There’s an HTML5 killing Flash scab that keeps getting pulled off, every 1-2 months or so. In the most recent round, as I often do, I answered several question from a reporter (Howard Win in Computerworld) on the topic. The resulting story was pretty comprehensive and interesting.
Here’s the questions (from Howard), and my full answers, with some added comments here and there:
Q: What kind of challenges does any alternative to Flash face in the market now?
A: The main thing is gaining the ubiquity that Flash has. Flash is everywhere (desktop wise), trusted [well, except by several technical elite who see Flash as an annoyance], and works. Next up are tool support and video delivery support, which are not too difficult as folks like YouTube, Brightcove and others who have quickly tooled to alternatives show. The other difficulty are the features and DRM that Flash has built into it. These are things that could be built into any technology, it’s just that Flash has had time to work out the kinks. There was actually a great post from a YouTube staffer this morning going over all the reasons that they still need Flash, which applies to most everyone.
The interesting note there is that YouTube didn’t really express that
they “love” Flash [or "heart" it, a common techno-hipster way phrasing], just that they need it for these features. That’s a subtle, but important thing to notice.
Q: How much of a factor does online advertising play in the adoption of an alternative, since Flash is the entrenched technology most used by the online advertising community? As a counter view, there has been recent discussion, reporting, speculation that online porn could be a major factor in helping to accelerate the usage of HTML 5.
A: Those things play a role, for sure. If content people want to distribute (ads) and content people want to see (kittens, babies, kids singing, [pirated] videos, porn, etc.) is not available in some video format, that format will be less popular. However, I don’t think any love is lost from “the public” by making advertisers’ lives harder. Companies like Adobe, Microsoft, and Google
who want to suck in money from advertisers want to cater to them, but if those oh-so-popular videos of babies watching cats eating sandwiches and free porn are only available in a particular format [Flash or otherwise], people will stick with that format. Look at Real as an example: compared to Flash, there’s not much available in Real that people seem to care about. When’s the last time you played something in Real Player?
The point is, advertisers and other content producers will follow consumer demand or they’ll [have to] create such desirable products that people will use whatever video format they have to. No one is going to download some video player so they can see an ad. They’ll do it for cats, kids, and porn and as Netflix has shown, they’ll do it for movies and TV (Netflix requires Silverlight and has however many people using their on-demand stuff).
Q: In hindsight, what were the key factors that led to Flash’s success? Basically, what did Adobe do right?
Making the player free and embedded in the browser was a big deal. Other video players like Real and Windows Media didn’t have this “embeddedness” to them. Also, the frameworks for creating interactive animations let people build games and those darned interactive ads which motivated content producers and game players.
Q: Can Adobe’s success and strategy be copied by another company to champion another technology (such as what Apple and Google are doing with HTML 5), or have circumstances and times changed? In this regard, what do you think of Microsoft’s approach with Silverlight, up to now?
The problem facing Adobe now is from two ends of the spectrum: luxury computing and Wal-mart computing, Apple and Google. Apple used it’s design, advertising, and retail prowess to do the unthinkable: breath life into the dead space of consumer smart phones and then translate that into a vocal threat for Flash’s dominance on the web and mobile. Google, on the other hand, can use its piles of cash from selling better junk mail (online ads) to fund almost anything without having to worry about revenue generation.
The problem for any threat to Flash is adoption: giving people a reason to use the technology. If Silverlight is used as the “number 1″ way to do DRM friendly video (as with Netflix) across all the global media companies (think how many cable and satellite operators there are, how many movie houses, TV interests, etc. – all of them wanting a way to deliver video on the web and make money at it), then it will be able to get Flash-like ubiquity.
The task is extremely difficult, taking many years and lots of money [or incentives] to grease the skids.
An important thing to keep in mind is that both Adobe and Microsoft have application development desires with Flash and Silverlight. While much of the focus is on video, both companies are hoping to use each platform as a new platform for programmers. Gaining video ubiquity helps with that effort, but the two are not exactly the same concerns.
Q: So what is your opinion of HTML 5, the Web formatting standard many are hoping will replace Flash — especially for delivering video online?
It’s impossible to predict which if HTML 5 video will displace Flash at this point. The YouTube post from today [back when I responded to the original inquiry] points out all sorts of missing things that HTML 5 video needs to catch up on. Also, I’m never really sure why HTML 5 and Flash video can’t co-exist, why it’s a zero-sum game. There are many people who despise Flash, but I’m not sure they’d love the alternative right out of the gate. Adobe has spent a lot of time optimizing Flash and I’d wager it’d take some time get HTML 5 video as awesome. The open source world hasn’t blown everyone out of the water with their video work thus far (hence the ongoing existence of Flash, Silverlight, etc.). Unless there’s some non-technical thing preventing it (patents, dastardly tactics, lack of available talent, etc.), it seems like video is simply difficult and takes time. Maybe if Google and Apple dumped a lot of cash and time into it, then perhaps whatever has prevented an open source video alternative from flourishing would be solved – Google’s VP8 patent freeing up is a good example [and Adobe's announcement of support for it shows a willingness to go along with whatever encoding schemes come around], while Apple seems happy to hug patent-trolls). It’d be great if video could be commoditized and “free” in all sense of the word.
Q:. Ultimately, what do you think Flash’s, and HTML 5’s, futures will be within the next few years?
I think the best bet is for various video patent holders to try to cash in. Most people forget the GIF patent stink in the 90’s, resulting in an unthinkably fast creation of the PNG standard. With the threat and FUD of patent litigation, all sorts of things become possible and all the various parties involved get their acts together. Oddly, I think Adobe would come out OK in this, where-as folks like Apple would have some weird soul searching to do. Someone like Google has enough cash and will to bankroll patent disentanglements and, ultimately, the piles of cash they have are a good resource for evolving open video.
The other issue to keep in mind are the “Hollywood” interests. 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. Sure, there’s piracy, but once Hollywood gets it’s act together and figures out a Netflix/Hulu model, I think most people will pay. [Update: check out the Apple $0.99 cent an episode rumors out recently.] Most people already pay $80+ a month for cable which a bunch of crap no one wants to watch, so there’s a tolerance for a subscription budget, esp. if it’s for shows you actually want to watch.
Disclosure: Adobe and Microsoft are clients.