media players are used to play video and audio, and user interaction and scripting are handled in the browser with decidedly mixed results.

Only Adobe Flash Player touches all the bases: vector graphics, scalable text, animation, audio, video, and scripting, and it rolls all of these types into a single document that's played by one widely accepted plug-in. Flash Player is smooth and responsive enough to handle interactive games, and encoding video for Flash allows developers to embed a unique GUI into the video. Windows Media, RealPlayer, and QuickTime don't hit that "one for all" sweet spot.

But Flash is still a plug-in, large and highly demanding of computer resources, and while its platform coverage is broader than others, it's far from ubiquitous. Flash Player's girth leaves it notably absent from mobile devices, and that's where a common solution for rich, interactive multimedia documents is most needed.

Flash Player is well distributed, but the superlative Opera platform-native full browser solution is everywhere: Windows, Solaris, QNX, OS X, OS/2, Linux (SPARC, PowerPC, and x86), FreeBSD, and BeOS, as well as the three most popular feature/smartphone platforms, Symbian S60, Windows Mobile, and UIQ. Opera offers consumer electronics vendors a browser for embedded and set-top use as well. Opera is ubiquitous, but even it can't control what happens when a user clicks a link to a media file.

Opera Software has decided to attack this issue head-on, promising to implement Flash-like rich, scripted multimedia document functionality directly in its browsers. That's a bold and potentially market-changing move. If Web developers can count on one browser consistently implementing rich multimedia playback, they might steer users toward that browser rather than pointing them to various required plug-ins. Of course, that's precisely what Opera Software is hoping for; Opera is commercial software, and hooking sites on its built-in Flash-like player would drive sales. But that's par for the course: Flash Player, like Apple, Microsoft, and Real plug-ins, is distributed free of charge to pull sites, users, and content creators into tools and premium services, and in Microsoft's case, to Windows.

With Adobe open-sourcing its ActionScript JavaScript interpreter, and various open source projects aiming to clone or rival the functionality of Flash Player, Opera Software won't be the only game in town on desktops. But Opera has a shot at locking up the mobile market, freeing users from the proprietary, format-locked players that wireless operators burn into mobile phone firmware and hook to their browsers.

One place where Adobe, Opera Software, and open source multimedia players can't go is the one place they're needed most: Apple's iPhone.

Apple's decision to keep iPhone closed to third-party applications, despite its OS X underpinnings, means that iPhone is all about writing Web sites that target the Safari browser and play files encoded for QuickTime media formats.

Apple's decision to lock developers inside Safari might be more tolerable if Apple were to broaden Safari along the lines that Opera Software intends for its browser. With Safari extending its reach to Windows, embedding Flash-like functionality in Safari would open the door to a great many possibilities for the sort of rich, interactive on-line (and off-line -- Flash is competent for a limited range of desktop applications) content that would otherwise require the use of native code.

In time, inclusive, cross-platform Flash or Flash-like rich multimedia document player technology will spread to cover all popular desktop, mobile, and consumer electronics platforms. It will happen because mobile and consumer electronics are green fields for a one-for-all rich multimedia document technology. It's a matter of who gets there first and who snags the greatest mind share. Vendors that decide to stay proprietary, who don't start developing or partnering toward the goal of a cross-platform Flash-style player, will find themselves behind the pack among users who want to take their video, audio, games, and lightweight applications on the road without being limited to a vendor or wireless operator's chosen player.

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Tom Yager

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