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HTML5 vs. Flash - What Do You Need to Know? Part 1

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This is the first installment of a two part series about HTML5 vs. Flash. In this first part we will focus on the uses for each of these web technologies and the debate between which is the superior of the two.

It's been five years since the announcement of HTML5 and yet the HTML5 vs. Flash debate continues to rage on among developers. Everywhere you look, from newspapers to magazines to the Internet, you’re swamped with articles about these technologies, often offering conflicting advice about which is the better solution. So, with all the noise on this subject circling in the technology stratosphere, how do you make a decision on which one is best for you?

Background

Released in 1996, Flash is a multimedia platform originally developed by Macromedia and later acquired by Adobe. By 2000, it had become the de facto standard for video playback, animated banners, and interactive multimedia web pages. Flash essentially became the standard tool in a non-standard web of multi-platform browsers.

HTML was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a group whose main purpose is “to guide the World Wide Web to its full potential by creating protocols and guidelines that ensure the growth of the web in [the] future”. The last HTML specifications focused on future developments were XHTML 2.0 and HTML 4.01, but neither had been updated since 2000. With developers eager for a single markup language that included detailed processing models to encourage more interoperable implementations, HTML5 was born.

The initial HTML5 specification was officially announced in 2007, but it did not become a major topic of discussion until April 2010. It was at that time that then-CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, issued a public letter titled "Thoughts on Flash" where he concludes that "[Adobe] Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of web content" and that "new open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win."

The Debate

Proponents of Flash argue that, with over 1 billion users worldwide, Flash isn’t going away any time soon. The numbers, according to Adobe, support them:

  • 70% of web-based games are built using Flash, including 24 of the top 25 Facebook games
  • 75% of web videos are viewed using Flash (YouTube was solely Flash until adding HTML5 video playback in 2011)
  • 98% of enterprises rely on the Flash Player and more than 3 million developers use Flash technology
  • 85% of the most-visited websites use Flash in one form or other

Flash fans also argue that, with 99% of browsers supporting the technology, they have a much larger audience reach. In addition, since all of the Flash “code” is compiled into a SWF file, someone looking to view the source would have to crack two levels of encryption to get what they need, a fact that many developers appreciate. Plus, because it’s owned by a single company, they (Adobe) have entire control on the technology’s innovation rate.

HTML5 advocates argue that several of the things Flash fans see as pros are actually major drawbacks. Because the technology is driven by one company, they and they alone determine the future direction of Flash. Because the specification for HTML is developed by an open standards development consortium, they rely on feedback, allowing developers to shape the future growth of HTML.

Developers that prefer HTML also argue that because Flash code is compiled, there is no way for a search engine to properly spider the content. That means all the great content in your flash banner, animation, or video adds nothing to your site’s search engine optimization (SEO). HTML content is read as plain text by a spider and, when properly formatted, can provide a big boost to your site’s search engine placement.

Finally, while Flash can boast more current browser support, HTML5 is rapidly gaining in the adoption of its respective features. Almost all modern browsers include support for HTML5, not to mention tablets and mobile phones (many of which are not capable of running Flash at all).

Our HTML5 vs Flash [infographic] better illustrates the debate.

Check out Part 2, where we discuss the future of these two technologies and how to pick the right one for your web development!

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Already have a preference between HTML5 and Flash? Share in the comment below and tell us why!