Google recently announced that by January 2017 the Google Display Network and DoubleClick Digital Marketing platforms will no longer support ads designed with Flash. This marks yet another turning point in the HTML5 vs. Flash debate since YouTube’s shift from Flash to HTML5 for supporting videos, Adobe’s adoption of HTML5 and the late Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, taking an open stance against supporting Flash on mobile devices. With Flash and HTML5 occupying similar territories and seeking to perform some of the same capabilities, their main features, benefits and disadvantages are key to take into account when developing for the web.
What is HTML5? HTML5 is the 5th revision of the well-known browser language, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), designed to structure web documents (i.e. web pages). It consists of text, tags, elements and attributes, which define how web content is displayed through the browser. Text is framed by open and closed angle bracket tags with programmed values that define the implied structure contained. For example, <title> text <title/> would define the structure of the web page’s title; this tagged entity is called an element. Elements also have attributes, which assign qualities such as color, font and size. HTML standards employ these basic components to program enhanced web features.
Flash is the common name for technologies provided under certain proprietary tools from Adobe for creating Rich Internet Applications (RIAs). RIAs incorporate graphics, animations, audio, video and interactivity designed using the Flash platform to provide immersive user experiences on the web. Flash technologies include vector-based graphics and animations, support for audio and video formats plus programming in the object-oriented, event-based ActionScript language for interactive web features. Flash technologies are provided in proprietary Integrated Development Environments (IDE) complete with all the necessary authoring tools. They provide the ability to easily create and publish RIA features without much, if any, coding knowledge required. The publishing function in Flash IDEs creates compressed Shockwave Flash files (.swf), which offer consistent performance across browsers when used with the Adobe Flash Player plug-in.
Flash’s benefits include compact file formats, short download times and high quality graphics that easily adapt to different browser displays and resolutions. These features combined with a breadth of legacy support and development investment pose Flash as a viable tool for creating enhanced user experiences on the web.
Pros and Cons
As an open source language that can now support Flash-like technologies, HTML5 has been gaining traction as the new default for web development. It offers many web document structuring, styling and interactivity features such as searchable text within images (through SVG) plus new tags, elements and attributes, which enhance document displays. It also has the advantage of being more mobile friendly by requiring less processing power thanks to its lightweight framework. Conversely, as a newer technology HTML5 has yet to be incorporated into all browsers at its full capacity. It is still prone to being displayed dissimilarly in different browsers due to being implemented at different stages of its development. It also lacks some of Flash’s more robust aesthetic capabilities such as creating visually rich 3D experiences or “movie like effects”. Despite these drawbacks, including requiring more coding knowledge to implement, HTML5 is becoming the predominant standard.
In comparison, Flash features are already matured and familiar to developers who use their tools. It has been adopted by the vast majority of legacy browsers and has proven to be a more consistent technology across browser platforms. However, Flash requires an additional component, the Adobe Flash Player plug-in, to operate in this capacity; due to frequent crashes and some security issues, newer browsers are no longer supporting the Flash player and mobile browser support has been dropped altogether. Although Flash is no longer supported in browsers, it is still a popular choice for developing native games and applications, which are accessible for download from app stores such as Google Play. Flash is still operable and supported for desktop applications and offers resources for making and publishing web content without extensive programming knowledge.
The Paradigm Shift
As mentioned prior, because of Flash’s lack of mobile support and unstable platform on newer browsers, technology giants like Google, Apple and YouTube have been steadily migrating to HTML5, with many others following suit. In 2010, Steve Jobs penned his well-known “Thoughts on Flash” letter which solidified his position on Flash technology flaws. One of YouTube’s engineers expressed similar sentiments for HTML5 benefits, and in 2015 YouTube finally switched from Flash to HTML5 as their default web player. This decision was made in order to keep up with newer technologies coming out with overwhelming HTML5 support. Finally, making perhaps the greatest statement of all, Adobe now offers tools to utilize HTML5 as well as convert from Flash technologies to the up and coming standard.
Software technology providers would be well-served in developing or migrating from Flash to HTML5 for mobile and web technologies as it is poised to win out over Flash in the long run. However, maintaining Flash for some of its superior aesthetic features and legacy assets has its merit for the time being until such time when HTML5 has been fully implemented.
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