Why HTML5 isn't a Flash killer

The myth perpetuated by people who should know better

Dan Oliver

HTML5 is a Flash killer. Hmmmmm. Say it over in your head a few times. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

In fact, if I wrote a blog post with such a snappy, eye-catching title as that, it might even get a few Diggs. Heck, it might even make the front-flipping-page! (Front page of the Programming section, maybe – let's not go nuts.)

Unfortunately, there's a little problem with my initial statement. OK – I admit it – it's a big problem. It's the kind of hulking problem that, if it asked to borrow a quid from you, would end up with your wallet, any loose change in your pockets and the keys to your car. And that problem?

  • Check out 'How to add HTML5 video to your site' from .net magazine.

Well, you may have guessed by now, but the whole premise that HTML5 will kill Flash is utter bunkum. Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped the idea gaining some serious traction in recent months – among people and groups that should really know better.

A few days ago I was listening to one of my favourite technology podcasts, This Week in Tech. (For those of you who aren't familiar with the show, as the name suggests, it's an insightful look at the biggest tech stories of the week.) But, in that most august of podcasts, I heard the 'HTML5 is a Flash killer' argument put forward by a guest on the show – with not one dissenting voice to be heard. Not one.

I've also seen it pop up on various web design forums, and it's even made its way onto my Twitter feed on more than one occasion (I'm @danoliver if you're interested, and aren't offended by the kind of language that would make a miner blush).

Behind the theory

There are a number of reasons why so many people believe HTML5 will be the technology that finally consigns Flash to the recycle bin.

Firstly – and it has nothing to do with the merits of HTML5 – there's a deep-seated loathing of Flash, primarily brought about by a decade of annoying intro sequences on websites.

The case for the prosecution: Flash intros, in the main, are a complete waste of time and bandwidth, and should, in any self-respecting society, result in the public flogging of anyone who considers introducing them to a site. You'll get no argument from me on that front.

Next up, and this is where I start to seriously waiver, some maintain that there's never a need to use Flash and that you can achieve the requirements of a Flash project in other ways – in this instance using HTML5. This just isn't true.

ActionScript 3 can do things that have had web developers scratching their heads for years, and even Google has had to fall back on Flash programming because there's simply no other way to successfully achieve certain functions within their web apps, such as elegantly attaching files in Gmail (thanks to Olivier Gambier over at Zoomorama for that one). HTML5 is no ActionScript 3, and was never intended to be.

And then there's video. In the past few years a number of huge websites – including YouTube – have used Flash to deliver video online. Why? Well, the Flash Player is – according to Adobe – on 99 per cent of connected PCs, and authoring video content and components using Flash is a piece of cake.

"But wait!" I hear you cry. "HTML5 has a video codec, right? And this could replace Flash as the primary way of delivering video content – with no plug-in needed at all. Yeah, baby! Go HTML5!"

The codec that could

Unfortunately, the key word there is 'could'. As things stand, the HTML5 <video> element has no default codec and, despite some support from browsers such as Firefox and Chrome, Internet Explorer still won't play ball and isn't likely to while Microsoft's Silverlight plug-in is still pushing for penetration as a Flash Player alternative.

What you're left with is the following: an HTML5 working group, lacking consensus and pushing an element that won't be adopted by all browsers any time soon; versus a proprietary plug-in, with a passionate developer community, which is used by millions. I know where my money's going in the short term.

I'm not a Flash fanboy, far from it, but I hope we can put an end to talk of HTML5 killing Flash. Despite the fact that most people agree the internet would be a better place without plug-ins, while browsers continue to support different standards, and the people pushing said standards are unable to come to a consensus, then a plug-in is often the only way to achieve a uniform user experience across multiple browsers.

Some of the internet's most successful websites and apps simply wouldn't exist without a little help from Flash and for this reason we should at least give this oft-maligned plug-in some credit. And please, please stop these misinformed proclamations of its imminent demise.

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