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Multimedia Wars Contd. – HTML5 vs Flash is like Apples vs Oranges

While reading my colleague Sachin’s post on HTML5 & Flash, I felt compelled to present my views on this debate from a e-learning developer’s perspective.

Stability: For all developers working in the technology aspect of e-learning (and all other aspects as well!) the most important factor is stability. Till date no browser is 100% compliant with HTML 4.01 which was released by W3C years ago.

Compliance, however, is not the only problem. Other than rendering of simple pages, every browser has a different behavior. The same goes with ECMA Script (JavaScript). Invariably every web-based application has to be programmed in a manner that a different HTML/JavaScript is generated based on the client’s browser. The long and short of it is, instability, and this causes major problems for the web-based application developers. What appears to work in Internet Explorer (IE) may not work on Firefox or Chrome and the other way around. To add to this bedlam, every browser has its own extensions – the trend which was started by Microsoft during IE 4 days.

Coming back to the question about adaptation of HTML 5 – which isn’t even fully standardized as of yet. Quoted from Wikipedia – “The Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) started work on the specification in June 2004 under the name Web Applications 1.0.[1] As of March 2010[update], the specification is in the Draft Standard state at the WHATWG, and in Working Draft state at the W3C.”

Are we talking about adopting something which isn’t fully standardized yet? Knowing the history of browsers when it comes to compliance with HTML 1/2/3/4? Today, HTML 5 is nothing but one way for web-browser providers to claim that their browser supports HTML 5 and hence, are better than the competitor.

The biggest advantage of using Flash is stability, because it is owned, maintained and provided by a single body. If some Flash animation or video works on IE on MS Windows, it will work on Firefox on Linux or FreeBSD. The developer doesn’t have to unnecessarily worry about it!

The problem with HTML is that it is a standard and every browser provider has its own interpretation and implementation. Let’s take the example of TCP/IP, something which was standardized in late 80’s. Till date every OS has its own quirks when it comes to the implementation of TCP/IP stack, and this causes problems for developers making interoperable and portable applications. Another example that will strike chord with e-learning developers would be implementation of SCORM across LMS’s and e-learning courses. SCORM is a well defined standard by ADL, but then everyone has their own interpretation of the same which causes problems all across.

Apples vs. Oranges?: A comparison between Flash and HTML 5 appears to be a comparison between apples and oranges. Comparison of Flash with MS Silverlight or Google Gears or Java Applets seems appropriate. HTML (3 or 4 or 5) is about Markup – a building-block of web pages. Flash on the other side is an extremely rich environment for creating highly interactive content, with added features of 2-D and 3-D. Video is just a small part of Flash – though heavily used. If the only consideration were video (which is not the entire debate, though a large part of it), we may compare HTML 5 with flash.

HTML video vs. Flash video: Again quoting from Wikipedia “HTML5 video is an element introduced in the HTML5 draft specification for the purpose of playing videos or movies [1], partially replacing the object element.”

A good look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTML5_video helps us gauge the vagueness of this new HTML 5 Video element – and there is a lot of uncertainty about it. A serious business decision cannot be taken based on what information we have today.

Google/Firefox/Mozilla/Opera seem to have agreed on using WebM format (a new video format http://webmproject.blogspot.com/) but what about Microsoft? Most of the corporate houses use MS Windows as the OS and IE as the browser. A lot of organizations don’t even allow installation of other web browsers because of tight integration that only IE provides with Active Directory Services.

HTML 5 on Mobile Devices and the envisaged lightweight DREAM-come-true type Web-browser: How many mobile or hand-held devices are available in the markets today that provide full support for HTML 4.01 and JavaScript? Most of the hand-held devices suffer from low computing capacity because of which some or the other HTML 4.01 feature or JavaScript feature aren’t available. Secondly, technically speaking, if there will ever be a browser with HTML 5 support (including video and all the promised goodies) it will be at least two times bulkier than today’s combination of browser and Flash. So, the entire idea of future’s lightweight web browser with HTML 5, ready for low computing capacity devices, is again questionable.

Are we back to where we began? Yes, we are. Weighing technical aspects too, HTML5 still does not have a fool-proof and water-tight case yet.

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