Flash is a Reality, is HTML5 Only a Promise?

rockemsockemThere is a debate underway over the proprietary nature of Adobe’s Flash vs. the open standard, HTML5 (see, “HTML5: Could it kill Flash and Silverlight”). On the one side, Adobe has positioned their platform as being quite open and yet proprietary enough to “provide everything you need to create and deliver the most compelling applications, content, and video to the widest possible audience“. HTML5 is an open standard that will, in part, deliver audio, video and interactivity and is a specification which promises to deliver the core functionality of Flash.

Adobe’s John Dowdell (JD) had an interesting post about this debate and reinforced Adobe’s positioning that their approach with Flash is rich, robust and focused on the delivery outcomes customers want and that HTML5 is immature and, as Adobe’s CEO pointed out on their analyst call, “…it might be a decade before HTML 5 sees standardization across the number of browsers…“. Wow…talk about an insertion of major FUD in to the analyst call.

What strikes me about this entire discourse is the words of Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, who I heard giving a talk at an open source conference several years ago. Describing the phases any new or disruptive technology goes through (and specifically open source) is first it’s “crappy” — and no incumbent pays attention to it — then it’s “less crappy” — and early adopters take to it — and when it’s “good enough” the tipping point occurs and it’s widely adopted.

One could argue that HTML5 is in the crappy-about-to-be-less-crappy phase and Adobe isn’t paying much attention since publicly they don’t perceive it as much of a threat (except Google and Apple are behind it 100%), but I think it matters less “when” HTML5 appears (and what the adoption curve looks like), or even a “proprietary vs. open source” argument. I think what matters is which vendor of tools is going to embrace the standard and empower the ecosystem.

In no particular order, here are a few thoughts that swirl around in my head when I think about Flash vs. HTML5:

  • Adobe has historically been the designer’s best friend. There are more Adobe applications on my computer than any other and I’ve invested thousands in their software over the years. Here’s what puzzles me greatly: outputting to Flash from InDesign, for example, sucks royally. As a publisher of ebooks (we deliver 7 or 8 per year to our B2B clientele) the capability to embed/playback Flash video/audio inside of them is nice, but outputting as a flipbook (InDesign can output to a Flash SWF file format) is embarrassingly rudimentary and is not in keeping with the standards of elegance I’ve come to enjoy with the tools Adobe provides
  • Seemingly all of Adobe’s efforts are focused on web application developers (e.g., Adobe Air) which is not, nor ever has been, their sweet spot. Baked in to their DNA is the fit, finish, polish, elegance, artistic, uplifting capabilities of their tools which make them the de facto choice for those who create. Microsoft’s sweet spot, on the other hand, is totally focused on providing every possible capability for a developer while anything visual or high design escapes them (Note: my buddy, Doug Olson, runs Microsoft’s Design Tools group, focusing on the Expression Suite and he’s changing that paradigm)
  • Microsoft’s Silverlight seems to be growing its install base but is a relative unknown in discussions I’ve had with media people or corporations delivering content
  • Speaking of Microsoft, the legacy of their attempt to control web standards (while crushing upstart Netscape) has left us with far too many users of Internet Explorer 6, one of the least compatible browsers of web standards then and now (and is a browser that makes web designers and people in IT shops cry as they struggle with delivering to the non-savvy). What most of the developers I respect say to me when we talk about Flash say, “Yes, it’s everywhere, it works and it’s capable, but you’re painting yourself in to a corner if you depend on it.
  • JD mentioned in his post about the ubiquitous nature of Flash and that, “…iPhone helped to radically increase the number of phones with Flash support…“. Huh? I have NO idea what iPhone HE is using, but the iPhone OS does not render Flash and Apple, especially, has taken steps to ensure that none of their applications deal with Flash well (Keynote and iMovie are the most startling examples of this) and one needs 3rd party tools to output to Flash.

The kicker? Without Adobe and Microsoft providing tools that web application and design developers can use to output to HTML5, that lack of tools might very well slow down the adoption of HTML5 by making it more difficult to create and deliver in this manner. Since Adobe and Microsoft have an “approaching zero” level of motivation to move toward open standards (especially as competition with Google and Apple continue to accelerate and extremely exciting showcases like Google Wave, an HTML5 application, prove the possibilties and could very well accelerate adoption), this is going to be an interesting battle in the war of open.

So what’s it going to be Adobe? Will you wait until HTML5 is “good enough” as Christensen states, or will you disrupt yourself and deliver a dominant toolset for designers and developers of HTML5?

Couldn’t agree more with “HTML 5 Versus Flash/Flex” by a Minnesota developer, Bex Huff, who made this statement in his post, “The problem boils down to this: there are millions of people dedicated to making the web better; but only one small part of Adobe is dedicated to making Flash better. The same holds true for Silverlight and (another multimedia delivery specification) JavaFX.

That’s the argument for open vs. proprietary. The key will be moving HTML5 from a promise to a reality and meeting the needs of all of us who want to create and deliver audio, video, web applications and interactivity we can be assured will render cross-browser, cross-platform and not be tied to any single company.

There are a wealth of HTML5 proofs-of-concept (still pretty geeky, though) that show off some of its capabilities (NOTE: YOU WILL NEED AN HTML5 COMPATIBLE BROWSER TO VIEW THESE. Though many browsers have implemented some portions of the HTML5 specification, in my experience the ones thus far that have the most specs baked-in are the WebKit-based browsers like Google Chrome for the PC and Safari 4 for the Mac, so view these demos in one of those browsers):

  • Video of 3D Graphics: This is a demo that demonstrates the potential of rendering 3D graphics in the browser, using O3D, an open-source web API for creating rich, interactive 3D applications in the browser. The app shown in the video is coded in javascript and html and runs in a web browser. Learn more about O3D at http://code.google.com/apis/o3d
  • Tetris-like game
  • A video playing in-line with button controls
  • Drawing on a whiteboard
  • With respect to tools, here’s a Mozilla project called BeSpin.


  1. John Dowdell on June 19, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Hi, the comments section at that post had more explanation of the Flash Lite line. The Open Screen Project launched in May2008, with goal of integrating mobile & desktop rendering engines. As part of that the existing Flash Lite licensing fees (for SWF7 files) would go away with the new mobile Player (for SWF10 files).

    But instead of Flash Lite revenue decreasing, it increased, even after its end-of-life was announced. It was surprising enough to make that quarter’s analyst call. The reason was that the iPhone convinced other manufacturers that “experience matters”, and they ballooned their orders, even though they’d be getting even more for free the next year.

    Summarized, the positive attention paid to iPhone increased consumer expectations, which resulted in increased demand for Flash Lite among manufacturers.

    (I had a followup post the next day.)


  2. Steve Borsch on June 19, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?”

    Curious what you think of the other 95% of the post JD?

  3. John Dowdell on June 20, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Sorry, I went through the “few thoughts that swirl around in my head in no particular order” part… I thought the call-to-action of the post was in the “What’s it gonna be Adobe” section, about future tooling changes for “HTML5”.

    What do you seek from me?


  4. Steve Borsch on June 22, 2009 at 9:27 am

    “What do you seek from me?”

    Sorry about the delayed response (and maybe we should take this to email), but I guess understanding directionally where Adobe is taking “output” from your tools: Flash only and all the wood-is-behind-the-bat to knock Flash out of the park? Or is it that *and* delivering on HTML5?

    The former would continue Adobe’s hegemony with the Flash platform so it’s assumed (and reinforced by your CEO’s analyst call remarks) that it’s all Flash and Flash only. If it’s that *and* the latter (as the latter gains momentum), then that would be good to hear publicly.

    The other piece is what I perceive as a shift away from the design community and an embracing of the developer community in ways that are (IMHO) placing much of the Flash, RIA and other deliverables just slightly out of reach for designers. These folks are ones whose core skill-sets are being obviated by a move away from print output toward the web, RIA’s, Flash, widgets (or ‘sprouts’) and there are few “bridge” products that take them from print-to-web, leveraging their skills.

    To illustrate that last point is what I alluded to in my post: InDesign output to Flash or Web is so poor that I (and just about every designer I know) would be embarrassed to deliver it as an extension of a print deliverable.

    So understanding Adobe’s focus on those respective ecosystems (designers & developers) would also be beneficial to hear. Again, it’s because Adobe’s DNA ensures that you “get” the subtleties and nuances designers demand for output that places Adobe in a class by itself (and I *would* put Apple in that class but, for the most part, their tools are targeted at the masses rather than the creative class).

  5. John Dowdell on June 22, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    Hi Steve (and sorry about the missed reference in my last comment ;-)

    “… where Adobe is taking “output” from your tools: Flash only and all the wood-is-behind-the-bat to knock Flash out of the park? Or is it that *and* delivering on HTML5?”

    HTML is a big area for Adobe. Dreamweaver is a big seller — got its start bridging the browser fragmentation of DHTML days. Most of the other tools use HTML in some way, or produce for HTML in some way. Adobe also does a lot with output to film and video, electronic documents, paper.

    Adobe’s investment in SWF hopes to enlarge the publishing choices of tomorrow. There are various workflows, some for designers, some for developers, some for groups of creators. The goal is to remove barriers to publishers, whatever style they may choose.

    The InDesign folks are currently mid-cycle in development, but are always looking for change-requests.


  6. bex on June 23, 2009 at 6:34 am

    I agree… Since Adobe doesn’t make any money from the Flash *player*, there is no inherent conflict of interest between Adobe and HTML5. If they play their cards right, they could focus their energy on making premium HTML5 design tools… their apps could output Flash, Flex, or ‘pure’ HTML5.

    This isn’t too radical of an idea… software developers have used the concept of ‘target systems’ for decades. You set what your target system is, and your compiler lets you know when you coded a feature not available on that platform.

    So, if you used basic animation, video, and offline editing, you could output HTML5 from Adobe’s design tools.

  7. […] Another interesting article which I like most is “Flash is the Reality; HTML5 is the Promise”. Read this article >>. […]

  8. local seo on August 8, 2011 at 8:40 am

    I alluded to in my post: InDesign output to Flash or Web is so poor that I (and just about every designer I know) would be embarrassed to deliver it as an extension of a print deliverable.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.