Adobe’s reluctant embrace of HTML5

Sometimes if you can’t beat ’em, it’s better to join ’em. Take what Adobe is doing in the HTML5 space, even though momentum behind standards-based HTML5 presents a serious challenge to Adobe’s own Flash rich Internet plug-in technology.

Adobe’s Flash has been used to present videos and multimedia on the Web. But the technology is proprietary and leverages Adobe’s own ActionScript programming language. With HTML5, developers can use just use the open JavaScript language, cascading style sheets (CSS), and of course HTML to build applications. The HTML5 “family” features a set of specifications that also includes CSS3, Canvas 2D tags, and WebSockets, for interbrowser communications.

Showing it can play in the HTML5 arena, Adobe has not only dropped development of the mobile version of the Flash Player in favor of HTML5 and Adobe’s AIR, but also is working on additions to CSS and pitching tools for HTML5.

The company is developing Adobe Edge, a tool for creating animated content using Web standards, says Paul Trani, an Adobe developer evangelist. Edge uses HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript. Adobe also backs HTML5 capabilities in its Dreamweaver, Fireworks, and Illustrator tools. Additionally, Adobe’s PhoneGap and PhoneGap Build enable building of cross-platform mobile applications with HTML5 and JavaScript.

With its embrace of HTML5, Adobe is recognizing marketplace realities. “We realize the momentum behind the Web standards,” Trani says. Adobe is even hiring people to work on Web standards projects and is considering offering tools to convert ActionScript to JavaScript. Adobe’s Wallaby project, meanwhile, is about converting artwork contained in Flash Professional files to HTML.

One developer praises Adobe’s embrace of HTML5. “With SEO [search engine optimization], Flash has always caused problems for Web sites,” says Shar Marachi, a developer at website designer and developer Digital Mark Studios, which does custom website development. “If there’s certain content in that Flash element, the search engines don’t pick it up.”

Another developer who has worked with Flash understands Adobe’s response to HTML5. “While a lot of their stuff has to do with Flash, that’s not where they make their money. They make their money selling tools,” says Alan Gruskoff, a developer at Digital Showcase, which does mobile and rich Internet application design. “They give away Flash.”

Adobe pushes CSS improvements for HTML5

Adobe has proposed its CSS regions and CSS shaders as standards for adoption by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which oversees HTML5 and CSS. “CSS regions lets you reflow content, and shaders basically take any sort of Web standards content and make it appear as bitmapped data, so you can manipulate it,” Trani says. With CSS regions and CSS shaders, Adobe is leveraging its Flash experience to bolster CSS.

A shader, according to the official proposal filed with the W3C in late October, is “essentially a small program that provides a particular effect (such as a distortion, a blur, or a twirl effect) and whose behavior is controlled with input parameters (such as the amount of distortion, blur, or twirl).” Shaders are useful in the context of animated transitions and complement specifications such as CSS animations, CSS transitions, and SVG animations. CSS regions enable building of complex, magazine-like CSS layouts, Adobe says.

Flash still has support

Despite Adobe’s HTML5 strategy, Flash is not going away, argues the developer Ruskoff: “Any of the fanboys that say, ‘Flash is dead, HTML5 rules,’ you know they’re speaking without knowledge of the real world.” HTML5, he notes, has not even been ratified, despite its adoption in draft form in every major desktop and mobile browser.

JavaScript represents the biggest gap in the HTML5 realm, says Tom Bray, a developer at Ace Metrics, which offers an on-demand Adobe Flex-based application for advertisers to gauge effectiveness of TV ads. That’s why he prefers using Flash: “[Flash’s] ActionScript is a beautiful language, based on the same standard as JavaScript … ActionScript 3 is much more mature object-oriented programming language, and that is the one thing that enterprise developers who love Flex really want to see survive.”

Adobe’s Trani also cites a niche for Flash, such as 3D capabilities and game development.

For Adobe, moving to HTML5 while still keeping Flash around makes sense — after all, it can sell tools to both audiences. Over time, though, it appears a certainty that HTML5 will grow while Flash will fade.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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