Can HTML5 Outperform Flash?

Ever since the introduction of HTML5 there has been a strong debate about whether it can replace Flash? The trend of web development industry is certainly towards open, non-proprietary standards like HTML and away from closed, vendor specific solutions like Adobe’s Flash. The use of Flash has lessened over a period of time. jQuery and other JavaScript frameworks have overtaken flash when it comes to  basic web animation and effects like slide shows and animated menus. Although the use of flash has come to a staggering low but it is not going to vanish.

There was a time when Flash was one of the only reliable solutions for adding custom font faces to text without relying on manually created imagery. HTML5 supports media tags that allow to embed audio and video with almost all of the benefits of Flash video. Google has introduced a Flash free version of YouTube which sort of makes this HTML5 talk a bit premature. HTML5 support in browsers is still immature. IE8 does not yet offer video tag support. Most probably with the release of IE9, the HTML5 video will become default.

Now that the basic animation and interactivity is solved with powerful JavaScript frameworks, and media streaming is solved by new HTML standards, the question arises- Where does flash stand now? To begin with, flash still offers two valuable propositions which no open web technology is going to supplant in the next five years or so. First of all, the upper end of Flash’s animation and interaction capabilities are still unmatched by any existing or proposed open technology. JavaScript is very processor intensive and has a complex interactivity. Although Google is trying hard to solve it, but currently Chrome is the only browser capable of running a JavaScript based Super Nintendo emulator, which is a 20 year old technology, at an acceptable frame rate. However, considering the pace at which software like IE moves, this is not going to be solved in the next couple of years.

Let us consider the scenario of the rise and fall of Java. There was a time when Java was the popular technology for developing web design applications. But with the introduction of server side technologies like PHP and .NET, the use of Java became limited to specialized use cases. Although Java has not vanished and it still has some wonderful use cases, but it certainly is not the most popular technology it used to be during 2000.

Flash is quite effective and a simple, graphical tool when it comes to creating simple learning applications. Adobe may recognize that relative ease of use, with its feet firmly established in the industry, may be its biggest long term assets, more so than its use and adoption on the web today. Adobe is making use of several technologies that may take it beyond desktop web browsers with the upcoming CSS. The most interesting move is going to be the support for publishing iPhone apps.

It should be remembered that with web technology, the web developers can only move as the audience is willing to move. Approximately 20% of the users still browse with internet explorer6 which is a 9 year old technology. The HTML5 video is still in its infancy. Hence, it would be too far fetched to say that all the users will be on HTML5 aware browsers within, say, 5 years. This is something we can hope for, but certainly cannot be certain of. Therefore, it is pretty much doubtful whether Flash will disappear or will be replaced within 5 years. However, it cannot be denied that the influence of Flash is bound to wane away with time, and its adoption will diminish considerably.

As far as web developers and web development is concerned, no specific development technology is a safe “long term” bet in this rapidly changing field. If we talk about the situation after ten years from now, almost every engineering technology we use now will be antiquated.

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