Web Warfare: Flash and HTML5 go head to head in a modern day Beta vs. VHS battle

It might seam like reality theater that only techies would love, but there's a battle going on between the titans of Silicon Valley. It's going to determine the future of the Web. And it's going to affect the way we all work online.

That battle? Flash versus HTML5

Here's what you need to know: HTML (HyperText Markup Language) is the backbone language of the Web and, according to NMC business instructor Jeff Straw, "a rugged platform." HTML creates the framework for the text, images, and objects of a Web page. It's an open standard set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and as such, can be used freely without any royalties that come with proprietary technologies. However, the current ratified version, HTML4, is more than a decade old and is incapable of a rich media experience because it's devoid of graphic animations and video without the use of plug-ins.

Why are plug-ins so important? Plug-ins are pieces of software that run on top of the browser, adding functionality. One such plug-in, Adobe's Flash, was created to fill the voids in HTML, bringing animations, sound and video to our Web experience. Often ubiquitous in advertisements, streaming video, games, and Web applications, estimates peg Flash as being installed on 96 percent of all PCs.

However, Flash has more in common with a flawed film noir protagonist than the typical film hero. Flash's security vulnerabilities are evidenced by Adobe's recent June 4, 2010 critical security advisory.

According to a recent report by Symantec, Flash had 23 security vulnerabilities last year, with one vulnerability ranked as the second most attacked in 2009. A recent post by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, puts the spotlight on another problem area for Flash. In his post, "Thoughts on Flash," Jobs states that Flash is the No. 1 reason Macs crash.

Another issue surrounding the use of Flash is not necessarily a flaw, but more of a difference of philosophy. Flash is a proprietary technology owned by Adobe. While downloading and using the Flash player is free to end users, the development tools necessary to create Flash content require the payment of licensing fees to Adobe. According to Jeremiah Prentice, senior Web developer for Traverse City's Oneupweb, "There is a huge shift to HTML5 for video content due to not having to pay license fees to create content."

On philosophical grounds, many in the industry, including the father of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, feel the language of the Web should be available to all, and hence, free.

The plot thickens as smart mobile devices enter stage right. If you are one of the 100 million users of Apple's iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch) you already may be familiar with the Flash verses HTML5 debate; Apple's iOS doesn't run Flash. If you come across Flash content while browsing with an iOS device, you'll see only a "Blue Lego" placeholder. Apple's iOS is not alone in the smart phone market in its inability to view Flash content; Android, Blackberry, Palm, Symbian, and Windows Mobile devices also have been without a viable solution. Adobe has offered Flash Lite for mobile devices. However, it's been a less than ideal solution with minimal adoption.

Adobe has worked to provide a fully capable mobile OS Flash solution. Google has confirmed that the Android 2.2 OS will feature full support for Adobe's Flash. However, Apple's view that Flash is an unsatisfactory technology for the mobile market was reinforced by a recent demo of Flash Player running on a Google Nexus One smartphone.

During the FlashCamp Seattle demo, Ryan Stewart, a Flash Platform evangelist at Adobe, failed in his effort to run several Flash-based websites, including the popular Hulu. In Adobe's defense, the demo used a beta version of the software, but the failure hurt Adobe's cause.

Without a workable solution for the entire mobile market, Adobe's Flash may face a difficult future – especially in light of the mobile Web's rapid growth. According to Morgan Stanley, the mobile Web market is growing eight times faster than the desktop Web grew, and the sale of mobile devices is projected to surpass the sale of PCs this year.

Almost on cue, back for the fight comes a rejuvenated HTML with its newly discovered version-5 super powers (see sidebar). HTML5 will be capable of providing the same rich media experience that Flash currently offers – including the ability to create Web applications that are capable of running offline. One bright spot for HTML5, especially for the mobile market, is its GeoLocation technology that can tailor information to a particular user's location.

So what's all this mean to you? Vast implications for any website content you view or create. There are many legacy systems out there that don't run modern HTML5 capable browsers. To deliver rich media on those systems, Flash will continue to be viable. Conversely, with Apple's iOS devices dominating US mobile Web use, HTML5 will increasingly factor in to your Web design decisions. Prentice advocates following the principle of "graceful degradation" for Web design, which advocates that regardless of how your website is accessed, that content is delivered.

That said, it looks like in the near future both Flash and HTML5 will figure into Web design decisions, but you'll need to pay close attention to what types of devices access your site and adjust your content delivery accordingly.

As the HTML5 standard evolves and new technologies are implemented Flash will face an uncertain future. Who will win? Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, made it clear that he foresees the end of Flash when he declared, "The future of the Web is HTML5." Whether he's right or wrong, one thing's for certain, says Prentice: "It's shaping up to be a pretty healthy fight." BN