HTML5: will it kill Flash?

It’s been well over 10 years since the last release of HTML so the excitement about HTML5 is understandable, but what should users expect?

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Look on Wikipedia and the answer is revealed in the first paragraph in what amounts to a mission statement: “(HTML5) aims to reduce the need for proprietary plug-in-based rich internet application (RIA) technologies such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight.” It’s a mission that others have played up, not least Steve Jobs in his recent attack on Flash.

But does HTML5 really pose a serious threat to Flash?

Take a look at the HTML5 specification and it’s clear that the format has indeed been explicitly designed to take on Flash. There are a couple of new semantic elements, but essentially HTML5 is designed to provide a more robust and design-rich environment for browser-based application development. Key to this are tighter DOM handling, new APIs and new HTML equivalents for the most common Flash web page components: <canvas> for simple graphics  and animation; inline <svg> support for fancy buttons and rollovers; and, the feature everyone is most excited about, native <audio> and <video> support.

But hang on. Implicit in the idea of HTML5 as a modern 21st century Flash-killer is the suggestion that it will be better than Flash. So where are the important new features and advantages that HTML 5 offers that Flash can’t? Or indeed doesn’t already? I could understand the current excitement surrounding HTML5 video, for example, if Flash didn’t already support the H.264 codec.

In fact the only obvious practical benefit of HTML5 handling over traditional Flash handling is that iPhone and iPad users will be able to see the results. But rather than ditching Flash and reworking current design practice and the existing Web, much the easiest way for that to happen would be for Steve Jobs to allow Flash onto his platforms. And there’s really no excuse not to as the iPad in particular would make a brilliant platform for Flash.  The two would, could and should be made for each other, especially in the form of the upcoming mobile-optimised 10.1 release.

However, based on Jobs’ recent actions and the astonishing lack of public outcry, that’s very unlikely so it looks as if the only way for designers to maintain the all-important single, unified web platform is to ditch Flash in favour of HTML5. And while HTML5 might not offer the exciting new power that web designers seem to be assuming, if it does everything that Flash does, surely Jobs is right that that’s better handled natively in the browser and by open standards?

RIAs: The Next Chapter of the Web

But HTML5 doesn’t come close to offering all the power that Flash does. As I wrote in my last post – New Improved Flash – Flash is currently being transformed. Under Adobe, the old Macromedia Flash of embedded web page components that HTML5 is designed to replace is no longer the focus. Instead the Flash format is now being pitched as a universal web platform in its own right for delivering standalone Rich Internet Applications (RIAs).

Crucially what this means in practice is that the vast design base of Adobe’s creative software users can output their work directly as Flash RIAs just as they currently do to PDF. As indeed can users of non-Adobe applications as shown by the many PowerPoint to Flash converters. And developers can use the platform to deliver extraordinary functionality too as shown by the likes of photoshop.com.

In short Flash-based RIAs can go to places that the humble web page will never be able to reach, no matter what version of HTML it is based on.

Perhaps the best way to think of this new Flash-based web platform is as moving on from the web page to delivering self-contained iPhone/iPad-style documents and applications. The big difference to Apple’s approach being that developers and non-coding designers alike will be able to freely create their rich content and internet applications in their preferred software, deliver the results via their own servers and enable all end users to freely access their work either directly online via their browser/player or offline and outside of the browser via AIR.

Which of course explains why Steve Jobs is so determined to keep Flash off his hardware and out of his App Store, and ideally purge it altogether from the Web. Far from defending the open and unified Web, Steve Jobs is attacking it head on.

As such, while HTML5 is by no means a Flash killer in terms of technology or capabilities, it certainly is a serious threat. In particular it could well give Steve Jobs the time and cover he needs to do the Flash platform serious and possibly terminal damage simply by not supporting it. After all, what’s the point of a format for rich content and applications that the all-important, high-end mobile market simply can’t see?

If HTML5 does succeed in its aim of eroding Flash usage and so ends up helping Steve Jobs kill the dream of the universal and open RIA platform, it will have done the Web incalculable and irreparable damage. Rather than ushering in the next chapter of the Web, HTML5 may well slam the door on it.

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