The Reports of Flash’s Death are Slightly Exaggerated: Implications for eLearning Managers

Over the last few weeks, Flash has been quite the technology water-cooler topic. Some people are predicting the end of Flash entirely with the looming promises of HTML5. Don’t forget to take into account where these reports are coming from. Many of the exaggerated claims of Flash’s uselessness come from pundits with an agenda and those talking about web site pages not eLearning initiatives. Adobe recently announced it will no longer develop the Flash Player for mobile devices. Does this mean Flash has seen its last day?  Hardly. Well, at least not in the short-term.

If you read blog posts like that of Tony Karrer carefully, he calls the end of Flash “a long and slow death” and that we are years away from its ultimate demise.  It’s true. Flash currently serves as a plug-in proprietary technology that allows for advanced functionality like interactivity and animation within the confines of HTML and its extensions. As noted in the timeline below, HTML5 isn’t projected to be fully developed until 2014 and global research agency Millward Brown reports figures that suggest Adobe’s Flash is available on 99% of desktops in mature markets.  It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

In recent years, smartphones and tablets have driven the craze to create a language that works on both desktops and smartphones. HTML5 provides this promise of an open standard with capabilities to create full games natively within the desktop or mobile browser without the need for Flash.

With all of this in mind, the decision to move away from Flash as a manager of eLearning is a complex one. If you’re concerned about what to do, here’s my take: Consider the market demand, company resources, and the technology’s functionality.

Market Demand

What bloggers have avoided in their rampant push for HTML5 is recognition of the corporate IT stranglehold on Internet standards. Corporate IT departments run very conservatively. Remember how long it took for corporate IT professionals to approve Flash? Many corporate desktop users’ computers are ruled by an iron fist and there will be slow migration to workplace browsers using HTML5. The majority of corporately controlled computers in use are using older versions of Internet Explorer and HTML 5 is not supported on Internet Explorer 6, 7, or 8.

eLearning is a dominant fixture in the corporate world. Since a lot of self-paced eLearning modules are created for viewing on a desktop, there is a lot of life left in Flash even without mobile device capabilities. For many compliance-type training courses, desktop delivery has proven to be most effective for their content and controversy over whether employees should be required to utilize their own mobile devices or tablets to complete training on their own time will keep it around for a while. Before making the jump to HTML5, consider how responsive your core client market is to the change and forecast impending demands for the future.

Company Resources

If you’re a manager like me, you’re working with employees who are Flash developers and you want that technology to live as long as it can while you’ve got that talent in your arsenal. Joab Jackson, author of “Adobe Flash vs. HTML5” quotes IDC software analyst Al Hilwa as saying, “The old adage goes, the best language to use is the language you know.” Flash developers are ubiquitous and the sheer number of them will ensure our teams create using Flash for at least the short term.

When it comes to eLearning, most of us are working with finite resources. Therefore, when looking at how long Flash will live, you have to determine how economical it is to make the switch HTML5. Don’t underestimate the initial costs of training programmers and converting legacy eLearning projects. Conversions take resources and will not be a priority in this economy unless driven by specific special projects like outfitting a board of directors with iPad compatible eLearning resources.

Technology’s Functionality

Most importantly, for those of us promoting engaging, interactive eLearning, current capabilities of HTML5 to recreate the interactivity of Flash, puts us back in the Internet Stone Age of 1995. While projections of its capabilities when it is completed in 2014 certainly provide more creative freedom for developers, it still pales in comparison to Flash capabilities as it exists today.  In terms of interactive learning activities, it will be a while till HTML5 is a viable competitor with Flash in this regard. HTML5 is just not ready today as a tool to build interactive components like simulated communities, branching engines, and video game-like activities.

The good news is eLearning managers don’t need to make a decision on this today. As HTML5 is further developed, I believe the costs and benefits will become clear, especially to developers. Regardless, Samantha Amjadali quotes Adobe Evangelist Paul Burnett her article “Why the Web Needs HTML5” who says, “Flash will always sit alongside HTML in order to add more engagement than is available in HTML and CSS.” HTML5 will make things much more interesting for developers, but until it can outperform competing plug-in technologies, it won’t be able to replace Flash.

The Road to HTML5 – An excerpt from “Why the web needs HTML5” by Samantha Amjadali

HTML (mid-1991)

For the first time, simple text documents can be linked to and accessed easily by anyone connected to the internet from anywhere in the world. Before this, only documents on the same computer could be linked to and access involved typing commands rather than simply pointing and clicking. Basic HTML also included the ability to add bullet lists, block quotes and pre-formatted text. A previous document access system, Gopher, was in existence at the time. It was far more rigid and hierarchical than HTML and remains in use by a small group of enthusiasts.

HTML+ (late 1991-94)

Tables are introduced, as is the ability to create questionnaires that can be filled in. Mathematical equations can now be created natively (though this feature is fully replaced in 1998). Large documents can be split into small modules to enable faster load times. HTML+ is later folded into HTML 3. 

HTML 2 (1995)

Work on HTML 2 started long before HTML+. It combined HTML, HTML+ and various other tweaks in the intervening three years. HTML 2 marks the introduction of server side-image maps (allowing hotlinks to be created on images).

HTML 3.2 (January 1997)

The proprietary blink and marquee tags are dropped but other proprietary tags that are by now in common use are officially folded into standard HTML. Integration with style sheets (a separate, though allied, technology), which allow more efficient and complex module-based layout, are also brought into standard HTML for the first time and footnotes and forms are improved.

HTML 4 (December 1997)

Version 4 doesn’t bring many huge changes to HTML other than a number of browser-specific tags being made standard as well as support for other languages. Disability support is introduced, as is extended handling of scripting and reworked style sheets.

HTML5 (2004)

Work on HTML 5 started as far back as 2004 but it wasn’t known as that until 2007. Work on HTML5 is expected to be completed in 2014; however, as it’s being described by HTML5 editor Ian Hickson as a ”living standard”, even that target may be optimistic. HTML5 brings with it the ability to display audio and video natively within a browser without plug-ins as well as dynamic rendering of 2D shapes. It also features improved accessibility, security and forms.

Read what else Samantha Amjadali has to say in her article “Why the web needs HTML5” online.

Read what else Joab Jackson has to say in his article “Adobe Flash vs. HTML5” online.