The Lowdown: Technology and Politics of HTML5 vs. Flash

“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.



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