Will HTML5 Edge Out Flash?


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After initially underestimating the popularity of the iPad, I became an early adopter. The iPad was released in April 2010. I bought one a month later and have enjoyed it immensely, except for one thing: Much web-delivered multimedia uses Flash, and the iPad doesn't support Flash. As an alternative, iPad plays multimedia delivered in other formats, including HTML5, an emerging standard-in-progress.

As someone who favors open standards and open source, I think HTML5 may become an attractive alternative. After all, the World Wide Web is built on open standards. What really caught my eye though was an Adobe press release issued on Aug. 1: Adobe announced an "Early Preview of New HTML5 Web Motion and Interaction Design Tool" called Adobe Edge. Adobe Edge is a new motion and interaction design tool that lets creative pros build animated web content using web standards such as HTML, JavaScript, and CSS.

This raises a question: If you are planning to develop new web multimedia, which path should you take, Flash or HTML5?

Flash advantages are well-known: nimble, ubiquitous, and mature. Flash files are small and use very few computing resources. Even those frequent Flash updates often require nothing more than clicking a button, with no reboot required. Flash is also nearly everywhere, from 95% to 99% of web-accessible devices. Flash runs on the three major computing platforms-Windows, various flavors of UNIX such as Linux and Solaris, and Mac OS X (a POSIX-compliant UNIX variant)-and in all major browsers. However, Flash is not available on any of Apple's mobile devices. Even with those frequent upgrades (many due to security issues), Flash is mature, having been released in the mid-1990s. Adobe agreed to release the details of its Acrobat Portable Document Format and allowed it to become an ISO standard in 2008. This was both generous and fitting since PDF files are common on the web, which is, itself, fundamentally open.

Why not Flash?

I recently explored that ubiquitous-but-proprietary nature of Flash, and its future, with Devin Fernandez, Adobe's group product manager, web pro segment. Although Edge will provide such features as rotating content and banner ads, Fernandez cautions that Edge is not at the beta stage, or even the alpha stage. Adobe is looking for user feedback via its free downloads through the public preview period. Fernandez also pointed out that Adobe has a long track record of working in the standards space by collaborating with The jQuery Foundation and contributing to the WebKit Project, which aims to deliver content to Google Chrome, iPads and iPhones, and Android phones. Adobe is also on the HTML5 standards committee.

Yet aren't HTML5 and Flash on a collision course? Will Adobe allow Flash to become an open standard as it did with PDF? Posing those questions to Fernandez might have put him in an awkward position, and yet his candor suggests that Adobe is struggling with those same questions and the answers are not yet formulated.

As to whether or not Flash will become an open standard, Fernandez admitted this is a hard question and he is not sure. He also pointed out the constraint with open standards such as earlier versions of HTML: Browsers often interpret standards differently. Whether those differences are due to interpretation or for competitive advantage, no browser is completely HTML-compliant. Speaking from experience with the Dreamweaver product, Fernandez says that "browsers can't agree on the standard codec behind the HTML video tag. When you create web video for a website that will be consumed with multiple browsers, it is a lot of work." Fernandez also pointed out that even with the similarities, Flash and HTML have fundamental differences.

Flash, for example, is still the preferred rich media choice where digital rights management is important. Browser-based gaming "is almost always Flash," even when it is embedded in HTML5 pages. Finally, Flash is more suited than HTML5 is to logic-heavy enterprise applications, wherever applications use a big data set, or complex business logic.

In the longer term, which for the web means fewer than 5 years hence, the overlap between HTML5 and Flash will continue to grow. Fernandez believes that "Flash has always managed to fill the gap between what you can do in the browser natively and what designers can do in animation." Flash will continue identifying and delivering features that HTML cannot. So when will I be able to view Flash content on my iPad? Maybe there will be an app for that, but probably not any time soon.