Buggy. System hog. Security risk. Proprietary. Costly to design.
Those are some of the key problems that designers and users have referenced when describing Adobe Flash (ADBE). An industry standard and ubiquitous plugin for roughly 14 years, Flash has been supported by all the major desktop browsers, and millions of web developers integrate it — often begrudgingly — into navigation and media selections. But despite its regular updates, Flash has rightfully earned its share of detractors who bemoan its enduring shortcomings and pine for a viable alternative.
But this week, a glimmer of hope arose from two Flash video-intensive sites: HTML5 support.
In addition to their standard Flash players, Google (GOOG) and IAC (IACI) have rolled out beta versions of HTML5 video players on YouTube and Vimeo, respectively, which make no use of Flash whatsoever. This preliminary HTML5 video push isn't without its kinks — only Safari (AAPL), Chrome, and Internet Explorer (MSFT) with a Chrome plugin support the players — but it signals the beginning of the end to Flash's dominance.
A public working draft to HTML5 was released two years ago and development has been ongoing ever since — not to mention squabbles over a universal video codec and Microsoft’s lack of support for the canvas tag. Yet, the latest demos of what HTML5 can do are nothing short of jaw-dropping for designers, as evidenced in ReadWriteWeb’s list of examples. Dynamic graphics, hi-res video rendering, and real-time processing — all without the use of Flash or Microsoft’s Silverlight — is a major step forward.
However, even with the possibility of unshackling the costly Flash platform from web design, the death of its much-maligned integration will take many years.
Consider all the sites that rely on Flash to some degree. Whether it's a fancy method of navigation, like Nvidia’s (NVDA) showcase of graphic processors, or an excuse to show off, like Sprint’s (S) grid of mock infographics, Flash is just about everywhere. How quickly a web designer decides to migrate the site over to a brand new platform — no matter how robust and promising — and completely redesign a finished product depends on the initiative of the developer and the generosity of the client. And when have you known web developer to have a Type-A personality? Or a client to care enough about a web platform to pay a second time for a more efficient one?
Like any designer, a web designer is likely to be comfortable with a certain set of tools such as the one Adobe provides. Although the programming software is pretty costly — $700 for the Professional version — its point-and-click interface is familiar to users. HTML5 requires designers to not only possess an artistic eye, but also an adeptness of newly learned programming code. For some, that might be too much to handle.
There’s also the question of support. Microsoft’s IE6 still has a sizable market share despite being nearly nine years old. Even the latest version lacks a crucial element — the canvas tag. And given how infrequently Microsoft revamps its web browser to include new elements, it could be a long time before the most popular browser sees full HTML5 support.
Regardless of the groundbreaking steps made by YouTube and Vimeo, it isn’t likely Hulu or Netflix (NFLX) will jump on the open-source bandwagon. The DRM in all of their Flash videos allow the site to keep copyrighted content on the site and not be passed around on BitTorrent. HTML5 allows the user to easily grab any image, video, or audio file for offline access. Until there’s a safeguard in place, Fox (NWS), NBC (GE), and ABC (DIS) will definitely not be offering its programming on an HTML5-enabled Hulu.
In the meantime, HTML5 proponents will just have to allow the limitations and bugs of Flash sink the platform. The crashes and heavy reliance on system resources may have already accomplished that, but if analysts are correct and Adobe Flash becomes a major hacking target in 2010, the wait may not be as long as we think.