Is Flash Dead?
February 9, 2011 1:53 PM
Flash had a bit of a hard time in 2010, and many will point the finger at Apple. When the iPad was released, consumers complained Flash didn't appear on the device, like its iOS sisters: the iPhone and iPod touch. Steve Jobs' Thoughts on Flash open letter cleverly spins the argument for not supporting the tech as a 'feature' as opposed to a 'hindrance'... in a "this is for your own good", kinda way.
They have now taken this one step further by shipping all new Macs without Flash pre-installed for Mac OS X - which started with the MacBook Air and now on all new Macs. Apple claim this is because users will not receive the latest version on initial install, and so have given them the "choice" to install Flash themselves, making it less, "Flash! Ahhhh!" and more, "Flash! Arrggh!"
Apple-cynics will argue that Jobs is dictating what technology us consumers are and are not 'allowed' to use. But cynic or evangelist, one would be forgiven for thinking Apple is trying to flush the technology completely. It raises many questions regarding the future of Adobe's adopted baby, and whether it is indeed obsolete...
Now, before I continue, I need to stress that I am actually a fan of Flash. I have worked with it for many years and have never ceased to be amazed with its... well, flashiness. But is it still relevant?
Flash on Mobile Platforms
The 'reasoning' for why you will not see Flash on an iPad / iPhone etc. includes processing restraints, UI on a small screen and so forth, but are Apple's criticisms well founded? An article by 'LAPTOP' investigated Flash on the Android OS and they found that Flash player performance to be 'hit-or-miss at best'.
I decided to experiment. Both my housemates use Android-based HTC phones, so I asked them to look into Flash on their phones for their 'consumer feedback'. Aside from the (very) long loading times on a 50Mbit connection, it looks surprisingly impressive and runs rather well. However, other Android smartphones, such as Vodafone's self-branded touch-screen (more like punch-screen), are not as fast as the HTC and user experience is already limited. Playing a Flash game is a no-no. Processing speeds on mobiles will inevitably improve over time, but functionality will always be key. Developers aiming to use Flash for mobile will need to make optimised versions for mobile devices. This is more of a nuisance than amending a little HTML for a mobile-friendly UI.
And what about all your lovely Flash ads? The moment someone goes to your website on an iPad, - where they're more likely to visit a 'full' website, as opposed to a mobile incarnation - those ads won't be visible. Don't forget, these are the ads that you depend on to promote your business. These are the ads that might help fund your own site or blog. Naturally we can always use replacement GIFs, but it's not the 90s anymore (although the percentage of Internet Explorer users out there would have you believe otherwise).
If you want your website to be at the top of the Google rankings, don't develop in Flash. Adobe have been pretty good at trying to get Flash's files readable by Google, but more often than not, the user finds themselves linked to the SWF file itself and not its accompanying HTML. Many people in SEO will tell you that Google likes to 'map' or 'crawl' your site. This ensures that the relevant section of your site will immediately be highlighted in the results if someone searches for specific content. This is more difficult when caching Flash content. While it may be able to 'read' the content, it will not be able to assist the user in navigating to this section due to being a timeline-based interface.
Until recently, I've been running a PowerMac G5. I know; it's ancient in comparison to the 12-core Intel Xeon machines you can buy today, but it's still a powerful machine. Flash encodes its video so heavily to compensate for varied internet speeds that I found I'm often unable to view YouTube videos beyond fundamental resolution... and yet I'm able edit video at 1080p on the same machine. In other words, Flash is somewhat processor hungry.
One of my biggest frustrations as a former Flash designer was dealing with different screen resolutions and aspect ratios. What might look glorious on one person's 17" laptop will look tiny and unreadable on another's 27" iMac. The higher the screen resolution, the smaller the Flash will become. Same argument could be made vice-versa. I know there are scaling options for Flash, but the results aren't always pretty.
HTML sites are often made on the '960-grid' (i.e. designed to not exceed 960 pixels in width, which ensures it will be viewable on nearly all computer screens), which may not be much better for some, but it does at least benefit from vertical space without over-heating your CPU.
"But Flash offers innovative interfaces beyond the over-subscribed 'web 2.0' layouts"
This is a very valid argument, and it's one of the reasons I have supported Flash for many years. Just check out any site made by the guys at Hi-Res and you will see Flash sites at their most cutting-edge. I follow their work with both envy and glee, just to see what is possible. It's easy to understand why Flash was so attractive.
However, this is an argument that is wearing thin as HTML-based tech has caught up. Perhaps the most famous demonstration is the multimedia-experience / music 'video' from the Arcade Fire The Wilderness Downtown. This is a "Chrome" experiment (although will work just fine on modern versions of Safari / Firefox) that demonstrates just what can be done with HTML5 technology at consumer-level.
There was once a time and a place to use HTML or Flash - the former for 'content' based sites and the latter for 'promotional/showcase' activity; however it seems HTML has now taken the lead to do both.
Still not convinced? Then I encourage you to check out The CSS Website Awards, which is a dedicated to awarding a site-per-day on innovation through excellent design, functionality, device compatibility and rarely a drop of Flash.
"Is the answer HTML5 then? What's all the hype about, anyway?"
One of the reasons why Flash appeals to so many is that they do not need to worry about learning three-four different languages like one does with Ajax: A basic knowledge of ActionScript and key-frame animation is enough to whip up a surprisingly good website on Flash.
HTML5 sets to challenge this with its new features: Canvas allows animation and interaction, comparable to Flash's. New audio and video integration will allow native and seamless compatibility with all compatible browsers (if Google stop trying to push their own WebM format in favour of H.264, anyway ) - no additional plug-ins necessary. All this with code more basic than a simple piece of ActionScript. In other words, there's no reason you cannot develop on it with little experience. Of course, knowing your code will open up even more creative offerings.
"But Wait! Flash will soon have an HTML5 export option..."
Also a valid argument! If you haven't seen this demonstration yet, then you should check out this link here. Yes, appears Adobe have found a way to allow Flash devs to export to HTML5. Impressive! This is essentially a Canvas export option, which may just be its saving grace. But up against many open-source alternatives that can now do the same thing, the question still remains, "Is Flash dead?"
There's no doubt Adobe has the might, power and influence to support their format, even if it means adapting to keep up with the trends... but the answer to this is up to you, the consumer, the business and your fellow web community.