I hereby decree

by David LeMieux


This is a re-post of a guest blog entry I did for Widgetbox

When Apple, Inc. announced that the iPad would not support Adobe's Flash Player, the developer community began to talk. The debate about Flash as a web technology is not new, but the decreasing amount of support for Flash-enabled websites on mobile devices has made the issue more prominent.

When talking about the lack of Flash support on devices like the iPhone, iPod Touch, and the iPad, people are generally talking about Flash Player, the runtime piece of the Flash Platform. As more people start using internet-capable mobile devices, fewer people are able to consume Flash content on the web. At its peak, Flash enjoyed a 98% market penetration. Now some websites are reporting that the number of Flash-enabled browsers visiting has dropped to as low as 88%. Websites that are built entirely in Flash are now at a disadvantage when it comes to the mobile web.

There are other technologies that are also called by the name "Flash." The Flash authoring environment (e.g. Flash CS4) is the tool created and sold by Adobe that enables development for Flash Player. Flash Video (flv) is a file format used to deliver video through Flash Player. High profile video websites like YouTube and Hulu depend on Flash Video. Its ubiquitous nature means that it is simple to deploy video to a wide range of users using different Internet browsers and computer operating systems. Flash also comes with a built in protection system, making it harder for people to pirate the video they are watching. Web video is possible today because of Flash. That said, there are some drawbacks. Flash Video is a proprietary format made by Adobe. You can only use Flash Video in Flash Player. That means that nearly all the video on the Internet is controlled by one company.

Flash also has performance issues. While it claims to be interoperable between different systems, there are some noted differences. Flash Player on OS X based machines performs slower and takes more processing power than its Windows counterpart. New technologies, like HTML5 are helping to combat this issue and remove our dependency on Flash for video. HTML5 video will be less processor intensive. It will also make video a native part of the web instead of an optional, separately-installed plug-in. For now though, the major browser vendors haven't decided on what the default video format should be. This indecision essentially removes any interoperability that would otherwise be inherent. Format wars notwithstanding, look for HTML5 and the new "video" tag to soon start replacing Flash as the go-to video solution.

But Flash Player can do more than play video. Video is at the heart of the discussion, but other features like animation, hardware acceleration, and device access have made Flash what it is today. HTML5, even when combined with the web programming language JavaScript, does not currently have such an advanced feature set. JavaScript and ActionScript (the Flash programming language) share a common ancestor, ECMAScript. Unlike ActionScript, however, JavaScript has not been seriously updated in a long time. JavaScript is periodically updated, but those updates are not all supported in every browser, again taking away the interoperability.

In conclusion—Flash is not dead. It may be past its prime, but until browser makers and the web developer community can form a more-solid set of features and standards and get nearly ubiquitous market penetration, Flash will still be around. Flash Video will be the first to go, unless media companies don't see HTML5 video as a safe (i.e. pirate proof) solution. Flash as a development platform may never die. Adobe is already broadening the platform's reach with products like AIR which will make it possible to use the Flash authoring tool to create application for the iPhone and Nexus devices. Flash Player 10.1 will be available on a large set of mobile devices. As long as developers use the right tools for the job (i.e. don't make a 100% Flash website) and follow best practices it won't matter what technologies are around. That said, if you are Flash developer and you've never heard of HTML5 you may want to start looking in to it, right now.


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