On HTML5 and Flash

Back in May I was asked to participate in a panel discussion on "HTML5 and Flash" at Flash Camp Seattle, a small conference being held on the Adobe campus primarily targeting new Flash developers. I was concerned about accepting as at the time the online "debate" about the recent Apple decision to block Flash from the (then) iPhone OS was pretty nasty. Given the title of the panel, it seemed to be set up to mirror that and I had no interest in replicating a mini version of that nonsense in public. I voiced my concerns to the panel moderator, Jeff Croft and after a couple emails back and forth I accepted, being reassured that my honest opinions were welcome. I'm happy to say the panel went well, if a bit subdued (it turns out none of us were zealots). Unfortunately for Adobe (and to a lesser degree Jeff) the conference ended up fueling the Apple side of the debate due to the botched demo of Flash on a Nexus One. Jeff tweeted about it, and ended up getting a lot more attention for it than he expected. You can read his take on what happened here.

While the conference has come and gone and the mudslinging between Apple and Adobe seems to have subsided a bit, I'm still being asked about how I feel about the whole "HTML5 vs. Flash" thing. It's a funny question.

First of all I want to clarify that, in the context of the question, "HTML5" isn't HTML5. They're really asking about the handful of new browser supported tags and CSS combined with video and JavaScript and/or various other technologies to make a more interactive web page. What they want to know is if the combination of all of those are able to do what Flash does? A lot of the time, the answer is yes. What it does today often comes with with varying amounts of overhead, and usually can't be produced with the same ease or speed as Flash. Will that gap close? I'd bet on it. Now that many of the capabilities that made Flash a hit are built into the browser, you can be sure that the missing bits will rapidly be sorted out soon. Right now the vibe I get online around exploring these new capabilities reminds me of the early experimental Flash days, and in a good way. It's exciting to see and I'm looking forward to seeing it progress.

The question has also been used to represent the whole Apple vs. Adobe debate around Flash on iOS, which is a ridiculous simplification. To cut to the point, my opinion is that Apple is doing what makes sense to protect their platform from competitive interests and is right to do so. Read up on the early console wars and the 1983 video game crash in particular to see why maintaining control of the content on your device is important.

The weirdest thing is that several of the people asking me this question don't have a clue about either technology other than it's something they consume. What they really want to know is if they should be concerned about missing out on something if they use a device that doesn't support Flash. As of today, yes, there are things you may be frustrated you can't get to or use due to the lack of Flash on the device. It doesn't take a great deal of thought to figure out that content that is inaccessible, be it due to Flash, poor design or some other reason, will increasingly be marginalized, fail and be replaced by content that is accessible. And that's a good thing.

While I appreciate Adobe's position that Flash content represents a significant chunk of a typical browsing experience, I haven't found that content compelling enough to not block it in all of my browsers. Let's be clear. I've been a professional Flash developer for more than a decade and I think that a majority of what is produced in Flash isn't even worth viewing. I consider the fact that my phone and tablet block this content a feature, not a liability. Are there times I wish I could get at content that is in a Flash only environment on my iPad? Yes. Do I blame Apple? No. Making critical content only accessible via one technology is a bad idea and poor design, regardless of your stance on the debate.

So, what's my overall take on the Flash vs. HTML5 question? HTML5 has a bright future, and not just because it has the potential to do what Flash can do. It is a standard and there's momentum behind it. As for Flash? It isn't going away anytime soon, but I'm having a harder time finding a compelling reason it couldn't be replaced eventually. In the browser the new CSS and HTML capabilities are already starting to push it out of it's strongholds of video and advertising. Outside of the browser native apps are just plain better. Is Flash dead? No, but Adobe needs to communicate a clear vision of not just why Flash is a better solution today, but a better solution tomorrow too. Will they be able to do that? I don't know, but I'm glad Flash isn't the only tool in my box.