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Why can't they fix the Flash/Firefox bug?

When open-source and traditional software development collide, the result is not good.

Latest: Adobe's John Dowdell has a thoughtful critique of this post that also expands on the nature of the bug.

An annoying and long-lived bug is preventing some users from viewing Web videos. There's a workaround, but for many, the cure is as bad as the disease.

The bug is that Flash videos don't play for certain Firefox 3 users on Windows XP or Vista, when using the current Flash player version 9. On YouTube, CNET TV, and other sites, embedded videos will start, but they halt after two seconds. Both Mozilla and Adobe have been aware of the issue since late May, but as yet no solution has been found. For some people suffering from this bug, it's intermittent. For others, it's a consistent block to viewing online videos.

One workaround solution is to install the Flash 10 player, which is still in beta. Unfortunately, many Flash video sites don't recognize that Flash 10 is a valid and current player. CNN, for example, thinks Flash 10 beta is older than Flash 8, asks users to upgrade to Flash 9, and thus won't play at all.

The cure is worse than the disease.

Since the bug is serious and has been known for some time, I called both Mozilla and Adobe to see what's going on. I spoke first with Mike Beltzner, Mozilla's "phenomenologist," aka head of user experience. He pointed me to the record in Bugzilla where they're tracking the issue and gave me some of the issues they think are responsible for this one. In a nutshell, Mozilla thinks there's a miscommunication between plug-in and browser but doesn't know which product is the culprit.

He also took a minute to trumpet Mozilla's open-source philosophy. Since Firefox's code is open, Adobe can look at it to try to determine what is going on. But Mozilla's team can't look into Flash. Beltzner didn't blame Adobe for the bug itself, but he did say that Adobe's traditional closed software architecture is slowing down their investigation. "We hit a wall when it's a closed-source solution," he said.

An Adobe spokesperson, who asked not to be named, said Adobe is looking into the issue but isn't yet sure if the problem is isolated to Firefox 3 and Flash 9, or if there is a third culprit--another plug-in, perhaps--that is throwing things off for the Flash player.

Finger pointing is common in software troubleshooting, and I give both Mozilla and Adobe credit for only generally waving, not pointing, their fingers at each other. Unfortunately, neither team seems to have developers who can reproduce this issue, which just keeps the ping-pong game going.

What I find most interesting is the way the differing philosophies of Mozilla and Adobe are slowing down resolution of this issue. If both companies were open then any developer--at Mozilla, Adobe, or elsewhere--could get into things and start experimenting to find a fix. If both companies had closed philosophies then their engineers could swear each other to the secrecy, swap source code, and together fix the issue. But right now I get the sense that the two very different companies simply are not meshing well. And because of that, I can't play my videos.

Flash 9 works just fine in Internet Explorer.

See also: Two quick fixes for Firefox 3.