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HTML 5 Could Challenge Flash

New browser technologies may reduce the need for Adobe’s ubiquitous plug-in.

Since it was introduced in the mid-’90s, Adobe’s Flash has remained one of the most popular ways for developers to create animations, video and complex interactive features for the Web–regardless of what browser or operating system an end user is running. According to Adobe, which makes the Flash Player and various Flash development tools, 98 percent of Internet-connected desktop computers have Flash installed, and 95 percent have the most recent version, Flash Player 10.

In an effort to further push the adoption of Flash technology, yesterday Adobe released a new set of features for Flash, including a cloud-based service that lets developers connect applications to 14 different social networks through a single programming interface.

However, Flash’s days of dominance may be numbered. Experts say there are two major threats: Apple’s open hostility to the technology on its iPhone and iPad devices, and the rise of a new open Web standard called HTML 5, which seeks to make interactivity an integral part of all Web browsers. While Flash introduces extra capabilities to browsers after it is downloaded and installed, HTML 5 would ensure that similar functionality is included in browsers that adopted it as a standard by default, and it would not be controlled by a single company.

Although HTML 5 is designed to vastly extend a browser’s abilities, including the handling of graphics and video, Adobe continues to release tools that keep Flash a step ahead. Its development tools also offer a simpler way to create rich Web content. For example, many social networking companies offer different interfaces of their own, and Adobe’s new social-network service makes it easier for developers to tap into these.

However, the core strength of Flash–its ability to render graphics and animation in the browser–is coming under attack. At a panel discussion held last week at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, TX, industry experts debated whether a key element of HTML 5 called Canvas could perform the same tasks for many developers. Canvas allows graphics, animation, and interactive features to run inside a browser without any additional plug-ins.

Ben Galbraith, who works on Palm’s WebOS and has been involved with the community of open-source software developers responsible for the Mozilla Firefox browser, recently used Canvas to create a rich Web-based code-editing application. Galbraith and his collaborators had to build many components from scratch. “We had to do a lot of work, but we had great performance and control,” he said at South by Southwest.

All this effort shows why Flash is still useful, said Chet Haase, who works on the software developer kit for Flex, a framework from Adobe that can be used to build sophisticated Web applications that run through the Flash player. Flex makes it simple for users to create and reuse visual features of an application, Haase said. Referring to the extensive work Galbraith put into his code editor, he joked: “I would love to reinvent a user interface tool kit every year. It gives a great opportunity to do a lot of interesting programming.”

Nathan Germick, a Flash developer for social-game company WonderHill, agreed: “In terms of immediate access to an amazingly powerful tool set, there’s really no contest.”

But others argue that Canvas will soon have similar tools and libraries of its own. “Isn’t it a matter of time?” Alon Salant, founder and owner of San Francisco-based software development firm Carbon Five, said at the panel.

The contest between HTML 5 and Flash is complicated by the issue of platform support, or lack of it. For example, Apple has so far shut Flash out of the iPhone and iPad, and it will take time for even Flash-friendly devices such as Android phones to reach the market with full support for Flash Player 10.1. Adobe is working to close this gap by releasing tools that repackage Flash applications into a format that can be submitted to Apple’s app store.

HTML 5, on the other hand, has seen good support on mobile devices. Google recently used the iPhone’s support for HTML 5 to make its Google Voice application available through the phone’s browser after Apple rejected the application from its app store.

On the other hand, HTML 5 suffers from a notable lag in adoption–it doesn’t work on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which is still the most popular Web browser in the world. Though Microsoft recently announced that Internet Explorer 9 would support features from HTML 5, it’s not yet clear whether the Canvas element will be included.

An important reason why Salant and Galbraith prefer HTML 5 is because the technology isn’t proprietary. When an application is written using Canvas, other developers can use the browser’s “view source” command to understand exactly how it works and learn from it, Salant noted. Galbraith added that developers don’t have enough control over what features a proprietary platform such as Flash supports over time.

Adobe executives, when asked, reject talk of a showdown between HTML 5 and Flash. “The idea that they’re competitive technologies doesn’t make sense,” says Adrian Ludwig, who was until recently group manager for Flash Platform product marketing at Adobe. He points out that support for HTML 5 is built into Adobe’s AIR platform, which can be used to build Web applications that can run even without an Internet connection by storing some data locally. Internet applications have always been built using a mix of Web technologies, Ludwig says, and “Flash will continue to fill some of the gaps.”

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