Is this is beginning of the end for Flash? Where does HTML5 fit in?

If you haven’t heard the news, Adobe recently announced that they would not be supporting Flash for Jellybean, the latest Android OS upgrade. What does this mean for people outside of the Android community? Well, not much for now, but it does point out that Adobe is aware of Flash’s limitations on mobile devices. When Apple announced that Flash would not be supported on the iPad, many wondered why. One very healthy app market later, iPad users are probably just fine with the decision. After all, Flash can be a resource hog even on desktops. Developing for mobile is much different, and more of a challenge, than for other systems. According to Adobe developer relations lead Mike Chambers: “Developing the Flash Player for mobile browsers has proven to require much more resources than we anticipated.”

So, what’s next? What is primed to take the place of Flash? This depends on the device or OS you are talking about, but it should be noted that Adobe is definitely not abandoning Flash altogether. They are, however, admitting how useful and next-gen HTML5 is, and they have plans on supporting it in combination with their current lineup. “Given the strong support for HTML5 across modern mobile devices, it simply made more sense to create an HTML5 based solution.” wrote Chambers. That means we’ll see Flash working together with HTML5 to see a smoother and more robust overall experience, at least according to Adobe.

But, what is HTML5? To put it very simply, it is the next version of HTML, the last one — 4 — proposed in 1997 and becoming standardized in 2000. That’s a long time to use the same language without much of a change. There are several advantages to using HTML5 besides appearing as the new cool kid on the block. It can be faster thanks to an ability to treat graphics, sounds and even 3D the same as text. It can directly read and store from the hard disk, meaning faster response.

The main benefit of using HTML5 is the ability to avoid the use of any sort of plugin. No downloads are needed. That means no more updating Flash or Unity or any other plugin to keep up with your favorite game. Ideally this also means that a player can enjoy the game or application across any device. He or she can play a game on the PC and later switch to a favorite mobile device with no change in gameplay. Of course, the language is new and still being worked with; it’s not perfect yet.

Zynga, makers of massive hits like Farmville, Cityville and others use Flash for their titles. While many would like to call Zynga “evil” or would love to see the giant take a fall after creating such “non-gamer” games, it looks like there will no stopping them anytime soon. Even if we look at the game that really put them on the social map, FarmVille, we see that it still boasts over 19 million monthly users. That’s not bad at all, even if we consider that they used to boast closer to 60 million monthly users and allow for a smaller percentage of paying players. We can also look at other popular Zynga titles like CityVille (23 million monthly users,) Castleville (17 million) or Zynga Poker and see success. All of these titles utilize Flash.

CastleVille in particular boasts some wonderful animations and top-tier music. And, with the announcement of FarmVille 2 and a new social network-style gaming experience, Flash will continue to play a very large role in one of the nation’s most popular developers lineup.

How much longer can Flash last? If we look at how popular it is for things like ads all the way to major social games and MMORPGs, it might appear that Flash could go on forever. It’s possible, as long as Adobe continues to admit to its weaknesses and adapts by including up-and-coming technology like HTML5. Adobe has plans to use them together for a better experience, but will this blending of technology only mean more hassle for the user? HTML5 is flexible but far from perfect. It’s also still being developed and tweaked to fit different situations. It’s only a matter of time before the combination of the two make for some interesting bugs. All of this means we are still far away from one universal technology that will allow a consumer to pick up any device and have the same experience on it that she might have had on another unrelated device. Zynga has already shown signs that they are aware of the importance of HTML5, and are quite supportive of the new kid on the block, maintaining an open-source toolset for HTML5 developers. In the short term, however, they will undoubtedly stick mainly with Flash. Unity, another popular web development tool, has shown signs of support as well. The massive Google has been very supportive of the new language for quite a while. So, the Adobe announcement should be no surprise.

Like the coming of the freemium model — a mix of paying to play and playing for free — we might have a future of mixed application websites and games, all working together to make for faster response and better graphics. At the same time, we see some developers going exclusively with Unity or other languages to create top-tier graphics and gaming. Can’t they all just get along? It’s doubtful. But, the mobile market continues to grow, with customers like the Chinese poised to raise the stakes to the tune of millions and millions new smartphone owners each year. This means something has to give; technologies will need to become smarter and faster in order to satisfy new mobile customers. PC gamers and laptop social fans will still have plenty of choices, but even they have a smartphone that needs something to do.

In the end, Flash alone cannot satisfy the market. Adobe might be making a very smart move by admitting the usefulness of HTML5 and adding it to their toolset. Hopefully we can avoid yet another mixed-up bag of applications that need updating by getting more out of HTML5, but if the last decade is any indicator, it’s every developer for themselves.

 

(Many thanks to Ben and James from Illyriad games for helping me sort through some of the information on HTML5. They developer a browser-based, HTML5 MMORTS called Illyriad. You can find information for the game here.)

 

Beau