“The end of Flash”, Microsoft “Bans” and “drops” Flash in (the Metro browser of) Windows 8

Posted on September 16, 2011

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In the past 16 hours there has been some commotion about Microsoft “banning” or “dropping” Flash.

You can read the announcement of Microsoft in many ways and if you are biases (as I have noticed in several occasions on my own perception on things in the past) you read what you want to read.

Another storm in a glass of water

The whole discussion is just another storm in a glass of water. Something insignificant blown up to biblical proportions that will – for some peoples hopes – finally be the end of Flash.

Simply put: Flash is not important enough on one side (HTML dominates the web completely) and caters specific solutions for specific needs on the other side where HTML and HTML5 simply (still) can not help you. Unlike HTML, Flash is not hampered by a bunch of old guys defining standards or six different flavors of web browsers who all implement those “standards” in a slightly different way. And so it can choose its own way in what it think is important to introduce and implement as new features. Streaming video, Sockets and the implementation of newer ECMA Script (OOP driven) standards for ActionScript are only three of them.

I deliberately count out the banners done in Flash. Killing Flash will not kill banners and all the ruckus on Flash and HTML 5 will make HTML5- and (the currently relatively processor intensive) Canvas based banners only more likely to happen.

I would do the same

Microsoft has made the choice to focus on HTML 5 alone for Metro. And I think it is a smart choice. Very likely the Metro-framework (if there is one) supports specific basic patterns to do stuff in HTML and JavaScript which support and which are part of the experience of Windows 8 and Metro.

To involve and include other technologies only obfuscates things. It breaks the consistency. It adds extra complications. It is like using Java and C# and Perl all together to create one single solution.

By choosing to go further on their HTML path (allegedly MS started to integrate HTML in their presentation layer with Windows XP) is a simple and clear one.

Too bad if you want to implement Flash stuff in Metro. And very likely you should not want to do that.

Two browsers: Metro and IE 10

Windows 8 will contain two default flavors of web browsers:

  1. The “Metro” browser – Based in IE and bsically your main view on Windows 8
  2. Internet Explorer 10 – With which you browse the web

Metro does not support Flash

As Microsoft states in “Metro style browsing and plug-in free HTML5 ” here:

In Windows 8, IE 10 is available as a Metro style app and as a desktop app. The desktop app continues to fully support all plug-ins and extensions. The HTML5 and script engines are identical and you can easily switch between the different frame windows if you’d like.

So: Microsoft does NOT drop Flash in Windows 8.

What does happen is that the Metro Browser (see above for a brief on what I understand it is) does not support any plugin, including Silverlight.

[..] the Metro style browser in Windows 8 is as HTML5-only as possible, and plug-in free. The experience that plug-ins provide today is not a good match with Metro style browsing and the modern HTML5 web.

When we check the “plug-in free” link, we find:

Because more and more browsing takes place on an ever wider variety of devices, and browsers on them, more and more consumers are browsing without plug-ins.

And

Lots of Web browsing today happens on devices that simply don’t support plug-ins.

Regarding the choice of plugin free browsing in Metro, two factors are mentioned in the first post

The experience that plug-ins provide today is not a good match with Metro style browsing and the modern HTML5 web. Running Metro style IE plug-in free improves battery life as well as security, reliability, and privacy for consumers.

[…]

Providing compatibility with legacy plug-in technologies would detract from, rather than improve, the consumer experience of browsing in the Metro style UI.

I deliberately removed the self justification stuff about how plugins “were important early on in the web’s history” and “the web has come a long way since then with HTML5″ and “the reality today is that sites are already rapidly engineering for a plug-in free experience”.

IE 10 will support plugins (and Flash) in Windows 8

IE 10 will still support Flash (and other plugins – which are not mentioned, but many) as the Microsoft blog states clearly in “Metro style browsing”:

In Windows 8, IE 10 is available as a Metro style app and as a desktop app. The desktop app continues to fully support all plug-ins and extensions.

Flash

As I have written before in several posts, Flash is a niche-product. You can build entire websites in it (which I have done) but there are several reasons why Flash has not become an HTML killer where it might have been. I mention five:

  1. Searchability and SEO – Even though possible (publish the content as XHTML with the Flash main movie and reload the content in Flash) SEO and Flash has never been on the map of Adobe and Macromedia as far as I know.
  2. Memory management – Being the real hidden issue of Flash for a long time: Flash used to suck at memory management. A simple Flash site could easily consume 200 MB without you doing anything more than loading some images in some container and effortlessly growing over 1 GB  if you did not do your memory management properly. Imagine having 5 tabs open with each one such a Flash site.
  3. Scalability – HTML is scalable to the max. It does not matter if your site is 1 or 1.000.000 pages big. With Flash, again, even though possible, there are only a few people using strategies to make Flash sites “endlessly deep”: able to display thousands of “pages”. Instead, in general Flash sites are developed in the same way as folders and Power Points: each piece of content gets a dedicated “page” which is usually “hard coded” in Flash. In most of these cases, all these “pages” are all plunked into one single SWF file. To follow a different strategy, where assets an congtent are loaded on demand and cleaned up for neatly after use, requires more effort and more experience than the average Flasher has at this point in time.
  4. Google Translate – With Google Translate you can translate Russian, Japanese and Chinese sites to something that is almost readable. Flash sites do not allow for this external additional services.
  5. Bookmarking and deeplinking – Bookmarking and deeplinking was not supported at all until someone found a solution for Flex and someone else implemented an open source version hacking Hash tags and injecting pseudo-links into the address bar. This meant that you could not store or share content inside a Flash site. Both are still a hack relying on JavaScript to do the job.

Flash itself originally emerged because it was the ultimate Animated Gif killer. Instead of having your animations run in huge pre-baked sequences inside a GIF file, where each next frame would add more weight to the file, Flash allowed you to make animations which were incredibly light weight (in kilobytes), vector based and based on tweening and other neat tricks.

The future of Flash

I think it is a good thing Flash is challenged. I think the HTML 5 hype is a good thing too. There will always be cross-pollination (I think – for instance – that GPU supported 3D in Flash was put on the map once the OpenGL demos in WebKit came to the web).

Flash has become in many ways what HTML could not: a better environment to code and create awesome stuff for the web, running in (almost) the exact way on almost any platform.

Flash lacks a lot at the same time in this department. And I think that is the main reason why it stays in the corner of a niche-product.

Two main reasons – as mentioned above – not to choose Flash as the major technology for sites are still: (good strategies for) scalability and a proper implementation of strategies for SEO.

Adobe fixed some of the major memory management issues in 2010 and it has been a before that fix since I last profiled a Flash site.

As Flash and the future concerns, HTML did not kill Flash, and there will always be a need for specific things that Flash can- and HTML can not do. As is the other way around.

In the end, nothing much will change and if Flash dies, it will be very likely due to stupidity and wrong choices on Flash itself, not because Apple and Windows choose to exclude it from very specific solutions and environments.

Mapping the confusion

And here is what happens when you post something unclear and people read what they want to read.

As stated above, IE 10 under Windows 8 will still support plugins, so read carefully.

From PC World: “Windows 8 Update: The End of Adobe Flash?” here. Bold added by me. The article seem to suggest that if you want to use and see Flash, you need drop the Metro desktop and revert/stick to the traditional desktop.

Nevertheless, the lack of plug-ins and possibly extensions should make IE more responsive and faster when using the Metro UI.

This could also be a huge blow to Adobe, since the Metro-style interface will be the first thing home users see when they fire up Windows 8 on their laptops and desktops. It’s possible that Microsoft could adopt Google’s strategy and build Flash right into IE, but that would technically be using a plug-in and thus not be as plug-in free as Microsoft is promising.

Microsoft’s comments, while they don’t explicitly say this, suggest that Flash will not be included in the Metro-style version of Windows 8. So unless PC users at home reject the Metro-style interface and stick with the traditional desktop in Windows 8 or Windows 7, Microsoft may effectively finish what Apple started and kill Flash on the Web.

You will find echos of this article on many places including here and here.

There is another article in similar fashion, stating at the end that Flash might be really dead now in 3 to 5 years and that Flash developers just as well should abandon the sinking ship that is Flash and go find something else, elsewhere.

Unfortunately I could not find that article anymore.

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Posted in: Opinions