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Is Flash Undead? What Will it Take to Finally Kill the Beast?
Everybody's using HTML5 and MPEG-DASH these days, right? Not so fast. Reports of Flash's death have been greatly exaggerated.

For the past several years, the emergence of HTML5 and MPEG-DASH has brought a spate of proclamations that “Flash is dead.” But the fact of the matter is that browser vendors have never rallied around true standards with video, as the real-world statistics I’ve gathered for this article indicate. When Adobe announced in November 2011 that it would no longer develop an Android mobile browser plug-in for Flash Player, the web community believed it was over for Flash. Yet, here we are in 2015, and the vast majority of live streaming and industry-standard DRM VOD streaming to desktop still relies heavily—if not exclusively—on Flash Player. For mobile, Flash is nonexistent, and it’s a complete mess as a result. Unless you have the substantial budgets necessary to build native applications for iOS and Android, you will rely on a cluster of shaky technologies to get your video streaming within the confines of a mobile browser.

While some major over-the-top publishers are making the switch to MPEG-DASH for nondesktop playback (see Hulu’s Move to DASH), anecdotal evidence from my daily use of online video, as well as my professional work as a video solutions architect, has shown that Flash video playback is still a trusted solution for desktop browsers. In preparation for this article, I reviewed the sites listed in Table 1 to explore how prominent Flash playback is. My approach was to disable Flash Player in Google Chrome 43 on Mac OS X 10.10 (Yosemite) and examine the results. Chrome 43 supports MSE (Media Source Extensions) and EME (Encrypted Media Extensions) to enable DRM secured video playback—if a vendor had updated its playback strategies to support DASH playback, for example, Flash Player would not be necessary for the browser I was using.

As shown in Figures 1 through 4, most of the websites reviewed in Table 1 promptly display the plug-in requirements if the plug-in is not installed or disabled.

Table 1: Flash is still the format of choice for desktop browsers. The Mobile Browser column indicates if the publisher has the equivalent of desktop playback functionality in mobile browsers; the Native App column indicates whether or not it has a native app that replicates desktop functionality. 

I reached out to technical contacts at ABC, Amazon, NPR, and Adobe in hopes of gaining some insight into web video deployment strategies. Surprisingly, while most of my contacts were initially responsive to my requests, none were forthcoming with any changes to their current deployment plans. More specifically, they declined to comment on how Flash video playback fit into their strategies. Even my contact for Adobe Primetime— which heavily relies on Flash Player technology for desktop deployment—declined to comment.

As such, I’m inclined to believe that no one wants to admit to using any technology that isn’t aligned with existing HTML5 video technology, especially if that technology is Flash. However, as stated earlier, the current fragmentation of HTML5 technology across browsers—desktop or mobile—doesn’t lend itself to an efficient and cost-effective solution.

As we explore the need for Flash in today’s video ecosystem, we must understand how many outlets control online video viewing. The path to online video success for content owners and distributors includes the following routes, whose order of build/deployment and priority depends on your specific business requirements:

  • Desktop browser: The ability to play video within any version of any desktop browser is critical for most business requirements. Unlike the mobile/device ecosystem, consumers are more likely to be wary of downloading a desktop application to play videos from a specific vendor. Browser playback is typically the only path for most online video to play on a desktop. If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve already deployed video to one or more websites.
  • Mobile browser: Every Android and iOS device has a mobile browser. For iOS devices, that’s Apple Safari Mobile. For Android, it’s a bit more complicated, as every device vendor has its own preferred native browser, and Google offers its own Chrome for Mobile browser as a separate native application. Android users can also opt to download and install Firefox and Opera. As smartphones and tablets have quickly become commonplace for video watching, most video-rich websites have added mobile compatibility to varying degrees to their offering at this point in time. Many video stakeholders, though, are still relying on a better desktop browser experience and offering limited playback options for mobile browsers. Of the sites sampled, PBS.org was the only site to offer mobile browser playback—largely due to the fact that most, if not all, of the content on PBS.org does not utilize DRM measures.
  • Native mobile application: For the most exacting control of the user experience and for the most demanding business requirements, many online video stakeholders opt to build native iOS and Android applications to deploy their video content. It typically costs more to build and deploy native applications than it would to build equivalent features and functionality in a desktop or mobile website. For large vendors, such as broadcast networks, budgets and/or internal developments are available to support native app development. Most niche online video publishers aren’t so lucky—the “code once, play everywhere” mantra of Flash (or Silverlight) no longer applies, and limited budgets and resources restrict the ability to pursue native app development.
  • OTT channel: This hybrid deployment—part application, part browser—is making bigger waves this year among video publishers. While the amount of time necessary to build and deploy your content with an OTT platform—such as a conventional “channel” on Roku or Apple TV—can be daunting, newer “casting” technologies promoted by Google with Chromecast provide a much simpler path for conventional desktop browser video providers to get their content on to TV sets.

Not surprisingly, out of these four deployment paths, the only foothold that Flash still has is in desktop browser streaming. (Flash applications can still be repurposed as Adobe AIR applications for both iOS and Android, but the future of Adobe AIR and its road map remains unclear.)

One of the largest hurdles with desktop browser technology is forcing users to upgrade or switch the browser they’re using in order to watch videos. If specific technologies such as DASH, MSE, and EME are only available in the latest crop of browsers, and a significant portion of your target audience is not using one of those browsers, by definition, you need to have multiple deployment and playback strategies.

Figure 1. ABC’s Modern Family website

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