Who Needs Flash?

In just months, from seemingly nowhere, Apple’s solo campaign to dethrone Flash as the de facto standard for web video has gathered enough momentum to get over the top. The question is no longer whether HTML5 will or should do the job, but when. Last week signaled the tipping point, when Microsoft confirmed HTML5 video support [...]
Who Needs Flash?


In just months, from seemingly nowhere, Apple’s solo campaign to dethrone Flash as the de facto standard for web video has gathered enough momentum to get over the top. The question is no longer whether HTML5 will or should do the job, but when.

Last week signaled the tipping point, when Microsoft confirmed HTML5 video support would be included in the next version of Internet Explorer, which is due later this year. That move will swing the percentage of browsers supporting the nascent standard well above half, and will rapidly accelerate adoption by publishers, despite lingering technical and legal issues.

The shift is already happening on the mobile web, and eventually — in perhaps as soon as two years — HTML5 can be expected to serve most new video online.

“There’s a ton of momentum behind HTML5, and it’s well-justified momentum,” Mozilla VP of engineering Mike Shaver tells Webmonkey. “The future of the web is the web, and betting against the web is a bad idea.”

Flash has been taking a beating lately. First, the iPhone ignored it, and now the iPad is ignoring it. Apple CEO Steve Jobs is on a public rampage against the technology. He and other proponents of open web technologies are calling for advances in HTML5 to fully replace the Flash Player.

They’re in for a tough fight: Adobe’s Flash Player browser plug-in is the reason so much rich media, audio, video and animation are playable on the web. Without Flash, you wouldn’t be able to view most of the videos posted online, and your life on the web would be pretty miserable. That’s the main reason it’s installed on more than 90 percent of web-connected PCs.

But users complain about Flash’s poor performance on PCs and its power-sucking behavior on portables. Security experts deride it for its safety shortcomings. Web purists argue the point that, unlike HTML5 and other open standards, the Flash experience is owned and controlled by a single vendor, Adobe.

A lot of people think it’s time for Flash to move on and give way to HTML5. Web pages written in HTML5 can play videos natively, meaning the browser can play a video without the need for plug-ins. Google’s betting on it: The company built a new version of YouTube that uses HTML5’s video tags instead of Flash to play clips. Other video sites like Vimeo and DailyMotion quickly followed suit.

It is the promise of HTML5 to make sure the web has built-in tools that don’t rely on vendor-specific plug-ins like Adobe’s Flash or Microsoft’s Silverlight. All of the major browser vendors — Microsoft, Mozilla, Google, Apple and Opera — are committed to supporting HTML5 in some way.

However, despite the opportunities offered by HTML5, it reamins a draft specification, and even though many publishers and vendors are supporting it already, it’s not expected to reach full maturity for another year or two.

Until then at least, Flash remains the dominant way to deliver audio, video and animation on the web. It’s been around far too long to simply be replaced overnight, no matter how severe of a public thrashing it’s currently enduring.

So what will it take for HTML5 and its new capabilities to truly supplant Flash on the web?

In order to find answers, we have to first look at how Flash came to be on top.

Flash the Firestarter

The story of Flash is really a story of what the web was not. Flash is currently the most common way to deliver web video, because it was once the only way to deliver web video. The very thing that standards advocates decry about Flash is also the reason it has been so successful — Adobe doesn’t need to wait for standards bodies to draft specifications and recommend standards, or for browser makers to implement them. It simply adds new functionality to Flash.

“Technology is evolving far faster than the standards can deal with,” says Adobe’s Director of Standards and Open Source Dave McAllister.

For example, during Flash’s infancy, there was no way to reliably embed video in a web page such that it worked for every visitor. Nor audio. But Flash came along and gave developers a way to embed audio and video into a web page while virtually guaranteeing it would work as intended in different browsers and on different platforms.

The innovation resulted in an explosion of rich media online. Indeed, if developers had waited for standards like HTML to provide video and audio capabilities, it’s safe to say there would be no YouTube, no MP3 blogs, no Shiba Inu Puppy Cam, no Chatroulette.

But while standards may be slow to mature, and browser makers might not implement them right away, eventually standards do catch up. And that’s where we find the web today. HTML5 is, in one sense, standards catching up to where the web already is.

Browsers Aren’t Ready

Roughly 40 percent of browsers on the web can deliver HTML5 audio, video and animation today, according to Mozilla’s Mike Shaver. He believes we’re on the path to seeing HTML5 replace Flash on the desktop, and that browsers need to all get on the same page.

The big holdout is Microsoft Internet Explorer. It’s still the dominant browser on the web, and it still doesn’t support much of HTML5.

“The best thing that could happen to HTML5 right now is for Internet Explorer to support the rest of [the HTML5 spec],” Shaver says.

When Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 arrives in late 2010 or early 2011, it will contain support for video and other HTML5 tags, according to Microsoft’s general manager of Internet Explorer Dean Hachamovitch.

“The future of the web is HTML5,” Hachamovitch wrote in a blog post last week. “HTML5 will be very important in advancing rich, interactive web applications and site design.”

Even though IE9 will (from what we’ve seen so far) still fall short of where other browsers already are in supporting HTML5, it will contain the video capabilities. So when IE9 ships and people upgrade to it, the majority of the web will be able to watch native web video.

Chances are, though, that the need for Flash won’t get close enough to zero at that point for most publishers to move entirely to HTML5 video.

YouTube, for example, has a test version of the site that plays video in native HTML5, but the HTML5 version isn’t available for all video on YouTube, and it doesn’t work in every browser. While a Google spokesperson tells Webmonkey that the company is “optimistic about the future of HTML5,” they also point out that Google’s primary concern is “for the web to work really well for everyone.”

For now at least, that means YouTube’s HTML5 player is merely an experiment. Too many people still need Flash.

The Codec Problem

There are technical issues with video codecs that greatly complicate the move to replace Flash video with HTML5 video in desktop browsers.

In order for your browser to display video natively using HTML5, the browser needs to employ a codec, a software component that can decode and play the video. Because the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), the web’s governing body, declined to specify a standard video codec to go along with new video element, the choice of which codec to support lies with each web browser.

Browser manufacturers are split into two camps, those that support the open source Ogg Theora (Chrome, Firefox and Opera) and those that support MPEG’s H.264 codec (Chrome, IE9, Safari and Safari Mobile).

If HTML5 is going to truly supplant Flash, either the browsers will need to pick a single codec, or the publishers will need to publish video in multiple formats.

At the moment, YouTube’s HTML5 video support is limited to web browsers that support the H.264 video codec. That means the HTML5 version of YouTube will work on the iPad, but it won’t work in Firefox and Opera. One solution would be for YouTube and others to offer a second video encoded in Ogg Theora format. However, that would require YouTube to re-encode all of its videos — which number in the millions — as Ogg Theora.

A vastly more economical solution would be to simply fall back to Flash. Because Flash also supports the H.264 video, publishers are more likely to simply serve H.264 video using HTML5 to browsers that support it, and serve the video inside a Flash player (using the same actual video file) for everyone else. It’s far easier than re-encoding an entire library of video files.

Aside from incomplete browser support, Byzantine legalities around video codecs are gumming up the works. H.264 is patented technology, and it can only be used under license from MPEG-LA, a group of companies of which Apple and Microsoft are a part. Ogg Theora is believed to be fully open source, but it may actually infringe upon existing patents.

Steve Jobs recently hinted as much, saying “A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other ‘open source’ codecs now.”

Monty Montgomery, the head of the group behind Theora, dismisses Jobs’ claims, saying that MPEG-LA’s many attacks against Theora are just empty threats.

“[The MPEG-LA] assert they have a monopoly on all digital-video-compression technology, period, and it is illegal to even attempt to compete with them,” Montgomery writes. “Of course, they’ve been careful not to say quite exactly that.”

There is a possible solution on the near horizon: Google recently acquired On2, a video company that makes a codec technology called VP8. Its quality is comparable to the H.264 and Ogg Theora formats, and On2 is believed to hold all of the patents on it. According to a report from NewTeeVee, Google is expected to release VP8 under an open source license later this month, giving the web another open source alternative to H.264.

Meet the Mobile Web

The first place we’ll really feel HTML5’s push will likely be on the mobile web. With Apple already eschewing Flash on its mobile devices, there’s increasing pressure on publishers to deliver content to the mobile web without using Flash.

Many are taking the cue: YouTube, Netflix, The New York Times, Wired.com and plenty of other big names are rushing to produce Flash-free sites for the iPhone and iPad.

This wouldn’t be the first time Apple pushed the industry in a new direction simply by eliminating a feature from its products — remember the floppy drive? Yeah, neither do we.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs recently outlined the reasons he won’t allow Flash on Apple’s mobile devices, citing factors like poor performance, security risks and the power of HTML5. While some of Jobs’ arguments are suspect, perhaps the most damning charge is the simplest: “Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of web content.”

Clearly, at least for mobile devices, Apple is betting on open standards like HTML5 to best deliver web content.

However, it’s still too early to say whether or not Apple’s anti-Flash campaign will be successful. While it certainly hasn’t hurt sales of the iPhone or the iPad, anyone who owns either device can tell you how annoying it is to see the broken plug-in icon where Flash content should be.

Apple’s competitors in the mobile market are not following its lead with it comes to Flash. Google recently said it will support Flash on its Android platform, and Mozilla’s mobile browser also plans to support the Flash plug-in in mobile devices.

At the same time, Adobe continues to improve its mobile version of Flash. While performance and battery life remain issues, clearly the Android developers are confident enough in the Flash Player’s future to make room for it.

Beyond Video

Even in the hypothetical future where video codecs have been sorted out and HTML5 video is the default choice for video on the web, Flash is unlikely to disappear completely.

Just as Flash was there to deliver video before standards could be written, it’s very likely that there will be new innovations that Flash will introduce before HTML can catch up.

Adobe’s recent Flash Player 10.1 update (currently a beta) adds support for “peer-assisted networking” — think BitTorrent in your Flash player. The new features open up possibilities such as browser-based VOIP apps for secure video chat, or videoconferencing apps without any external software. Or, P2P file-streaming in the browser.

In short, Flash isn’t just about watching video clips, and it may very well find another niche to fill.

Adobe’s Dave McAllister says he sees Flash as a part of the web itself. According to him, is not a question of either Flash or HTML5 — instead, both technologies have their place.

At least for now, he’s right. However, Flash’s foothold is shrinking.

There are some niches that Flash used to own that are dropping away: namely, typography and animation. Flash used to be the preferred way to render complicated fonts onscreen. But new advances in web standards mean designers can use cascading style sheets (CSS) and JavaScript to not only load fancy fonts, but display them on pages with close to pixel-perfect accuracy.

It’s the same with animations: Part of the the emerging HTML5 standard called Canvas can be used to draw animated graphics that dance around and swirl across the screen with the same flair as Flash animation.

Here’s a nice demo: a non-Flash, iPad-friendly version of the Spider-Man TV show title sequence. It’s all animated in JavaScript, CSS3 and HTML5, but it doesn’t work in all browsers.

As browser support for HTML5 grows and the video codec situation improves, the new lingua franca of the web will become more evenly distributed and we’ll stop using Flash to display videos, animations and fancy text. The lure of the iPad’s audience will force developers to push HTML5 designs to mobile visitors instead of Flash. But as long as people keep finding new ways to use Flash that HTML5 doesn’t cover, then Flash will likely continue to be part of the web for some time.

Love it or hate it, Flash has helped bring the web where it is today, and if Adobe continues to innovate with the Flash Player, the software will find a new home, new uses and new ways to push the web forward.

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Photo: Brian X. Chen/Wired.com

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