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Flash panned

On learning of the subject of today's column -- Adobe's Flash Web-multimedia software and possible substitutes for it -- one of my editors sent back a quick reply: "I hate Flash! Let it die!"


That's not too different from the reaction I got when I wrote a blog post about Flash's future on Monday.

Apple's public display of disregard for this format at the iPad unveiling last week -- not only does that device not support Flash, chief executive Steve Jobs allowed everybody to see that incompatibility within the first 14 minutes of the event -- seems to have given a lot of people permission to air their Flash grievances since then.

(It's like the first time a browser shipped with built-in blocking for pop-up ads -- and everybody realized how much they hated those things once they no longer had them bubbling up off every other page.)

In the column, I note that I'm not much of a fan of Flash either: Beyond its documented performance and security issues, the whole notion of browser-plug-in maintenance gets tiresome. But while there are good, open replacements for Flash based on the HTML5 standard for Web coding, the Web is too balkanized -- between varying support for modern Web standards in browsers that keeps technically fascinating code from working uniformly and a split between two post-Flash video formats that compounds the work of Web publishers -- to allow us to ditch Adobe's format anytime soon.

For a more technically involved version of that argument, see Gizmodo's post -- and then set aside a few minutes to read Mark Pilgrim's excellent explanation of the video-compatibility issues. Don't forget the problem of old software lingering around, either. As usability consultant Jakob Nielsen wrote in an e-mail, "The guideline has always been to stay two versions behind in terms of what formats can be used on mainstream websites without alienating a substantial proportion of the customers. So assuming that a video format [compatible with HTML5] is introduced in IE 9, it cannot be used until IE 11 is launched."

That doesn't mean that sites shouldn't get rid of non-video Flash components, like stupid site intros that add zero value and interactive menus that could be crafted out of standards-compliant HTML. (I include this site among that contingent, although I have to tell you that Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti said that we don't have plans to cut reduce our use of Flash.)

But for video online, I don't see any rapid movement away from Flash. It's taken long enough just to standardize, more or less, on this one format -- for example, C-SPAN only just announced that it will stop posting clips in RealVideo format at the end of this month. There's also an issue I didn't get into the story, "digital rights management" usage restrictions on video streams: Flash supports them, and a lot of content owners will freak out if they don't have a DRM security blanket to clutch.

But what about mobile devices like the iPad? Nielsen -- who once called Flash "99% Bad" and still opposes decorative uses of it -- suggested that Apple was wrong to block Flash video: "Diversity is the beauty and also the strength of the Web, because small and narrowly targeted sites offer the exact content and services that appeal the strongest to each individual user. Cutting off diversity is a true disservice to the Web, and Apple should stop doing this."

I see his point. But I seriously doubt that Apple will do any such thing ... even if most competing smartphones should soon have access to Flash content through Adobe's upcoming 10.1 release.

Of course, as I type this it's begun to snow, which means that by this time tomorrow the Washington area will be entombed under two feet of fluffy white doom, which means that none of this matters all that much. But in our remaining hours together, why don't we discuss these issues in the comments -- and in my Web chat, starting at noon today.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 5, 2010; 10:17 AM ET
Categories:  The Web  
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Posted by: youngva | February 5, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Flash, especially its current Player 10 and ActionScript 3 iteration, is a very powerful, advanced, and fast-running tool for delivering complex interactive, multimedia, script-driven, and 3D content to users via browser- and platform-independent, compact embedded files. Java, JavaScript, and HTML5 don't begin to come close. We rely on Flash to deliver online training to thousands of students worldwide. Your article and Jobs' rant imply that all it is used for is playing videos and decorating websites.

Naturally, a bad Web page designer can create problems by excessive use of Flash objects and poor programming technique, but I see it as the height of arrogance to ban Flash from what could be a useful educational device (the iPad) just because Apple doesn't like the way some people deploy it.

Posted by: rb1123 | February 7, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

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