The Lowdown: Technology and Politics of HTML5 vs. Flash

| Hidden Dimensions

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

-- Mahatma Gandhi

At the top of the org chart, Apple's deprecation of Flash technology is all about politics. Apple doesn't want its mainstream video delivery system controlled by a third party. So Mr. Jobs backs up his politics with tidbits of technical truths. However, discovering the real truths about HTML5 and Flash is a bit harder, as this survey shows.

On February 11th, I wrote an editorial, "What Should Apple Do About Adobe?" Part of the discussion related to Adobe's Flash Player on the Mac, updates and security. Inevitably, the comments escalated to a discussion of Steve Job's distaste for and blocking of Flash on the iPhone and iPad.

The question is: is Apple's stance against Flash justified? Of course, any political argument needs only the barest of idealogical arguments to sustain itself. More to the point is, can Apple fight this war and win based on the state-of-the-art with HTML5? Again, Apple's CEO must believe he can win this war. There has to be some technical basis for that, or the war wouldn't be waged.

So I started looking into the matter.

To put the question more succinctly:

  • Does Apple's condemnation of Flash have valid technical points?
  • Can Apple expect to flourish with the iPhone and iPad without Flash? That is, can partners be persuaded tojump on board?
  • Can HTML5 be expected, in the near term, to provide Apple with what it needs to replace Flash?

 

Apple's Position

The clearest statement of Apple's position came recently when Steve Jobs sat down with selected staff from the Wall Street Journal, as reported by ValleyWag. Mr. Jobs dismissed Flash, called it a CPU hog, a source of security holes, and, finally, using his famous RDF, tried solidify his case with a memorable sound bite: Flash is a dying technology. Mr. Jobs supported that with a list of technologies that Apple has also left in the dust in the past: The 3.5-inch floppy, old style data ports (even FireWire 400), CCFL backlit displays, and so on.

Of course, calling Flash a dying technology is political rhetoric. Flash is a pervasive technology, has features that advertisers love, and is far ahead of HTML5 -- in 2010 -- in terms of its intrinsic capabilities. But never mind that. The real issues are the three questions posed above.

It's true that Flash is a CPU hog. But then any video technology is going to consume CPU/GPU resources. Could Flash be better written? Probably. Will any other video technology make heavy use of CPU/GPU resources? Probably. Has Flash had its share of security problems? Yes. Has Apple patched Mac OS X security holes, some serious? Yes.

So while Mr. Jobs' technical statements have the ring of truth, they're not the whole truth. That can be expected when the driving influence is politics.

Apple's critics

The most realistic arguments against Apple are that Flash is widely used, provides a compelling, profitable platform for content developers and providers, and that Apple is simply being a bully, a maverick. And irrational. It's a fight that need not be fought. Some have referred to (but not found a specific citation) Adobe's less than slavish support of the Mac, even to the point of recommending their Windows products in the past (when Apple was in trouble) in preference to the Mac version. Presumably, Mr. Jobs never forgets or forgives such slights. Recently, Steve called Adobe "lazy" at a town hall meeting on campus.

Apple's critics would have us believe that this denunciation of Flash is an ego-driven vendetta by a mad CEO.

Cooler Heads Prevail

The coolest and calmest high level analysis comes from Mr. Ray Valdes. In his blog on February 10th, he summarized the technical issues related to HTML5 and Flash. If you read no other article on the HTML5 vs. Flash debate, read this one. Even so, I'll summarize:

  • HTML5 is the future, but it'll take time.
  • HTML5, right now, doesn't have the power of Flash.
  • A significant amount of content on the Web today need not be in Flash.
  • Any sufficiently powerful video app will consume a device's battery. The devil is in the efficiency of the code.

 

In terms of technical capabilities, one of our esteemed readers and a developer, Ethan, pointed out, in the comments to my original editorial that HTML5 current lacks Flash's affordances of "bytearray class, sockets, depth of the sound class, amf data transfer format, pixelbender shaders, variable rate streaming, microphone access, camera access, file i/o, a full ria framworkk...." and more. That's not to say that Flash, however, will always sustain that advantage, and in fact, has other technical problems. Here's one:

Recently, a compelling technical argument against Flash came to light -- by a Flash developer. Namely, the 'mouseover' problem prevents current Flash technology from integrating well to a gesture-driven device like an iPad. Flash is designed to respond to mouseovers and mouse clicks. It's a complex issue, not easily cast into sound bites, and has only recently come to light. If this issue was indeed in Mr Jobs' radar, then it's clear he's elected to make the case against Flash with simpler, easier to digest sound bites. Plus, there's no doubt that the current Flash technology does indeed drain a smartphone's battery, sometimes in a dramatic way. So that's probably a better "hits home" case to make in public.

HTML5: Practical Considerations

Independent of technical considerations, Apple also has to depend on the development of HTML5 and the industry adoption of that standard. After all, Adobe, seeing the handwriting on the wall, could scramble hard enough to take the political wind out of Apple's position. If HTML5 development takes too long, it'll be hard to Mr Jobs to make a compelling technical case to the content partners is seeks to engage.

I spoke with Mr. Jason Brush on this matter. Mr. Brush is the Executive VP of user experience at the 350+ person interactive firm Schematic and is a regular regular speaker on the topics of design and user experience, Flash, Silverlight and HTML5.

Regarding HTML5, "Browser compatibility will drive adoption of HTML5," he pointed out. And because Microsoft still has a dominant position with IE and a stake in its own Silverlight, don't expect Microsoft to become a big proponent of HTML5.

However, Google is bringing all forces to bear on that issue with its Chrome browser. Mr. Brush believes that the combined forces of Apple and Google can climb that uphill battle. Google because it understand the adverting imperative behind any video delivery system. Apple because it is all about selling hardware to support its customer's video habits.

However, Mr, Brush noted, HTML5 still has a way to go. There are some issues related to how video and ads fit into the browser's Document Object Model (DOM.) But Google will take the lead on this, Mr. Brush believes. Recently, Google announced that it is suspending further development of Gears to focus on HTML5. Eventually, HTML will have similar affordances for advertisers to make it an attractive alternative to the current, no-brainer selection of Flash.

Another problem, Mr. Brush noted, is that currently, there are no high profile content adopters of HTML5 (beside Google and Apple of course), and that could leave Apple is a poor bargaining position. On the other hand, Mr. Brush noted that the business opportunity presented by the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad is so compelling, even without Flash, that Apple stands in a strong position. 140,000+ applications and the millions of iPhones (and presumably millions of iPads in 2010) are hard to overlook and the Gold Rush is far from over in my own opinion.

For those who are curious to see a sampling of what HTML5 can do right now, Mr. Brush provided TMO with list of showcase URLs. Some of the demos have crude UIs and require tinkering to see the desired effects. Safari 4 or Chrome is required on Snow Leopard.

 

Summary

Apple stands to gain much by having its Internet video delivery system in the hands of an open standard rather than held by any one company. If we need evidence that each major player in this market would like to lock its customers into a proprietary plugin, we need look no further than Microsoft's own Silverlight initiative.

In order to achieve its high level strategic objective, Apple needs to take a stand, right now against Flash. If Mr. Jobs, persuasive as he is, can cast enough doubt in the minds of content providers, create an attractive business model for developers and content providers without the use of Flash -- which he can -- and hold the fort while HTML5 develops over the next few years (not a decade as Adobe has self-servingly surmised), then Apple's future products, and its customers, will greatly benefit.

This is a war Apple feels it can win. Flash will likely never go away on the desktop, but Apple's vision of the future of mobile devices can and will flourish without it. In the meantime, expect more politics and tidbits of technical truth at the CEO level.

Additional Reading

Inside Apple's iPad: Adobe Flash

Comments

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

John, Very informative article. I’d like to show you where rubber meets the road on what Apple has actually shipped regarding HTML5. Open a new tab in your Safari or Firefox, make sure you have sound on, and go here:

http://storyteller.realelibrary.com/iphone

Now, click “RealeBooks”, then “Featured”, then “Learning to Gallop”. That is an iPhone optimized site. It uses the HTML5 standard “audio” class via Javascript to make that noise (which is the voice of the most interesting person I know). Click the pages to move through the book. Imagine that’s running on your iPod Touch (or a giant iPod Touch) and your kid is in your lap and it’s story time.

Now, everyone pull out your iPhone or iPod Touch, fire up Safari and go to the same URL. Navigate to the same book. If you listen carefully, you might hear crickets.

And so, even just on the audio side, HTML5 media support for Apple’s currently chipping flagship mobile devices is vaporware. Strangely, it has been more than a year and a few basically unanswered questions to Apple developer support since I whipped those iPhone optimized sites up.

If there is one concrete thing that makes me think that Steve Jobs is just off his meds and certifiably nuts in a bad way with his anti-Flash jihad, there it is.

P.S. I’d be curious to know whether other mobile web browsers handle the audio right. I’ve got calls into friends who have Palm Pres and Windows Mobile. Not confident about Windows mobile, as IE8 doesn’t do so well with that site.

daemon

Why does Steve Jobs do this to the Apple Faithful?

geoduck

Yes there are processor and battery life issues, but that’s not the major problem. The mouseover problem mentioned in the article is huge, far more than most people have grasped. It is a deal breaker and until Adobe comes up with a fix Flash just cannot be on any touch screen only system. I encourage you to follow the link and read what he has to say. He not only clearly goes through why it won’t work, but why none of the simple solutions are adequate.

I just wish Apple would talk about this. Adobe was caught with their pants down and have not come up with a version of Flash that will work. After reading this I don’t see this as a result of Apple being a bunch of jerks. IMO it’s entirely Adobe fault for not seeing the handwriting on the wall and being ready for it. Adobe dropped the ball big time and APPLE IS GETTING BLAMED FOR IT.

Lee Dronick

Those 5 links to HTML5 examples are very interesting. I also tried them using my iPhone, they sort of work.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@geoduck The concern is overblown. With touchscreens, you also have an issue of less tracking time for the application during a typical touch than during a mouseclick because the OS or touch device is screening for gestures. What you do as a developer is add a little extra feedback. So if someone touches a button control, you hook it up to a 250 ms timer that keeps it visually held down. These kinds of tweaks can be as easily incorporated into Flash code as for any other application. I might have put a whole hour into that issue and some related things in optimizing the ebook reader window for touchscreen netbooks. Developers who use Flash aren’t too stupid to figure that stuff out and work it into their repertoire.

Here’s another way to look at it. A Windows developer coming to the Mac might wonder how they build an application that doesn’t require a right mouse button. If Roughly Drafted approached the issue from that angle, they might conclude that Apple has been caught with their pants down for not having two buttons standard. In reality, developers adapt just fine to new variances in input capability.

jdb8167

@geoduck Adobe thinks the scrolling and mouseover problems can be solved. You can read about it here:

http://www.mikechambers.com/blog/2010/02/22/flash-player-content-mouse-events-and-touch-input/

http://www.mikechambers.com/blog/2010/02/23/scrolling-html-with-flash-content-on-touch-devices/

Basically, you put the flash content in full screen mode and the meaning of the multi-touch gestures changes. From a UI and usability point of view, it is not ideal to have gesture meanings change based on mode but still it shows what could be possible.

@Che Bosco

The issue is not new development but existing flash content. It is all very well to say design new flash content with mobile devices in mind but if you are going to do that, you can just work around the lack of flash as well.

Making flash work well with existing content is hard because flash is designed to work with mice and keyboards.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@jdb8167 Yes, I get that about existing Flash content. The contention of geoduck and of the article he cites is that Flash is just dead because it doesn’t work with touch screens. I was tearing down the premise by noting that developers with ongoing projects can easily adapt them with Flash as it is now by bringing the touchscreen mode of interaction into their thinking, just as desktop app developers do. And just as a Windows developer used to two button mice might have to do when confronted with a Mac. There’s really nothing special about adapting to touch screens.

Perhaps it’s too subtle a point. I figure that software isn’t the only productive activity that eats up 75% of lifetime costs in ongoing maintenance. Maybe it’s just special that way. Touch screen compatibility and/or optimization is simply a maintenance issue, and a minor one at that.

And, right now I’m playing with FarmVille on my ASUS t91MT in tablet mode and the pen put away. Touching has some quirks, but I got over them in about 5 minutes. Geez.

ctopher

@Bosco

right now I?m playing with FarmVille

‘nuff said. smile

Corey

No mention of how Apple benefits financially from shutting out Flash?
Books, Entertainment, Music and multimedia in general.. Apple is asking you to go through iTunes now. More than any other motive..this seems like the most obvious reason for Apple to ignore such a pervasive technology as Flash. (Ebay.. watch out.. you could be next!)
Flash is a tool.. Objective C is a tool.. and both can be wielded improperly.
Steve Jobs complains that 90% of Safari crashes are caused by Flash. But my iPhone crashes 100% of the time by poorly written Apps… simply closing with no explanation. Apple needs to be sure it can offer a better alternative.. both on the development end and on the users end.. before it decides to dictate what we should be allowed to see online.

ibuck

Battery depletion means no site plays on the device, no matter how cleverly Flash was implemented. If html5 uses less charge, as a user I’d prefer that so that I can still make/receive calls,  find my destination and use other apps.

encoder

in the mean time i just figured out why jobs started the whole html vs flash thing. and i believe he is actually paying people to feed the fire, in order to attenuate the glow of the black point right to “it still does not support flash”.

what if - for ex. - iPhone’s safari would support flash.

apple is selling a ton of small games and applications for these devices, he the revenue is split between apple and the developer, and it is a multimillion dollar business, just the games.
there are great sites out there like newgrounds and kongregate with millions of greater games that you just can’t buy on appstore.

so if you flash iPhone up, no one in there right mind will buy a game from apple, if they have access to millions of them for free. apple will lose a big chunk of money.
and there will be also apps in flash that do just anything for free.

implementing the Air run-time is much safer. adobe gets it’s share, apple get’s it’s share, and everyone is happy, except the developer, but the platform will be used anyway, at least i will try it out because there are many more ways to make money of iPhone/pad users.


iPhone and iPad will not support flash in their browsers because apple wants your money.

i brought this up because the whole flash vs html5 was started by jobs. i am fully aware that the iphone/ipad users who actively browse the web is an irrelevant number.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@encoder: That fact isn’t nearly as conspiratorial as you think. grin

Lee Dronick

i brought this up because the whole flash vs html5 was started by jobs. i am fully aware that the iphone/ipad users who actively browse the web is an irrelevant number.

I have been hating Flash for years, long before the advent of the iPhone and I don’t think that I am alone in that. If it was just video that would probably be okay, but those horrid Flash based navigation sites…

As to games, I don’t play them very often, at least not those types so I am not missing FarmVille. I am more into things such as the Great Game. True enough the “Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” even if the Duke of Wellington never actually said it, so it I guess games are good for kids.

The number of iPhone, and soon iPad, users who browse the web is very relevant. Most of the mobile visits come from us. The more astute website owners are aware of this and have taken appropriate action.

Lee Dronick

@encoder: That fact isn?t nearly as conspiratorial as you think.

Yes, Bosco it is all part of the Great Game smile

encoder

“horrid Flash based navigation sites”

yeah, that is the best argument so far.
flash is as good as it’s developer.

there are also a sht load of html sites that can’t be navigated.

on the flash part the worst is that most of the developers don’t even notice that there is a “#” symbol on their keyboard, and they just don’t have the technical knowledge to pull of a web masterpiece.

impressive, sure, useful, that depends…
and this is true in case of html too.

html is relatively easy to master. flash is easy to learn but very hard to master.

usually if a navigation mechanism dose not “work” or is just too cryptic, i do tend to change it. it is kinda hard to get those late 90’s behind when it comes to flash.

but the shift is happening slowly. while more and more are trying to harness the real potential of flash, and that is fluidity, short impression, deep impact user experience. there is still room for experimentation, but not in a way that - for example - Sir Harry Flashman gets annoyed. there are plenty of room for details and animation within 300ms.

this is one of ours:
www.chopard.com
idea- keep relevant things relevant, everything fluid.

Bosco, i know it’s not conspiratorial, my mind is just focused elsewhere, so that is why it’s such a revelation for me. and it’s a copy-paste from one of my posts on a forum. raspberry i’m lazy, so i have every chance to be a good programmer.

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