Flash vs. HTML5: What the Platform War Means for You

In April, Apple Inc’s CEO Steve Jobs created a furor by posting an open letter about why Adobe’s Flash platform will not be supported on any of Apple’s popular mobile devices. With more than 80 million iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches in use, this announcement creates a dilemma for eLearning developers and other content providers. Do they continue to publish videos, applications, and other interactive media in Flash, which holds 75 percent of the current market? Or do they explore the uncharted waters of the evolving HTML5 standard?

There are some compelling arguments for each approach. But before embracing either, eLearning providers need to understand the pros and cons of the different platforms, as well as have an overall content strategy in place that includes analysis of how their audiences are accessing courses and trainings.

Competing Companies

… course creators may still need to choose one or the other much of the time.

In many respects, the choice between Flash and HTML5 is a false one. Each platform has its strengths and weaknesses, and many content providers will want to use both at different times and for different purposes. Behind the war of words between Apple and Adobe is a struggle by each company to gain a strategic advantage for its business model. In reality, there aren’t enormous technology capability differences.

Nevertheless, because it increases expense and effort to prepare eLearning materials in two different formats, course creators may still need to choose one or the other much of the time.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that most eLearning authoring tools on the market today only publish to Flash. In fact, according to a 2009 e-Learning Guild report, “Getting Started in e-Learning: Technologies, Tools, and Media for e-Learning,” among the top 15 tools, 13 primarily or solely publish to Flash. This alone may be a roadblock for content providers interested in exploring HTML5.

Facts About Flash

Flash started out as an animation and motion-graphics engine for the Web. But over the years it has evolved into a complex application platform and rich client runtime that fuses multimedia, communications, and interactivity.

Although Flash is no longer heavily used as a complete website development tool, many continue to use it to create interactive games and activities, home page banner graphics, online applications, and, especially, Web video. Despite the fact it requires a separate plug-in to view its content, all major browsers today include the player, and it’s estimated that more than 99 percent of the world’s Internet-connected computers are Flash enabled.

Most of the knocks again Flash stem from the fact that it has had occasional security flaws over the years that can leave users’ computers vulnerable to attacks. It also tends to be more CPU intensive compared to other platforms and formats. Finally, as a proprietary system, developers must rely on Adobe for all upgrades, changes, and backward compatibility.

Understanding HTML5

HTML5 generally refers to three different technologies commonly used together: the latest version of the HTML markup language; CSS3, which determines how the HTML is rendered; and JavaScript, the most commonly used Web programming language.

… the vast majority of mobile devices today have browsers that already support much of HTML5.

What makes HTML5 a competitor is that it includes a new series of tags that provide many of the same types of rich media and interactive experiences that Flash does without requiring a separate plug-in player. The caveat, however, is that users must have an HTML5-compliant browser to view all this content.

Right now, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera all support the current version of the HTML5 specification. Internet Explorer does not. Microsoft has announced, however, that the next version of its browser, IE9, will be compliant.

Another issue with HTML5 is that the standard is still in development. The final version isn’t expected to be completed for years, and in the meantime many of its capabilities will continue to evolve, and may be implemented slightly differently by each browser.

The Mobile Learning Conundrum

Because of HTML5’s current limitations, if all eLearning were done on personal computers, Flash would continue to be the better option in most cases for the foreseeable future. But because Flash is generally more CPU intensive, it more quickly wears down battery life on phones, tablets, and netbooks. Adobe has also yet to release a full-featured version of Flash for mobility. Finally, Apple’s refusal to incorporate it means a huge number of mobile devices can’t access Flash-based content at all.

These issues have made HTML5 a compelling option for content providers interested in reaching mobile learners with the same kind of interactivity and rich media experiences available on PCs. The vast majority of mobile devices today have browsers that already support much of HTML5.

HTML5 can give mobile users the same kinds of interactive experiences, games, drag-and-drop capabilities, and rich media experiences they’re used to on their computers. And developers will only need to create one version of their content that will work on both PCs and mobile devices.

Selecting Your Strategy

When it comes to the platform war, your goals and your understanding of your audience should drive your choice. If the vast majority of learners you’re trying to reach only want or need to access trainings and courses on their computer, it makes sense to continue to develop eLearning in Flash.

If, however, you’re developing a mobile learning strategy or have an audience that frequently uses mobile devices (a remote traveling sales force, for example), HTML5 could be the best solution for you.

Making the transition won’t be painless. You’ll need to find vendors, develop expertise, and research tools that allow you to publish your content as HTML5. But with proper planning, you can be the forefront of this new, evolving standard that is making interactive mobile learning a reality.

If you would like more information about Monarch Media’s capabilities with regard to Flash and HTML5, please make an inquiry.