Over the course of the past six months or so, the conversation seems to have settled quite a bit. Whereas much of the 2010 and 2011 discussions on HTML, Flash and web technologies were laced with (often emotionally-heated) misleading abstraction (for example, last July, Fred Cavazza posted on Forbes, lamenting how the discussion about Flash and HTML5 often ignores actual details of the technologies), the discussion in 2012 seems to have become much more nuanced, intricate — and accurate.
I thought it would be helpful and informative to provide a brief round-up of what some others have saying on this subject over that time. This is not meant to be a comprehensive overview, but instead a representative sampling of what’s being said and written on these subjects.
The Realities of HTML5
I have read two fantastic posts in particular, about nuances in the consideration and adoption of Flash and HTML5. The first, by Noah Costello, specifically addresses how this shift in technologies is impacting interactive production in ad agencies. He addresses the details of actual implications of HTML5 adoption on agency workflows, budgets, and features. It’s just not an easy set of issues to confront:
Truthfully, HTML5 is a bit of a freight train right now. The technical details don’t really matter, it has so much buzz and momentum that to stand in front of it and try to influence its path is a fool’s errand. It will take a little time for it to run its course and for everyone figure out where it fits within the world of advertising and digital campaign concepting and development.
[Flash] was a great ecosystem for those involved. Creatives could come up with big ideas and feel confident they were possible, without having to worry too much about the technology. Developers were pushed to do some amazing work and often did amazing work on their own, which lead creatives to great new ideas. One developer invents PaperVision 3D, another one figures out Augmented Reality Markers and next thing you know we have a live Big Foot interacting with you live on your webcam (www.livingsasquatch.com).
HTML5 cannot do everything Flash can. In reality trying to create these sites in HTML5 is more like “Mission Impossible” and most of them would need to be re-concepted from the ground up; with creative and user experience design that was tailored to HTML5′s capabilities. Could the ’Ethan Hunt’ of HTML5 Development pull it off? Maybe in a few cases, but what would be the cost and what percentage of the target audience will be able to view the site? I know that with Flash sites, most clients were unwilling to allow a site published in the latest version of the Flash player until it reaches higher that 95% penetration. Will a WebGL site that 50% of your visitors can use really be acceptable? And we’ll often get briefs for Flash projects that have as little as a two or three week development timeline. Good luck with that in HTML5.
Ironically, most of the cutting edge, Flash-like HTML5 sites you see these days don’t work on tablets or smart phones either. They either use HTML5 features that aren’t available in mobile browsers (WebGL), offer poor performance (Canvas), or the layout and user experience design does not work properly. This is perplexing since the primary argument for dropping Flash is compatibility on Mobile.
The technology aside, there are other fundamental problems with trying to make one site fit all. Screen resolutions are all over the place. Can you really expect to design something for a 22″ desktop screen that will look good on a 10″ tablet (iPad), a 7″ tablet (Kindle fire) and 3.5″ screen (average smartphone)? You also may not want the same amount of content on your mobile site, as lots of people like to find necessary information quickly and prefer more immersive experiences on a large screen when they’re sitting comfortably.
Costello concludes with real-world recommendations for agencies and developers:
- Don’t decide on the technology until you figure out your audience. Is the primary target mobile or desktop? What percent of your audience is on HTML5 compatible browsers?
- Figure out your clients goals. Are they ok with you targeting a smaller audience for the sake of industry buzz and awards? Or are they more concerned with overall reach to consumers.
- Creatives concepting HTML5 sites need to learn more about the technology and limitations. You can’t assume everything you would have concepted for a Flash targeted site will be possible in HTML5. Especially if it is running on tablets and smart phones.
- If the goal is a highly interactive site on the desktop that will reach a maximum audience, use Flash.
- If a site uses interactive video and/or alpha channel video, use Flash and don’t expect the same type of experience to be possible on mobile.
- If the site only requires basic animations (think animating layers of a photoshop document) and video in contained players, use HTML5.
- Deep content/copy heavy portals, corporate sites, and blogs should be HTML. This has always been a good rule.
- If the same site needs to work on the desktop and tablet expect less (in terms of interactivity, animation, and innovative UX).
- If the same site needs to work on the desktop, tablet, and smart phones, expect a lot less.
- Be careful not to expect a robust HTML5 site be built on a tight timeline. Extra time will be needed for build and more importantly QA/bug fixes. i.e. Don’t plan on approving creative two weeks before a site needs to go live.
- Understand that not all HTML5 features are created equal. Some work on mobile, but not desktop. Some work on desktop, but not mobile. WebGL is a good example. Currently it is not enabled in mobile browsers and Internet Explorer on the desktop.
Another post, from just last month, comes from Philip Donald writing about HTML5 misconceptions. In it, Donald gets into how actual feature differences between Flash and HTML5 should influence tech selection for different projects.
Firstly, HTML 5 offers a very convenient audio and video solution with some advanced functionalities. All well and good, but what many people ignore is the fact that these audio and video files are played within the browsers. Each browser has built-in plugins for audio and video but different browsers support different versions of the audio and video. Because of this, it becomes difficult to cater to the requirements of all browsers.
Secondly, the SVG and Canvas elements have definitely made it easier for developers to implement and integrate 2D animations, but it’s been observed that this animation has a detrimental effect on website performance. Also, HTML5 is proving to be weak when it comes to handling 3D animations, resulting in developers not being able to replicate an entire Flash website with similar efficiency in HTML5. There will always be limitations.
Thirdly, you can use HTML5 Rich Internet Applications, but don’t be under the misconception that they can offer you the same brand of efficiency and functionality that Flash/Flex can offer, for example Flash can directly communicate with remote services, whereas HTML5 cannot.
Now that you know what HTML5 cannot do, allow me to offer you a small list of things that HTML5 can do and, in fact, can do very well. This can also help reduce the misconceptions in a big way.
- You can create a single application that works on the iPad, iPhone, Windows etc. In other words, it facilitates platform/device independency — a huge benefit in itself.
- Helps develop a single website that works on the tablet, mobile, and desktop at the same time.
- If used well and the way it is supposed to be used, it can improve website performance.
- Enables the use of audio and videos tags across all platforms, but be prepared to do a bit of hard work.
- Video, audio and images are all written right into the codes, eliminating the need for any third party software.
- Quicker load time as compared to its older version because of WebSockets implementation.
- Offers great vector animations for graphics and light effect, but do not expect the moon, the sun, and the stars when it comes to animations; Flash is way ahead in this aspect.
- Provides appropriate built-in form validation and type declarations to offer specific keyboard support.
HTML 5 definitely has the potential of upstaging Flash in more ways than one, but it is presently a work in progress. Even in its current avatar it helps make mobile phone applications more accessible, and developers are now able to create universal applications for different mobile phones. Additionally, there is no doubt that it offers more flexibility in website creativity. For now, this is enough. What happens in the future is pure hypothesis.
I think that perhaps no post symbolizes the evolution of the online discussion as much as Long Tail Video’s post about HTML5. Whereas 2011 saw a massive (and often, uninformed) push to HTML5 video solutions, Long Tail Video (the makers of the JW Video Player) presents actual details about video playback features and format support, across browser implementations of HTML5 and HTML5 video. And (thank god) they go to the effort of keeping that post current, with new browser releases. This type of information was simply impossible to come by last year, but is essential to have when making tech decisions.
The posts above demonstrate, Flash still supports many use-cases better than any available alternative technology. As just one real-world example, Giacomo Guilizzoni (founder of Balsamiq wireframing software, and better known as ‘Peldi’ to many in the Macromedia and Adobe communities) said in a recent interview that, while:
We don’t have any current plans to switch to a different platform. A full rewrite is suicide for a startup, and like I said, our customers don’t care right now. Plus, I don’t really see an alternative right now either, HTML5 doesn’t even have full-screen support yet, let alone a good desktop installation experience or serious IDEs for JS development.
However, in the world of technology, many people make decisions not only on where things are (that is, what technology can do today), but also based on perceptions of where things are going. Flash and AIR, of course, are owned by Adobe, who significantly disrupted the markets for both Flash and AIR last November. Today, half a year later, while much of the discussion about HTML5 and Flash has evolved and become more nuanced, what is Adobe’s influence on explicating or defining a direction for web technologies?
One of Adobe’s primary initiatives around HTML5 is called Edge, which is a new HTML5 animation tool. Edge (for which Adobe maintains three separate URLs, here, here, and here on Adobe labs), though, is still not a released product. Similarly, Adobe is now promoting that the next version of Flash Professional will have the ability to export HTML5 animations. As of today, there is still no professional-grade HTML5 tooling from Adobe — everything remains in the future — leaving the community of developers with continued questions as to how these new tools will actually impact their work.
On Flash (and AIR), Adobe has attempted to reduce uncertainty and solidify expectations as to the direction and future support for the platform. Earlier this year, Adobe published a road map for Flash Player and AIR, reiterating their emphasis on Flash and AIR as a solution primarily for video delivery and gaming.
Looking forward, Adobe believes that Flash is particularly suited for addressing the gaming and premium video markets, and will focus its development efforts in those areas. At the same time, Adobe will make architectural and language changes to the runtimes in order to ensure that the Flash runtimes are well placed to enable the richest experiences on the web and across mobile devices for another decade.
There was “a lot of negative discussion [in the community] around the focus on gaming and premium video talked about in the whitepaper,” according to educator and developer Joseph Labrecque, who penned a defense of Adobe’s positioning of the technology in the document. Still, for a roadmap to be valuable, the markets and community must trust that it is accurate — and, in Adobe’s case, that trust was significantly reduced last November. So, for example, in a pair of recent Tweets, author, developer and community leader Phillip Kerman noted his concern that, despite the representations in its product roadmap, Adobe will drop support for mobile AIR (just as it did for mobile Flash Player):
As a case-in-point, earlier this year, Adobe promoted that anyone could send questions to Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen (one of the top 10 most overcompensated CEOs in America, according to Mother Jones Magazine) by including the hashtag #askShantanu, and he would answer them in a conference keynote. All told, only six questions were posted. The most direct question was tweeted by developer and community leader, Peter Elst, who asked: “with respect, do you feel you’ve taken enough personal responsibility around the massive communication failure in November? #askShantanu”. As Elst elaborated on his blog:
It is in my opinion time for Adobe as a company to clean up its mess and move on, but to do so it needs to come to terms with the present situation and acknowledge its failures. If nothing else, I expect from a CEO to be willing to step up and defend his position.
At the scheduled event, Narayen did not acknowledge or respond to any of these #askShantanu questions — much less the one from Peter Elst. With this style of leadership emanating from the top of the organization, it is unsurprising that the once vibrant community around Flash (and Adobe’s web products, in general) continues to deteriorate. As Adobe Certified Instructor (ACI) Dee Sadler tweeted earlier this week:
- Flash isn’t supported in iOS devices
- Android is dropping Flash support
- Google Chrome support of Flash on the Mac seems to add new bugs that are out of our control in every new release
- Developers aren’t really excited about doing anything related to Flash
While the industry discussion is becoming more articulate, nuanced and accurate, this process occurs more slowly in the broader market. The sophistication of the tech discussion in sales and with clients (unsurprisingly) lags behind what developers know and understand. Earlier this year, Yakov Fain asked if “Will HTML Force You to Lie?”
I didn’t start questioning why they even wanted to do a pure HTML5 version. I know what the answer would be: “Everybody goes HTML5, we want it too, and we want it now”. You can’t piss against the wind. You shouldn’t attack windmills unless your name is Don Quixote.
Clearly (and again, unsurprisingly), it will take more time for these discussions to approach reality. The education of clients often presents unique challenges in software; it is even more difficult in light of the legacy of the HTML5 and Flash discussion from the past two years, and will likely remain so for at least the next year or so.
At the same time, the technological landscape in which all of this is occurring is becoming increasingly fragmented, complicated (and expensive). As just one recent example, the introduction of the pixel-rich iPad 3 has led once again to basic questions (without easy answers) about how to deliver images inside of a browser (something that I think we all thought was resolved over a decade ago):
The problem is simple: you need to send smaller images to small screens and larger images to larger screens. Sending a huge iPad-optimized image to a device with a max resolution of 320×480 just doesn’t make sense. At the same time, when bandwidth isn’t an issue, most sites will want to serve high-resolution content to displays that can handle it.
The ideal solution would be to detect both the resolution of the screen and the available bandwidth. Then, based on the combination of those two factors, the server could offer up the appropriate image. Currently that’s not possible, though there are already proposals to extend HTML to handle that scenario.
The Responsive Image Working Group is a W3C community group hoping to solve some of these problems. The group is proposing a new HTML element, <picture>, which will take into account factors like network speed, device dimensions, screen pixel density and browser cache to figure out which image to serve up. Think of it as a much smarter version of the old lowsrc property. So far though it’s all hypothetical
And, as Amir Nathoo writes, if you are hoping to achieve viral success, you really do need to invest in proper experiences on all of these increasing varied devices. So, supporting all platforms bears increased cost; and ignoring platforms also incurs real costs. As I wrote earlier this year, “a 2012-dollar spent on interactive production will get you less functionality delivered to a smaller percentage of the consumer market than the same dollar spent only two years ago.”
In my inaugural post on this site, I explained that “while there are no clear answers, you can still make informed decisions”. More and more people are learning what variables and parameters influence informed decisions in this climate, and thankfully, some of them are taking the time to share them. In that sense, I think the industry is now moving into another phase. One in which more honest discussions occur, where there is a much less reflexive attitude towards technology evaluation and decisions, and these technologies are increasingly well understood by a wider segment of the industry who, on a daily basis, must confront the challenges of actually executing interactive experiences in a highly complex environment.
And that is most definitely a good and positive trend for the broader health of the interactive industry.