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What is it with Flash?

I’ve just been reading my daily round of news, and there’s still more on the whole “Flash v HTML5” or “Flash v H.264” thing and I’m just arrogant enough to believe I can contribute something here.

Flash is an interactive player that produces a consistent result across browsers and platforms. That’s why publishers like it. But most Flash use is at a very basic level: a simple video player. That is also why early QuickTime interactive programmers liked to use Flash (yes, as a QT media type) for controls and text as QT text did not display consistently across platform.

Flash is a player and not a codec or file format. The current iteration of the Flash player plays:

  • the original “Flash video” format, which is sequential JPG files, up to 15,000 a movie
  • Sorenson Spark, the first real video codec for Flash; based on the very ancient H.263 videoconferencing codec it did not produce good video quality.
  • On2 VP6, a good, high quality codec now owned by Google with their purchase of On2. Still not a bad choice for Flash playback if you need to use an alpha channel for real-time compositing in Flash.
  • H.264 in MP4 or MOV (with limitations) format. Licensed from Main Concept (now owned by DivX).

Note that those same H.264/MP4 files can be played on Apple’s iDevices using the built-in player; or using the <video> tag supported by HTML5 in Safari or Chrome (and IE9 coming sometime).

Flash as a simple video player is probably dead in the water. Flash for complex interactivity and rich media experiences probably will continue for a while, at least until there are better authoring environments for the more complex interactivity provided in “HTML5”.

That brings me to HTML5, which is not a simple player but a revision of the whole HTML tags supported by browsers, that allow native video playback by the browser without plug-in (the <video> tag); local storage (similar to Google’s temporary Gears offering, now replaced by HTML5 support) and a whole bunch of other goodies. Add to this CSS for complex display (and I mean complex – mapping video to 3D objects in the browser, for example); Javascript for interactivity and connectivity to remote servers/databases; and SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) for creating graphic elements in a browser (useful for interface elements in rich media).

Javascript used to be very slow and not even comparable to the speed of interactivity possible in Flash, but over the last three years all Javascript interpreters have become massively faster, making complex software possible in the browser. (Check out Apple’s implementation of iPhoto-like tools in their Gallery – online version.)

Summing up: HTLM5/CSS/Javascript is already very powerful. Check out Ajaxian for examples on what is already being done. For simple video playback, Flash is probably not the best choice. MPEG-4 H.264 video AAC audio probably is the best choice. For rich interactivity targeted at anything Apple, build it with HTML5/CSS/Javascript – it’s the only choice. It is also a powerful one: Apple’s iTunes Albums are essentially HTM5-based mini-sites; iAds are all HTM5/CSS/Javascript based and not lacking in rich interactivity or experience.

If you’re building a rich media application to connect with a web backend targeting mostly desktop computers, then Flash could still be the best choice.

For building Apps for iPhone, iPad: use the Xcode tools Apple provides free. While Adobe might be complaining to the Feds looking for “anti-trust” sympathy, they won’t get it as Apple is nowhere near dominant in any market, which has to be proven before taking up the point as to whether or not they have abused a monopoly position. Apple are not the dominant smartphone manufacturer; nor dominant MP3 player, nor dominant Tablet manufacturer. (Ok, they probably are dominant in MP3 players and Tablets but they are not, by definition, a monopoly, and Apple will work very hard to ensure they never are.)




3 responses to “What is it with Flash?”

  1. Hi

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  2. The greatest positive the Nexus One has over any different Android device is updates. Since it comes straightaway from Google, us N1 owners will be savouring 2.2 while some other phones are still being updated with 2.1.

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