One of the big fights in technology right now is about how you will watch videos, animations, ads, games, and other stuff on the web in the future.
The incumbent technology for a lot of these things is called “Flash,” which is software owned by a company called Adobe.
You may have heard about this fight recently because Apple CEO Steve Jobs recently took a public stand about why he doesn’t allow Flash on Apple’s iPhone and iPad.
But what is Flash? What is “HTML5,” the new upstart challenger?
We want you to be able to understand this battle and have an opinion about it, so we’ve assembled this primer.
HTML is short for 'Hypertext Markup Language.' It is the language of the web.
Underneath all the pretty web pages you look at is a hideous string of HTML code.
That code is translated by web browsers to create what you see when surfing the web.
Flash is Adobe's technology that powers many videos, advertisements, games, and interactive graphics on the web.
YouTube, Hulu, and games like FarmVille all primarily use Flash. It's also responsible for many of those annoying restaurant websites with bad animations and bad music playing in the background.
To watch Flash, you need a plug-in for your browser. Adobe says that 99% of desktop computers have Flash set up.
Web sites design in Flash with software available in Adobe's popular Creative Suite. This is primarily how Adobe makes money from Flash.
HTML5 is the next version of the HTML language -- the code that powers the web.
'For instance, under HTML5, video and audio are handled by the browser,' he elaborates. 'Plug-ins are no longer required.'
Animations, too, can be displayed directly in the browser without a plugin.
If you listen to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, the problem with Flash is that it's a power hog and it crashes browsers.
The broader problem is that you're putting a lot of trust -- maybe too much trust -- in Adobe to keep making Flash better.
And for gadgets like the iPhone and iPad, Apple doesn't want to rely on Adobe for anything. That's why it's using its influence to trash Flash and promote HTML5.
Here's the big problem: For everyone to start using HTML5 instead of Flash, web sites need to re-do all their video players and animations that are currently in Flash. They can't just recycle the Flash code; it has to be re-made in HTML5. (Though they should be able to use a lot of their existing video files.)
That costs money and time. Especially for complex industries -- such as online advertising or gaming -- that are very comfortable and happy using Flash.
And that's the argument for tablets and other devices to keep supporting Flash -- because not every website is going to redo all its Flash tools in HTML5 right away.
Either way, it's going to take a long time for Flash to go away completely, if it ever does.
Flash originally took off because it was designed to work the same on every computer type and web browser -- whether it's Internet Explorer on Windows or Safari on a Mac. As a result, Flash is currently supported by pretty much every PC and Mac. But NOT the iPhone and iPad, or almost every mobile phone.
As for HTML5, all the major browsers have said they will support it on their new browsers. But it doesn't work on old browsers, which a lot of people still use.
Anyway, most people won't notice the switch. If you're curious about whether or not your browser can handle HTML5, here's a good way to test it: Click on this site: http://html5test.com/. It tells you if your browser supports HTML5, and how completely it does or does not support it.
Adobe generates a small minority of its revenue directly from Flash. (Flash is bundled into Adobe's popular Creative Suite of software. Adobe's Creative Solutions business does account for the majority of the company's revenue.)
But Flash is far from the only reason that people buy Creative Suite software. The Creative Suite includes Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, three of the most popular design and publishing programs in the world. Flash is important for Flash designers, but not for everyone.
Here's some evidence: A Piper Jaffray report from March 29 passed along survey results from Photoshop World and Adobe MAX conferences over the last four years. Piper asked attendees which Adobe program was they considered primary. At every Photoshop conference, 0% of the respondents said they considered Flash a primary product. As far as the MAX conference goes, 0% considered it primary, except in October 2009, when 15% considered it primary.
So, while Flash is important to Adobe from a strategic standpoint, it's not going to bankrupt them if people stop using Flash.
The continued dominance of Flash on computers is important for Adobe, even if it's not its biggest money maker. Plus, no one likes to be flogged publicly by Apple, one of the most important consumer electronics companies in the world, just as Adobe is trying to make Flash relevant for mobile devices. (Especially when you're Adobe, and you've been failing at mobile for years.)
Flash's control over web video and ads also keeps creative professionals locked into buying Adobe software. Adobe has also tried to get media companies to pay for Flash video streaming licenses, with some success.
It also opens up other opportunities. Adobe could potentially tie Flash ads and video closer to its new web analytics business -- its $1.8 billion acquisition of Omniture.
Adobe will keep making Flash tools, obviously.
But Adobe should also invest in making the best tools in the world to create HTML5 content. There's no reason Adobe should let anyone else run away with that market.
It should also focus on making Flash work as good as possible on phones and tablets. If it can actually make a good version of Flash that doesn't use a lot of power, then maybe Apple's rivals will support it.
And if it someday becomes mainstream, then it might even force Apple to support Flash on the iPhone and iPad. (Fat chance.)
OK, OK. Why does this matter to a regular web user?
If you own an iPad or mobile phone that surfs the web, you might be wondering why you can't watch certain videos, or access certain websites, like Hulu. Now you know! It's because they run on Flash.
If you don't own an iPad, why do you care? Basically, the idea is that the web will work better for you when HTML5 becomes more widespread.
And that you won't have to deal with plugins -- both the stuff you know you need to think about, like installing and updating them, AND the stuff you don't know the plugins are doing to you, like slowing down your computer and eating up your laptop battery.
Here's web zenmaster Jeffrey Zeldman once again:
'How does this matter to the consumer? On one level it doesn't matter, of course; a website just works and that's what a consumer expects. But on another level it does matter, because the consumer can have a rich experience using a simple, standards-compliant browser without bothering to install, configure, and troubleshoot plug-ins. This means that the consumer can have a rich experience on a light, portable, universal platform. For an individual consumer, a small device can afford a rich experience, and the computer is less likely to experience out-of-memory errors and configuration problems associated with plug-ins and user-configurable settings. From an IT department's perspective, workload, user support, and resources can be greatly reduced, because all you really have to do is make sure that every user in the department has a capable browser.'