Can Flash Survive HTML5?

Is HTML5 going to put the hurt on Flash? Rumors of Flash's demise may be greatly exaggerated, but the long term prospects for Adobe Flash seem pretty dim indeed.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about HTML5 and whether Flash is in it for the long haul. Word on the street is that HTML5 will be able to deliver rich content without the need for a proprietary plugin clogging up your Web browser. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Let me get this out of the way up top: I don’t have any particular axe to grind against Flash or Adobe. I’m happy that the company ported Flash to Linux and eventually made Linux more or less a first-class citizen for Flash content. Having used Linux as my primary OS for more than 10 years, I can remember what it was like when Flash became ubiquitous but wasn’t well-supported on Linux. It was a frustration on most days, and sometimes made it outright impossible to get things done online using Linux.

I’m glad those days are over. And because I don’t want to relive them, I’m really hoping HTML5 can put a stake into Flash’s proprietary little heart. It’s not good for an open, standards-based Web to have a proprietary toolchain required to view and enjoy rich content. Adobe’s had plenty of time to really become open with Flash, and has failed to do so. So the Web is finally routing around the damage.

Flash is Not Well-Loved

Even though Flash is widely used, it doesn’t have a lot of love outside Adobe and Web designers who’ve invested a lot of time and money in Flash tools.

Microsoft wants to supplant Flash with Silverlight, and has not only invested time and money in its Flash alternative — Microsoft has allowed and encouraged an open source implementation in the form of Moonlight.

Apple has flat-out refused to put Flash on its mobile devices, and isn’t being particularly subtle about its dislike of Flash. Though Apple’s execs have made noise about performance problems with Flash (which isn’t untrue), the most likely reason Apple doesn’t want to see Flash on the iPhoneOS is because it would be too easy to compete with native iPhone apps.

Google has worked hard on HTML5 and is already testing out HTML5 video with H.264 on YouTube. Microsoft is also supporting HTML5 and H.264 with IE9. Oracle seems to be interested in pushing JavaFX, which could be a competitor to Flash if it takes off.

Opera’s weighing in to say that HTML5 will make Flash “largely redundant”. Even though Opera is a proprietary browser, the company has been enthusiastic about supporting Web standards. Despite the ubiquity of Flash, no one sane would call it a “standard.” So put Opera firmly in the “we don’t really need Flash” column, though Opera’s CEO has been careful to avoid predicting Flash’s demise.

Flash is a bane for Linux distributors because of the frequent crashes it causes with Firefox, and because it’s closed source. Even though the Flash plugin has liberal terms for redistribution, it’s a headache for Linux vendors and projects. Adobe has been slow to deliver a 64-bit version of Flash, further complicating life for Linux projects that offer 64-bit releases of the OS. Which is to say, all of them.

As a proprietary technology, Flash is counter to the Mozilla Foundation’s goal of an open Web, and it’s a technical headache for the second-most popular browser as well. Flash is one of the driving forces behind the multiprocess browsing features coming to Firefox soon. Why? Because Flash causes crashes so often it needs to be isolated to keep from bringing the entire browser down.

In short, it doesn’t seem that anyone outside Adobe is rooting for Flash. All of the browser makers have their reasons for wanting it gone. All of the operating system vendors have good reasons to want it gone. Flash is at best an annoyance and at worst a direct competitor to some or all of the players that Adobe needs to work with to make Flash successful.

But that doesn’t mean it’s doomed. Yet.

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