Use Hardware Acceleration When Available On Or Off The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Flash

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The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Flash

To be quite honest, before Flash, browser based graphics were pretty boring. Once the novelty of animated GIFs wore off, web pages were a constant in their appearance. If you’re lucky enough to have a fast enough Internet connection to stream video, you’ll probably be running a separate streaming video application in a small thumb window.

However, in 1996, a browser-based plug-in called Flash changed everything. Flash was nothing before him. Applications can be developed with it, video can be streamed with it, and the two can be mixed together, creating an interactive browser-based experience with integrated video. Naturally, it exploded among both developers and advertisers. Soon, entire parts of the Internet featured embedded Flash objects.

In 1996, the computing landscape was significantly different than it is today. You had only two choices of operating system and Internet browser, Windows with Netscape Navigator or Windows with Internet Explorer. Sure, what some of you will say about OS2 and the Mac of yesteryear, but these were the golden years for Microsoft and Windows was the dominant platform of choice.

Developing and improving a closed source platform like Macromedia Flash, as it was known at the time, was a relatively straightforward affair, as there was only one platform to support. With a comprehensive set of development tools, Flash was a recipe for success. So, why is there so much talk about pushing out of the playground today?

The answer is twofold. Today, we are witnessing the growing dominance of mobile OS’s like Android and Apple IOS and the increasing speed of both hardware internet services breaking the monopoly of operating systems. This has resulted in a demand for high definition video playback on battery powered devices. On portable devices such as tablets and smartphones, graphics rendering, traditionally the most processor intensive task, is now offloaded to a separate hardware graphics CPU called the GPU to reduce the number of processing cycles on the CPU.

This allows background processes to continue working on the lower-powered CPU, while the GPU, which only handles video display, renders HD video content. Flash was developed in an era where the CPU did all the heavy lifting of both processing and graphics, and as a result was never designed to natively support the hardware acceleration required for mobile devices. Early mobile versions of Flash were disappointing in this regard. Flash became a major source of power drain on the P Brain CPU of the mobile device and as a result video playback lagged behind.

This was also the conclusion of Apple founder Steve Jobs in 2010, when he announced in an open letter that Apple would not include Flash on Apple’s iOS operating system. Despite subsequent owner Adobe’s best efforts to fix hardware acceleration issues and improved support for multiple operating systems, Flash is slowly being strangled by a newcomer called HTML5.

HTML5 isn’t all about Flash. For starters, unlike Flash, it’s open source, giving developers instant access to code optimization by taking full advantage of hardware acceleration. Second, it fully supports modern video and audio codecs such as H.264 and WebM, which are quickly becoming the standard for delivering video content over the Internet. HTML5’s graphics rendering is far superior to Flash. Animated graphics can be rendered in full screen on hardware optimized systems, as the CPU is freed from the burden of graphics processing.

However, it’s not all smooth sailing for HTML5, which is still a developing standard. Different browsers such as Firefox and Chrome have different levels of compatibility, (see http://www.html5test.com) and older browsers such as Internet Explorer 8 still lack a significant installation base of Windows XP users.

Advertisers and webmasters who want to reach the largest audience for their content will have to rely on Flash for a few more years until the HTML5 standard is completed. There is currently no webcam support for HTML5 and the large number of Flash based applications and games ensure that Flash will be with us for some time to come.

Indeed Adobe is taking note, and is hedging its bets with the release of Adobe Edge. Full-fledged HTML5 animation suite while supporting Flash. Adobe Labs has created a utility called Wallaby to help developers convert existing Flash animation content to HTML format. Additionally, Adobe has announced that it will no longer develop web plugins for Flash for Linux, (Google Chrome being the exception), or support mobile operating systems, all of which signal the beginning of the end of Flash.

Flash eventually became more than ever, allowing entire applications to be developed in much the same way Java works today, but without open source. How long before support is completely removed? That’s entirely up to the development community, but I’d be surprised to know if any new coding projects are being created for Flash’s questionable future.

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