HTML5, the next generation of the standard on which web sites are based, is often portrayed as a Flash killer, taking over the interactive functions currently served on many sites by Flash. You might think Adobe (which produces Flash and the tools used to build it) would see that as a major threat, but the software developer actually takes a quite different view.
Here at Lifehacker we’ve been pretty bullish about the huge potential of HTML5, and there’s no argument that it will fundamentally alter the way we use the Web. One obvious change it will make is in how online video is delivered, an area where Flash has traditionally been a very dominant player. There are still some roadblocks to be overcome in that area, and claims that HTML5 is automatically more efficient at the task than Flash don’t necessarily hold up to scrutiny, but as support for HTML5 reaches more browsers, it will become an important factor in how sites are designed.
One reason that Flash has received a lot of attention in recent times has been Apple’s refusal to include it on the iPhone or iPad. Apple claims that this is largely a performance issue, though it’s often suggested that its desire to minimise any channels for applications on its devices that it can’t completely control is equally important. An absence of Flash certainly hasn’t hurt sales of either device, but encountering frequent dead areas on sites is an annoyance that does restrict their usefulness as general web browsing tools.
At this week’s Adobe MAX conference in Los Angeles which I’ve been attending, Adobe spelled out why it doesn’t see any issues with promoting both Flash and HTML5. The company is a member of the W3C group which ratifies HTML, and produces tools such as Dreamweaver designed to build sites, so on the most elementary level it doesn’t have anything to gain from blocking the standard. Google’s integration of a Flash player Chrome, which is the most popular HTML5-capable browser, also suggests that it doesn’t see any clash.
The core of Adobe’s argument for continuing with Flash is that it will continue to serve a role in offering functionality which HTML standards either won’t include, or may not include for some time. Video may not play such an important role in the future, but the use of Flash for casual gaming will continue to fuel demand for other interactive features, it predicts. (Adobe calculates 70% of casual and promotional games online are written in Flash.)
The first area where this will become evident are in the incorporation of support for USB gaming devices into Flash — so you can use console-style controls rather than just the keyboard and mouse — and the enhancement of its 3D capabilities. While Flash 10.1 can display thousands of triangles at 30Hz, future releases will offer “million of triangles at 60Hz in HD quality on the screen,” chief technology officer Kevin Lynch said in his keynote. Enhancing Flash’s ability to take advantage of hardware acceleration for graphics is another major area Lynch emphasised.
In due course, some of those features might end up in HTML (though the platform-specific nature of some of them would make it tricky). Web standardisation takes time, though, and there are often arguments over detail which delay general rollout. Firefox, for instance, is grappling with how to balance its commitment to open standards with the semi-proprietary H.264 standard that’s looking like the most popular option.
Quite aside from ongoing feature enhancement, there’s also the reality that HTML5 support won’t be universal and many people are slow to move. It’s not the browser of choice for most Lifehacker readers, but Internet Explorer remains the most commonly used browser. And while Microsoft is adding HTML5 support to IE9, it won’t be adding it to earlier versions, and IE9 itself won’t run on older versions of Windows.
As is often the case, arguing that one technology will “kill” another ignores the more common reality: our options often get more diverse and dominance can shrink, but that doesn’t mean that once-dominant technologies disappear. What’s your take on the utility of Flash? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of Adobe.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?
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