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Reports of Flash's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

What Adobe’s new HTML5 development tool means for its Flash technology, and for the wider Web.

On Monday, Adobe announced Edge, software for developing interactive content and animations using the open Web standard HTML5. Since this standard competes directly with Adobe’s Flash, which can also be used to create multimedia content but requires a browser plug-in, some see this as a sign that Flash’s days are numbered.

But Adobe is far from abandoning Flash, and by offering tools for developing with HTML5, it could help maintain its position in Web development. Edge also highlights some of the things that Flash can do, but HTML5 still can’t.

In many ways, Edge mimics Adobe’s existing development tools for Flash. It offeres the same method of editing animations as Flash development tools do, making it easier to compose and edit animations. In its current beta version, however, animation is about all Edge does, whereas Flash can be used to create interactive content, and video as well.

Ironically, Adobe’s release of an HTML5 tool illustrates Flash’s ease of use. HTML5’s support for video and audio is still inferior to Flash’s, and HTML5 is nowhere near being able to support the kind of games widely available in Flash, says Al Hilwa, director of application development software research at industry analyst IDC. “Designers are finicky, so there’s going to be a subsegment of Flash developers who will hang on until HTML5 evolves until it’s where Flash is today,” he says.

Adobe’s commitment to HTML5 has surprised many people. The company has pushed hard to promote Flash in the face of resistance, most notably from Apple, which doesn’t allow Flash on either the iPhone or the iPad. Yet conversations with outside developers, and with Adobe itself, reveal a counternarrative: Adobe doesn’t make money on Flash; it makes money on the tools for developing Flash content. The company has long been opportunistic about jumping to whatever platform developers favor.

“Adobe can’t dictate what technology people use,” says Devin Fernandez, product manager of Adobe’s Web Pro group. “But we know that what we can do is optimize our tooling for whatever people want to use.”

When it comes to jumping to whatever technology is hottest, “I’d say they have a great track record in that regard,” says Martijn Laarman, senior developer at Dutch Web development studio Poort80. Flash began life as FutureSplash, which was created to compete with Macromedia’s Shockwave plug-in. Macromedia later acquired FutureSplash, dumped Shockwave, and was itself acquired by Adobe.

Forget Flash? A screenshot from Adobe’s Edge software.

Adobe’s willingness to build the Edge platform was driven in no small part by clients wishing to make their sites compatible with the Flash-free iPad, says Fernandez. Early development of the Edge software began with a request from Disney to help it recode its site for the iPad.

Fernandez and Mark Anders, an Adobe fellow, say a complicated Flash navigation bar that runs across the top of Disney’s website proved particularly tricky to reproduce using HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript. Animations created using the HTML5 standards CSS and SVG did not work. HTML5’s new Canvas element, which provides a way to script graphics and interactive content, wasn’t up to the task, either. “The only technology we could use that would reliably work across these different challenges was JavaScript,” says Anders.

The results of these experiments became the backbone of Edge, which renders animations created using its timeline interface in JavaScript and CSS. The resulting code can then be added to a distinct part of a webpage. “One thing we were very careful about is not to screw up people’s HTML code,” says Anders. Edge also lets programmers edit the underlying HTML5 code for the animation.

Whether HTML5 can ever truly replace Flash for high-end applications like games is debatable, says Laarman. He says he’s not convinced that HTML5’s SVG standard, which is a more direct analog for Flash, “will ever truly catch on in all the browsers and perform just as well for animation as Flash does.”

But games aren’t all that’s at stake. Aside from streaming video, the bulk of what Flash is used for on the Internet is advertising. So Edge could hasten the arrival of animated ads that get around both Flash blockers and the absence of Flash on iOS devices. Fernandez says advertisements are “easily the first target for the tool, because those are fairly straightforward in terms of the workflow and the content we’d be working with.”

“People say Flash will die, so you won’t have advertising,” says Hilwa. “But do you really believe that? The fact is that most of the Web is monetized through advertising. Over time, advertising might shift to HTML5.”

Supporting HTML5 does present one key challenge for Adobe. It controls Flash, but it doesn’t control the HTML5 standard, which puts Edge on a level playing field with other HTML5 development tools, says Hilwa. This gives Adobe every incentive to make Edge the best platform there is, whatever the consequences for Flash.

“There’s an absolute need for more authoring tools for HTML5 and the like, so I’m excited to see [Edge],” says Chris Messina, a user experience expert at Google. “In general, I think this is a great development for the Web-as-platform.”

“There was a time when every animated menu was in Flash, and then people figured out how to do those in HTML,” says Anders, who also points out that before newer Web standards were developed, Flash was the original way to create the app-like experience we now take for granted. “So, in a way, Flash was a victim of its own success, in that it created great stuff, and people said, ‘Hey, we’d like to do that, too.’ “

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