Why Flash Isn’t Going Anywhere, iPad Be Damned

The arrival of the Apple iPad is still months away, and already the tech pundits are declaring the demise of Flash.

The view is based largely on the fact that the iPad, like the iPhone, will likely not support Adobe’s plug-in, but it’s also a result of the enthusiasm surrounding the current momentum of HTML5. The emerging web standard, which is quickly being adopted by browser manufacturers and developers, offers native video playback and animation tools that don’t require Adobe’s Flash plug-in. Google recently added its significant weight to the HTML5 camp when it announced HTML5 video support for YouTube. That Apple appears to have again shunned Flash is simply more fuel for the anti-Flash fire.

At this point, however, the demise of Flash is anything but assured. Even if it does eventually fade away, Flash will still be with us for quite some time because there’s currently nothing to replace it with.

While some proponents of the open web would have you believe that a viable replacement for Flash is already here — in the form of HTML5 –that’s not exactly the case. The HTML5 video tag does indeed allow you to embed videos in web pages without Flash, but it’s up to the browser to actually play that video. And that’s where the problem arises — what video codec should the browser use? Apple, with the iPad, iPhone and its desktop apps, is pushing the H.264 codec. But the H.264 video codec has licensing requirements and is not free in any sense of the word. Moving from the Flash plug-in to the H.264 codec is like moving backward — from Flash to a more expensive Flash.

The iPad then, even if it does hasten Flash’s demise, isn’t helping to bring about an open web, it’s just moving from one controlling body (Adobe) to another (MPEG LA, which controls the H.264 codec and is not, for the record, affiliated in any way with the MPEG standards organization). The iPad delivers Apple’s vision of the web, which currently happens to not include Flash. But the iPad isn’t some giant leap for the open web, no matter what Steve Jobs would have you believe.

Mozilla has already said that Firefox will not support H.264. Google’s Chrome browser does support H.264, but the company also recently moved to acquire On2, makers of another, competing video codec which means, if nothing else, Google isn’t completely satisfied with H.264 either.

Ogg Theora, which Mozilla has elected to support, is an alternative set of video codecs which might overcome some of the problems with H.264. But while Ogg is open source and free, there is some possibility that elements of it may be encumbered by patents. Apple has long cited these so-called “submarine patent” concerns among its reasons for not supporting Ogg. Critics dismiss these fears as misplaced. However, part of the reason Google acquired On2 may be to obtain these potential patents, and what Google does with them when the sale is completed — keep them or release them under an open source license — will have a significant impact on Ogg’s future.

So there’s no agreement on an open web video codec yet. This means no matter which option you chose — HTML5 with H.264 or HTML5 with Ogg Theora — the best case scenario is that 20 to 25 percent of the web sees your video without needing a plug-in.

Obviously that’s not ideal.

Adobe likes to say that if you use Flash, around 99 percent of the web will see your video. But throw in the iPhone, the iPad and other mobile devices without Flash capability and that number drops significantly. But even if Adobe’s penetration is lower than it claims, Flash still has a much deeper reach than any of the myriad other options.

So which option are developers going to chose?

Well, smart developers are going to chose all of the above. And indeed, they already have. YouTube has not abandoned Flash. The site is offering both Flash and H.264 video. We expect YouTube will add even more file formats to the mix before it’s done.

So if Flash’s dominance is slipping, then eventually it will just disappear right? Sure, just like IE 6 disappeared quickly as soon as something better showed up?

Flash isn’t going to disappear overnight, and probably won’t even fade significantly any time soon. Dion Almaer, who works at Mozilla and is editor of Ajaxian.com, put it best when he wrote about this in a blog post Monday:

HTML5 is slowly going to put a dent into [Flash] if we ever get some of the use cases just right (e.g. video), but Adobe has a good penetration and can move at the speed of a dictatorship… There is still much more work to be done. Flash and browser plug-ins have had a long history at forging new paths, and the web can come in behind them and standardize.

Flash will continue to exist because for many it will continue to be the best tool for the job. And let us not forget that while Flash has its problems — namely performance — it’s also been an incredible innovator for the web. All that Ajax and amazing desktop-like stuff we all love about today’s web? Many of the tools used create those interfaces were written specifically to catch up with Flash.

Instead of dancing prematurely on Flash’s grave, we ought to be hoping Adobe can turn it around and release something so innovative, so fast, so amazing — and so open — that even Steve Jobs has to smile.

Update 02-02-10: Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch weighed in on the debate over Flash and HTML5 video on the web in a blog post Tuesday morning. He expresses many of the same concerns about support and user experience inconsistencies across browsers, and offers comments about Flash’s ongoing future as a development environment.

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