Government // Mobile & Wireless
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8/20/2012
10:56 AM
Max Cherney
Max Cherney
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Adobe Flash Still Popular, With Or Without Apple

Flash might be dead or dying on mobile, where it has no support on the iPad or iPhone and support has ended on Android, in favor of HTML5 video. But almost all large sites still use it, and in fact prefer it, and for good reason: It has advantages for digital rights management and advertising.

Streaming Media's recent research into who is using Adobe Flash for video shows that major media and tech websites see no benefit in leaving Flash behind.

Streaming Media's test was informal but thorough. The publication visited the websites of tech giants such as Oracle, HP, Microsoft, Cisco, and Apple; 15 of the top user-generated video content sites such as YouTube and Vimeo; 14 of the largest media outlets, sports sites, and news services where video is vital content; financial organizations such as Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan; 10 of Forbes' list of the top 100 innovative companies; and, finally, the top consulting companies from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

Streaming Media found that just about all of the sites checked use Flash technology to stream video content. There were exceptions. One was San Francisco-based Revision3, an Internet television organization that recently made the switch to HTML5. Microsoft is another exception, which makes sense considering it produces Silverlight, a technology that competes with Flash. Neither does Apple use Flash to stream video. But that's a pretty obvious one given the tech giant never allowed Flash on its iOS-based devices. One other note: Vimeo and YouTube--read Google for YouTube--both offer HTML5 players, but at the time of writing both are opt-in features, and experiments.

That's it. Every other company on Streaming Media's list streams video with Flash.

There were and are compelling reasons for deploying Flash video. One of the biggest problems Flash solved was the need to have the correct video codec installed on the client side in order the play the video. Windows machines mostly couldn't play QuickTime movies without installing more software, and Apple's computers couldn't play common video formats for Windows. Flash solved the problem because Adobe develops its player for Windows, Mac OS, and even Linux.

There are other advantages to using Flash, such as the ability to design branded players and player controls. Also, it's easy to interrupt video with ads, something Hulu and YouTube find useful. Flash also has a full-screen mode.

Finally, Flash supports digital rights management. That, in the end, is likely the reason it's still the most popular way of delivering video.

But things have changed. First, consider that Adobe pulled Flash from the Android market last week, ending all mobile development of the Flash technology. The move is no surprise. Adobe announced last fall it would cease development and "... increase investment in HTML5 and innovate with Flash where it can have most impact for the industry, including advanced gaming and premium video."

For developers wishing to transition to HTML5, Adobe offered an experimental tool called Wallaby that converts Flash files to HTML5. But Wallaby isn't a complete solution.

For starters, Wallaby supports only Safari and Chrome. So that means no Firefox or Internet Explorer-- almost half of the people online use Firefox and Internet Explorer. Although Wallaby can handle most simple animations and graphics, complex Flash animations just won't work. According to Webmonkey, the "Achilles' heel is that Wallaby can't convert AcitonScript to JavaScript." ActionScript is what gives Flash files their complexity.

Wallaby also won't convert music--or video. Video, Adobe says, is complex and Wallaby is just the starting point for complex Flash files. Developers must edit the HTML5 themselves. Adobe says Wallaby quickly and easily converts banner ads into something iOS users can easily view.

Let's back up for a second. Adobe cut mobile development for Flash, its only viable mobile video technology. Though we knew it was coming, I'm surprised and a bit confused by this.

According to a report by Cisco, mobile Internet traffic will increase by about 78% in five years, three times faster than desktop internet traffic. To put it another way, mobile traffic effectively doubles every year. Of this rapidly growing mobile market , Cisco predicts in another white paper that by 2016 about 82% of all Internet traffic on the desktop will be video and an astounding 70% will be mobile video.

After all those statistics I'm left wondering how Adobe plans to remain a competitor in streaming video by abandoning the largest growing market segment. Sure, desktop streaming is also growing, but nowhere nearly as quickly as mobile streaming.

Also, without any mobile support I bet the companies on Streaming Media's list are going to reevaluate how to do mobile video streaming without Flash--if they haven't already. Lack of iOS support, for example, prompted ABC and CBS to announce HTML5 trials.

One thing for certain is that the list of alternatives to Flash for video is thin. Conceivably, companies can build an app that plays and streams video for each mobile OS. For companies whose business is video--such as Vimeo, YouTube, and media outlets--that probably makes sense. Or if budgets are large, apps are a good solution so long as the app isn't just a repackaged HTML viewer.

Microsoft's Silverlight technology is a viable desktop competitor; Netflix's streaming service uses it. But Silverlight isn't available on iOS, and it isn't officially available for Android or Blackberry OSes. Netflix developed custom apps for each OS. So it looks like Silverlight has the same problem as Flash--no mobile support outside Windows phones.

That pretty much leaves HTML5 as a cross-platform video streaming platform. A word about HTML5: it isn't a video format, it's an HTML element for the purpose of playing videos. Because it's a standard and not a video format, HTML5 suffers from video playback compatibility issues, just like everyone did before we started playing videos with Flash. Currently OGG Theora, VP8, and H.264 are the most widely used codecs. Fortunately, HTML5 lets the browser decide which format to play back, and allows developers to include several different alternatives.

If HTML5 is the only standard that works across mobile and desktop, why don't we see more HTML5 adoption? Some people say that digital rights management is the problem. That's likely the case to a certain extent. Downloading an HTML5-embedded video is just a right click away for most people. But Revision3 uses HTML5 and I can't figure out a way to download the streamed content. Sure, that's just an anecdote, but remember, ABC and CBS both decided to opt in to HTML5 video. Digital rights management must be a concern for those media companies as well.

So some people are shifting to HTML5, but slowly and there aren't many. That leads me to believe that in the short run we're likely to see Flash's continued dominance. But in the long run? A combination of video-playing apps and HTML5 video will erode Flash's dominance. And that will begin on mobile.

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