Author’s Note: This is the first post in what we hope to make series: “Ask a Web Strategist”. These are intended to be relatively short, public answers to questions web technology and strategy we receive. Do you have a question? E-mail us!
Question: I’m all bent out of shape about the Flash vs. HTML 5 debate. I’m interested to hear your opinion about it. Will Adobe Flash still have a place on the web in 5 years?
Answer: Generally, trying to predict where any technology in a field susceptible to rapid change will be in 5 years is a losing game. Flash will probably be around for many years to come, but we’d bet on a much smaller place.
The web development industry’s “trend” is certainly toward open, non-proprietary standards like HTML and away from closed, vendor specific solutions like Adobe’s Flash. This is especially of true “client side” technology, where we developers are dependent on the capabilities of the visitor, be it a full fledged Windows browser or an iPhone.
Where Flash has always succeeded – and continues to succeed – is in reaching beyond the limitations of the open standards and technology to solve common problems. In the past, that meant features as basic as animated slide shows. For a while, Flash was one of the the only reliable solutions for adding custom font faces to text without relying on manually created imagery (now, we endorse solutions like TypeKit). Today, Flash is still the best solution for delivering streaming audio and video on the web. And that’s where all this HTML 5 talk comes into play.
HTML 5 introduces support for media tags that enable embedding audio and video with almost all of the benefits of Flash video and fewer aggravations (and no proprietary software dependence). In fact, Google has introduced a Flash free version of YouTube – which also reveals why all of this HTML 5 talk is a bit premature.
HTML 5 support in browsers is still immature. Internet Explorer 8 does not yet offer video tag support (to say nothing of the 40% of users still on IE6/7), and the WebKit browsers (Safari/Chrome) support different video codecs then Firefox: the HTML 5 YouTube is WebKit only. But that will sort itself out eventually. Even with upgrade laggards, we expect that within 2-3 years, perhaps along with the release of IE9, that HTML 5 video will become the default, with a “fallback” to Flash. Eventually, we suspect the idea that video requires third party web browser software like Flash will be as silly as needing third party software to open image files in your operating system.
Flash still offers two value propositions that we don’t see open web technology supplanting in less than 5 years.
The second value proposition is ease for the lower end of the market. A friend of mine studying educational technology makes some great, clever little learning applications in Flash. He doesn’t fancy himself a programmer (though he’s learning his way around basic ActionScript), and doesn’t plan to make any big websites. But as a simple, graphical tool for creating simple learning applications, Flash is effective. Maybe someone will develop a jQuery/HTML based alternative to Flash Professional, but they’d have a lot of catching up to do to capture my friend.
Adobe might recognize that relative ease of use – along with its long legs in the industry – may be its biggest long term assets, more so than its use and adoption on the web today. They’re embracing several technologies that take it beyond desktop web browsers with the upcoming CS5 – we think the most interesting move is support for publishing iPhone apps.
Finally, remember that with web technology, as we highlighted in our IE8 disappointments article, we developers can only move as our audience is willing to move. Almost 20% of users still browse with IE6 – that’s 9 year old technology. With HTML 5 video only in its infancy, can we really expect all users to be on HTML 5 aware browsers within 5 years? We sure hope so, but aren’t so certain.
So we doubt Flash will disappear or be replaced within 5 years. But we do think its influence will continue to wane and its adoption will diminish.
But if you’re a web developer – or studying web development – we’d posit that the question is moot. No specific development technology is a safe “long term” bet in our rapidly changing field, and no one should hang their hat on one technology. Rest assured, if we start talking about a 10 year horizon, almost every engineering tech we use now will be antiquated. If you want to be in the tech / media business, adapting to new trends and embracing change is part of the game!