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.