Flash – is it over-rated?

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What exactly is Flash and how ubiquitous is it? How does Flash impact on the web, on our life and browser Technology as we know it? Is Flash Technology important in the burgeoning standards of the web? Could we call it a standard of its own in web 3.0 that only needs refining? Or could we say that Flash in itself is closed and a monopoly of one company and as such has passed its usefulness?

This article attempts a holistic view of the Adobe Flash Technology. It also attempts to make a forecast of the next frontier of web video and multimedia technology.

Adobe Flash

Flash
Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash) is a kind of multi-media platform that is used to add animation, video, and interactivity to browsers or web pages. Flash manipulates graphics to provide animation for text, drawings, and still images. It is used for streaming of audio and video on the web. It could also capture user information from input like mouse and keyboard.

Flash is frequently used for advertisements, educational purposes, demonstrations and games. Flash as a platform was originally acquired by Macromedia and was introduced in 1996, and is currently developed and distributed by Adobe Systems. Flash files are in the SWF format.

Advantages of Flash
Despite lots of criticism on Flash, the use of Flash is now widespread. Macromedia claims that the penetration of Flash is 98% of all web pages. This shows how far and how deeply Flash is entrenched in our web experience. Adobe Flash has enabled us to fill the abyss of a multi-platform multimedia experience on the Web.

With the obvious exception of the iPhone, ipod touc, iPad and perhaps the upcoming windows phone 7, Flash can be found on virtually every other operating system, desktop and mobile OS, and even the MAC and of course every Web browser. The universality of Flash has made it into a standard of itself. If you try browsing the internet without installing Flash player, you would find in a hard way just how pervasive Flash is. Most web pages will appear bland and empty without Flash!

Something to Remember
Despite these obvious enumerated advantages of Flash above, and as close as it is to being widely accepted and a seeming standard, it is still a single company’s product. What I’d call a proprietary technology from one establishment.

So, if Adobe Flash is so ingrained in our everyday technology and is so useful, why the criticism? The ever present battle between Apple and Adobe over Flash has heated up the argument over the senility of Flash because newer Technologies like HTML 5 is in the corner!

Criticism
If you’ve been following the trend in the Techworld for the past couple of months, then you would have known the sources from where Flash has had its greatest criticism. This is Apple inc and Steve Jobs. Lately, Microsoft has taken sway with Apple in envisaging that HTML 5 is the next frontier in web multi-media technology.

To quote Internet explorer Manager; “The future of the web is HTML5. Microsoft is deeply engaged in the HTML5 process with the W3C”. The crux of the matter is that Apple claims that Flash is a closed platform and a monopoly.

Apple has also suggested that Flash is clumsy, unstable and it drains battery life? The taunted web standard for video, pictures and other multi-media by Apple and Microsoft is HTML 5.

The advantage that HTML5 has over Flash, and other proprietary Web multi-media technologies like Microsoft’s Silverlight and Apple’s QuickTime is that it is a protocol standard. If not exactly so now, it would be so when it is finalized, and will not be a single-vendor solution.

Flash is ubiquitous
Flash is everywhere that is why businesses pay huge sums of money to developers to create and maintain Web sites. Many of these Web sites rely heavily on Adobe Flash to provide multi-media. Discarding Flash would thus require a Web redesign, which can be a daunting, scary, and expensive undertaking.

Then why is Flash so criticized? When Apple came out with their Iphone OS 4.0, Flash was particularly excluded. They even went further to change the licensing terms for developers building applications for version 4.0. Developers would only be allowed to develop iphone apps using objective C, C++ or javascript native to the iphone SDK, further excluding Flash.

Responding to this change, one apple Evangelist, Lee Brimelow shrieked in his personal website, “Go screw yourself Apple“. Although Brimelow’s blog has a disclaimer stating the opinions expressed there are his own and not those of Adobe yet it was clear from this extreme remark that there was no love lost between adobe and Apple.

Areas pointed by Apple where Flash may have shortcomings
Earlier last week certain areas where pointed out by a public letter to Adobe on Flash’s shortcoming. This would be enumerated here because some of these six points may be valid.

1. Flash is not open. “While Adobe’s Flash products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Adobe and available only from Adobe. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system.” There is some irony here, because this might be the case of a pot calling a kettle black. We know Apple operates a semi-closed architecture in the iphone and ipad ecosystem. But the MAC OS X in their laptops is actually an open system. But we still get the point; HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript are open web standards which is supported by the iphone OS.

2. Many websites are now providing videos in the HTML 5 standards.

3. Reliability, security and performance. Flash makes some processor demand in your web browser and may cause it to crash. Also, Hackers can exploit some security holes in the Flash plug-in in your browser and take control of your OS and gain access to sensitive information. Users are always advised to keep their Flash players up to date to block this security loopholes in Flash.

4. Battery life. “The video on almost all Flash websites currently requires an older generation decoder that is not implemented in mobile chips and must be run in software.” This is battery draining. Steve Jobs is of course H.264’s codec fan. H.264 video codec by the way is the video codec standard implemented in HTML 5 browsers. This runs in HTML natively without the need for any additional plug-in. Older codec run in software and not in hardware chips natively, so they are power hungry and drains battery life.

5. Touch. The idea is that Flash User Interfaces were built around the idea of mouse input and keyboard input which existed long ago when flash kicked off. Flash was not built around the touchscreen UI. So to fully incorporate Flash in a Touch UI device, the web page or OS has to be “rewritten” to work well on touch devices. “If developers need to rewrite their Flash websites, why not use modern technologies like HTML5, CSS and JavaScript?”

6. “If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features.” This point is valid. Too much dependence on Flash can only engender innovation only when Adobe is ready for innovation.

Conclusion
If you think Flash is going to stop it’s strangle hold in the near future, you may be wrong. So browser providers like I.E., Moxilla, opera and chrome would do themselves good to incorporate HTML 5 quickly into their browsers.

However Adobe CEO Shantanu Naranyen said during the Adobe 2009 2nd quarter earning summit that “ … the challenge for HTLM 5 will continue to be how do you get a consistent display of HTML 5 across browsers. When you think about when the rollout plans that are currently being talked about, they feel like it might be a decade before HTML 5 sees standardization across the number of browsers that are going to be out there.”

Yes, it is true that HTML 5 has been in development for over 5 years and is only now that it is starting to become mainstream enough to start being incorporated in browsers and websites. The current versions of the Internet Explorer, Firefox, opera and Chrome only recently contain elements of HTML5 compatibility. If this is so then it could be a long while before HTML5 gains enough momentum to truly threaten Flash.

HTML5 should not necessarily mean the end of Flash. Adobe can evolve and adapt to remain relevant in the browser war. Even if HTML 5 start performing all that Flash does now, it won’t be perfect because there is nothing perfect in nature. Adobe Flash can still manipulate Flash to occupy a new niche or vacuum that HTML will likely be deficient, no matter how insignificant.

AS mentioned earlier in this Article, Flash is still a monopoly, a product by one company. The fight between Adobe and Apple and the way Microsoft windows phone 7 is going, shows clearly that Flash cannot be available for all OS and platforms. So all companies and manufacturers with browsers and websites who want to be a player in the World Wide Web need to embrace HTML 5 and take a holistic view of the next trend in technology. They shouldn’t however ignore Flash altogether but adapt to it, so at least they would be on par with Technology and remain abreast and relevant in the new frontiers of the wind of change!

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2 comments

  1. This is a timely topic. The Author did well with no bias. CNN just discussed the Apple and Adobe war over flash. Adobe has finally replied Apple’s open letter. hulu has recently entered into the flash war by declaring that HTML 5 cannot meet all its video needs, and for now it is sticking with Flash.

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