The Withering Away of Flash.
Programmers are, by nature, practical. (Exhibit A, Jonathan Snook.) We will find the shortest, most efficient route to complete whatever task is set before us. Need this website complete by Friday? You got it. We’ll take a shortcut here, cut a corner there. We’ll import a library, ignore accessibility, and pretend like the idea of print stylesheets and Internet Explorer 6 never entered our minds. You’re happy; we’re happy.
Except when we aren’t.
Programmers, you see, are also intensely ideological. If more than one option is available, we pick a side and defend it against all comers. You use PHP not Ruby? YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.
You think it doesn’t matter if you camel case or underscore? FAIL.
You’re on a PC? In 2010? EPIC FAIL.
This apparent contradiction is actually easily reconciled. At least according to this incredibly scientific poll on Hacker News, the vast majority (60 percent) of programmers score as either INTJ or INTP on the Myers-Briggs test. A study of the U.S. population suggests the total INTJ and INTP population is only 5.4 percent. Our working hypothesis, therefore, is that programming attracts (or requires) people predisposed to thinking, judging personality types.
When we isolate the Thinking/Feeling and Judging/Perceiving factors from all responses, however, a slightly different picture is revealed. “Thinking” soars to 82 percent of those tested, while “judging” falls back to the pack at 48 percent. (The same study shows T of 40 percent and J of 54 percent.) Pushing our amateur psychology to its limits, we deduce that practical nature of programmers corresponds to the high likelihood of self-identifying as a thinker, and while our detached nature makes us less likely to judge, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that ideologues tend to shout louder.
In the spirit of realpolitik, let’s set the record straight.
The Flash Mob.
There are, no doubt, some Flash developers willing to abandon all reason in its defense. For them, it is the only rational choice. Flash’s poor performance on a Mac is Steve Jobs’ fault. The snubbing of Flash on the iPhone and iPad is misguided and will backfire tremendously. Etc., etc., etc. I believe that number is small.
For everyone else, practicality outweighs ideological purity. When you want to make futuristic, sound-effect laden websites there just isn’t any other choice. While that example is deliberately ridiculous, it illustrates the greater point: some developers have a core dependency that only Flash can meet. Perhaps it’s the sound and video. Maybe they like the option to write once and deploy across multiple browsers and platforms. Or maybe they’re building a game that requires 3D and real-time interaction. In every case, the least common denominator is pragmatism. Flash is either the only game in town or it’s so far ahead of HTML that it may as well be. That’s not to say that designers and developers who choose Flash don’t like it. In my experience they do. And why shouldn’t they? The toolkit is pleasant, the code is easy to work with, and, most importantly, the results can be stunning.
The HTML Gang.
Compared to Flash, HTML is messy and ugly, but it too has a quite practical application: it works everywhere. It might not work the same everywhere, but you can be reasonably assured that if your page is written in HTML, it will display on desktops, laptops, phones, video game consoles, and anything else that accesses the web. HTML is the lingua franca of the Internet.
For many in the HTML camp, its practical nature has transcended mere practicality to become a deeply philosophical choice. It is by default accessible, semantic, and extensible. Visitors to the site can print the content, copy it, re-size it, steal it, and manipulate it with external stylesheets and scripts. Libraries like eCSStender, jQuery, IE7.js and their brethren have enabled cross-browser use of advanced properties, abstracted away the ugliness of the DOM, and brought an old, recalcitrant browser into line. Open source advocates love HTML because no company controls the core technology and none can demand license fees for it. Students and aspiring web developers world-wide prefer it for its price, which, in contrast to purchasing (or pirating) a copy of Adobe’s expensive software, looks awfully good.
Before we bury Flash, however, we should back up for a minute and compare the essential nature of each technology.
The 10,000 Foot View.
At their cores, Flash and HTML really aren’t that different. Let’s break it down:
- A markup language
- A scripting language
- An API
The API is what it’s all about. For years, HTML had no way to play video natively, no way to play audio natively, no way to draw lines whether as pixels or vectors, no way to parallelize script execution, no way to access the hardware’s video acceleration, no way to receive events from the server without constantly polling, no way to use fonts the user didn’t have installed on his system, and on and on. But now it does. Now those advantages Flash had are going away.
The New Rules.
Somehow the rules changed, the status quo was upset, and the momentum shifted. Maybe it was Mozilla’s unflagging support of the open web. Maybe it was Microsoft’s aggressive implementation of HTML5 and CSS3. Maybe it was Google’s vision for a free and open Internet.
The coup de grâce, history will note, was Apple’s release of the iPhone sans Flash. The mobile Internet became a force to reckon with overnight, single-handedly trashing Flash’s former claim of ubiquity. The iPhone has gashed a gigantic hole in the number of people browsing the Internet who don’t have Flash. The iPad is poised to increase that number.
All this, of course, would mean nothing, worse than nothing, if we didn’t have any way to reproduce what Flash had formerly offered. But we do. HTML5-based audio and video players are appearing in the wild. Games like Tetris are being written entirely with the new canvas tag. Comet and PubSubHubBub are re-defining what real-time looks like in HTML. A bevy of other next generation technologies like the drag-and-drop API, web workers, and offline storage are right now providing the infrastructure for powerful applications that are beginning to encroach even unto the gates of desktop applications. Advanced CSS properties like corner radius, background gradients, multiple background images, additional selectors, font embedding, text shadows, and RGBA notation have allowed enterprising designers to create rich, graphical experiences without the traditional weight of image files and extraneous markup. These are not hypothetical situations. At least one browser supports every feature listed, and more are being added. This is not news if you have been paying attention.
What is news is that the Rubicon has been reached and the die, as it were, has been cast by Apple. The sum of these technologies and their future promise is enough to provide a real alternative to Flash for the first time ever. It was suggested earlier that web developers chose Flash because it was in some cases the only game in town. Whether the entire site was built in Flash, a few helpful fonts were embedded, or a video was displayed, Flash was there to play its role. That role is in the process of being subsumed by the browser’s implementation of HTML5 and CSS3.
I can see the potential for competition, however I do not see the withering away of flash any time soon.
Primarily because HTML5 is a long ways from being standardized and even if it was standardized it still would not be “the standard”.
By the time HTML5 support gets enough penetration for major companies to consider the switch, Flash and/or Silverlight will be steps ahead of the game. You cant kill what you cant catch.
Great read, thanks for this. I’m interested in seeing how HTML video will flesh out to support live video streaming, and what effect this will have on Flash Media Server implementations.
Standards Bodies Lag while Developers Nag.
I can’t wait however long for people to give up IE6, and no-one has asked if the business apps will run on iPhones and iPads yet. I can wait for Adobe to release CS5 to see if I can port to it if I need to.
When HTML5 becomes practical I will probably still be using Adobe tools to develop for it – just like I used other tools before FutureSplash came along.
I enjoyed your thoughts but I have some comments:
My biggest issue with the HTML5 ‘standard’ is that it will be just like its predecessor, a ‘standard’ whose implementation is left up to the organization crafting the browser and will defer from the other browsers. Not only that but how long has it taken to get to this ‘draft’ of HTML5? XHTML 1.1 was released in 2001. XHTML 2.0 never even made it out. It’s been almost 10 years since the last update and it’s not even ready? It’s silly to think that Flash, which has regular updates to support their users, would fall behind a technology that takes 10 years to decide on what they want to do – and still can’t get all companies to agree on the same implementation.
I like Flash because when I create something in Flash, I know as long as the client has the plugin (and the market penetration numbers are high enough for me to not be concerned) it will look and function as intended. I don’t have to waste time testing multiple browsers and hacking my code to make sure it works.
I do agree that Apple devices have been hurting Adobe in the sense that you can’t view Flash swfs but using the newer version of the Flash Suite you can now export your Flash project as an iPhone app. Currently I do not feel a need to release my Flash apps in forms that iPhone users can access them. If this were to happen, I still have a solution.
Is Flash going away, I don’t think so. Will it have to add new bells and whistles in the next couple years when HTML5 comes out, sure.
I don’t think Flash is going anywhere for a long longtime. The reason? We’re getting into another era of browsers all supporting their own different technologies at different times… a la 90s browser wars. The difference this time, is that instead of creating their own technologies, they are adapting to unfinished standards at different times and in different ways.
What is happening to Flash is simply that it cannot brag as much about it’s cross-platform compatibility,it is no longer the be all end all for providing stuff across all browsers the same. The alternatives are not cross-platform either. Developers will have to mash several techniques together to get a rich experience that everyone can enjoy. Flash does have some definite smudges though, poor performance on Macs and “closedness” of proprietary system.
Adobe has made it clear that they are in the business of making software. Flash Player and Reader are in my opinion marketing tools.
What better way to promote yourself than to have everyone using your software.
Will Adobe loose hold of this market? Not any time soon. Which means they will come up with more in the mean time.
And Flash? It will continue to be an excellent platform for creating content for the web. (But you might not be exporting as swf.) And as long as Adobe keeps up with the times, they wont mind saying goodbye to the Player, because there’s more money in innovation.
Don’t take this to be naive. Flash was built for a reason, crap support for standards in browsers and more. It was the perfect solution and Adobe acquired it. But that was a solution to an old problem that is now fading.
HTML5 is just around the corner and once we can export as HTML5 in Flash things will only accelerate. The only question is ‘Will Adobe do it, do they believe in standards’?
Flash can not possibly die a fast enough death. The sooner it goes away, the better.
I love your thinking and I truly wish we were near the end of the Flash era. I say this as a Flash developer myself who has grown tired of Adobe’s unwillingness to move Flash into the semantic web.
I just feel like it’s many years away. “Big Advertising” is constantly pushing Flash on Fortune 500 clients simply because they don’t know any better. Huge corporations like Disney have sites like Club Penguin that simply couldn’t exist in any other way at this stage of the game.
I welcome the demise of Flash, but it’s unfortunately not something we as developers can make go away on our own.
Flash might be seen as a transitional medium in the future. It was necessary to fill the gaps where HTML and browsers failed, but now, as the shape of the internet is becoming more apparent, it will antiquate nicely into a painful memory.
Love the skrikethrough text of “Maybe it was Microsoft’s aggressive implementation of HTML5 and CSS3”.
Keep up the great work. Pittsburgh pride. Reppin’ it hard in NYC.
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Video doesn’t necessarly be in Flash but..
Flash works allmost the same everywhere, develop once. It could be a audio synthesizer, advanced gaming, animation, realtime layer effects, lowlevel manipulation, 3D etc etc.
How hard is it to understand?
JQuery has shown that not all interactivity NEEDS to happen in a plug-in. Open standards will continue to evolve. It will be interesting to see how interactivity will take shape in the mobile space.
Big Spaceship | Labs Blog - Will all the Flash devs please stand up?
[…] it all means.The announcement that the iPad won't support Flash kick started a lightning bolt of opinions. The alleged issue at hand is that the iPad doesn't support Flash. This is a bad thing. It's a […]
There’s a lot that HTML5 can do, but feature wise, it’s somewhere between Flash Player 6 to 8. In other words, there are still some things that simply cannot be done in HTML5 that can still be easily done in Flash. HTML5 video is right now along the lines of Flash Player 6 video, with most browsers missing a full-screen option and most important to networks and studios, the ability to protect the stream content. The right-click “save video as” feature in HTML5 video tag means there will never be HTML5 version of Hulu or any other network/studio.
As long as Adobe keeps the Flash Player several steps ahead of browsers, Flash will never completely die.
Meanwhile with Flash CS5, developers will be able to convert Flash content into a native iPhone/iPad application. By 2011, I imagine a lot of full Flash sites will detect iPhone/iPad users and direct them to their application in the iTunes store. Meanwhile all other major smartphones will include the Flash 10.1.
I’m loathe to jump into this, but I want to make one point extra clear: Matthew Fabb is right, the current state of HTML and its siblings JS and CSS is *not* good enough to do exactly what Flash can do … today. That, however, doesn’t invalidate anything I said earlier. It is possible to do some things today that Flash used to be the only option for, some things Flash can do just aren’t that important, and, lastly, don’t be so sure that ideas that are rooted in the physical nature of last century have a place in the “future” we’re discussing — the ability to protect digital copies is a red herring that will eventually be forgotten.
Final point: Flash isn’t withering away because it hasn’t innovated, it’s being chopped out of the Internet tree because the graft didn’t take. There’s a slim chance Adobe could change all that by open sourcing it, but for a variety of reasons, that’s unlikely to happen.
I will happily admit they have an advantage in tooling that is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. Good for them, that’s where they make their money anyway. Google and Apple are passionate, driven companies who have specific visions for where the web is headed. I wouldn’t bet against them.
I don’t think this debate is really valid until we actually see what happens with the iPad/iPhone/everyone else. We’re assuming that the iPad/iPhone will win the battle and the war — when if you look at much of the mobile landscape right now, flash player exists in some form on most of the devices at this point — and this will most likely grow. The technology gap between Apple and the other major players is likely to decrease over time — and one day not having Flash may become a huge drawback for a person purchasing Apple devices. Flash fulfills a specific need of the internet right now — Games on facebook and online? Mostly flash. Online games are mostly flash. Video is 75% flash. Flash will never go away unless people start ditching their laptops and start using their iPads and iPhones alone.
Flash Killer? HTML 6.0
Flash will be around for a while, but as a fallback for older browsers. Much like how it took years to kill IE6 support (a 10 year old browser), it will take a while to fully get rid of an inaccessible plugin like Flash.
Currently I’m using the HTML5 and tags and serving up Flash if the viewer’s browser doesn’t support it. There’s little overhead in switching those video and audio applications to a more accessible HTML5 element and bigger companies seem to be quickly doing so (YouTube and Vimeo, for example).
I would say that Flash is definitely withering away, especially with standards-based developers, but it has certain effective applications (online games).
“the current state of HTML and its siblings JS and CSS is *not* good enough to do exactly what Flash can do … today.”
The browsers of tomorrow will certainly implement more features from Flash, but by then Flash will be able to do a whole lot more. Adobe will always be able to release new features faster than it takes for a feature to make it’s way through the web standards and into all the browsers. Plus it only takes around a year for people to update Flash, but averaging around 5 years or more for users to update their browser (just look at how many IE6 users still exist).
“don’t be so sure that ideas that are rooted in the physical nature of last century have a place in the “future” we’re discussing — the ability to protect digital copies is a red herring that will eventually be forgotten.
Many users have reacted negatively to DRM for downloaded content they paid for, because it restricts what they want to do with content they have bought. Few but those who take the more ideological care about restricting streaming content that they are getting for free. Tv networks and movie studios deeply care about this kind of stuff, more than they care about reaching a wider audience. Content owners don’t want to make it easy for users to download that content, especially since that means they can strip out the ads if they so choose. Even decades from now, I don’t see this changing much. Networks and studios are overly paranoid to protecting their content and I just don’t see this going away.
Once again, I will say that we will never see a HTML5 video version of a site like Hulu because of the nature of saving video from the HTML video tag. I imagine the reason there currently isn’t any Hulu iPhone application already is the difficultly of protecting the videos.
Another area that Adobe is innovating is adding peer-to-peer capabilities for video in Flash Player 10. With recently server updates that Adobe has been working on, live video events are going to cost a small fraction of the cost (as the cost is passed along to users in uploading content to other users). As live web video increases and companies look to profit from them, instead of just losing money, going with a plugin like Flash for video might mean the difference between profitability and going into the red. Unlike protecting content which I’m not sure we will ever see across browsers, eventually we could see peer-to-peer technology embedded into browsers, but we are a long way (decade? Possibly more?) from that being implement.
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–> You’re on a PC? In 2010? EPIC FAIL.
What else would you use?
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“Perhaps Adobe can re-position its offering somehow to find a spot in this new playing field.”
Actually, I think Adobe agrees with you. Isn’t that why they’re backing PhoneGap/Cordova?
Adobe has certainly seen the light. That it took them more than 30 months to move in that direction, however, can not be credited to them as successfully positioning themselves for the post-Flash world.