Planning for the future, HTML 5 or The Flash Platform?

Posted by in Technology

html5_vs_flashBeing a Flash Platform developer, I often have amusing conversations with front-end developers about when and where to use The Flash Platform in lieu of a more native approach like JavaScript. It always happens the same way. I say something mean about HTML, they say something mean about The Flash Platform, and then ultimately we Kumite to decide which approach to take. Lately however, the battle has become personal. Now, instead of being told how “non-search-engine-friendly” The Flash Platform is, I’m being told how I should just move on from The Flash Platform completely. “Why should I do that?” I’m told it’s “because HTML 5 is on the way and once it is adopted, people will stop using Flash.” So, how do I respond to such a statement? I typically just continue to play Texas Hold ‘Em on my iPhone.

Of course I am kidding about the relationship I have with front-end developers. I’m lucky enough to say that the people I collaborate with are very bright people who understand that the end game is to program something that is user friendly and meets it’s intended goals. Sometimes The Flash Platform is the answer, sometimes it’s jQuery. Sometimes the answer is .NET, sometimes it’s your mom. The moral of the story is that every situation should be evaluated before you choose what technology to use. You should never shoehorn a solution for your challenge.

“Way to avoid the issue,” you might be saying to yourself. Fair enough. So, what impact do I think HTML 5 will actually have on The Flash Platform? Well, the short answer is that I think the impact will be minimal. As you may have noticed, Flash isn’t referred to as “Flash” anymore. It is now officially “The Flash Platform.” It encompasses a world of technologies that has over a decade of developer communities behind it. The Flash browser plugin has been installed on 99.0% of Internet-enabled desktops in mature markets as well as a wide range of devices. Developers can build fully functional desktop applications using The Flash Platform via AIR. You may not know it, but you have probably installed an app on your iPhone that was built using The Flash Platform. The RIA space is dominated by FLEX, a flash actionscript framework. Thanks to sites like YouTube, Flash Video is the primary format for video on the web. Finally, let us not forget that you can make one hell of a great cartoon using Flash. Get the picture? The Flash Platform is to the web what Mr. Burns is to Springfield. Whether you like it or not, it has a stake in everything. Because The Flash Platform is so diverse, there is very little HTML 5 can do to dethrone it.

As you can tell, I am a strong proponent of The Flash Platform. However, I am not a freak about it and as I previously mentioned, HTML 5 will have an effect, albeit a small one, on Flash usage. I believe the impact will be a shift away from using Flash for traditional user interfaces and a return to using HTML and JavaScript for those interfaces. What do I mean by this exactly? The simplest example is a form. Forms are used for everything. When you sign up for a new service on the web, you fill out an online form. In the days of Al Gore and the birth of the internets, forms were built using HTML. However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to build a form in Flash instead, because I could make the form look better and be more user friendly. I can make a text box glow red if you leave it blank. I can make new options on the form appear based on your current selection. Not only can I make those new options appear, I can make them slide in from the right side of the page and then have their font change color to be sure that you notice them. The possibilities of making a form more user friendly in Flash is limited only by my imagination. So, if I can do all of that using Flash, why would I use HTML? Well if HTML 5 delivers, creating actions like the ones I just described will be possible and supported in all major browsers. So, this brings us back to the shoehorn. If I can do all of this functionality in the native environment, HTML, why would I use a plugin? The answer is that I wouldn’t. So, that’s the impact.

In a nutshell, The Flash Platform is not going away. However, I think HTML 5 will recapture the traditional interface, which means that “Flash people” will have to focus on what they should be focusing on–the cutting edge.

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I realize that I didn’t talk much about what HTML 5 actually is. Please, investigate it. You won’t be sorry. HTML 5 will do nothing but help “the browser experience” and that is something we can all support.