Whither Flash?

Whither Flash? There's been much talk and speculation lately about the future of Flash.

For those less tech savvy, Flash is the method by which a lot rich, interactive applications and media get delivered online. I mention this because Flash has become so ubiquitous as a technology that a lot of users out there don't really know what Flash is. They watch a video on YouTube, stream music on a MySpace page or view a slideshow on Flickr and it's just part of the online experience they take for granted.

However, with the launch of Apple's iPhone a few years ago and it's lack of support for Flash and with the emergence of the World Wide Web Consortium's HTML 5 proposal, Flash's dominance has been coming into question. The iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad continue to omit Flash support and Apple has made it no secret that's not going to change. People are starting to really take notice of this as Apple's market share grows in this area – and as more and more people access the web via their mobile devices without Flash support. Even Adobe has had to admit to the potential implications of this. Their recent SEC filings pointed out the danger of reduced revenues due to this shift – and one of their evangelists Lee Brimelow recently posted a somewhat one-sided and condemnation of Apple's position. Certainly, they're feeling the heat and not liking it.

In addition to this, the HTML 5 proposal (one of the underlying languages that drives the web) is emerging with support for some features that can replace much of what Flash does today. Unlike Flash, HTML 5 isn't a proprietary commercial product but is something being developed and adopted by the web community at large and tries to build on the fundamental principles of openness the web is (for the most part) built upon. It promises an evolutionary step in developing and delivering websites.

Unfortunately, not all players are fully on board with HTML 5 specification currently being worked through. Adobe is rallying to drop one of HTML 5's key elements from the spec called 'Canvas' which not coincidentally, poses a threat to Flash. As well, Microsoft has announced that Internet Explorer 9, which is currently in development, will not support Canvas either. Another not-so-coincidental coincidence; Microsoft has been pushing it's own proprietary format called 'Silverlight' which is a competitor to Flash and also threatened by the adoption of the Canvas element.

Now, as a developer, I watch this with several conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, I think Flash, used in the right places, is a great tool to deliver certain experiences online. However, the adoption of technologies which are essentially open source and community-driven are absolutely needed for the long term health of the web. With that said, I'm not exactly taking sides on this issue – and perhaps because I feel there's room for both. However, things are never that simple when it comes to technology and it's very possible that increased adoption on one side of the issue may spell the end for the other. And as developers, we'll play some role in where that's headed as we continue to build and deploy projects online.

However, this raises a significant issue: where might this 'battle' (if I can use an inflated term) end up? Will Flash really diminish in a meaningful way? Is the mobile market that Apple's driving already significant enough to say that's already happened? Some companies already think so as sites like cnet.com, nytimes.com and YouTube are adding HTML 5 video support.

As a developer, clients rely on us to make recommendations and as shifts like this begin to emerge, it's incumbent on us to follow them as closely as possible. However, the one thing we can't do is predict the future. So a lot of sites like those mentioned above will support both standards at least in the near future. But that takes significant extra budget that many clients don't have.

So what to do?

It's a good question with no perfect – or entirely clear answer. Beta or VHS? Blu-ray or HD-DVD?

For now, my hazy crystal ball tells me that Flash will likely be around for many years yet though that doesn't preclude a decreasing share of people who can actually see it in their browsing experience. So some clients will be forced to make choices between Flash and HTML 5 and the audiences that comes with them – and thus starts the slow erosion of one platform at the benefit of another.

For now though, HTML 5 is still in it's infancy and its support in the browser marketplace is spotty so we're still treating Flash roughly the same as we have the last several years. If we can find work-arounds or fallback solutions we'll look at them more closely and evaluate their merits but we're not quite ready to shout that the sky is falling in the Flash camp. That said, we'll continue to wear our Carnac The Magnificent hat and keep the cover off our crystal ball.

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