November 5, 2010
In a perfect world, open-source development would always be done for free. And in an even more perfect world, Adobe would not have a monopoly on a technology as ubiquitous as Flash. But because utopia, alas, remains elusive, supporters of the Gnash project recently announced a contest — complete with a cash prize — to encourage contributions to the open-source Flash decoder. Here’s the scoop, and why it matters even if you’re not an open-source geek.
I won’t hide my passionate disdain for Adobe Flash: it’s intrusive, buggy, prone to security vulnerabilities and, above all, slow. Adobe’s decision last year finally to implement hardware acceleration in the product–something that should have been done a decade ago–may have made the Internet lives of Windows users with qualifying GPUs a bit easier. Hardware acceleration still isn’t supported in Linux builds of the software, however, nor does it work on many integrated video chipsets.
It’s because of my hatred for Flash, combined with the practical impossibility of avoiding it on the Web today, that I’ve long been rooting for Gnash, a project whose goal is to build an open-source Flash player that works at least as well as Adobe’s. Such an achievement may not solve all of the world’s Flash-related headaches, but in theory, having an open-source decoder will help free users from the whims of Adobe. It should also ensure that non-Microsoft platforms are no longer an afterthought when it comes to Flash development.
Unfortunately, Gnash developers remain far from their goal of being able to support all Flash-based content on the Internet. Although the most recent release of the software, which we tested a few months ago, works quite perfectly with YouTube, most other video sites that deliver content via Flash do not fare so well. And don’t even think about trying to play Flash games.
In order to speed up development–and, in particular, to gain support for the AVM2 format–Gnash user Petter Reinholdtsen recently promised $100 to the project, provided 10 other people do the same, to help implement the features he’d like to see present. So far, a full 13 people have answered Reinholdtsen’s call, which means Gnash developers can expect a $1400 contribution, by my count.
Why It Matters
There are a lot of reasons why this news might seem minimal or irrelevant. First, Gnash is a tiny, niche project with little prospect of unseating Adobe anytime soon. Second, fourteen individuals committing themselves to paying $100 each by signing their fake or real names on a website is not overly impressive. And third, most people rooted in the proprietary-software world could probably not care less about the efforts of a handful of geeks to implement open-source Flash support.
There’s some validity in those objections. But there’s also a larger lesson in this story: namely, that in the open-source world, at least some users remain willing to put actual cash on the table in support of a particular cause. That’s worth noting in an era when major commercial backing can often seem essential for free-software projects to get off the ground, and when the capacity of the Internet to serve as an effective organizational tool–rather than a superficial shell for people who want to pretend to care about something larger than themselves–seems in doubt.
For VAR’s, this should serve as a reminder not to discount the importance of ordinary individuals in the open-source world. Commercial investment may be crucial to the momentum of larger projects, such as Firefox, OpenOffice or the major Linux distributions. But the Gnash contest shows that some users are willing to pay substantial amounts of actual cash to support smaller open-source endeavors as well. And it’s in these tiny projects, which remain off the map of the mainstream software world, where some of the greatest value may lie.
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