Flash and HTML5 — the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


If you’re working anywhere in online media, you’ve probably heard about the mud-slinging between Apple and Adobe over Apple’s decision to not support Flash on the iPhone or iPad. It would be an understatement to say it’s a polarizing issue in the web development community. Both companies have called out each other publicly with the latest volley coming from Adobe. Needless to say, both companies have their share of spin and hyperbole. As a Flash developer, of course, I have my partialities. However, let’s try to ignore the politics and spin for a moment and address the larger question that it seems everyone has been asking: has Flash seen its final days?

Let’s back up a bit, before we mourn (or rejoice) the passing of Adobe’s Flash, we’re going to have to identify a technology or technologies to fill the many roles Flash plays. Currently Flash is responsible for approximately 75% of all of the video on the web and is considered the standard for animated online content. On top of that, Flash and Actionscript have thousands of additional functionalities and libraries for special use cases that range from multiplayer gaming to realtime data visualization. According to Adobe, 85% of the top 100 websites utilize flash in some capacity. This market dominance is largely due to its platform ubiquity (it runs on just about everything that allows it), sophisticated toolset, and large developer base. Needless to say, whatever technology comes next has some big shoes to fill.

Last month in his open letter “Thoughts on Flash” Steve Jobs points to HTML5 as the successor to Flash and many experts agree that HTML5 will ultimately perform many of the tasks now handled by Flash. The idea is to replace Flash with technology and standards that aren’t controlled by any one company so that a larger set of developers can work to improve the platform. It’s a great idea but what exactly is HTML5 and where is it in its development? HTML5 is the next major revision to the standard HTML markup language that has been with us since the mid-nineties. The vision for this updated standard is specifically to minimize the need for browser plugins (such as Flash, Microsoft’s Silverlight, and Sun’s JavaFX) for rich internet applications. HTML5 will do this in a few ways. First, HTML5 is adding native video and audio support. This means in theory videos and music can be embedded directly into web pages without the need for users to have anything else installed. Second, HTML5 will add what is called a “canvas” element. This is an area designated for drawing dynamic graphics and animations using javascript.

So open-source animation and video playback? Sounds bad for Flash, huh? Well hold on for a minute, while HTML5 offers a noble alternative to Flash’s functionality, it currently suffers from a number of setbacks. First, HTML5 isn’t actually a finalized standard yet. It’s currently in a “working draft” stage. Several browsers support the current drafts of HTML5 but it’s all still subject to change. Any content created before the final version is ratified could be rendered obsolete. Second, even when HTML5 is finalized (which is still a few years away) there will likely be problems rendering content correctly across all browsers. Flash has a real advantage here because Adobe is the sole entity in charge of making sure content looks exactly the same across all computing environments. With HTML5 this responsibility is shifted to browser developers, of which there are many and if they don’t play nicely it may lead to extra development time and cost to fix incompatibilities. Third, the HTML5 video support is currently hampered by a lack of consensus on which video format to use as the standard. (See the chart for HTML5 video support fragmentation) Without a consistent video standard, reliable video playback for everyone could be difficult. Fourth, HTML5 market penetration is still very low. Some estimates put HTML5-compatible traffic at as much as 60% which is much lower than Flash’s 95%+. Lastly, HTML5 doesn’t yet have a robust development environment. This means while the platform is coming together, there is still a lack of tools to create the rich media experiences currently capable on the Flash platform.

Ok, that was a lot of techno-speak. So what does this all mean? Well, if you’re like me, the most important thing is to get the coolest stuff in front of as many people as possible in the most efficient way. Given that set of values, HTML5 may need some more time to mature before it takes Flash’s throne. In some cases, it may be necessary to jump into the HTML5 world (like delivering embedded video to the iPad). However in many cases HTML5 just doesn’t have the toolset or compatibility to be the best solution yet. Rest assured HTML5 is an exciting and fast moving frontier and all of us here at WebEnertia are constantly evaluating emerging technologies to implement whatever platform best serves our clients!

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