Flash vs HTML5: the war continues

Following Apples announcement that the WILL allow flash to be used for app development, Adobe put out a statement support Apple’s decision. Don’t expect an Apple/Adobe love-in just yet, but at least relations are improving. However it looks like Google and YouTube are not entirely convinced that HTML5 will be a replacement for Flash. YouTube has pretty much made Flash what it is, certainly when it comes to delivery. In the old days it was a battle between wmv, Quicktime and Real Player for delivering online video. They all had their problems and along came Flash with their flv’s. Fast, reliable and high quality. Even better (for the video producer) was that it was hard to download and store an flv on your computer.

Back in June, a YouTube engineer outlined the issues: in short, HTML5 just won’t play video as well as Flash. What’s more it breaks the current standards for video formats. So it looks like the age old VHS/Betamax debate all over again. My money is on the format that the porn industry adopts!

Apps vs HTML5

This debate has been brewing for some time, and it looks like it will rage on for a while yet.

The argument, in short, goes something like this:

Apps are temporary and ultimately everything on our phone will be delivered through the mobile web, and HTML5 in particular.

Certainly a lot of evidence points to the decline of apps, or at least the slowing down of apps over the next few years. A report by IBA, for example, suggests that app sales will peak by 2013. On the marketing front, an OMMA conference in New York, the agency delegates firmly concluded that HTML5 is the future of mobile advertising (and so do Apple in the form of iAd).

The same question, ‘will HTML5 take over from apps?’ was asked at a recent workshop of mobile marketers that I attended. The answer was a resounding ‘yes!’. Apart from one person. Myself. In short, I don’t believe that apps will be dead in the future, and HTML5 is not the great hope which will cure all of this app mania.

First off let me say that I am a BIG fan of the mobile web. As a mobile agency I get a number of brands and creative agencies calling me interested in developing iphone apps. More often than not, I point that what they are looking for is a good mobile web site. Many branded apps could be delivered as just that: a mobile site. What’s more it would cost less to develop, manage and work across all handsets. A great example of how a mobile site should be done is the recently launched Marks and Spencer mobile site. It has it all. The facility to browse and buy from 1000s of products, user stored details and a find my nearest. The only downside is that it can’t access my location data to tell me my nearest store. I need to add a town or postcode.

The potential of HTML5 is massive. Already the likes of Apple and Google have demonstrated that it can do amazing things, for delivering video content to HTML5 games based apps. What’s more it works across multiple devices, so there is no need to develop for specific platforms. It’s really exciting, and given that HTML5 can do pretty much everything, surely the app is ultimately dead?

However, I am convinced that HTML5 will NOT take over the world and that apps are very much here to stay. There are two primary reasons I believe that: data and appstores.

Data
All of this assumes that mobile users have a good quality, active data connection. Whilst connections vary worldwide, on the whole mobile data connections are much slower and less reliable than fixed line (and even fixed line connections aren’t always great). In the UK for example, O2 have admitted that the network is creaking under the strain of their iphone users constantly checking Facebook. In fact some network operators have touted charging search engines for mobile users given that they use so much of their valuable bandwidth. At least we have 3G. Some of the largest mobile phone markets such as China and India have no significant roll out.
If I’m travelling then it’s even worse. I’ve been stuck in the countryside unable to get a signal on two iphones on two different networks, totally unable to access my maps! Trains are a pain as the signal varies. And then there’s abroad. Probably the time I need to use my phone the most. Have you seen how much hotels charge for WiFi?
The advantage of having an app on my phone is that basic functions are already there. I have a London tube map with an A2B finder. That works underground, the only thing missing are the live updates.
I think the most convincing argument in favour of apps is Google Docs. Who uses them? I do occasionally but really for storage. It’s not practical to work on them as they can be very slow to load, if a all. The idea of Google Docs is great, but some companies who switched to using the cloud for all their applications quickly switched back. So just as we need to install applications on our PCs, so we will have to do so with phones.
So should we wait and hold out for 4G? Perhaps the answer to data connection lies in faster mobile data networks combined with WiMax. They are experimenting with it in the UK, but don’t hold your breath. It won’t be coming any time soon.

App Stores
For many HTML5 advocates the advantage is that it is outside the appstores. Apple changed the mobile user’s relationship with content. We went from tolerating our carriers as a supplier of content (through their portals), to getting it through app stores. It went from a carrier to an OS relationship. But why has Apple’s appstore been so successful (and why are the other handset manufacturers running to follow suit)? The answer is that they offer a high level of usability and engagement. Searching is easy, downloading and installing is simple. Getting a paid app is also easy. What’s more, Mr Apple checks all the apps so I am pretty certain that they will work and free from viruses. OK, we haven’t seen any viruses yet on mobile phones, but I bet we will if we move to an HTML5 world.
However, app stores have gone further than that. They have caught the imagination of mobile users. Those little icons have become, well, iconic! A friend of mine said those little icons were like the album covers of his youth. When you bought a vinyl record you often had the inner sleeve with little icons of other albums. It’s a bit like that. How many people enjoy flicking through their iphone home pages looking at all the lovely icons?

The unseemly row between Adobe and Apple over Flash isn’t doing much to help support HTML5. Although the odds seemed stacked against Adobe, they have strength in the fact that a majority of the world’s online videos use their platform (not to mention the various ad banners, animators and games). The fact is that competition from Flash may make it harder for HTML5 to establish itself.

Whilst the new HTML offers some great opportunities ultimately it is not a replacement for apps. Apps and apps stores are currently the erm, killer app, in mobile content. It’s going to take a lot to knock them off that pedestool.

Adobe vs Apple, Microsoft and pretty much everyone else

When it comes to the web, Flash is pretty much a defacto standard. True, we are beyond the days of Flash only sites and spinning logos, but Adobe’s software powers everything from YouTube to interactive banner advertising. It powers everything, except when it comes to mobile: Apple and Microsoft’s decision NOT to support Flash on mobile is a major challenge to Adobe. On the face of it, their decision doesn’t make much sense. Lack of Flash on the mobile web, especially with video content, is a major problem to its development, causing many brands to develop mobile only sites.
So why are Apple and Microsoft so anti Flash on mobile? From Apple’s perspective they see Flash as essentially old technology: it’s a memory hog, insecure and ultimately HTML5 offers a much brighter future. As Steve Job’s put it: “We don’t spend a lot of energy on old technology”. Another factor, however, is Adobe’s position near monopoly position on the web – Apple and Microsoft would be happy to see us less reliant on it.
Love it or hate it (and there are quite a few people who really hate it), the success of Flash is for a good reason. Like all killer apps, it works. It works so well it’s used in 85% of the top 100 websites, 90% of gambling sites, 75% of video is delivered through Flash and there are two million Flash developers. With an estimated 1.2billion mobiles running Flash, it certainly won’t be disappearing in a hurry.
It’s impossible to say who will win the day. It’s likely that the Flash/HTML5 issue will follow on the same course as many other mobile technologies – multiple versions to meet the various different handset requirements. In the end it will be the developers and clients who will have to bear the brunt of the cost.