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Open Source Flash Player Revealed

One of the most popular and ubiquitous rich media plug-ins for any browser on almost any platform is the Macromedia (now Adobe) Flash player.

Thanks to efforts of the Free Software Foundation, a Free Software Flash player called GNU Gnash is now in active development. The development is apparently occurring without the help or support of Adobe in any way. An Adobe/Macromedia spokesperson was unable to comment on the development.

Flash player has always been free, but not in the Free and Open Source Software sense, as it is a proprietary application licensed under a closed source license.

GNU Gnash, in contrast, is licensed under the GNU GPL.

There are some significant license difficulties with distributing, and to some extent using, proprietary-licensed applications together with GPL-licensed applications. GNU Gnash would eliminate the difficulty with Flash.

"Gnash is GPL2'd, and the Free Software Foundation has the copyright," GNU Gnash maintainer Rob Savoye told internetnews.com. "So the standalone player can be used by anyone, but the Flash player code can only be used by other free software projects under the terms of the GPL."

The FSF, which is currently undertaking a review of the GPL has actually listed the development of Gnash as one of its top six high-priority projects.

Savoye said in mailing-list postings that Gnash has not reverse-engineered its code from the existing Macromedia player. He claims that he is a "clean developer" and has never, "owned any Macromedia tools, signed any license agreements, nor disassembled any Macromedia products.

"Gnash has been developed only using freely available documentation and tools, so it can be a free implementation of a closed proprietary format," Savoye explained.

Since being formally announced earlier this month, Savoye noted that there is a sizable demand for a GPL-licensed Flash player. While Macromedia's Flash player is available for a number of different platforms, including Windows, Mac, Linux and Solaris, it's not available for others, such as FreeBSD.

"So many people are now excited to have a solution for their platforms," Savoye said. "One of the big advantages of free software is the ability of people that have machines I don't own can help make it truly portable."

Presently the focus of Gnash is on Flash Player (also referred to by its file extension SWF) version 7 and not the latest version offered by Adobe/Macromedia, which is now version 8.

Savoye explained that compatibility for version 8 is on the roadmap, but the current focus is on getting the plug-in working followed by stabilizing the SWF 7 support till it's a fully functional Flash player.

"Most Flash movies on the Net are older Flash formats, which is why that's the current focus for the near term," Savoye said.

GNU Gnash isn't necessarily starting from scratch either. It is using an existing open source project call GameSWF as a base. According to its Web site, GameSWF is "an open source Public Domain library for parsing and rendering SWF movies, using 3D hardware APIs for rendering."

There are a number of big challenges ahead for GNU Gnash, not the least of which is fear of complexity.

"The biggest problem is people realize this is a potentially huge project, as Flash is large and complex," Savoye said. "So I think it scares some people off. Most of the other free Flash players haven't gotten very far because of this."