Will HTML 5 replace Flash in the next 5 years?

Author’s Note: This is the first post in what we hope to make series: “Ask a Web Strategist”. These are intended to be relatively short, public answers to questions web technology and strategy we receive. Do you have a question? !

Question: I’m all bent out of shape about the Flash vs. HTML 5 debate. I’m interested to hear your opinion about it. Will Adobe Flash still have a place on the web in 5 years?

Answer: Generally, trying to predict where any technology in a field susceptible to rapid change will be in 5 years is a losing game. Flash will probably be around for many years to come, but we’d bet on a much smaller place.

The web development industry’s “trend” is certainly toward open, non-proprietary standards like HTML and away from closed, vendor specific solutions like Adobe’s Flash. This is especially of true “client side” technology, where we developers are dependent on the capabilities of the visitor, be it a full fledged Windows browser or an iPhone.

Although the introduction of Microsoft Silverlight might imply otherwise, even proprietary software giant Microsoft realizes that proprietary tech is a losing game, touting Internet Explorer 8’s firmer embrace of open standards (and more of that in IE9), and their real and meaningful contributions to community projects like jQuery (the JavaScript framework that dramatically simplifies animation and interaction). They’re even embracing jQuery in the next release of Visual Studio.

In fact, in a relatively short period of time, we’ve seen jQuery and other JavaScript frameworks essentially overtake Flash for basic web animation and effects like slide shows and animated menus (see PRG, a site we support, for great examples). We use Flash far less today than we did even 2 years ago. So unless Adobe opens up Flash (which seems unlikely), I’d say it’s influence on web site development can only wane, and already is on the wane. But it’s not going to vanish.

Where Flash has always succeeded – and continues to succeed – is in reaching beyond the limitations of the open standards and technology to solve common problems. In the past, that meant features as basic as animated slide shows. For a while, Flash was one of the the only reliable solutions for adding custom font faces to text without relying on manually created imagery (now, we endorse solutions like TypeKit). Today, Flash is still the best solution for delivering streaming audio and video on the web. And that’s where all this HTML 5 talk comes into play.

HTML 5 introduces support for media tags that enable embedding audio and video with almost all of the benefits of Flash video and fewer aggravations (and no proprietary software dependence). In fact, – which also reveals why all of this HTML 5 talk is a bit premature.

HTML 5 support in browsers is still immature. Internet Explorer 8 does not yet offer video tag support (to say nothing of the 40% of users still on IE6/7), and the WebKit browsers (Safari/Chrome) support different video codecs then Firefox: the HTML 5 YouTube is WebKit only. But that will sort itself out eventually. Even with upgrade laggards, we expect that within 2-3 years, perhaps along with the release of IE9, that HTML 5 video will become the default, with a “fallback” to Flash. Eventually, we suspect the idea that video requires third party web browser software like Flash will be as silly as needing third party software to open image files in your operating system.

So with basic animation and interactivity being solved with increasingly more powerful JavaScript frameworks, and media streaming being solved by new HTML standards, where does that leave Flash? We think it’s similar to asking whether web applications will supplant desktop applications: as the former becomes more powerful, the latter becomes less necessary. That doesn’t mean the latter is going away.

Flash still offers two value propositions that we don’t see open web technology supplanting in less than 5 years.

First, the upper end of its animation and interaction capabilities are as yet unmatched by any existing or proposed open technology. JavaScript is extremely processor intensive, and very complex interactivity – at the level of gaming -  just isn’t there. Google is trying hard to solve that: in reviewing Chrome Frame, we noted that Chrome was the only browser capable of running a JavaScript based Super Nintendo emulator (that’s 20 year old technology) at an acceptable frame rate. But at the pace software like Internet Explorer moves, we don’t see that being solved in the next couple of years.

We’d equate the “upper end” scenario to the rise and “fall” of Java. Java used to be the hot technology for developing web applications. But as server side technologies like PHP and .NET became more capable,  and less “heavy” client solutions like JavaScript / CSS became more capable, Java faded to more specialized use cases. Java hasn’t disappeared, and still has some great use cases, but it sure isn’t the hot technology it was around 2000.

The second value proposition is ease for the lower end of the market. A friend of mine studying educational technology makes some great, clever little learning applications in Flash. He doesn’t fancy himself a programmer (though he’s learning his way around basic ActionScript), and doesn’t plan to make any big websites. But as a simple, graphical tool for creating simple learning applications, Flash is effective. Maybe someone will develop a jQuery/HTML based alternative to Flash Professional, but they’d have a lot of catching up to do to capture my friend.

Adobe might recognize that relative ease of use – along with its long legs in the industry – may be its biggest long term assets, more so than its use and adoption on the web today. They’re embracing several technologies that take it beyond desktop web browsers with the upcoming CS5 – we think the most interesting move is support for publishing iPhone apps.

Finally, remember that with web technology, as we highlighted in our IE8 disappointments article, we developers can only move as our audience is willing to move. Almost 20% of users still browse with IE6 – that’s 9 year old technology. With HTML 5 video only in its infancy, can we really expect all users to be on HTML 5 aware browsers within 5 years? We sure hope so, but aren’t so certain.

So we doubt Flash will disappear or be replaced within 5 years. But we do think its influence will continue to wane and its adoption will diminish.

But if you’re a web developer – or studying web development – we’d posit that the question is moot. No specific development technology is a safe “long term” bet in our rapidly changing field, and no one should hang their hat on one technology. Rest assured, if we start talking about a 10 year horizon, almost every engineering tech we use now will be antiquated. If you want to be in the tech / media business, adapting to new trends and embracing change is part of the game!

6 Responses to “Will HTML 5 replace Flash in the next 5 years?”

  1. Ben Leveillee says:

    This is the best of the many summaries Ive read on the issue. Refreshingly clear and insightful. Thanks!

  2. Sam says:

    I really appreciate the article. I’ve been looking for a simple, normal look at this argument without it being either an Apple bash or evangelism meeting on its behalf.
    You really hit it on the head at the end- predicting technology even a few years into the future is tricky at best. I’m a Management Information Systems major in college, and this is the theme of the department-change. Keeping up with technology.

  3. Ryan Spanger says:

    Thank you for providing a great summary. This is starting to have important implications for how video production companies distribute video on the web

  4. rickster says:

    Many people wish Flash a long and painful death. I for one do as well.
    For years, and still presently, as a *BSD user Flash would never offer a direct flash plugin’, or support for “many” OS’s out there, namely all the *BSD’s,…

    many moons ago, it was cool to see pictures(jpegs,…) on the early web.
    … well, “Web Videos” MUST be treated the same.
    Its like telling one OS you cannot use html in your browsers, but another OS can ?

    Well it is NOW today ppl, could we possibly not get more sillier about something that should have been as standard, and common as web Video for Internet public en mass ?

    This is not about OS bashing, its about the freedom of users to be able to “VIEW” the Internet, and of course the “contents” thereof, using their OS/browser of choice.
    (Don’t get me wrong here, if you want Adobe Premiere,…, then you have to bloody-well pay for it -I totally agree.)

    But, if the means to accomplish mainstream web video were an accepted opensource standard, like ftp, TCP/IP, html, DNS, sendmail, …., we wouldn’t be starring blanky at an Adobe proprietary flash plugin screen, only to find out that it doesn’t even “want” to support a lot of the OS’s/browsers out there.
    In this respect, THERE IS NO PLACE FOR FLASH, (or “any other similarly-proprietary web-video-app) ON A PUBLIC INTERNET.
    it’s as simple as that.

    To create and view “simple” web-video-content should NOT have become an unduly, and overly-complicated mess.

    If HTML5 is “truly” opensource then this is a no-brainer for web-developers’.
    Your “Flash” has to go bye-bye.

    …and maybe then, it’ll finally be “Happy browsing to ALL, and to all a good “net” ”


  5. “we developers can only move as our audience is willing to move. Almost 20% of users still browse with IE6 – that’s 9 year old technology.”

    I guarantee they all watch youtube. Flash support is 93% of pcs.

    “JavaScript is extremely processor intensive, and very complex interactivity – at the level of gaming – just isn’t there.”

    Have you seen HTML5 canvas games? Flash is good for creating games that run smooth and fast.

    “Many people wish Flash a long and painful death. I for one do as well.”

    Google’s Chrome is coming with Flash built in.
    Rickster~ I suggest you learn AS3 and JavaScript. Flash is going no where and is here to stay. You obviously don’t use Flash. Which is fine, just don’t go saying it’s bad. Imagine the internet in the last decade without it. Where’s your video?

    “So we doubt Flash will disappear or be replaced within 5 years. But we do think its influence will continue to wane and its adoption will diminish.”

    No way. Flash is supported by android and run’s awesome. Have you heard of Moore’s Law? We still have 20 years of hardware advancements that Flash will thrive on.

    You never hear any flash critics attack Silverlight. Take an objective view, learn both, be prepared for what comes. All we can do is wait for Adobe to open up Flash and Steve Jobs to acknolodge that users will stop paying for apps and open up the browser that is flash supported. Both will take some losses to keep their products going strong. The only question is how much more money can they squeeze out of consumers (more on Apple here, I believe their time has come.)

    Google’s approach is by far the most respectful and utilitarian. Apple and Khronos group’s influence on the W3 disgusts me.


  6. Jake Goldman says:

    “Have you seen HTML5 canvas games? Flash is good for creating games that run smooth and fast. ”

    We agree. But they key is for now.

    “Imagine the internet in the last decade without it.”

    An even scarier place than it already was. As I said, Flash has always done a good job of filling the holes the HTML/JS/CSS specs couldn’t fill. But imagine the web a decade ago without JSP and classic ASP and Java (the hot thing less than 10 years ago). Where are all those technologies now?

    “You never hear any flash critics attack Silverlight.”

    Plenty of critics dismissed it as irrelevant, which is why you don’t hear much about it one way or the other. Whatever your feelings about Flash, it’s certainly relevant. I don’t really consider myself a Flash critic (I did very advanced Flash development back in in the AS2 days), but I’ve personally dismissed Silverlight as far too late to a game (proprietary video / interactive solutions for the web) that’s already begun to wane.


    No, the average user could care less what technology lives behind their experience. A YouTube visitor doesn’t care if it’s Flash or HTML5, or some other solution – as long as the video plays and does so reliably. The average user playing a web game could care less whether it’s HTML5 / Canvas / JavaScript or Flash… as long as the game is fun and works.

    End users will drive demand for a particular “experience” – but developers will determine which technology sits behind that experience. From Shockwave (remember that Flash precursor?), to Java, to ActiveX, to proprietary browser plug-ins, it’s hard to deny that the trend is continuously away from proprietary and plug-in dependent solutions.