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The Coming Apollo vs. Firefox Battle

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Adobe announced the public alpha of its Apollo development framework that allows developers to build cross-platform hybrid web/desktop applications using Flash and Ajax. The tech blogosphere responded mostly positively, looking forward to the era of so-called rich Internet applications that’s been predicted for some time and to the possibility of web applications used offline.

The alpha download includes the Apollo runtime which embeds the WebKit open source web browser engine, an SDK for building applications, and an Eclipse plugin for Flex Builder. It’s aimed at developers who already know how to develop HTML and Flash applications but who want to target the desktop, whether it’s Windows, Mac, or Linux.

You might wonder why we need a new application development framework and runtime, when so many developers are targeting the web for cross-platform applications. However, Apollo gives the developer access to system resources like the file system, allowing for offline applications. Also, Apollo applications eliminate the browser paradigm for better or worse. Apollo applications must be installed and upgraded explicitly like desktop applications and they don’t have browser features like back buttons and tabs, unless the developer specifically codes them.

Some consider Microsoft’s WPF/e platform the main competitor to Apollo, because it promises rich cross-platform applications, just like WPF/e. However, I wonder if the real competitor to Apollo is the web browser, specifically Firefox. Richard MacManus of Read/Write Web reported last month that Firefox 3 will include support for offline web applications. He also noted that some of Firefox developer Mozilla’s top workers are employed by Google.

It’s not Microsoft that matters so much these days — it’s Google and the web and new ways of doing things. Does Apollo represent a truly new way of doing things or a backwards look at the desktop and past hopes for a cross-platform development environment? Even if Ajax applications are heinously hard to develop and some apps just need to break out of the browser, the momentum towards the web seems almost unstoppable. Ballmer would love you to think that Microsoft’s the competitor to keep your eye on, but the real steamroller may be Google’s billions married to an open source browser with offline support.

34 Responses to “The Coming Apollo vs. Firefox Battle”

  1. I am really glad Adobe is getting into browser business as well. This will definitely loosen microsofts grip on browsers also. Browsers are migrating from monopoly to oligopoly now!

  2. Anne Zelenka

    Chuck: I wonder if putting Apollo up against desktop apps is missing the advance it represents. It could be that Apollo just allows developers to do desktop apps with a little bit of web. However, given that it uses web development techniques from the ground up (that is, if you consider Flash/Flex a web dev technique) it could be more a middle ground or a new paradigm than a return to desktop.

    Do people care now how their desktop apps look? Trillian’s new client will launch from the browser but run independently of the browser. Maybe it won’t look exactly like a native app, but have people been trained by the varying interfaces in web apps to be more accepting of UI differences?

    As browsers get more features, like offline mode and perhaps browser chrome-less apps, then they look more and more like Apollo. Single-platform desktop development environments don’t look much like it.

  3. Mike Collins

    Good article, but to me Apollo is about controlling the whole experience.

    Just glance up to your title on your browser to see who wants to be in control.

    I can’t help but think every Fortune 500 has always wanted this type of control, it just wasn’t available.

  4. If Apollo wants to build desktop apps, it is competing with Windows, MacOS, et al., not Firefox. We’ll see how “Skype, ICQ, Outlook, Thunderbird, Joost, Azureus, iTunes, the Browser” look on Apollo vs. the native OS.

  5. Anne: Either “John” or “jd” works for me, thanks. Matthew hit pretty strongly on the “html AND swf” angle for me… Dreamweaver and ColdFusion had always been very important businesses to Macromedia. These days I see Adobe trying to secure revenues by making bigger pies — raising the tides — investing in technology areas where many others can also make their own profits. It’s hard to afford a go-it-alone warfare model… Adobe’s betting that rich ecologies sustain all players, imho.

    Harray Caray (Cubs fan?) hypothesizes that legalese might hide a dollar-per-member fee. Me, I’d see such sneakiness as harming the platform — would be a clear negative, would risk the long-term business. Macromedia already has experience with largescale customer-pushback campaigns (Shockwave Remote, MX 2004, Weatherbug), so there’s high awareness among decisionmakers about the vital need to not piss people off.

    (Charlie, if you suspect Mozilla has been co-opted, then have you read Brendan Eich’s piece from last week?)


  6. “[Tamarin] Team Members

    The core members of the team are currently:

    * Dan Smith, Adobe, Tamarin module owner
    * Igor Bukanov, Mozilla, engineer
    * Brian Crowder, Mozilla, engineer
    * Jeff Dyer, Adobe, compiler architect
    * Brendan Eich, Mozilla, CTO and JavaScript creator
    * Graydon Hoare, Mozilla, engineer
    * Steven Johnson, Adobe, Tamarin developer
    * Edwin Smith, Adobe, Tamarin creator and VM architect
    * Tom Reilly, Adobe, Tamarin garbage collector developer
    * Rick Reitmaier, Adobe, Tamarin JIT developer
    * Erik Tierney, Adobe, Tamarin developer"

    Sort of puts the idea of Mozilla threatening Adobe Apollo to bed, somewhat, don’t you think?

  7. @RYK: One would assume that developing an app using Apollo would be easier than using Java, but who knows.

    As for all this talk of offline applications. When are we ever offline anymore?

  8. I think you are forgetting some things: We already have hyper popular desktop web apps. Just think about: Skype, ICQ, Outlook, Thunderbird, Joost, Azureus, iTunes, the Browser :-) and many many more.

    Apollo is just a framework to build those desktop web apps in a much more convenient, faster and cross-platform way.

  9. Charlie Sierra


    I was going to post about Tamarin, but you beat me to it, dang I hate those tabs in FF, always calling out for attention, “read me, read me.” lol.


    However I have a much less benign interpretation of the strategy employed here by Adobe. Given the Apollo news, I think Adobe has masterfully manipulated the Mozilla folks into giving their Apollo a stamp of approval, or at least a shot of credibility, that the Adobe sales force will be using thousands of times a day. ROTFLMAO.

    “You’ve been co-opted”, should be the new AOL/Silicon Valley phrase.

    Ted Leung had a great post on this at the begining of the this month called, “Adobe wants to be the Microsoft of the Web.”


  10. Actually, Adobe is trying to grow BOTH Firefox and Apollo ‘development environments’. Back in November of last year Adobe contributed their ECMA script engine to the Mozilla foundation ( Both ActionScript (the latest version) and JavaScript fall under a broader category of languages referred to as ECMA. Adobe has spent great pains making sure that the ECMA engine inside the Flash player is as fast as possible. They know that Firefox would greatly benefit from having a supercharged parser – just look at all they AJAX applications out there that are mired in JavaScript libraries… speaking of which, Adobe is also making solid strides with Spry, its own AJAX implementation.

    So Adobe is really not positioning itself on one side or the other – it’s rallying developers around both. If there’s a side its Adobe’s future development platforms verses Microsoft’s.

  11. Harry Caray

    Ok, guys and girls. What does the Apollo run time license look like? What if you develop a way cool kick ass hybrid desktop – web app. Thousands of people start downloading it from your site to their Windows, Macs, Linux, iPhone and Nokia desktops. Fantastic, you’re suddenly a rock star like the guys who started Digg. Then WHACK! SMACK! THWACK! Adobe comes around, knocking on your door like the IRS, time to collect that tax. Oops, was there something in the fine print you forgot to read? Was there something about distribution of the Apollo run-time that your app depends on? How much is that little doggy in Apollo window? $1 USD per client? Woah Nellie! Adobe just put you outta business cause they got you by the cajoles on that little one liner that their lawyer wrote right? Or maybe that lawyer didn’t write the one-line with Apollo Alpha version but oh goody goody, you love the free to be you and me Apollo Alpha version and now that you’re hooked, Adobe’s lawyers sneaky sneaky drop a one-liner into Apollo version 1.0 or Apollo version 2.0 (right about the time they have “critical mass”) and then you gotta pay them up just like Death and Taxes but Adobe says “Death and Taxes and License Fees” so good night sleep tight and watch out for those Adobe lawyer bed bugs biting!!!!

  12. alex sergeyev wrote:

    The really interesting story is what
    happens next with Java … momenutm
    on intranets continues, and it looks
    like they’re getting their act in
    gear wrt scripting, etc. to come back
    onto the internet – when that
    happens, flash will be what it’s
    always been, a proprietary putty for
    stuff not done by others.

    I disagree. There is nothing at all interesting about Java these days. Sun is a dying company in a post McNealy era and they are not even close to being a player when it comes to desktop apps or hybrid Desktop – network apps. Java in its current or future incarnations may well be leveraged under the hood by Apollo, but did you read the documentation about how Apollo is re-using WebKit that has been kick started in the open source community by Apple and Nokia? Java is big and fat. The watered down versions of Java for mobile edition are hard to keep track of among the mobile phone manufacturers. Furthermore, Sun is a bunch of control freaks and they never really understood the meaning of community and thus just can not let go of Java and truly open source all of it such as with a GPL license. If there’s anyone who really knows, from years of experience and wisdom, rich media desktop based apps, its Adobe (and Apple although Apple’s zen is with the human user interface which also includes physical interfaces such as mice, monitors, machines, iPod scroll wheels, etc.). Google’s experience lies in the network, and thus I would not count on Google being a player in this space of emergent rich media hybrid desktop-web apps.

  13. alex sergeyev

    The really interesting story is what happens next with Java… momenutm on intranets continues, and it looks like they’re getting their act in gear wrt scripting, etc. to come back onto the internet – when that happens, flash will be what it’s always been, a proprietary putty for stuff not done by others.

  14. Jesse Kopelman

    Well clearly the issue is whether online-enabled is going to be about the browser or some other interface. Applications will be online-enabled. We can argue about to what degree, but they will be, end of story. So again, the issue becomes the interface, and as such the article is fairly well titled. What I keep thinking back to is that weird hybrid browser interface Windows 98 had that nobody used. Maybe Microsoft was just 10 years ahead of their time.

  15. I think that Apollo is far from a backwards look at development and will do nothing but expand the move towards a web based world.

    An easy example would be webmail. What’s the one thing that stinks about webmail? You can’t get to it, search it or even write emails when you aren’t connected to the web. We solve that problem by using a desktop client that downloads those emails. This of course means that the emails are now stuck in that client and are no longer accessible. Now think about an Apollo enabled webmail solution where you can manipulate and work with that information regardless of location, regardless of connectivity. Apollo “could” give us all Exchange type synching but we wouldn’t be stuck in a M$ world.

    This will no longer be a discussion about web apps or desktop apps but instead just “apps”.

    This is why back buttons and things like that are an irrelevant part of this dicussion as it has nothing to do with the browswer paradigm. This is about using the web for what it’s meant to do, transport information.


  16. Anne,

    In your comment to guynamednate you stated:

    The next generation of the web
    is likely to be very different
    than today’s web. The next
    generation of the browser is
    also unlikely to look like
    today’s browser.

    You are really forgetting something. Most people resist change. Millions upon millions of people have learned how to use the simplicity of today’s web browser (with back buttons, bookmarking, etc.). Everyone can federate to this simplicity. Rich applications which may be nice and snazzy, but if everyone fractures and does their own thing just to be cool or to stand out, and if in doing so you break the simplicity of the browser’s interface, then you will never gain a mass change of habit and behavior. Do not estimate the human brain which is resistant to change. Why do you think Apple almost always gets it right with their human user interface experiences? Perhaps Steve Jobs understand this Zen: less is more (in many situations). There will be many people who will not understand this Zen and they will waste their cycles cackling about Microsoft v.s. Google v.s. Apollo v.s. whatever … when the reality is that there are BILLIIONS of people who don’t give a rat’s butt cheek about the technology under the hood.

  17. Anne Zelenka

    JD (or do you prefer John?) — funny you should mention that… I started this post with the idea that an all-out battle between open and proprietary is actually good for technology and for users, and so I was already predisposed to the martial analogy. Then it turned into a riff on the Adobe Apollo news.

    Maybe it doesn’t have to be war, but I see the push and pull and opposing forces of commercial vs. open source as driving development. It only works if both are very strong… as with Adobe of today and what may be a new axis: Google/Firefox.

    guynamednate: I don’t disagree with what you say. The next generation of the web is likely to be very different than today’s web. The next generation of the browser is also unlikely to look like today’s browser.

  18. guynamednate

    “..the momentum towards the web seems almost unstoppable.”

    That’s true, but why limit your notion of “the web” to mean “things that are accessed through a web browser”?

    It’s precicely this momentum that is driving Adobe to push Apollo and Flex, and Microsoft to push WPF and WPF/E.

    The power of the web is not limited to a browser, and for many applications and many types of content the browser (and really AJAX as a platform) is too constraining.

    I think WPF/E will really take off because it is so closely related to WPF, the presentation framework on Vista, that will allow developers to target the largest demographic (Windows users) while taking that same code and using it for a cross-platform, browser-based version in WPF/E (not to mention the fact that they could then take that same code and have it work on a mobile device, Xbox360, or any number of different kinds of devices running the lightweight WPF/E).