As a Flash developer I must admit to being curious at YouTube’s HTML5 trial support, removing the need for the Flash player for video playback. Video-centric social networking site Vimeo has also followed suit with its own HTML5 video player beta.
To be honest, until recently I’d been fairly dismissive of HTML5’s chances of ousting Flash from the browser but the reaction from several colleagues has got me a little nervous. “It’s the beginning of the end” said one, whereas another more-or-less implied we should just all give up and go home.
Let’s face it though, Flash does a hell of a lot more than just video so why should I even feel threatened by this? Well theoretically HTML5 should allow more than just video too. In fact, if you believe the hype then anything that can be done in Flash should be do-able directly in the browser.
But let’s address video first. I think it’s fair to say that video is a large part of the web these days. I personally watch several videos each day be it on the BBC website, some interesting links from YouTube, or a tutorial on something like gotoAndLearn. Video is everywhere and for that reason so is Flash.
And if you’ve been keeping up with the progress of the Flash 10.1 player for mobile you would have noticed that Adobe are pushing video playback as a major advantage for having Flash on mobile devices. But what if phone browsers suddenly started supporting HTML5? Would there be such a push from OEMs to have Flash on their handsets? I suppose that depends on the number of sites that eventually embrace HTML5 and that itself really depends on the success of HTML5 across a wide range of browsers.
You just need to quickly scan through the list of caveats posted by both YouTube and Vimeo regarding their HTML5 video players. Anyone using IE or Firefox (and that’s a lot of people) are currently excluded. Vimeo has stated that this means the beta will only work for 25% of it’s users! Full-screen support is also out for both sites, with Vimeo stating that it’s unfortunately a limitation of the browsers right now. Oh and you’ll need to return to using Flash for embed codes.
So far from ideal but hey, it’s early days.
But what if the tide does change? As I said, it’s only video and Flash can do so much more. True but maybe video support on mobile is enough for the time being. After all, not being able to view Flash content on the iPhone has hardly dented Apple’s sales figures has it. I guess there’s a huge amount of content out there that people can do without and with video eventually being available via HTML5, maybe there really isn’t a need for Flash on mobile. Now this could be critical since getting video support onto mobile devices via the Flash 10.1 player would certainly help to stave off HTML5 in the short term.
And if HTML5 becomes the de facto standard for video playback then what next? With its support for canvas drawing there is also no need to use Flash for interactive pictures, charts and graphics; things that we’ve relied on Flash for years now. The simple fact is that the modern web browser is narrowing the gap between what you expect from a standard HTML page and what can be achieved using Flash.
Again though, I think mobile will come into the equation. With more and more people accessing the web on their phones it might boil down to what runs better on a device – apps written using HTML5 and its scripting API or apps written in Flash? It’s clear that Adobe have put a lot of effort into optimising Flash for mobile, but what about the browsers themselves? Content will have to run well on a device or users just won’t bother and the content providers/creators will be accutely aware of this. There’s no point writing for a particular technology if it’s just not going to run well on mobile, and that goes for both Flash 10.1 and HTML5.
Essentially performance and penetration are going to be huge factors, especially on mobile where more and more people are accessing the Internet. Plus more companies are eager to have consistency when viewing their sites across both desktop and mobile.
To be perfectly honest though, I’m not even sure it will come down to the technology. There are so many creative agencies and development teams out there that use Flash daily and are comfortable using the Flash and Flex IDEs. They’ve invested a lot of time and money on these products and may find it hard to give them up for new emerging technologies. There has to be a collective will in order for a shift to take place. Look at Silverlight for example. It’s an impressive web application framework that many confidently predicted would kill off Flash, but over the last few years that will to change just didn’t seem to be there. Will the same happen with HTML5?
So am I worried? To be honest, at the moment, not really. If HTML5 does eventually force Flash out of the picture then it’s not going to happen overnight. The HTML5 specification will still take some time to solidify and its overall success really does rely on a fairly consitent implementation of it appearing across several desktop and mobile browsers. Just take a look at this article regarding a spat between Mozilla and YouTube to see what I mean. It seems that even agreeing on a video codec is too much. Who knows how long it will take for HTML5 video to appear on a wide range of mobile browsers.
What about Adobe? I seem to remember Nokia, to their cost, dismissing Android when it was announced. Let’s hope Adobe don’t make the same mistakes with HTML5 and that it helps drive their business strategy and innovative thinking. For me I think they’re doing the right thing at the moment, which is getting Flash Player 10.1 on as many mobile devices as possible. The sooner they manage that the more chance Flash has of remaining the de facto standard for video playback on the web. And if that’s the case then it will also probably remain the de facto standard for rich Internet applications too.
I’ll leave you with a few quotes I found. The first is taken from the blog of Adobe’s John Dowdell who posted about HTML5 last year.
this whole “HTML5” campaign will likely benefit Flash, because few remain who oppose the idea that “experience matters”. Things are quite a bit different than five years ago. Silverlight’s launch helped boost the popularity of Flash… iPhone helped to radically increase the number of phones with Flash support… the “HTML5” publicity helps marginalize those few who still argue that images, animation, audio/video and rich interactivity have no place on the web. Flash will be able to deliver on those heightened expectations, regardless of what each separate browser engine does.
The other was posted by Lee Brimelow on his blog this morning and suggests that both technologies can quite happily coexist.