Clearly, HTML5's star is rising. But declaring that Flash should be retired in favor of HTML5 is a bit like saying that everyone should adopt electric cars. Although we can all agree it's a good idea conceptually, the infrastructure is just not there yet, particularly for online advertising. Digital advertisers need to make an informed choice about what type of media best serves the campaign.
There is no doubt that the increasing share of devices that don't do Flash is putting pressure on creative agencies to build ads using HTML5, and thus avoid building multiple versions to reach tablet users. With differences in screen size and ad delivery, the smartphone was just a warning shot. But for tablets, there is a real opportunity to share assets with the desktop-targeted version of the ad.
Adding to the pressure, Microsoft has joined Safari in banning plug-ins from Metro, the "tablet-version" of IE10 that will be included in Windows 8 shipping this year. With Microsoft and Apple both disavowing Flash (and all browser plug-ins, for that matter) in their future-facing operating systems, it is clear why agencies are viewing HTML5 as the future.
If you view tablet growth and future OS/browser support as the respective rock and hard place that will eventually squeeze Flash out of existence, then the ascension of HTML5 seems to be a given. But it's worth considering what we may be losing as advertisers looking to optimize consumer experiences with brands.
While the proprietary "black box" nature of Flash and browser plug-ins in general have been decried by web standards enthusiasts, there are many strengths inherent in the approach that have yet to be replicated with HTML5. Flash content, for example, is portable across browsers and can even be loaded inside other Flash content such as Flash video players. Embed it in a page, and you can be assured that the content in the envelope of the plug-in will not interact with the content outside it. The self-contained nature of the plug-in makes the content visually consistent wherever it's displayed, whereas HTML5 content is subject to differences in browser layout rules and typeface differences across platforms or browsers.
On the authoring side, Flash design and development tools are mature and full-featured. In addition to Flash itself, you have Flash Builder and a number of third-party, code-oriented IDE's like FDT, and Flash has well-developed integration with design software like Photoshop, Illustrator, and Fireworks. That integration enables designers to more easily go from a multi-layered design layout to interactive content. In addition, it's easier to work with scalable low-bandwidth vector content in Flash than any of the HTML5 tools currently available, and having the final output as a single optimized binary file (.swf), rather than a directory of scripts and assets, reduces the complexity of distributing your finished work.
Although much has been made of Flash performance issues related to mobile advertising, as a desktop multimedia player Flash remains superior to HTML5 in terms of performance and supported features. Full-screen video, webcam usage, and live video streaming are a few of the video features that are not currently supported by HTML5, and the audio side of the equation is even grimmer. For both audio and video, there is general confusion about supported formats across browsers and devices.
To improve the user experience going forward, providers of browsers, operating systems, HTML5 authoring tools, and new computing devices must work together more closely to better close the gaps between HTML5 and Flash. The difference between the two is especially glaring in the world of online advertising, where short QA cycles and optimized download time are key concerns.
Why not start by pre-installing an accepted list of all the supporting files required to enable Flash-like functionality in every browser? Or, better yet, keep this library online where you can make updates over time as agreed upon by a governing standards organization?
So, technical gobbledygook aside, how is this relevant to digital marketers? First, while much has been made of the ascendency of HTML5, it does not yet have the browser coverage or feature set to replace Flash across the board -- as a general solution for rich media, you'll get less than you pay for, so it is best used to specifically target a tablet audience or in conjunction with a Flash creative. Second, it's less standardized, hence production is more complicated -- be prepared to pay more for creative production and to go through more rounds of QA. Third, the technology is still evolving -- be prepared to dabble and retreat rather than jump in with both feet, and be vocal about providing feedback on what's missing for you to be able to reach an equal level of comfort with HTML5 as you have today with Flash.
While there is some celebration of the impending demise of Flash, unless the advertising industry has a true and standardized replacement for it, the celebration will be short-lived. Agreeing on HTML5 as the new alternative is only the first step toward replacing all that Flash offers. To continue to maintain a largely free (i.e., ad-supported) internet, the HTML5 communityand the companies driving its adoption must collaborate to ensure that the technology evolves into a truly viable platform for the next generation of rich media advertising designers and developers.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
"White jigsaw puzzle on blue background" image via Shutterstock.