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Flash versus HTML5

Published on August 6, 2012
Tags: Usability

There has already been a lot written about HTML5 and the opportunities with which it presents web design, but there has perhaps been even more written about how it impacts on Flash. It is common knowledge that when HTML was first introduced, its capabilities in terms of interactivity were very limited; for clever graphics and animations, web designers needed to make use of Flash.

The release of HTML5 has helped to change that. It has more capabilities and, importantly, one of its core aims is to make sure websites display properly no matter what operating system a web user happens to be making use of at the time. It now also has built-in support for video and audio elements, which saves web developers the need to make use of plugins to do the job for them.

It is that last point that seems to have caused much of the debate over Flash. After all, that is what Flash does. 99% of laptops and desktop browsers are able to make use of Flash, and it is well-known for its ability to offer high quality, interactive web content. Where HTML5 arguably beats it, however, is on the fact that Flash is not supported by systems like Apple’s iOS, but HTML5 is.

Despite this, much of the talk about HTML5 replacing Flash or making it redundant is somewhat misguided. Yes, there are things that HTML5 can do that Flash can’t, in particular allowing web designers to use the same coding for all mobile operating systems rather than creating a separate one for each, but this goes two ways. There are still things that Flash can do that HTML5 either cannot do or that are still easier to do using Flash, no matter how much HTML5 has improved the situation elsewhere.

For example, there are still some limitations on the interactivity HTML5 is able to offer in terms of supporting audio and video. There are limited file extensions available, for instance, that mean Flash would still be necessary to support audio and visual files on some browsers. As browsers are updated to take account of HTML5, this should become less of an issue over time, but as we already know, just because updated browsers are released, it doesn’t mean that people will start to use them straight away.

Another issue to consider is that the audio and visual files in HTML5 are played within the browser and, depending on the specific browser a person is using, they might be using one of several versions of the built-in plugins. This means there is still a wide range of possibilities to cater to and adaptations that may need to be made, just as Flash can require adaptation in other areas.

Also, let’s say that a web designer was asked to convert a Flash-based website into an HTML5 site. If the website is currently Flash-based, it is likely to have a lot of interactive elements, such as animations. Even though HTML5 is better than previous versions of HTML at handling this sort of thing, its capacity is still somewhat limited and this can take up a lot of memory. This means that in many cases, converting a Flash-heavy website into HTML5 is not necessarily the most appropriate option.

All of this means that while HTML5 is certainly a welcome development and it has a lot to offer, the need for Flash is still there as it offers better capabilities in many areas. However, one of the triumphs of HTML5 is that it is useful for helping developers create sites that work on a range of different devices – something that fans of responsive web design are sure to appreciate.

The ability to make use of audio and visual without external plugins is also welcome, although we definitely need to acknowledge the limitations here, as the process of this in HTML5 is not quite as simple as we would like to think. Flash is arguably also still ahead in areas such as zoom features and scale options.

So perhaps we should avoid casting the debate as HTML5 versus Flash wherever possible. Both are useful, and both have their strengths and weaknesses. HTML5 helps us to be more creative and opens up new options for web designers, but we can’t write off Flash just yet. We still need it, and we probably will for quite some time yet.

By Chelsey Evans

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