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Flash vs. HTML5: Should The End User Care?
by Stephen Beck

The following article was written as a reaction to the sudden spotlight on whether or not Adobe's Flash will remain a viable technology. While there’s always been some level of criticism towards Flash — typically when it is overused or misused — the driving force as of late stems from Apple’s dislike for the technology and their decision to keep it off their mobile devices.

Since writing this, Adobe has taken out a Wall Street Journal article aptly titled "We Love Apple" and Hulu issued their own piece saying that "HTML5 doesn't yet meet all of our customers' needs.” The perspectives are polarized, but the more we hear about Flash being on its way out, the more it seems the sentiment is coming primarily from web developers that have never really supported Flash in the first place and open-source advocates, not your average web user.

We're certainly interested to see how the debate continues to take shape.


This section sponsored by Veer



Is Flash on its way out? From where I sit, I can’t imagine it anytime soon. BC Business recently posted an article about the demise of the Flash website due to an increased interest in HTML5. While there are a few points in this article that we can appreciate, the whole Flash vs. HTML5 argument seems to be fueled by a very narrow view of the web combined with the momentum of Apple’s hype. We’re all for new technologies and advancements in the digital space, but assuming Flash to be irrelevant any time soon make very little sense.

Assuming Flash will disappear this year or even in the next few years is so completely misinformed, I don’t even know where to start. This whole notion, spurred by Mr. Jobs and his crusade for full control of, well, everything, is completely hyped up and based on little to no hard data. I don’t understand how anyone is even listening, let alone participating in the debate.

Sure Flash doesn’t run on iPhones, iPads, or iPods. There’s massive financial motivation for Apple to keep Flash off these devices – the App Store is a closed ecosystem. If developers could bypass Apple and their 30% take on third party Apps by launching Flash-based Apps through the mobile Safari browser, guess who loses out. With over four billion App downloads to date, many paid, you can bet Apple is closely guarding their private marketplace. It’s fairly unlikely that Flash will ever run in the mobile Safari browser for this very reason. Strain on the processor may be a real issue, but effect on battery life is a moot point – people have been complaining about the iPhone battery since day one.

Fact is, the mobile experience is far different from that of the desktop web. Content is slimmer and there’s a user-driven need for focus on simple and effective utility. Large content-heavy websites or microsites with complex interaction are not effective mobile strategies. A full-scale version of Flash would simply be overkill in the mobile environment.

That said, Flash remains an effective tool for the desktop web, for experience-driven websites, online games, interactive elements within HTML sites, for standalone desktop applications and widgets, interactive kiosks, and console game interfaces (as far as I know, EA builds all of their interfaces with Flash because it’s quick to develop and it’s the right tool for the job.)

As for HTML5, well, don’t get too excited. Its reach is incredibly small, and in order for that to change, it’ll take a lot of big organizations to get on board, as well as a lot of developers to learn the ropes of another new technology. Not to mention where HTML5 is in terms of its very own development: while developers are starting to implement HTML5 into their work in small forms, Ian Hickson, editor of HTML5 says it’s likely to be finalized in 2012 and released for recommendation sometime in 2022 – way in the future! In terms of HTML5 providing a comparative toolset to Flash, well that too is far from accurate. Sure some of the basic features of Flash (”animations, fades, custom text and other cool visual features” as stated in the BC Business article) are possible through HTML5, though the amount of HTML5 code required to provide anything close to a fully immersive, Flash-based website would be astronomical at this point in time. And those features noted above only scratch the surface of what Flash is capable of.

While the Flash Player 10 has roughly 97.0% market reach, HTML5 is currently not accessible through all browsers – specifically Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which (while starting to slip) is still the dominant browser at 50 – 65% depending on which stats you believe. According to Statcounter’s browser market share statistics, the percentage of browsers supporting HTML5 video is at roughly 31.1%, as summed up from Firefox 3.5+ (22.57%), Chrome 3.0+ (5.21%), and Safari 4.0+ (3.32%).

One major issue that doesn’t seem to get much play is, who will be doing all of this HTML5 development (i.e. porting Flash sites over to HTML5 as Steve Jobs suggested in his recent letter on the topic)? Are Flash developers expected to drop years of experience working with Flash and Actionscript to pick up HTML5? Not likely. Adding to that, developers who have been focused on HTML/CSS are fairly unlikely to care much for building motion-based experiences or anything that goes beyond structural code. These are two very different approaches to code development, relying on two different kinds of developers and skill sets.

Agreed, Flash is not great for websites reliant on searchable content as it doesn’t adhere to search engine optimization standards. However, Google has been crawling and indexing Flash-based content since 2008. Flash just isn’t the right tool for text content-driven websites, those with a longer shelf life, and those not supported by online advertising. At the same time, it’s unlikely that HTML5 is going to be the right tool for creating the kind of brand engagement that Flash allows. I’d be interested to see any impressive example of HTML5 at least remotely close to what can be done with Flash. I’ve yet to see any myself and I work in this space. With no webcam or microphone support, that rules out a large volume of campaign site strategies that have been popular recently (think Elf Yourself). And what is going to replace the Flash banner ad, or is display advertising going to be obsolete too? Again, not likely.

HTML5 may very well be a useful way to get forms of interaction and functionality onto mobile devices through the mobile web browser, specifically on Apple’s mobile devices outside of the App Store. But that’s pretty much HTML5’s only value at this point. Users don’t really care what technology is used (Flash or otherwise) as long as it works. Clients also don’t tend to point towards specific technologies, and if they do, it’s worth asking the ‘why’ question to make sure it’s a sound approach and not simply based on hype.

In terms of Flash being labeled a CPU hog and HTML5 being the solution to that – well, Mike Chambers of Adobe sets the record straight, comparing apples to apples.

Also worth mentioning is the 2010 Digital Marketing Outlook from the Society of Digital Agencies (SoDA) in which the US-based organization polled senior executives from digital agencies and traditional shops, as well as their clients, to get a sense of where they see marketing dollars heading this year.

When asked “Which technical skill sets, if any, will you look to hire or contract in 2010″, over 75% of those surveyed listed Flash at the top of their list, with Actionscipt coming in second at about 55%.


When asked “Which tools/products will you or your organization use in 2010″, 75% of those surveyed said Flash was at the top of their list in terms of important technologies – the highest rated technology listed. Equally interesting was the mere 5% that said they ‘do not use’ Flash – a far cry from all other technologies listed.


Interestingly, HTML5 only makes a brief appearance in the report – showing clients are not likely to demand it over Flash for a long time to come.

You can find the full report here.


Flash is simply a tool, though it’s been the medium for some of the most compelling online experiences to date. The economics and politics behind Apple’s decision to keep Flash off of their mobile devices will have little to do with the end user’s propensity to like or dislike Flash as a technology. This is, as it always has been, on the shoulders of the designers and developers using Flash to create the experience. It’s unfortunate that Flash is sometimes poorly developed and sometimes it’s simply the wrong tool for the job. In these cases it’s the decision to use Flash that creates the opportunity for a more savvy web user to realize that Flash isn’t always the right way to go.

We’ve got a solid Flash team at our agency. In fact we continue to add to our Flash Dev team, as do most agencies focused on building deeply engaging brand experiences. The storytelling aspect of our work demands it, and our clients demand a continually advanced expression of their brand in the digital space. They don’t ask for Flash or HTML5. They simply expect solutions that make sense, leaving decisions around technology up to our team and as a reflection of smart digital marketing strategies.




Stephen Beck is a partner/creative director at Vancouver, BC digital agency Engine Digital





May 17, 2010 04:09 PM


I'm not stating I'm against Flash I'm just pointing out another factor. I'm not fully versed in the details but perhaps I can stir some conversation about accessibility.

What about the new push for accessible EVERYTHING. Correct me if I am wrong but if a user is is faced with Flash software and keystrokes don't work with Flash but they will and are recognized via HTML and CSS.

About dropping Flash, a program one has spent years learning...I'm only 8 years out of university and already several programs taught and were considered to be industry standard are now obsolete.

And as for Flash and it's capabilities for interactive environments I can't ever see HTML5/CSS taking over.

Perhaps Flash is going to settle into it's niche, interactive environments on and offline, as will HTML5 with web page development.



Stuart Thursby

May 17, 2010 04:15 PM


I think you're right about the "niche, interactive environment" part — though in this case, the niche is a pretty big slice of the pie.

As issues like web standards, accessibility and usability became greater concerns, the bulk of long-term sites will — and should — be built with straight-up code. However, I can imagine (and I am not speaking from experience) that most microsites or brand experience sites throw all three to the wind in favour of creating the most entertaining and memorable experiences. For a short-term blast, that's almost how it should be — though having an HTML-driven informational site as an alternative wouldn't be a bad idea.

Ultimately, Stephen's right in the sense that whatever would result in the most relevant and engaging website is what should be used. As much as I'm sure we've all been consumed by the Flash-vs-HTML5 debate over recent weeks, we're a sliver of the net-using populace. We need to think on their terms and on their needs, not ours, whatever the result.




May 18, 2010 04:07 PM


Great article. It really makes me cringe when Jobs starts talking about "open source".




May 23, 2010 12:50 PM


The SoDA 2010 Digital Marketing Outlook is really from late 2009. I think the 2011 SoDA data will be significantly different.

Steve's Quote: "Are Flash developers expected to drop years of experience working with Flash and Actionscript to pick up HTML5? "

My Answer: YES, at least a small percentage of your BEST developers should be doing just that. This exact comment was said before about Flash and the platforms it replaced in the 90's.

Those who have the courage and the competence to re-invent themselves will benefit significantly. Anyone who has the vision to understand the iPad's influence on future products (and user interface) can easily see the denial in this article about the freight train that is (or could be) fast approaching. The developers that have vision should recognize this as a tremendous opportunity.




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