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Why it might not be time to jump on the HTML5 bandwagon just yet

In April 2010, Steve Jobs published an open letter on Flash on Apple’s official website that he called “Thoughts on Flash”. In it he openly explained why the Cupertino giant had refused to use Flash player on its mobile devices. The Flash vs. HTML5 debate had long been on the lips of developers across the world by then, and this letter fuelled the fire even further. Two years on we’re still reading about the demise of Flash and the rise of HTML5. But is HTML5 really all it’s cracked up to be?

When talking about Flash and HTML5, there are two distinct areas of technology to consider: the PC and the mobile platforms. According to Adobe, 99% of PC browsers are running their Flash Player plug-in. Since Flash is a standalone “plug-in” and not built into a browser like Firefox or Internet Explorer, you’re pretty much guaranteed that you’ll be able to develop a website or game once and use it across different browsers without any problems. Flash is popular for this reason, because it works on just about any browser, and also because it provides an immersive and engaging experience.

According to NetMarketShare, a leading internet technologies market share statistics firm, HTML5-capable browsers have close to 58% browser market share globally but their penetration in emerging market countries like South Africa remains relatively low with less than 40% (older versions of Internet Explorer are still big in these countries). HTML5 is still a moving target in that its specifications are still being developed. It is still largely dependent on the implementation by each browser’s developer, this leads to more work in getting your web application running across the various HTML5 compatible browsers which leads to more time and more cost.

The one problem with Flash is that, over the years, it has gained a bad reputation. When used incorrectly, Flash can be processor intensive and very bandwidth hungry. Also, many developers have used it simply for the sake of using it, inundating the web with annoying site banners, flashy transitions and animations that have no real purpose and have done the Flash Player brand no favours. If Flash isn’t that bad after all, why did the late Steve Jobs think it was “no longer necessary” in 2010? Because, quite simply, it’s not great on mobile, and even Adobe, who developed it, is starting to agree by abandoning the Flash Player for the mobile browser and shifting its focus towards HTML5 as the best solution for creating and deploying content for mobile browsers. Which most agree is where the web is heading.

Having said that, that doesn’t mean HTML5 is the one and only solution for mobile developers. It performs best on an iOS device as Safari has the best HTML5 support at present. The Android operating system is catching up but is not quite there yet, particularly on the performance level. Essentially, when it comes to mobile devices, HTML5 on mobile faces the same setback as it does on a PC: browser compatibility and standards implementation can be an issue.

So what does this mean for apps? The same thing it does for browsers. An app written in HTML5 will perform differently on an Android phone than it does on an iOS device. This is where Flash can come into play.

Adobe AIR, an extension of Flash that allows you to develop and deploy desktop and mobile applications, has introduced huge performance gains, particularly with Adobe®AIR® 3+, which has made Flash development for mobile apps more viable. With Adobe AIR 3+ you can develop your app on a “write once” basis similar to the site’s browser and install the app across different platforms like iOS, Android and the BlackBerry Playbook.

So, is Flash dead yet? The short answer is no. Based on market penetration stats 99% Flash vs 58% HTML5, can you afford to lose the 41% difference?

  • Bill

    From Wikipedia: “Parts of HTML5 have been implemented in browsers despite the whole
    specification not yet having reached final Recommendation status.”

    In my opinion, the best option is to embrace HTML5 as soon as Chrome and Firefox can render your app/content in it without browser-specific hacks.

    I’m sure the vast majority of that 41% with non-HTML5 browsers yet is IT-unaware people, that simply doesn’t know about Chrome and Firefox; they will install any of them if you require them to do so, just as they installed the Flash Player a long time ago.

    In contrast with the Flash-age culture, though, a good public site should adopt the progressive enhancement strategy; giving everyone access to all contents.

    To sum up, what I would do is:
    1. Requiring IE 6, IE 7, IE 8 users to install Chrome or Firefox.
    2. For everything else, there’s progressive enhancement.

  • wayneashleyberry

    um… yeah
    define “HTML5-capable browsers”

  • Major flaw in this argument is that notion of losing people. You dont lose people, only features, which can either be degraded gracefully or by using elements of flash.

    In any case you need to be clearer by your definition of HTML5 because a lot of what people call HTML5 is a combination of HTML5, javascript and other modern web technologies.

  • Shawn Blais

    By ‘good’ site you mean a site that costs 30,000 to build, you realize that right? vs the same thing in flash for $5k, and it just works. People need to realize that development costs matter.

  • Would you say that AIR is truly ready for mobile development? As someone who is currently producing a mobile app in AIR I feel like using native languages would have saved us time despite having to do everything twice. It simply seems that although AIR can be used to develop apps, there are still a lot of pitfalls to watch out for.

  • dbz

    Statistics aside – I’ve noticed that the author of the
    article works for Prezence – which is well known for their flash

    With that thought in mind. Sure HTML5 is still a relative lawless society
    – but then again so was html when it started in the early ’90s and finally
    ‘standardize’ in 1997 as html4. So it will take time to get there.
    With Flash, as with Silverlight, from a organisational point of view, the human
    overhead is that much more. Procuring developers to do a project, mobile
    or web, in HTML5 is a lot less painful and definitely more efficient in my

    I’ll answer your last question with another question. In today’s quick
    moving web world, would you rather be ahead of the curve or lagging behind.

  • Mauricio

    i work in a marketing agency and i can tell you folks. Flash is never going to go away because it has a great programming language, framework and posibilities to create aplications. Somethng HTML5 will do in 10 or 15 years from now. we seel more flash aplicattions than HTML5. Stop putting HTML5 in a pedestal, is an option for develop but ITS NOT going to be the ONLY solution for creating websites, games and applications

  • Yeah that 58% you talk about can’t be compared to Flash in any meaningful way.

    As Mauricio say’s it’ll be a long time before HTML5 can truly rival the interactive experience capabilities of Flash, it might be possible to build similar applications now but it’s nowhere near as efficient, for the developer and the system running the app. Flash will be with us for a long time yet, we just don’t need it for as many things (Video) as we did any more .

  • AIR is a terrible platform for developing. It has a really negative user experience with all the continuous updates it rolls out and this results in poor uptake by the consumers.

    Flash will never die, it has immense capabilities in AS3 for creating enriched experiences and for those who have worked in it for a long time setup and development is cost efficient.

    It is absolutely true what Shawn Roos said, you don’t lose people only features. And again about HTML5. There are many aspects of the new schema that benefit development as well as semantic markup and layout devices.

    Offline storage and having header, section and footer as new elements are very different.

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