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Ongoing Misunderstanding of Flash and HTML5

This post originally appeared on my blog on Saturday, March 3, 2012.

The latest article that uses absolutes and broad generalizations to imply an otherwise non-existent struggle between Flash and HTML5 is from UX Booth, “What the Demise of Flash Means for the User Experience.” To be fair to this article, I see regular missives on Flash vs. HTML5 and this particular UX Booth article is just an example of many of them in one easy to cite place.

The opening gives away the false premises for the rest of the piece:

Adobe’s decision to cease development of the mobile Flash platform and increase their investment in HTML5-related efforts created perhaps the final piece of conclusive evidence that HTML5 is the current go-to technology for creating ubiquitous user experiences regardless of device.

First I have to accept that the author is talking about more than the HTML5 specification and is also referring to CSS3, JavaScript, and the W3C specifications that are related to HTML5. This lack of clear delineation chips away at the argument.

Adobe has held that the fragmentation of mobile devices is too hard to keep up with on its own. Flash will still exist for mobile wrapped in AIR applications instead, and Flash is not going away from the desktop. Adobe’s decision to increase investment in HTML5 (via Edge and to a lesser extent Muse) is mostly unrelated since there is a market for an HTML5 authoring tool independent of Flash.

Not only is this neither conclusive nor the final piece of evidence that HTML5 is the current go-to technology, this is anecdotal evidence at best. In addition, HTML5 itself is nowhere near complete and the element often regarded as the Flash-killer, canvas, isn’t anywhere near as robust as Flash and still lacks strong scripting or styling support in the specs.

I think it’s fair to challenge the claim that HTML5 creates “ubiquitous user experiences regardless of device” when you consider all the polyfills and shims that need to be implemented to create similar experiences on a few devices. It’s also fair to say that my netbook does not handle some of the related HTML5 specifications the same as my tablet or mobile phone, partly due to various levels of hardware and browser support. Let’s not even get into video and audio codecs or the touch events specification (neither of which are part of the core HTML5 specification).

HTML5 excels at giving users a delightfully inconsistent experience on any device through the concepts of “graceful degradation” and “progressive enhancement.”

Those terms pre-date HTML5 and I can do both with HTML4 and CSS2. The author continues on and cites responsive design as a feature of HTML5, even though my own site is an example of an HTML4 site using responsive design to adapt to assorted displays.

Additionally, more than 90 percent of all smartphones and tablets are HTML5-enabled, which means that all the benefits of HTML5 can be utilized today to provide impressive mobile websites.

The author’s math doesn’t bear out the assertion — by the author’s numbers, 10% are not HTML5-enabled and so cannot benefit from HTML5. For the other 90% that are, even they cannot enjoy all (author’s word) the benefits of HTML5 today.

Making or upgrading to an HTML5 site can be as minimal as simply using HTML5’s doctype [...]

The implication here is that simply changing a doctype gets you all the benefits of HTML5, when in reality you still have the same HTML, CSS and script.

The post never does answer its own question — what does the demise of Flash mean for the user experience? From the article, more HTML5 use. In itself that doesn’t tell me how the user experience is affected, just how developers are affected. If the developer does a good job, the user experience doesn’t need to change. The user shouldn’t need to worry about the underlying technology.

Too many HTML5 articles and posts today, like this one, work to promote the markup language (and usually CSS3 and JavaScript, even if they don’t know it) by contrasting it against another technology that is falling away or is just a popular target of derision. The pro-HTML5 cheering is easy when another technology has already been recognized as out-of-date, but this doesn’t do anything to advance HTML5 and its related specifications.

I’d love to see more practical discussions of what HTML5 (and related specs) can do today along with all the nifty experiments that are moving the collection of specifications along.

Flash is Dead! Long Live Flash!


A lot of news has been made of Adobe’s recent move to end development of the Flash player for mobile devices (such as your smartphone or tablet). Even people outside of the tech community have heard about it and are trying to understand what it really means. I wrote up the details last month (Flash Isn’t Going Away, Except from Your Mobile) and tried to remind everyone that Adobe isn’t giving up on Flash, it’s just changing its direction on its mobile player based on industry trends.

Consider that Apple won’t allow the Flash player on its iOS devices, and that the mobile version of Windows is following suit. Consider that web developers are (finally, after a decade now) starting to focus on standards-based web development and accessibility. Consider how many different mobile devices and browser combinations exist, requiring Adobe to develop a Flash player for each.

Much of Flash on the web has been used to deliver rich multimedia experiences that either don’t translate well to mobile browsers (giant file sizes, areas too small to “click” with a finger, optimized for large displays, etc.) or can be replaced with new HTML capabilities which mobile browsers tend to support now without the Flash player (such as the lowly Flash video player).

Add all these factors together and it doesn’t make sense to push the Flash player to mobile devices any more. Adobe is instead using AIR to allow Flash developers to build native apps on the phone, bypassing the hassle of the browser plug-in altogether and still allowing those legions of Flash developers to do what they do best.

Here’s where people get confused — Flash as a platform isn’t going away. Regardless of the hype you hear about HTML5, HTML5 (including CSS3, SVG, and so on) just doesn’t have the capability (whether via the specification or by browser support) to do what Flash does. Flash is the only technology that can currently do what Flash does for such a broad audience. Its ubiquity across the web (98% installation) has guaranteed that users see what the developer wants, regardless of platform; regardless of whether or not what the developer created is any good.

This doesn’t mean we are Flash-crazy over here. Quite the opposite — we have historically counseled against Flash for web sites for many reasons, some of which are simply because it doesn’t address the goal. As we develop sites that are both mobile-friendly and desktop-friendly, we are increasingly coaching our clients on the right technologies to use to achieve their goals. Our position on Flash isn’t changing because of Adobe’s move, Adobe is simply reflecting the trend.

You can expect to see less Flash in web pages on your mobile, but you can also expect to see more of it behind the scenes in apps for mobile devices. As for your desktop browser, Adobe will release Flash players for years to come and people will still develop in it for as long as it takes HTML5 and its related specifications to finalize the rules and for the browsers to support them.