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The Future of Flash and HTML5

May 4th, 2010 by Max Tokman

There has been an intense and sometimes vitriolic debate between proponents of Adobe's proprietary Flash platform and supporters of the open HTML 5 draft. At stake, is  who will control the creation of rich media applications and content delivery on the internet.

If you are looking for rich media (think interactive banner ads) and gaming, Flash is the de-facto standard on the web. Chances are, if you've viewed an online video or played Farmville - you've used Flash. The reason for this dominance is simple - Flash filled the void of interactivity and consistency that HTML could not provide. Today, a number of related factors are emerging that threatens Flash's grip on rich media; these are, websites using the H.264 video codec, web applications, and the lack of a Flash player on most smartphones.

The fastest growth found on the internet today comes from smartphones created by RIM, Apple and Google. These devices use custom operating systems, processors and software that are not compatible with desktop platforms. Furthermore, until very recently, slow mobile networks, inferior web browsers and market fragmentation - meant that Adobe had little reason to release a competent mobile Flash player. As a result, Flash's mobile penetration is in the single digits compared to the 95% install base found on Windows and Mac computers. With mobile users clamoring for the types of content experienced on sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Gmail, the industry has been forced to deploy alternative technologies such as HTML5.

HTML5 is the next revision of HTML, the core language of the World Wide Web and was envisioned to reduce the reliance on third party plug-ins such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight. It is not a defined standard, unlike its predecessor HTML4, but enough of the spec is stable and the industry has already begun to create products with the technology. A webpage using HTML5 would be able to treat media such as video and audio, the way it does images, text and links. This brings a number of advantages such as the ability to treat video as dynamic data, rather than the current separation wall between video and HTML.

The lack of Flash on the major smartphone platforms has led YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook to create duplicate repositories of HTML5 video using the H.264 codec.  H.264 is a proprietary codec (video format) that is used as the basis for Blu-Ray Disc and iTunes, but does not have the support of Mozilla, the company that develops Firefox who instead backs the rival OGG Theora format. Google, the owner of YouTube and supports H.264 for mobile video, now has plans to release their VP8 codec as an open source solution - potentially ending the codec disputes.

HTML5 is also being leveraged to create desktop class applications capable of utilizing a device's file system, GPS, camera and local storage. Rather than creating applications for specific platforms, it is possible to create one HTML5 version for use on all compatible browsers. Google has successfully used HTML5 for online services such as Latitude and Google Voice when it ran into roadblocks with distribution of on the iPhone and iPod Touch. These are featured filled applications that offer all of the advanced functionality of proposed iPhone apps. As a result these HTML 5 apps now run on a variety of devices such as the Palm Pre and Google Nexus One.

In spite of the threat from Apple who is blocking all forms of Flash on it's mobile devices, Adobe holds a number of advantages which will ensure its medium to long term survival. Flash has a rich ecosystem of supplementary technologies, ranging from the Flash CS5 Professional authoring package, to streaming media servers and measurement tools required by online advertisers. There are also hundreds of thousands of experienced Flash developers who create banner ads, games and enterprise software and will not easily switch to another platform. Because of its near ubiquity, Flash already has mature toolsets and the infrastructure for delivering rich media on the desktop internet. Adobe uses its Flash player that is embedded in all desktop browsers as a trojan horse to continually add new capabilities and at a rapid pace. Flash 10.1 for example now supports hardware accelerated high definition video, which significantly reduces the need for a powerful cpu - and subsequently improves the battery life for mobile devices. On the other hand Adobe's efforts with mobile Flash player 10.1 is slated for release during the 2nd half of 2010 with no guarantee of widespread adoption. Each day that passes further entrenches HTML5 on mobile devices and reduces the time span in which Adobe has to gain traction. Early examples of this can be seen by companies such as Brightcove beginning to create advertising measurement tools for HTML5 videos.

For content creators, brand owners and creatives, the dissolution of Flash as the standard for video and rich media is a long term threat that should not be ignored. HTML5 is a nascent technology with the potential to become a widely used replacement for Flash. However, the lack of easy to use tools, infrastructure and even agreement between browser developers, means that day is coming its just impossible to say when.

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