Everyone, it seems, from journalists and bloggers to software companies with vested interests, wants to declare a winner in the three-way “war” between Flash, HTML5 and Silverlight.
But this is the software development industry. With few exceptions has any one technology emerged as the homogeneous solution to enterprise problems. And in the mobile/rich Internet space, things are no different.
The hubbub began earlier this year when Apple refused to allow Adobe’s Flash Player onto the iPad, and also said that cross-platform frameworks and code translators couldn’t be used to build native apps. While Flash had already been banned from the small-screen iPhone, keeping it off the large-screen iPad forced many Web developers to follow Apple’s embrace of HTML5. It’s ironic, in that Apple’s platform is completely closed and locked down, yet the company backs this open standard. While there’s still no Flash runtime on the iPad, after some hue and cry, Apple rewrote its rules to allow applications built with third-party frameworks and translators to be sold in its App Store.
Meanwhile, Microsoft created a tempest in a teakettle at its Professional Developers Conference when Bob Muglia, president of Microsoft’s Server and Tools Business, indicated that HTML5 would be the technology of choice for cross-platform delivery of rich applications. Some took that to mean Microsoft was abandoning Silverlight, its entry in the RIA field. Later attempts to clarify Muglia’s remarks were met mostly with amusement.
Since all this kerfuffle, Adobe has restated its position that it will continue to advance Flash for mobile platforms. “We have a broad history of support for multiple platforms, and we will continue to do so,” said Anup Murarka, director of product marketing at Adobe. “The idea that you’ll see a single technology take over is just wrong.” And indeed, you can find Flash running on many Android-based smartphones.
Murarka said Adobe has “relationships with 19 of the top 20 OEMs to put Flash on their devices.” He added that the company delivers against 5-10% of all smartphones this year, and expects to be at 20-30% next year, and around 50% in 2012.
Murarka said that while the World Wide Web Consortium wrangles with the HTML5 specification, Adobe, through its OpenScreen initiative, is working on video performance, 3D graphics, peer-to-peer networking in Flash, and new tools, resources and services for developers. “Flash wouldn’t exist without the browser. We have worked alongside HTML for decades and dealt with the evolution of HTML. As long as we deliver value above and beyond HTML, developers will continue to be interested,” he said.
He pointed out that the first mobile implementation of Flash was launched seven years ago, built from the bottom up, independent of the feature set used for the desktop. By the middle of 2009, Adobe customers shipped 1.3 billion phones worldwide with this early version of “mobile” Flash, yet, Murarka said, “We didn’t see a surge in content and usage—except in Japan.”
This, he added, is because most application developers and content creators were frustrated by having to “dumb down” their applications for that version of Flash. “Developers wanted to know how to deliver the rich Flash applications they were writing for the desktop on the smartphone.”
But now, with the processing power of mobile devices having increased, Murarka said the full Flash Player 10 can run on most phones. Further, he said Adobe is working with ARM, Intel, NVIDIA and Qualcomm to drive optimization and get better performance out of the hardware. “An engaging 3D game will eat up more battery than reading a static text or making a voice call,” he said.
Adobe relies on its AIR runtime framework to deliver Web content to smartphone operating systems (Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android), but Murarka said that when Apple said Flash could not be used on its devices, engineering stopped, so not all Flash APIs map to iOS APIs. Now, he said, iOS support is a standard part of AIR, and engineering has been “ramped up.”
As for Microsoft, the company has been building HTML5 support into its Internet Explorer browser since 2009, according to Todd Anglin, an HTML5 advocate and chief evangelist at Telerik, which makes components for Microsoft environments. “Microsoft’s ambition to deliver a high-performance HTML5 browser has been going on a lot longer than PDC,” he said.
Anglin said HTML5 and Silverlight are not the same. “Silverlight is a specific technology, a replacement of the client app [Win Forms, WPF and Java] for the desktop. Silverlight gives rich access to the client machine, but requires a Silverlight plug-in. This gives the advantage of the Internet for deployment, so it’s really a best-of-both-worlds scenario.”
That said, Silverlight doesn’t replace the need for a broader rich deployment platform for traditional Web applications, Anglin said. “HTML is still the clear choice, and HTML5 is providing the rich experience without needing to fall back on plug-ins.”
Creating an HTML5 standard
All of this is not to say that HTML5 is without its own limitations. First and foremost, experts point out, is that HTML5 is a standard, and as such, is a double-edged sword.
Because it is a standard, it will provide a unified way for developers to build applications that can run on a variety of platforms, and it will be maintained for a long time, said Jonas Jacobi, CEO of Kaazing, which makes Web communication software and this year hosted the first HTML5 Live Conference. The other side of that coin, though, is that HTML5 is slower to evolve than proprietary software driven by business opportunities and needs.
“The user expectation is an experience they’re used to with a desktop look and feel,” Jacobi said. “Without HTML5, it would be prohibitively expensive to deploy to all these platforms.”
Critics, though, claim HTML5 is not complete, that there is no specific codec specified, nor is there a database specified for local storage. “With any standard, choices and compromises must be made,” said Adobe’s Murarka.
Andrew Connell, an expert in development for Microsoft’s .NET Framework and a principal at SharePoint education company Critical Path Training, cited three reasons that wide HTML5 adoption is still “a ways off.” First, he noted, “there are no real or good tools to develop these new and advanced UIs for building sites that exploit the HTML5 capabilities. Today, folks are stuck exploiting these new capabilities by hand.”
Second is the pace of HTML5 browser adoption. As noted above, IE9 supports it, and versions of Chrome, Firefox and Safari will as well, but those have yet to be released in their final versions, and then they have to be installed.
Finally, he said, the W3C hasn’t settled on a final HTML5 spec yet.
To the last point, Philippe Le Hégaret, the interaction domain leader at the W3C, said, “When asked if HTML5 is done, I answer, ‘Which part?’ We get requests for new APIs every month.”
Le Hégaret said he has noticed a lot of early adoption of HTML5. “The feature set is complete; work has to be done on interoperability,” he said.
Three items top HTML5 wish list
Experts cited three technologies that will drive broad adoption of the standard, once there is consensus and the work can be completed.
HTML5 communication: This is work being done around the WebSockets protocol for bidirectional communication over a single TCP socket. According to Le Hégaret, “this is not stable yet.” The HTML5 working group is working on the API; the Internet Engineering Task Force, which standardized WebSockets, is working on the protocol.
“We have an API that was done for an early draft of the protocol,” he said. “We’re waiting for [the IETF] to tell us the protocol is ready before we finalize the API.” Bidirectional communication will allow a client to receive an update from a server at any time, without the client first making a request.
“Being able to deliver data tapping into any TCP-based back end from a device is very attractive,” said Kaazing CEO Jonas Jacobi.
Offline storage: The ability to work on a document offline and then sync it back to the back end when connectivity is restored is important. Le Hégaret said W3C is working on two mechanisms. The first, WebStorage, is very simple and well deployed, he said. The second, called IndexedDB, came out of Oracle and will replace the Web database API, he said.
“It’s feature-complete and the hope is to finalize it pretty quickly,” Le Hégaret said. Some privacy issues around storing data on a client need to be worked through, he added.