The tech community has been in uproar recently over the news that Google is dropping native H.264 video codec support from its Chrome browser. They’ve tried to justify their move on the basis that it isn’t an open standard, and therefore not viable as the primary codec for the HTML5 <video> tag (I’m simplifying a bit, but that’s more or less their position). Instead, Google is putting forward its own codec, WebM, as a possible standard. WebM is at least probably more open than H.264, but the jury still seems to be out on that one.
In response, many commentators have condemned Google’s decision. Some are claiming that, far from being born of high-minded, ‘Open’-orientated idealism, it’s just a thinly veiled attempt to undermine Apple’s attack on Flash. Apple refuses to support Flash on its mobile (and tablet) operating system iOS, and is instead promoting HTML5 as the way forward, especially for web video, which is one of the main uses of Flash. But if there’s a video format war on the Web, then everyone will just stick with whatever’s easiest, whatever works most often. And that will probably be Flash.
So what’s Google’s supposed motive in doing this? Well, Apple and Microsoft hold patents in H.264; they’ve been pushing to make it dominant, and they’re the competition. So that’s pretty clear. But, in addition, Android (Google’s mobile OS) supports Flash, and Chrome comes with Flash bundled. Perhaps Google’s plan is this: Chrome helps keep Flash alive, and then Android can put iOS to shame with it. They could also throw YouTube in behind this, and that will really put the cat among the pigeons.
Some view Google’s move as hypocritical, on the basis that Chrome gives Flash special treatment, yet Flash is no more open than H.264. Others, bizarrely, have tried to claim that Flash is open, because anyone is free to write their own Flash Player. Which is clearly nonsense. When Flash capabilities and formats are determined and updated by a committee that accepts submissions from multiple major players in the market – e.g. Adobe, Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla, Google etc. – then they can come back and tell us it’s an open standard. Not before.
Anyway, Flash needs to go. I like what it can do… a lot. Really. For many years it pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved on the web, especially while Microsoft was blocking SVG adoption. Whenever we saw something really cool on a website, like moving and fading panels, semi-transparent overlays, video backgrounds, and – of course – games, it was bound to be Flash.
This is particularly important for the EDGE website, as development resources are pretty limited. The more configurable, the better. Our team members have to be able to tweak the database, maybe upload a few images, and instantly see that reflected in any relevant animated content (e.g. the homepage), and that basically rules out Flash. (There have been attempts to integrate Flash with its environment, but at the moment coding across the gap feels like trying to jump out of a well, and it’s hard to see how they’d even get near to being seamless.) So I was happy that Apple were initiating a change. The sooner we can switch to HTML5, the better. Now, moves like this one by Google might actually elongate Flash’s already slow (and, let us hope, spectacular) death-arc.
But I think we’ll get there eventually. It’ll be like pulling out a thorn… it might be a bit painful, for a while, and we might feel scared and want to leave it in. But once it’s all over, we’ll feel much better for it.
PS Regarding the rumours of Facebook’s impending closure (supposedly on the 15th of March),
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Facebook!” Speak, Facebook is turn’d to hear.
Beware the ides of March.
What man is that?
A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
(Julius Facebook, Act 1, Scene 2, 15-19)
Did anyone else notice that they chose the Ides of March for their rumour? Surely that was deliberate. (I cast Goldman Sachs as Brutus; it may turn out to be, by chance, quite prescient, as it turns out they’ve been having difficulties with their private offering of Facebook shares, and didn’t actually raise the full $1.5bn they were expected to, I believe.)
Just in case anyone accuses me of spreading this silly nonsense, I should point out that it was initially posted on a site whose writers are famed for intentionally publishing absurd stories (joke news, essentially), and indeed they seemed quite gratified that thousands of people began posting genuine pleading requests to Facebook please please not to close down, please because we can’t live without Facebook and we won’t know what to do with ourselves. They even wrote a follow-up story, confirming the rumours.
PPS I was thinking about titling this ‘A Flash in the Pan?’, but I decided that that might be going a bit too far. Flash has been doing very well for about a decade, after all!