YouTube Fired Flash, Clearing HTML5’s Last Obstacle For World Domination

After 10 years, YouTube gave Adobe Flash the heave-ho as its default video player on Tuesday. Instead, the site announced it would default to HTML5 to play its never-ending roster of cat clips, Taylor Swift tributes and movie previews.

A few years ago, the move would have been unthinkable. In 2010, Adobe bragged that as much as 75% of the Web’s videos used Flash. But as of last year, HTML5’s popularity seemed cemented, with more than 80% of the market using it.

See also: Congrats, HTML5—You’re All Grown Up Now

For YouTube, the change seems natural. Around the time Adobe staked its claim, five years ago, the site began offering HTML5 as an option, setting the foundation. Now, in practical terms, most people probably won’t even know the difference. But the change speaks volumes about the state of online videos, its evolution and HTML5’s place in it. 

How Flash Started To Dim

Apple usually isn’t the first to bring a new technology to market, but it wastes no time in sending old ones—like floppy disks, CDs, FireWire and others—packing. Flash was one of its most infamous targets. 

Cofounder Steve Jobs abhorred it, so the iPhone never supported it. Jobs even went an extra step and posted a polemic damning the technology, in response to Adobe taking aim at the iPad’s lack of Flash support. 

The big-screen device was designed for enjoying entertainment—at least those not piped in by Adobe’s standard. Jobs explained, citing Flash’s lack of openness, poor performance, battery drain, lack of touch support and other issues.

We have routinely asked Adobe to show us Flash performing well on a mobile device, any mobile device, for a few years now. We have never seen it. Adobe publicly said that Flash would ship on a smartphone in early 2009, then the second half of 2009, then the first half of 2010, and now they say the second half of 2010. We think it will eventually ship, but we’re glad we didn’t hold our breath. Who knows how it will perform?

That was in 2010, the year Apple sold nearly 40 million iPhones and moved almost 15 million of its first iPads. Although the tablet’s momentum has been stalling out lately, back then, its growth and popularity had only just begun. Developers couldn’t afford to overlook such a huge user base, so this war wound up accelerating more activity around HTML5.

Not that there was really a choice. The following year, Adobe killed off Flash mobile development and even joined the HTML5 bandwagon.

Becoming A Streaming TV Star

Unlike Adobe’s aging multimedia technology, HTML5 works on all devices, playing into the larger trend to “write once and distribute everywhere.” Developers of all types can run with HTML5 and know that their videos will play on computers, smartphones and tablets, as well as televisions, i.e. the biggest screen in most people’s lives.

Streaming TV is an area of intense interest for YouTube. The site has become a fundamental part of living room tech, to the point now that most options seem incomplete without it. Google, which bought the video purveyor for $1.65 billion in 2006, knew it would become important; and if it didn’t, then it definitely knows now. The company’s most successful TV product to date, Chromecast, only offered YouTube, Netflix and two Google Play media services when it launched in 2013. But that was enough to rocket it to the top of Amazon’s list of bestselling electronics.

Meanwhile, HTML5’s prominence in TV app development started to come into focus.

See also: HTML5’s “Dirty Little Secret”: It’s Already Everywhere, Even In Mobile

App makers tell me that differing approaches can make development complicated. Roku, for example, uses its own proprietary BrightStar scripting language. For a while, it looked like every TV and console maker would use their own coding languages, making app development across so many different systems a resource-intensive nightmare. Fortunately, most major smart TV and streaming set-top platforms wound up rallying behind HTML5—including those from Samsung, LG, Opera TV and others (though not Roku).

In other words, TV streaming apps have become something akin to glorified Web apps. YouTube’s change in default from Flash to HTML5 plays directly into that.

See also: HTML5 Catches Up To Apple

Not that Flash is entirely dead. It’s still a popular choice for browser-based gaming, apparently even more so than HTML5. The latter can’t handle animations or back-and-forth interactions on its own, requiring other tools like CSS3 and Javascript. But when it comes to video, it’s clear now which one dominates—and that may only scratch the surface.

In emerging markets, developer interest in HTML5 has surged. In places like South Asia, South America, the Middle East and Africa, HTML5 is even more popular than iOS—which means that the technology Apple helped make popular is giving it a run for its money. 

Lead photo screenshot from YouTube video by Gilbert Gottfried

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