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The death of Flash. Will HTML5 kill Flash?

In my opinion the short answer is probably not. At least not for a few years anyway.
HTML5 has some nice new features, one of the key benefits is being able to play video directly in the web browser without the need for a plugin (such as Adobe Flash).
When it comes to including video on a web page, Flash is the defacto standard and accounts for a large percentage of the existing videos on the web.

However playing video is only a small part of what Flash is capable of. Flash is actually a program which executes on the users computer (client side), it has an entire programming language and developers toolset behind the scenes available for a web developer to utilise on a website.
This can range from basic video, animated effects with rollovers and flying elements etc, to complete web based applications and web based games.

The key issue with Flash is it is a plug-in and therefore needs to be downloaded and installed for each computer/browser and operating system. Up until recently the Adobe Flash plug-in was available for most operating systems/web browsers commonly in use, but with the introduction of Mobile Phones and other handheld devices the plug-in isn't available to all web browsers.

What this means is, if you use Flash in your website not all your potential viewing audience will be able to access/see all of the content on your website.
For example if your website used a flash based home page and menu system some users would not be able to view the website and move navigate from page to page, effectively rendering the site useless to these users, unless you provide an alternative content/navigation system.

At the moment the number of users who don't have Flash installed is low.
The main reasons for not having flash installed is because either the plug-in isn't available or the user hasn't downloaded and installed the plug-in (which may be due to corporate security policy, i.e. the company restricts their employees from installing flash).
However for Adobe Flash there is one big spanner in the works, Apple won't allow Adobe provide flash for the Web Browser used in the Apple iPhone and Apple iPad.

MyLotto Website on the iPhone

My Lotto Website on a PC with Flash installed!

My Lotto Website on a iPhone
The image on the left is the NZ Lotteries "My Lotto" site on a web browser which has Flash installed. The image on the right is the same site on an Apple iPhone (it would also look like this on any computer which doesn't have flash installed). The website is mainly driven by Flash, which means if you don't (or can't) have flash installed you won't be able to use much of the site.
For the New Zealand Lotteries Commission, when the site was first designed the iPhone probably either didn't exist or the number of potential visitors comming to the site who didn't have flash installed (remember flash is also not installed on most computers by default) would be a small percentage of the total traffic to the site.

However with the release of the iPad and the market penatration of the iPhone into NZ, this will soon become a big problem. iPad and iPhone users won't be able to buy or check there lotto tickets online and will be forced to either fire up the old PC or go to the local lotto outlet.

The website is actually very nice and who-ever developed it has done a really good job, unfortunately Apple has created a bit of delima for NZ Lotteries, either redesign the site or exclude some of the potential customers. The big issue is the potential customers who won't be able to use the site is growing. Although the site could be redeveloped without Flash, it probably would lose a lot of the current look and feel.
At the moment using HTML5 is not an option as it is not supported by all Web Browsers.
The logical solution for NZ Lottories is one of two options:
  • Sit it out and, hope that Apple and Adobe play nice in the future.
  • Build a 2nd site and direct users who don't have Flash support to it.
  • Why won't Apple support flash on their iPhone and iPad?

    Obviously Apple has its reasons, but here is my theory - bottom line it is good business.
    First of all Flash is a threat to Apple's app store business model. Currently if you want to develop software for the iPhone or iPad you have to use Apples SDK (Software development kit) and submit your applications to Apple to be released on their App Store or develop web based apps.
    However if Flash could run on the iPhone developers could bypass the App Store entirely.

    This brings me to the second reason, which is both technical and political.
    Although technically the iPhone can actually play flash video and possibly other flash content (there are flash players available for iPhones which have been jail broken) there are several reasons why it is probably not a good idea to allow flash content to run on the iPhone.
    Because the Flash Player is actually an executable program which allows users to develop flash based applications it introduces two new areas of concern, security and performance.

    A quick google search for Flash Security Issues will give you an idea of some of the security issues.

    On the performance front, as in life there are bad builders and bad mechanics, there are also bad software developers and web designers. There are thousands of poorly designed web pages and websites out there. It is easy to upload an image to a web server which exceeds the resolution required and slows the entire page load time, while putting additional load the web server and demands on bandwidth.
    Flash amplifies this issue as flash files by nature are large and can be poorly designed.

    Designing an application or web pages to run on a iPhone has some key considerations: (at the end of the day the current iPhone 3GS only has a 600Mhz processor.)
    By not including Flash support in the iPhone's Web Browser, Apple effectively filters out poorly designed resource intensive flash content making the iPhone seem zippy and responsive.
    This ultimately improves the end users experience and strengthening the Apple iPhone Brand.

    The political issue for Apple, is in order for flash to effectively run on an iPhone the Flash Player executable would really need to run in the background (think multi-tasking) and would probably need access to lower level OS functions.
    These two things are currently restricted to Apple Only Applications.
    Even Apple's iPhone Web Browser doesn't play video (inline) on a web page, it actually (shells out) closes the web browser and opens Apple's Quicktime player to play a video when the link is touched (clicked). On completion touching the done button, closes the Quicktime Player and the web browser is reopened at the previous page loaded. This entirely negates any requirement to run both applications at the same time (multi-tasking).

    There are also several other advantages to the lack of Flash support for a iPhone user.
    Because Flash is not supported on the iPhone, when a user visits a web page with flash content none of the flash content gets downloaded or displayed. This reduces internet data, which lowers the cost for users on a capped data plan; it also extends the battery life as most flash content will put additional load on the cpu.

    This all of course creates a problem for people creating content for websites, should they use Flash?
    The short answer is no, but it is all about knowing your potential audience (now and in the future).

    In reality if you want certain types of content on your website, for now Flash may be the best solution, but it should be used carefully.
  • Always make sure the page is viewable and can be easily navigated using a web browser which doesn't support flash.
  • Always include an alternative image for all flash content.

  • As it stands in February 2010, HTLM5 doesn't have enough browser support or new functionality to replace flash, but personally I would avoid using flash unless it is really needed and you want you website to be future-proof.
    Of course there will be times when flash may be the best option.

    Long term it is hard to say if the iPhone and iPad will support Flash, I wouldn't be surprised if Adobe end up suing Apple or if Apple and Adobe come to some sort of agreement.

    Written by Craig Robins 18 Feb 2010.
    The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of ClikOnce Limited.
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