Living on the Flash/HTML5 Roller Coaster

Wow, what a roller coaster. Just last week, Adobe announced their decision to stop developing the Flash Player for mobile devices, a decision that looks predestined in retrospect. Faced with the expense of supporting a diverse and growing range of Android devices, while shut out in the iOS and Windows 8 markets, Adobe decided to seek greener pastures. Makes perfect sense, though it was pretty shocking at the time.

While the Flash Player on Android will be around for awhile, in the long term, HTML5 is clearly the way to go for mobile video. On the desktop, well, it’s not quite so clear.

If you’re seeking the ultimate in immersive desktop experiences, Flash is really the only choice. I saw this when I analyzed the video distribution habits of the high-profile brands in my article HTML5 is Taking over the Web, Right? Not so Fast…. Ninteen of 20 sites were Flash (Microsoft’s Xbox site used Silverlight), none HTML5 except for mobile support. Lots of information in the article about social media support, video configurations, YouTube usage and the like by these top brands. If you’re trying to get the most impact from the video that you have on your website, learn from the experts and check it out.

At the other end of the spectrum, at Streaming Media West in Los Angeles, after Adobe announced their withdrawal from the mobile market, I was chatting with editors Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen (Streaming Media Magazine) and Troy Dreier, from www.onlinevideo.net. We were wondering about the significance of Adobe’s decision, and how it might change development paths going forward. So we decided to write a feature story on the subject and started contacting large, video-intensive web properties to get their take. 

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Adobe ceased further development of the Flash mobile player because HTML5 is a superior option in browser-based mobile markets. This allows Adobe to focus their development and support on markets and segments where Flash is clearly a superior option. As a publisher, you should adopt the same stance, using Flash where it clearly provides superior features (or backwards compatibility with non-HTML5 compatible browsers) and deploying HTML5 when it doesn’t.

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My first interview was with Rob DeMillo, CTO of Revision 3, who has a stable of Internet shows, including Tekzilla. Rob’s first comment was that they were cutting over to a new site with an HTML5 player with Flash fallback, that night! Of course, this had nothing to do with the Adobe decision, but it was an interesting conversation that you can read in Revision 3 goes HTML5.

Basically, Revision 3’s logic was that the feature set available in HTML5 had reached the point that they could duplicate the features of their Flash Player with an HTML5 player that ran on iOS and mobile devices as well as HTML-compatible browsers on the desktop. Desktop viewers with older browsers would simply fall back to the existing Flash Player. This being the case, why continue to develop for Flash?

Over the next few months, Revision 3 plans to roll out enhancements that will enable their HTML5 player to play HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) streams, adding both live and adaptive streaming capabilites, two very significant deficits of HTML5. Obviously, playing HLS streams on iOS devices isn’t a big deal, and I’ve since learned that there is at least one plug-in that companies can license to play HLS in an Android browser. However, Revision 3 is the first producer I’m aware of to enable an HTML5 player to view HLS streams on Windows and other non-Mac platforms. That said, at a seminar Streaming Media West, I heard Major League Baseball’s Joe Inzerillo say that he was using HLS on all platforms, mobile and desktop, but didn’t get a chance to ask further.

To a degree, though DeMillo calls Revision 3 a small shop, I’m sure they’re putting major dollars behind this redesign, and many of these features won’t be available to those without big bucks to spend. Still, the bottom line is that if you’ve got the budget, the list of items that Flash can do that HTML5 can’t is getting smaller. There are still some terribly important features; among them digital rights management, multicasting, peer-to-peer, webcam support and others, not to mention the immersive design features discussed above.

But if you don’t need these features, they don’t matter. And HTML5 gives you one feature you can’t get with Flash, which is vastly superior compatibility with mobile devices. To fully support HTML5, though, comes with one liability, the whole WebM mess. DeMillo says that Revision 3 will support WebM, after they spend 8 weeks encoding their 20,000 video library into that format.

On the other hand, for simple on-demand playback, creating an HTML5 player with H.264 file and NOT WebM with fallback to Flash is starting to make a lot of sense, particularly since Flash on Android now comes with an expiration date. You get HTML5 support for Android and iOS devices, plus viewers using browsers that support H.264. Those with older browsers, or those that only support WebM, fall back to Flash. I don’t agree with DeMillo’s notion that Flash is a dying technology, but the events of the last few weeks make its usage case much, much smaller for many, many sites.

Adobe ceased further development of the Flash mobile player because HTML5 is a superior option in browser-based mobile markets. This allows Adobe to focus their development and support on markets and segments where Flash is clearly a superior option. As a publisher, you should adopt the same stance, using Flash where it clearly provides superior features (or backwards compatibility with non-HTML5 compatible browsers) and deploying HTML5 when it doesn’t.

About Jan Ozer

I help companies train new technical hires in streaming media-related positions; I also help companies optimize their codec selections and encoding stacks, and evaluate new encoders and codecs.

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