Can Flash Survive in 2012 and Beyond?

Posted on September 21, 2011 by
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If a website owner wants to “go big” visually by delivering a rich experience and complex interaction across all major browsers, Flash is often the only way to go. But things has changed, given the advancements and widespread adoption of modern browsers along with their supporting technologies (including JavaScript and HTML5), using Flash may make little sense. In the current technology landscape, where people can access the Internet through many types of devices such as netbooks, cell phone, digital frames, TVs, fridge and tablets, the benefit of complying to Web standards far outweigh the eye candy. It’s important for website owners to deliver contents properly despite the device used.

Flash is essentially a proprietary product that works above the browser to help extend the browser’s functionality. While people can use Flash to get missing functionality, often it brings little value on latest browsers. As more website owners and developers understand the benefits of complying to Web standards and start implementing useful features of CSS3 and HTML5, many Flash-driven sites will be converted.

Flash and Web Standards

The debate between proponents of Flash and Web Standards often gets really heated causing unpleasant division among some of the greatest people in the field. When Apple decided not to include Flash support in its devices, the debate intensified and caused a clash between the Apple and Adobe community.

Eventually, many smartphone users will have access to Flash contents and it’s important to deliver content properly no matter what the platform or technology used.  In the end, developers are just trying to come up with websites that can be used well, regardless of the methods and tools used to create it.

At first, Flash was a groundbreaking technology and it was pretty much the only way people can deliver stunning environment and rich experience. JavaScript and CSS were supported inconsistently across browsers and it was hardly worth the headaches caused. Flash saw rapid progress early and it proliferated quickly. The technology that once only used to make animations immediately become a worthy development tool in its own right. Designers and developers alike chose to use Flash intensively, some even segregated themselves from others by working only on Flash. Flash technology took over the Internet, because Web standards couldn’t deliver experiences that users wanted to get. Web standards may have lagged once, but they were always supported by practitioners who embrace the Open Web concept.

Users wanted to get rich experiences and often these experiences could only be delivered marginally with standard Web technologies such as JavaScript and CSS. However today, the line between sites developed with Web standards and Flash has been blurred significantly. At first glance, even the smartest developer often finds it hard to discern the technology implemented in a website without dissecting the source code. Many websites are abandoning Flash in favor of common Web standards, even if the decision is only spurred by Apple’s refusal to support Flash technology.

Trends

There were a few things that could only be done in Flash, but they can now be accomplished using latest JavaScript standards and some ingenuity. Image slideshows, rich navigation, and scrolling news stories were once restricted only for Flash. Growing adoption of Web standards is usually attributable to the CSS compatibility among modern browsers and the effectiveness of JavaScript libraries in creating enhanced interaction. Video usages are also important in pushing the Web standard forward and once, videos could only be delivered using Flash technology. One of the biggest leaps was the introduction of HTML5 video elements in Youtube (albeit in beta), which allows latest browsers to directly use native video player instead of Flash plugin. Thanks to codec debacles, HTML videos have encountered controversy and reports of mediocre performance; however these issues are being worked out. When implementing HTML5 videos, developers will choose their own favorite codec and before major websites such as Youtube make the decision for us, we’ll end up with incompatibility problems.

CSS3 and HTML5 represent a conscious effort to improve browser performance and many latest browsers already implement the specification although the standard hasn’t been set in stone. There are plenty potentials of CSS such as animation, local storage, geo-location, canvas and others, which will bring us to the new era of Web standards. Although it will take years before we see a full implementation of emerging specification in browsers and most users already upgrade to HTML5-compliant browsers. By embracing progressive content enhancement, we are well on our way on encouraging adoption among developers and users. These future trends will determine the survival of Flash in years to come.

  1. Progressive enhancement: Learning to create progressively enhanced contents, embracing graceful degradation of old browsers and giving up pixel-perfect rendering can free up enough time and give us the opportunity to concentrate on other important areas such accessibility and content delivery. If users don’t have CSS and JavaScript enabled, they still can access the content in a website although the user experience is affected somewhat. However on Flash-driven websites, the absence of Flash or JavaScript will prevent users to use the site at all. Building the website from the ground up and designing with progressive content enhancement require developers and designers to work on the website infrastructure more intensively and it often exposes certain issues that occur on websites previously developed using top down method.
  2. Smartphone browser: Even if it was developed since the 1990’s, the mobile Web is still far from maturity because it often treated only as an afterthought. However today, websites built using Web standards can be rendered nicely on modern smartphones as they do on typical desktop computers. Even if a mobile device lacks Flash support, it is still possible for the website to deliver a rich experience, using other web technologies. As people are turning to Android and iOS devices, mobile web browsing will continue to increase exponentially and ignoring this fact is entirely unacceptable. Other than Flash, Web standards are also a workable option to provide rich interaction on smartphones.  However, many Android devices already support Flash 10.1 and above, and combining both technologies can give developers more power and flexibility.
  3. Content management: Web standards can give website owners, writers and editors the ability to edit contents interactively inside a CMS (content management system). Many people have abandoned Flash-based user interface in favor of WordPress-powered websites; on the other hand, many CMSs also provide 3rd party plugins that allow developers to embed Flash contents much more easily than before.
  4. Openness and freedom: Web standards, user agents and scripts can help developers to access data effectively and easily using HTML codes. Search engines, feeds, microformats, bookmarklets and translation all work due to the consistency between the data and platforms. If we want to establish a truly interconnected and scalable Web environment, then APIs for contents, microdata and microformats can provide the solution. Otherwise, we will not progress far beyond our old positions where websites erected tall walls around the contents. Many people are motivated to use only technologies that can make the Internet less competitive and more open. People want to have the ability to freely create and use information, without being tied down by all kinds of legalities and licensing restrictions that comes with corporately-owned technologies such as Silverlight and Flash. People who place the utmost importance on free and Open Web will see Web standards as the only way to create and deliver contents. Even so, not everyone share the same thought, many people still see Flash as the easiest and most comfortable way to provide rich experience and interactivity.
  5. Ease of Use: For many developers and designers, Flash is easy to use and intuitive, it can deliver stunning animations easily and scale well to serve complex web applications. Because of its relative simplicity, Flash posed a low entry barrier for budding developers and designers. And because Adobe provides a popular web development applications suite, Flash fits nicely into the developer team’s workflow. Web standards are also easy to use, however at this moment; they still pose some problems.
  6. Consistency: We can’t argue with the way Flash consistently delivers rich interaction and experience across many browsers and platforms.  On older browsers and certain platforms, Flash is the only way to deliver videos effectively and it will retain its position for years to come. If you demand special fonts for your websites, you can be restricted by poor font support on many browsers. This shortcoming can only be solved using Flash and swfObject, at least until various font formats are widely supported by mainstream browsers.

The future of Flash

Just because people are using Flash less frequently, it doesn’t mean that the technology is doomed and will disappear altogether. Too many Flash-based infrastructure and contents have been set up into place and they just can’t magically vanish. Without process realignments and vast restructuring on organizations, many Flash developers will still be employed and many Flash-based ads will still be offered to those who are ready to ignore them. We owe to Flash a lot for making the Internet what it is today. Although Flash showed less openness compared to other plug-in technologies, including Java applets, it still offers a nice balance between ease of development and seamless delivery of contents to users. Previously, many Web technologies such as SVG and VRML tried to dislodge Flash from its position on the Web but they had fallen short. Without Flash, the Internet would be vastly different compared to what we see today.

Sometimes, when we tried to implement Web standards, we find that the Flash is the only way to deliver complex data-heavy interfaces, audio and video to older browsers. But thanks to early adopters of certain Web standards we can start playing audio and video using only HTML tags. Even so, it is still important to have a Flash fall-back to allow better support for older browsers. The same also applies for 3D animation, games and canvas elements for delivering complex visualizations. If older browsers like IE6 must be supported, setting up an acceptable fall-back for canvas elements can be difficult and complicated, in such cases, Flash could be the only solution. As always, your audience should define the direction.

When using Flash, you should still follow the same approach used by the Web standard crowd, which is to enhance web applications and websites. If used properly, Flash will still capable in delivering wonderful experience and serving mobile devices adequately. To serve many users, Flash injection technique is often the most appropriate.

Adobe never lets its products stagnate and it will continue to integrate Flash on many mobile devices. Developers can still output a Flash project as native iOS app simply by using Creative Suite 5 and iPhone Packager. With proper use of AIR and its related enhancements, developers can create a full-fledged mobile and desktop app. If there will be a growing need to deliver apps consistently between mobile and desktop devices, Flash developers will still be in a great demand, even if they will no longer participate too much in the development of run-of-the-mill website.

Flash, Web standards and other plug-in technologies are simply methods people use to deliver contents through the Web. Even if demand for Flash on websites is declining, Flash developers should still have plenty of things to do. Everything that can be used to create rich Web applications will still be usable in years to come and transitioning from Flash-driven environment to Web standards could be much easier than you think. Web standards and Flash developers have many things in common. Interaction and interface design, layout, typography, object-oriented programming and graphic design are all still important and valid for both technologies. Developers on both fields face many similar issues, in fact, they largely share similar goals such as to make websites easy to use, to design intuitive interactions and to create wonderful user experience.

About: This Article was Contributed by Raja. He is a Web Hosting industry watcher and writes regularly on Dedicated Hosting Reviews and Reseller Hosting Reviews.

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