Why Flash is Dying and How to Save It

Adobe’s Flash plugin has become a stalwart in online multimedia content with a massive install base, so why is it suddenly the least popular kid on the block?

Back when Netscape ruled the web and Microsoft was the pretentious young upstart nipping at its heels, HTML was the most dominant form of content on the web by a huge margin.

Nothing about video, audio or multimedia content made it appealing to work with or serve to visitors, but the demand was great, so great that what ended up happening was inevitable, if not entirely predictable.

How Flash Rose To Dominance

By version 5 Internet Explorer had swallowed almost the entire market. It came installed on Windows 98 Special Edition and provided Microsoft’s extensive developer base with a familiar, customized experience through the use of proprietary modifications like ActiveX controls.

At the same time, Flash had reached version 4 and was already capable of streaming mp3 audio files, an impossible feat by any other means at the time. Because of Macromedia’s persistence and diligence, and end users’ need for a pre-installed, simple way to view multimedia and audio and video content, the market penetration of Flash is said to be around 98%.

Moving forward to 2010, many people still use Flash on a daily basis, millions of them probably with little or no understanding of what Flash actually is. Browser technology has come a long way, and the main browsers on both Windows and Mac and even Linux allow for simple, painless installation of the Flash plugin.

The plugin itself has come a long way, now featuring streaming audio and video, fluid animation and even 3D capability, so why is there a growing movement among developers away from Flash?

In the interest of full disclosure I’ll admit right now that I’m not a fan Flash, although I don’t have quite the hatred of it that some have developed. There was a time when I discussed the use of Flash in every web design job I undertook, taking time to explain to the client that while I do not recommend full Flash sites or lengthy Flash intros, some animation would help guide the eyes of visitors and compliment the design and content.

It was always a challenge to wrestle Flash into behaving exactly as intended, and there were always version problems and platform bugs, but it was an accepted part of a web developers job. In the last few years though, I have begun taking the same approach as most conscientious developers, building the site and then reviewing to see if Flash is either needed or wanted.

The Real Problem With Flash

Before the onslaught of mobile web-capable devices, Flash was a risky choice because it was neither standards-compliant nor as accessible as HTML or even Javascript. Now that the mobile browsing device market is in full swing, Flash has become the pariah of the developers world.

Many devices, most prominently Apple’s iPhone, do not support Flash at all, and the ones that do display a considerable drop in usability and battery life. The iPad is just another high profile device that is completely unashamed in its lack of support for Flash.

While Apple and Adobe have a history of disagreement regarding software and compatibility, the truth here is fairly simple; Apple’s technology is either proprietary, in which case it takes full responsibility for it, or it is 100% open, like HTML, MySQL and Javascript.

Adobe has proven to be a fickle proponent of the Mac OS as a whole, and while some condemn the iPhone and iPad for their lack of support for such a common technology, it certainly hasn’t done much damage to Apple’s sales.

However, a large degree of the problem I have with Flash comes not from Adobe or any feature or shortcoming of the software itself. The environment for building and deploying Flash applications and movies is completely open, offering developers little standardized support for user interface elements like forms and buttons, which means that every single Flash website has buttons that are entirely unique in shape, size and style.

The dearth of Flash navigation and menu tutorials serves to illustrate the point that with such freedom the result is an endless cascade of websites that either do not work well or do not work at all. Additionally, Flash’s GUI interface has always proved tempting for designers looking to move sideways to web development.

In the same way that desktop publishing tools made it easier for the public at large to try their hand at graphic design with the end result being lower levels of quality in printed material, the Flash plugin in the hands of an unskilled and inexperienced web developer will predictably lead to lower quality across the board.

A major factor in the growing resentment towards Flash is that while as little as two years ago there were no real alternatives, today there are browsers that already support the HTML5 audio and video tags. It is entirely possible to include audio and video in web pages that remain standards-compliant, accessible and best of all, require no proprietary third party plugin to play. YouTube recently began beta testing HTML5 as an alternative to it’s current Flash-based player, and as HTML5 becomes more established I expect more sites to either make the switch, or at least offer users the choice.

A Spanner In The Works

It’s true that the implementation of video in HTML is mired in some unpleasantness regarding each browser’s preferred codec. Back in June 2009, Ian Hickson, the editor for the HTML5 spec wrote this:

Apple refuses to implement Ogg Theora in Quicktime by default (as used by Safari), citing lack of hardware support and an uncertain patent landscape.

Google has implemented H.264 and Ogg Theora in Chrome, but cannot provide the H.264 codec license to third-party distributors of Chromium, and have indicated a belief that Ogg Theora’s quality-per-bit is not yet suitable for the volume handled by YouTube.

Opera refuses to implement H.264, citing the obscene cost of the relevant patent licenses.

Mozilla refuses to implement H.264, as they would not be able to obtain a license that covers their downstream distributors.

Microsoft has not commented on their intent to support the video tag at all.

This stalemate, while understandable given that each of the organizations involved has their own agenda and market to consider, is bad for users, but should be resolved or at least eased once HTML5 gains traction.

It has been suggested by some that Adobe should simply open source Flash. While it might seem like a lot to ask for a for-profit company to loosen its grip on a lucrative product, it would remove the agenda of the anti-Flash lobby and create some extraordinary goodwill. Adobe continues to own and sell the premium Flash development tool, and greed aside the only real obstacle to this is the fear that someone will beat them at their own game. I’d love to see them prove me wrong on this one though.

By tobyleftly

Toby is a Mac nerd, a hardware nerd and a web nerd, rolled into one. You can find him at accentmedia.ca or on Twitter.

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