Flash vs. HTML5: Adobe Weighs In
September 18, 2010
Weve written a lot abut the HTML5 vs. Flash war, primarily in the context of Flashs use in mobile and Flash as a video wrapper. I personally have taken the position that at least when it comes to mobile devices, Flash is at a disadvantage in terms of its abilities and capabilities when compared to newer technologies that can better harness hardware and software optimizations.
Adobe, understandably, has a different position. It believes that Flash and HTML5 can exist side-by-side and that each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. I had a chance to talk to Paul Gubbay, Adobes VP of design and web engineering, about HTML5, Flash, the emerging mobile landscape and how Adobe fits into this new world.
The world of technology moves really, really quickly. To give you an idea of just how fast things can move, when I started working on this piece last month, Apple was still anti-Flash as an IDE for iOS development and Adobes set of HTML5 authoring tools was limited to Dreamweaver.
I point out these recent changes because it indicates just how fast this industry is moving and that speed, inevitably, can impact the choices that designers, developers and end-users end up making.
How Adobe Sees HTML5
The mobile web is exploding. Ive often compared what we are seeing happen on smartphones with the micro-computing revolution of the 1980s, only at a much faster pace. Adobes Paul Gubbay agrees, and he thinks we are witnessing a rebirth of sorts of the web.
For Adobe, a company that has made its name in creating tools and technologies to drive digital creativity forward, this is exciting. As a technology company, this kind of movement in any direction is interesting to us because of the opportunities it affords us, say Gubbay. Here too, Adobe sees lots of opportunities because of the real focus on mobile.
When asked where Adobe sees HTML5 and CSS3 are headed, Gubbay pointed out that there are several areas where these new technologies really make a lot of sense:
- Doing more with design like CSS3 and rounded corners
- Doing more on mobile and making it more efficient
- Making mobile interactive as in the case of iAds and other advertising platforms.
However, Adobe still doesnt see HTML5 as a catch-all for every project. Gubbay and I discussed that while there are lots of great looking one-off HTML5 or CSS3 demonstrations, in many cases, these are proofs of concept and not ready to be used in real projects.
Googles Chrome Experiment with Arcade Fire is actually an exception in this space. What makes that experiment and presentation so great is that it is useful, it works, and it is a complete project. Its not a one-off example. Its real world.
Still, even when these experiments do have real-world uses, the reality is HTML5 isnt always optimized for all environments. You need not just the latest browser (or latest version of a specific browser), you need enough RAM and enough resources on your computer. These are CPU and GPU intensive tasks.
As a result, even on the iPad and iPhone, not all HTML5 or CSS3 demonstrations will work as well as they should. This is a very real limitation that will eventually get better, but it needs to be taken into consideration.
Where Adobe Sees Flash
On the other hand, because Flash has years and years of tooling and frameworks and a robust ecosystem behind it, it remains a viable choice for many implementations. When building an RIA designed for the desktop, in most cases, Flash does make more sense. Not only is it more capable, the performance is usually going to be better.
However, we should note that on mobile, this isnt always the case. Even with Flash 10.1 for Mobile, Flash content needs to be optimized for mobile devices. Flash video and Flash animation designed for the desktop doesnt really work the same way on mobile platforms.
Developers need to re-configure and re-optimize those projects and specifically target mobile devices.
Why Not Just Use HTML5 for Mobile?
I asked Gubbay, why should developers especially when targeting mobile devices use Flash at all? If they have to re-target for mobile devices, why not just rebuild in HTML5?
Gubbay said that it becomes a decision based on budget and the desired level of richness. For some developers, making the jump to HTML5 makes more sense. If the bulk of your visitors are going to be accessing content from an HTML5-enabled smartphone, HTML5 may be the better choice.
Likewise, for consumer video or smaller-scale productions, using HTML5/H.264 or Web-M to encode content and play it directly through the web browser may make more sense than using Flash Video for Mobile.
However, for developers who need to provide DRM, efficiencies in services, or do more elaborate masking, Flash is going to be the better bet.
In other words, its all about what a project needs. Still, even with Flash as a now accepted IDE for iOS development, for web applications, HTML5 is clearly at an advantage for more device types.
How Adobe Wants to Approach the Market
Gubbay made it very clear to me that Adobe listens to its customers and that the company wants to provide them with the tools that they need. If that means Flash or Flex or Adobe Air, great. If thats HTML5, thats a space Adobe wants to invest in too.
Adobe has already released some add-on packs for Dreamweaver CS5 and Illustrator CS5 that add in HTML5 support. I asked Gubbay if Adobe had plans for an HTML5-specific authoring tool and he couldnt comment.
On the side of Flash, if Adobe could find a way to utilize some of the existing support, frameworks and tools that have been built around ActionScript and help users move more fluidly to jQuery, HTML5 and other technologies, I think the company could have a winner.
An HTML5-specific authoring tool, as an example, that isnt an add-on, but can integrate using Bridge with other Adobe apps to take advantage of scripts and actions developed around Flash could be really helpful.
Furthermore, making more mobile specific Flash development tools that are better tuned to mobile devices so that new content created in Flash is mobile rich, is something I definitely expect to see Adobe invest in.
So Where Are We Now?
Were at a cross-roads of sorts in terms of web technologies. The new wave of technology is here; its developing quickly and innovations are happening all of the time. On the flip side, there are still hundreds of millions of users that are using browsers and devices that arent necessarily ready for those tools.
After speaking with Adobe, its clear to me that the company does want to offer solutions for both sets of developers. I was impressed with the companys candor in discussing mobile and the admission that Flash on mobile isnt quite there yet.
Going forward, we see Flash as continuing to be a great tool on the desktop, but on mobile and on other platforms, HTML5 is coming up fast. Adobe has no plans to sit this one out, and we fully expect to see more solutions from the company.
For current developers, sadly, making the decision to go Flash or HTML5 is still going to be difficult. Its still at the depends on the project stage. For video and mobile content, HTML5 is winning. For more rich and interactive content, Flash has a huge advantage that isnt going to be displaced anytime soon.
These uncertainties aside, this is an exciting time to be a web user, web developer or web designer.
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