Web multimedia: 6 reasons why Flash isn't going away

Apple's well-publicized refusal to allow Adobe's Flash technology to be installed on its iOS mobile devices, including the iPhone and iPad, has led to speculation that Flash's days may be numbered as the king of online multimedia delivery. "Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of Web content," Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously stated in an open letter titled "Thoughts on Flash."

Apple's well-publicized refusal to allow Adobe's Flash technology to be installed on its iOS mobile devices, including the iPhone and iPad, has led to speculation that Flash's days may be numbered as the king of online multimedia delivery. "Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of Web content," Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously stated in an open letter titled "Thoughts on Flash."

Jobs and others have championed HTML 5 as a better format for delivering video, animation and additional media-rich interactivity to the Web. One reason some folks have been talking up HTML 5 is that it's open source while Flash is proprietary. And HTML 5 enables users to play video right in a Web browser instead of requiring a plug-in, as Flash does. But predicting Flash's demise is short-sighted, say industry analysts.

"There are many people who despise Flash, but I'm not sure they'd love the alternative right out of the gate. The open-source world has not blown everyone out of the water with their video work thus far," says Michael Cote, an analyst at RedMonk. "Adobe has spent a lot of time optimizing Flash, and I'd wager it'd take some time to get HTML 5 video as awesome."

Here are six factors that give Flash a strong position over HTML 5 and other alternative Web media technologies in the foreseeable future.

1. The iPhone and iPad notwithstanding, Flash is beginning to show up on other mobile device platforms.

Although Apple has taken a strong stance against the use of Flash on its iPhone/iPad platform, Google's Android 2.2 operating system supports Flash. Although currently available on only a few devices, Android 2.2 will make its way to several smartphones over the next few months.

Adobe has also won promises of future support for Flash from several makers of mobile operating systems, including Microsoft and Palm/HP. Research In Motion has also announced that work is underway to support Flash on BlackBerry devices, although the company didn't provide a specific date for introducing that functionality.

2. Flash is used for more than just video delivery on the Web.

When most end users think of Flash, they think of streaming Web video -- with good reason. "Flash as a video solution was popularized with the rise of YouTube, and is also used by Hulu -- the top two video sites on the Web," explains Ross Rubin, an analyst at NPD Group. But Flash is also widely used for Web animations, ads, games and other interactive elements.

"Everybody is talking about video, but what doesn't necessarily get talked about is a lot of the interactive elements," says Craig Barberich, vice president of marketing and business development at Coincident TV, a San Francisco-based company that sells what it calls a "platform-agnostic" framework that allows its clients to create video with interactive elements that can be experienced on either the iOS-based devices or devices that run Flash.

"Quite frankly, Flash is a great animation tool, and it's used for a lot of interactivity. Those kind of interactive elements are difficult to do in HTML 5," Barberich says.

3. Adobe provides strong tools and support for designers and developers.

Launched in 1996 by Macromedia Inc., Flash won early success because it was a relatively lightweight way of displaying complex graphics on the Web, especially those with animation and interactivity, at a time when broadband access wasn't common. But a key factor that led to Flash's longevity was Macromedia's nurturing and support for content developers.

Adobe, which had been building its own loyal base of content creators with design tools such as Photoshop, Illustrator and Acrobat, acquired Macromedia -- and Flash -- in 2005. Adobe continued Macromedia's commitment to developers with the release of the first Adobe-branded version of the Flash development software in 2007. Today Flash is bundled with other design and development tools in certain editions of Adobe's Creative Suite package.

"As a tools company, Adobe offered support to a community of creative developers seeking to add simple and engaging functionality to their sites without heavy programming," says Rubin.

"[Flash's] frameworks for creating interactive animations let people build games and those darned interactive ads, which motivated content producers and game players," adds Cote. Thus, Flash developed into a rich development platform, not just a media format.

Barberich suggests that for HTML 5 or another alternative technology to make a significant play in the market, a corporate sponsor like Apple or Google may need to provide more than just moral support, offering actual applications and tools, perhaps backed by technical support, to help spur adoption among Web media creators.

4. Flash's content protection/DRM appeals to content producers.

Another difficulty for a challenger, particularly for an open format like HTML 5, is providing the kind of content-protection features and digital rights management that the Flash platform does. Such features could be built into any Web media technology, but Adobe has had time to work out most of the kinks in implementing them into Flash.

And keep in mind Hollywood's interests, says Cote: "They saw what an open format like MP3 did to their music buddies and are not interested in that kind of disruption. People who own movies and TV are going to want as much DRM as possible, and new video formats that don't satisfy those requirements are going to be tough to spread."

Although YouTube (which is owned by Google) is experimenting with HTML 5, content protection is one of the reasons why the site still needs Flash, said John Harding, a software engineer for YouTube, in a recent blog post. Some video providers require YouTube to use the Flash platform's RTMPE protocol, which locks down the video stream to prevent users from downloading and redistributing their videos, Harding explained.

Don't count out Silverlight

Like Flash, Microsoft's proprietary Silverlight platform is used to create media-rich Web experiences. Silverlight is a key development component for the company's upcoming Windows Phone 7 mobile platform. The company has also released a version of Silverlight for Symbian devices.

Silverlight, which has built-in copy protection, is used by video powerhouse Netflix. Netflix users are required to download and install Silverlight on their computers so they can watch streaming movies through the on-demand service. (Amazon's Video On Demand service, on the other hand, runs on Flash.)

Although Silverlight hasn't caught on widely as either a video or animation delivery platform on the Web, RedMonk's Cote thinks the technology still has a shot if Microsoft markets it to companies that have an interest in selling copy-protected video streams.

"If Silverlight is used as the No. 1 way to do DRM-friendly video -- think how many cable and satellite operators there are, how many movie houses, TV interests, all of them wanting a way to deliver video on the Web and make money at it -- then it will be able to get Flash-like ubiquity," he says.

However, Cote makes an interesting observation about YouTube's blog post: "YouTube didn't really express that they love Flash, just that they need it for these features. That's a subtle but important thing to notice." In other words, if HTML 5 or another alternative were to provide strong content protection, Flash might be threatened.

Cote thinks Microsoft's Silverlight multimedia delivery platform, which has built-in DRM, could make a play on this front. NBC chose this platform to deliver its coverage of the 2008 and 2010 Olympics online; Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration was also broadcast via Silverlight on the Presidential Inaugural Committee's Web site.

5. Flash remains popular with online advertisers.

Flash is the entrenched technology most used by the online advertising community, and this fact could prevent or at least hinder widespread adoption of an alternative. Neither HTML nor any other technology has provided a compelling reason for advertisers to move away from Flash for traditional Web ad delivery.

Flash will have a place in mobile advertising as well. "Since Google is committing to support Flash [in Android], at least in the short-term, there should be ample opportunity for Flash advertisements on a wide range of mobile devices," says Rubin.

Despite that promise, advertisers don't want to give up on the attractive iPhone/iPad audience. They say there's an immediate need for a technology to conveniently and cheaply convert Flash ads to HTML 5 so they can be viewed on Apple's mobile devices. That's why Web advertising design and development firms such as Greystripe are leading the charge to develop Flash-to-HTML 5 conversion technologies. The company's Lightning Technology converts Flash ads to iOS-friendly HTML 5.

Perhaps the most widely reported of these efforts is the open-source Smokescreen project. Developed by RevShock, a mobile ad start-up, Smokescreen shows promise in its initial form, but its performance doesn't match what users get with Flash content that runs natively. "Smokescreen exemplifies the immaturity of HTML 5," says Rubin.

Why don't advertisers simply develop in HTML 5 for mobile devices? Compared to traditional online advertising designed for computers, advertising distributed to mobile devices is still a relatively new and small market. Being able to develop ads in a single, familiar platform and simply convert them to HTML 5 will keep the cost of producing them low.

Bottom line: Even if iOS devices never directly support Flash, it may be the development platform of choice for ads for a long time to come.

6. HTML 5 still has video codec patent issues to work out.

Like Flash, HTML 5 relies on underlying video encoding-decoding technologies, or codecs, to deliver video, but it doesn't specify which codec must be used; therefore, different Web browsers support different codecs for HTML 5 video playback. The most popular video codec in use today is H.264. Apple's Safari browser supports H.264, as will Microsoft's upcoming Internet Explorer 9. (Recent versions of Flash also support H.264 in addition to other video and audio codecs.)

H.264 is a patented technology, and companies that use it must pay licensing fees. That isn't a problem for big companies like Microsoft, Apple and Google, but smaller players such as Mozilla have balked at the fees. The use of a patented codec also doesn't sit well with open-source advocates who view HTML 5 as a free and open alternative to proprietary Web media platforms like Flash.

Controversy over the use of H.264 for Web video existed for several years before HTML 5 came to prominence, notes Rubin, but Apple's championing of HTML 5 as an alternative to Flash has brought the issue to the forefront this year.

Google has proposed an alternative, VP8, which it acquired along with the technology's creator, On2 Technologies, in February. Google's open-source WebM project makes VP8 available alongside the Vorbis audio codec as a universal, royalty-free method of delivering high-quality video on the Web.

Future releases of Google's Chrome browser will natively support the WebM format, as will Mozilla's Firefox and Opera Software's Opera browser. (IE9 will support HTML video playback via VP8 if users have installed it themselves, but VP8 won't be packaged with the browser.)

Rubin has doubts about VP8's viability if it isn't fully supported by Microsoft and especially Apple, which holds the keys to the iPhone/iPad kingdom. This is something he doesn't see changing anytime soon: Apple has already invested a lot into building its devices around supporting the H.264 codec.

VP8 is also subject to concerns about quality and compression efficiency, and some developers, such as the FFmpeg project's Jason Garrett-Glaser, have raised red flags about the unpolished nature of the VP8 spec.

Unless a single standard is agreed on for HTML 5 video delivery, content creators will have to encode their videos multiple times in order for them to play in all HTML 5 browsers.

Cote suggests that maybe what is needed is for Google and Apple to dump "a lot of cash and time" into the effort to create a mutually agreed-upon standard for video delivered through HTML 5: "Then perhaps whatever has prevented an open-source video alternative from flourishing would be solved. It'd be great if video could be commoditized and 'free' in all senses of the word.

"Google has enough cash and will to bankroll patent disentanglements. Ultimately, the piles of cash they have are a good resource for evolving open video," Cote says.

Co-existence

Largely lost in all the HTML 5 vs. Flash rhetoric is the possibility that the two technologies might simply work side by side. "I'm never really sure why HTML 5 and Flash can't co-exist," says Cote, "why it's a zero-sum game."

Rubin of NPD predicts that "within the next few years, we will likely see sites support both technologies. They will be able to achieve much of what they've traditionally done with Flash with HTML 5, but there's no doubt that Flash will also continue to evolve and offer incentives to maintain its developer support."

YouTube is a good example. Although the site still relies on Flash for most of its video delivery, it recently launched an HTML 5 front end that lets iPhone and iPad users watch videos on its site -- an interactive experience rivaling that of the official YouTube app for these Apple devices.

Alongside this approach, companies like Coincident TV, Greystripe and RevShock are betting on a need for technologies that allow content creators and online advertisers to readily convert Flash-based content to HTML 5, or to initially create content that's compatible with both platforms. This middle-ground approach may be temporary, or the way things could be from this point forward.

"I don't think any sole company can replicate all of Adobe's ability, but certainly innovation is already happening in finding bridges between various technologies, so that any format works on any device," says Dane Holewinski, director of marketing at Greystripe.

Such cooperation among all the online Web media technologies, whether proprietary (Flash, Silverlight) or open source (HTML 5), is likely to ensure Flash's relevance beyond the near future.

Howard Wen reports on technology news, trends and products as a frequent contributor to Computerworld and Network World.

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Howard Wen

Computerworld (US)

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