Is Flash Dead Yet?

No, but it's certainly becoming less relevant.

(That Steve guy famously said it's proprietary and closed, too.)


Settle down. Hang on, I'll explain.

Flash is not going away any time soon (at least, not on the desktop. Mobile is a different story.)

However, alone:

  • The web is not a movie.
  • The web is not a plugin.
  • The web is not a single vendor.
  • The web is not a single technology.

The "truthiness" of these things is part of what makes the web better.


The Debate: HTML 5 vs. Flash

When compared head-on with Flash, HTML appears to be missing many crucial features such as immersive graphical UIs, motion tweens, shiny UI effects, "skip intro" buttons .. erm .. and audio and video control. Many of these elements, if native to HTML, could enhance good web design when used appropriately. Until recently, it was simply impossible to embed or control audio or video in HTML without relying on a plugin of some sort. (Thankfully, images made it into the spec; before 1993, <IMG> did not exist.)

The development and progression of HTML 5, which includes <audio> and <video> elements, has been interpreted by some as the death knell for Adobe's Flash plugin — currently the de-facto standard for delivering "rich interactive experiences" with audio, video and animation elements. (Briefly: YouTube, Flash web games, embedded audio, viral video, communication, streaming and advertising.)

January 2010 saw YouTube introduce experimental HTML 5-based rendering of some of their H.264 video content in supported browsers, sans flash. In the same month, Apple announced their iPad tablet device: A "big iPod Touch" with multi-touch screen control, motion sensors, a 1GHz processor powerful enough to run games and other shiny things. Notably missing was support for Flash and other plugins, a continuation of the approach taken with the iPhone and iPod Touch.

What's going on?

Relevancy.

HTML and Flash for many years have been considered as separate technology solutions, the mixing of the two being appropriate depending on the brand experience or audience. Now, HTML may finally be starting to step into Flash's turf of audio and video in particular, presenting another (albeit nascent) option for "rich media" and interactive experiences. The ability of web standards to commoditize and turn popular vendor-specific, "owned" or proprietary features into open and free specifications for countless user agents to implement is a good thing.™ The trade-off, in this case, is time.

HTML-native <video> is, at time of writing, only partially supported in a number of browsers and has a ways to go — particularly around format support (H.264 vs. Ogg Theora and other royalty-free formats, another debate entirely) ..and then there's IE.. And yet despite all of this, the potential alone of HTML 5 is generating a lot of excitement and interest in the Diggblogotwitreddisphere.

Evolution.

Where the "battle" is to be had at some point in the future — if and when basic features and other things are roughly equal — will likely be over specific feature details and quality of execution (inter-related, yes.) Flash has a huge, established and supported install base and is the de-facto standard, and "it just works" for most audio and video applications — or, as the cynic would say, it's better than anything else out there.

In my opinion, Flash has earned and maintained its dominant position by continuously providing solid cross-platform graphic animation, audio and video support in the browser where others have tried and failed. My guess is that Flash will retain much of its dominant position here and in real-time streaming audio/video, communications and (perhaps) animation for years to come. HTML 5 is perhaps well set to challenge this over time given the standards process and evidence of interest from a number of large companies, but I suspect it will be several years before HTML 5-based audio and video are anywhere near commonplace. (Let's say IE 10, for the hell of it. I'd love to be wrong.) In any event, HTML 5 and Flash will most certainly co-exist for a very long time simply due to legacy support.

On the other hand, that a company such as Apple have announced a big, disruptive new web-oriented product in 2010 that simply "doesn't do Flash" is certainly a statement; it suggests that Apple believes Flash isn't a requirement for their vision of the web, as HTML may now fill that gap for them (even if only for H.264 content) in this product's browser. In that light perhaps HTML 5 should not be seen so much as competition to Flash, but rather simply the next milestone in the constant evolution of web technology.

And in the words of once-comedian Dennis Miller, "'course that's my opinion — I could be wrong."