Can Flash and HTML5 get along?

Adobe's Duane Nickull on serving developers -- HTML5 and Flash alike -- through choice.

Flash and HTML5As the HTML5 standard evolves, and the technology becomes more capable, it’s natural to start examining the overlap between Flash and the new capabilities of HTML5.

One person with a strong opinion on this subject is Duane Nickull, Adobe’s senior technical evangelist. He’ll be talking about the new world of HTML5, AJAX and Flash at Web 2.0 Expo, and he gave us a sneak peak at his thoughts on the subject.

To what extent do HTML5 and Flash cover the same ground, and to what extent do they play well together?

<a href=""Duane NickullDuane Nickull: First, let’s clear up a common misperception about HTML5. When many people say or think “HTML5” they really are referring to a set of technologies that includes things like jQuery, AJAX, CSS and even plain old JavaScript. Likewise, Flash is more than just the Flash — *.swf — file format. Flash is a complete platform that has server-side components, authoring tools, protocols, binary formats, supported codecs and even side-channel communication features in server products like Livecycle Data Services and the Flash Media Server.

Most of the time, a Flash-based application deployed to the Internet is done so within an HTML container. It uses JavaScript to invoke and instantiate an instance of the Flash Player browser plugin. One could summarize that HTML and Flash always play nice together, and in fact, Flash relies on HTML.

How is Adobe addressing HTML5?

Duane Nickull: Adobe’s strategy is to embrace and develop toolsets for both HTML5 and Flash. HTML5 is an exciting technology and in my opinion, HTML, as a standard, has stagnated for far too long. We are participating in the W3C standards group as well as pushing to bring features into our products as early as possible. At Adobe MAX 2010, we also previewed a prototype technology, conceptually similar to Flash Professional CS5, to show designers and developers how simple and intuitive it could be for them to build interactive animations with HTML.

Developers and architects have to make decisions about which technology suits them best. Let’s use forms as an example. In many cases, HTML forms are given preference to Flash-based forms for online experiences, as they load quickly and do not require a plugin. If the architecture calls for offline use, then PDF or AIR applications, often Flash-based, start to make more sense. Adobe doesn’t tell developers which technology to use. We deliver multiple choices and allow developers to make their own decisions. Developers would refute such arrogance if anyone demand they always use one technology over the other.

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The overlap between these technologies grows as HTML5 is used more, and functions like the video tag are added. There are some real issues, though, with merely pointing a browser at a video source and expecting it to work in all browsers on all devices and bandwidth variations. The Flash platform has a history of delivering a high-quality user experience for video by detecting bandwidth and processing capabilities and then compensating attributes of the video playback to suit that context. This requires server-side components and side protocols to monitor the playback. HTML5 is a markup language, and it may not be able to match the video experience on all devices that Flash Player now delivers unless it adds a comparable server-side option to the equation.

Another consideration is the actual rendering of the video controls and frame. Using Flash Player, the rendering is consistent if developers use something like the standard video control. If you write your own control in HTML and CSS it is possible that it might look different on different browsers. CSS today has issues with rendering across all combinations. You have Opera, Chrome, IE, Safari, Firefox, et al. Most of these run on three to 10 different operating systems, supporting an average of around five multiple concurrent versions of both browser and OS. This means you have a matrix of 5 * 10 * 5 * 5, or around 1,250 variations, which is a fairly large matrix to test CSS against. That’s not even the end of it, either. Some people are still using IE6. I have voiced my concerns about this on my blog.

How is the Flash / HTML5 story going to play out in the mobile space?

Duane Nickull: I think it will play out much as the Internet is already playing out. Adobe will give developers the choices to build the way they want to build. The Flash Platform certainly has an appeal for mobile development and the only hitch is that it’s not currently running on the iOS platform.

Consumers have a choice, though. Millennial Media recently reported that Android phones in the U.S. accounted for 46% of traffic on its ad network, more than Apple’s 32%. Android, which supports Flash on mobile in Android versions 2.2 or higher, has also taken the No. 2 spot in smartphone handsets and is poised to grow even more.

The tablet market is also heating up. Research in Motion (RIM), which will support both HTML5 and Flash Player as Android does, is poised to make a big splash in the tablet market despite Apple’s early lead.

Adobe’s strategy, again, is to ensure we deliver the tools that give developers choice. We love Flash and we love HTML and its peripheral technologies.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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  • Jim

    The link to your blog post in the fourth paragraph under “How is Adobe addressing HTML5?” is broken.

    Also, despite the fact that I somewhat agree with the rest of your article, that same fourth paragraph in that section is kind of a joke. If you’re a front end developer, you hardly ever think in terms of 1250 browser variations, and because of that it’s a poor excuse to demand that for consistency you should use Flash to display video controls. Maybe because CSS is such a poor, inconsistent tool to create a site’s presentation, you’d like all of us to use Flash instead?

    Instead you should realize most of us are okay with slight visual inconsistency across browsers, and you’re repeating the same lame excuse that IE6 is a hurdle. No one does that anymore.

  • Jim:

    Thanks for commenting. Sorry the blog link is broken (not sure who to mention to at O’Reilly). I have another interview on this subject that is longer at

    Yes – I agree. As a developer myself, I totally don’t think about 1250 combinations all the time but having worked on sites powered by Drupal and CSS I have learned that it can be hard. Try with different browsers. Oops!!! ;-)

    What we are all about is choice. HTML or Flash or ????. As for people who use IE 6, agree. I don’t even consider them my target audience anymore as they are lagging too far behind. Nevertheless, they are still there and if you are selling stuff online, sometimes it does make a difference.

    What I really hope to see going forward is equal or close to consistent implementation of HTML5 and related standards. I pray that browsers work better in the future.

    On one last topic, would you be interested in getting on an early pre-release of our HTML5 tooling when it comes out? If so, please contact me offline and I can help arrange entry into the earliest pre-release. You sound like you know your stuff.



  • Daran

    I liked Duane’s opening comment that clears up a common misconception.

    People that scream loudest about the “Death of Flash” often forget that HTML 5 is just markup with other technologies tacked on top of it. AS3 is a full featured OOP language, as well as an animation platform, as well as a video and audio platform, as well as a gaming platform.

    HTML 5 is great but it’s just a container. Oh wow it can almost sort of display video now… greeeeat.

  • NNM

    Flash is a security threat in itself.
    It requires a browser pug in (that needs a specific removal tool, because it’s so invasive and poorly designed).
    I will NEVER install it on my machines.

    I still don’t understand how people can call themselves developers, and ignore the % of people who don’t have the plugin AND/OR users who have IE6.
    There, you will also see the difference between people who make their silly homepage, and programmers working on serious business applications (that SHALL work for everyone. Or you’re fired.).
    WWW is supposed to be accessible to everyone with a browser.

    I smell the end of Flash, because a serious developer doesn’t need to provide “alternative content” with HTML. And companies will start to remove the flash plugin altogether, because it is a security threat, and not needed as websites will start to use html 5.

    My prediction: Flash will become obsolete and disappear over time (finally! yay! hehe). I look forward to that, even more than the official end date for IE6 (seriously, it’s not that hard to make things work everywhere.).

  • Anonymous

    @NNM: companies will start to remove the flash plugin altogether… NO, THEY WON’T! look at supporters page and forget your crying…

    2. I still don’t understand how people can call themselves developers, and ignore the % of people who don’t have the plugin AND/OR users who have IE6… i dont understand how someone can call himself developer if he create web for ie6.

  • Mac Slocum

    The broken link should be fixed now. Thanks for the catch!

  • DA

    @NNM, I smell something too- but it isn’t the end of flash… ANYBODY that finds themselves on one end of the HTML5 vs Flash debate is mistaken. There are things that Flash can do that HTML5 will not do in 100 yrs at the rate the W3C approves anything and browsers start supporting it. On the other side of the coin, there are many reasons to choose HTML over a flash interface, the forms example being a good one.

    There is NOTHING wrong with more tools in your toolbelt, saying that HTML5 is the end-all be-all for development standards is just as short-sighted as saying the end of flash is near. Neither are true.

  • Nuruzzaman Sheikh

    Do you know that many future apps are going to be online?
    AND only either Flash or Silverlight can do this.

    Don’t believe me? Ok just check one of those future apps

  • Interesting article but I would like to get more infomation about this topic, does anyone knows more sources? However, I want to thank the author of this article, well written and very useful! Thanks

  • despite the fact that I somewhat agree with the rest of your article, that same fourth paragraph in that section is kind of a joke…

  • I also liked Duane’s opening comment that clears up a common misconception. Agree!

  • Great tools – you might also want to have a look at my webticker. Makes a list of icons scroll from one side to the other & stops on mouse over to allow users to click links.

  • Mick Lehr

    Yes we know Flash and Acrobat have security issues. But they do update the Flash player and Acrobat constantly; just as Windows updates once a month or more. I constantly see minor Windows updates before the 2nd tuesday of each month.