Google continues to stake its territory online. The search-and-advertising giant announced Tuesday that it will bundle Adobe’s Flash player with downloads of the Chrome browser, putting Google in sharper opposition to Apple — and giving Adobe a powerful ally.
Google’s decision to throw its weight behind Flash is an attempt to protect its turf — the internet — and strengthen its Android and Chrome operating systems for mobile phones, tablets and notebooks. By contrast, Apple’s iPhone and upcoming iPad do not support Flash.
“Integrating Flash into Chrome is more of a signaling and partnership thing than anything else,” says Michael Coté, analyst at RedMonk, a research firm that focuses on strategy and developer-related issues. “After all, anyone who wants to get Flash can otherwise download it.”
A mere 5 percent of internet users run the Chrome browser today. But Google’s dominance as a search engine and advertising network gives it both money and clout. The company’s free, open source Android operating system is targeted at mobile phones and has already become popular with smartphone makers such as Motorola, HTC and Sony Ericsson. Separately, Google is planning to release Chrome OS, a new operating system for netbooks and tablets based on the Chrome browser.
In that context, Google’s embrace of Adobe Flash has far greater significance than the browser’s market share would indicate.
Once partners, now rivals, the competition between Apple and Google has intensified over the last few months. In January, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said Google’s “don’t be evil” mantra was “bullshit” and cast aspersions on Adobe Flash for being buggy. Earlier this month, Apple filed a lawsuit against smartphone maker HTC, a close partner of Google, alleging that HTC violated several patents related to the iPhone hardware and interface. Some industry watchers construe Apple’s lawsuit as an indirect attack on Google, whose Android OS powers HTC’s latest phone Nexus One.
But Jobs and Google CEO Eric Schmidt have recently been seen in public together, and the iPhone still utilizes Google services like Maps, indicating that the relationship between the two companies is not completely severed.
Flash will be the first plug-in that’s not from Google’s stable to be amalgamated into the browser, says a Google spokesperson. “This will make Flash on the browser a seamless experience,” says the spokesperson, “so you will see performance benefits and use of fewer resources. A lot of the controls and shortcuts will work better and Flash will truly feel like a part of the browser.”
Flash on Chrome
In winning Google’s support for Flash, Adobe has found a powerful godfather for its technology. Apple decision to not include Flash for the iPhone and the iPad tablet has set the stage for the rise of HTML5, an open standard that Apple backs.
Already, video distribution platforms like Brightcove are trying to offer choices to publishers who want to reach Flash-less viewers. Brightcove, which provides online video backend systems for many websites including Wired.com, has introduced a product based on HTML5 so websites can continue to serve video, even if a visitor’s browser doesn’t support Flash.
For Adobe, working with browser companies may be one way of preserving Flash’s dominance.
“Our goal is to make the Flash API platform-neutral,” says Paul Betlem, senior director for Flash player engineering at Adobe. “We want to pull in the participation of all browser vendors and even other API vendors.”
Adobe says it is talking to Firefox and IE but it seems unlikely to find any backing from them.
“We don’t have any current plans to bundle Flash with Firefox downloads,” says Chris Blizzard, open source evangelist for Mozilla. “We’ve always made it easy to install Flash via our automatic plugin finder service, which has been part of Firefox for years.”
Betlem says that may not be enough for developers. Integrating Flash into the browser makes both the browser and Flash more powerful, he says. “Some of the problems developers are identifying with the current plug-in system is that all the key events that browser has access to is shared with the plug-in,” he says. “This allows web developers and users a more powerful and consistent experience.”
Future of the Internet
Ultimately, the Apple-Google rivalry comes down to the future of the web and Google’s place in it, says Coté. Through the iPhone and iPad, Apple is increasingly creating a “walled garden” where content and games need to be approved by Apple and accessed through its app store. Meanwhile, it is trying to control how the internet develops by deciding which technologies it will support on its devices — yes to HTML5, no to Flash.
For Google, that’s a future that can directly threaten its revenue stream, since Google’s business model is built on the openness and anarchy of the public internet.
“Strategically, it is not in Google’s interest to supplant an existing platform with a new one,” says Coté. “The way Google makes its revenues is with the web completely open. If Apple starts controlling access to content then it would make it very difficult for Google to find ways to insert itself into the system.”
Google and Adobe say that decision to integrate Flash with Chrome is for now limited to the browser for PCs. But the duo are working together to offer the latest version of the Flash player on Android mobile phones.
At the Mobile World Congress, Adobe demonstrated the latest version of Flash on Android devices. It hasn’t said exactly when it will be offered to users, but Betlem says “Google is very supportive” of the technology.
“I don’t believe the plans are finalized on the exact distribution of Flash players on Android-based devices,” says Betlem. “But my expectation is that there will be a seamless experience for installing Flash players on smartphones, though it will ultimately be a device manufacturer’s choice rather than Google’s.”
It would help Google strengthen its position a pro-choice company and position itself as an alternative to Apple. After all, in the smartphone business, the lines are becoming increasingly clear. It’s the iPhone vs. other platforms.
“When it comes to Android, the idea is that you will have the complete web instead of the blue-box web that Apple is offering,” he says. “So, obviously Google is interested in having Flash around and increasing the access to it.”
Google’s Flash support also doesn’t mean that it will not back HTML5. “Google has never claimed to be an open source company,” he says. “What they have claimed to offer is choices and alternatives.”
Support for Flash in the Chrome browser will also help Google’s plans to put its operating system on tablets. Last month, mock-ups from Google showed the company is planning to partner with gadget manufacturers to introduce tablets that could potentially challenge the iPad.
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