Is Flash Undead? What Will it Take to Finally Kill the Beast?

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The only solution for legacy browsers to play video content is a third-party plug-in. Between Flash Player and Silverlight, Flash has moved forward with a PPAPI (Pepper Plugin API)-based version that works with Google Chrome; Silverlight has not and will not. Google has extended its support of NPAPI (Netscape Plugin API) until September 2015. At that juncture, Silverlight will not be a viable plug-in option for video distributors intending to reach Chrome viewers.

Using the results from Table 1’s review as a guide, the most common commercial deployment strategy by far is to have a Flash-based DRM solution for desktop browsers, regardless of OS or version, and leave all “mobile handling” to native applications. Nonprofit sites such as NPR.org and PBS.org—which presumably do not require DRM for their content—had mobile websites that delivered long-form content. The only video deployed on mobile websites for the broadcast vendors is the short-form type, clips of typically of 3 minutes or fewer. Of the sites reviewed, Netflix stands out as having DRM-protected content available without plug-in assistance on browsers that support MSE and EME.

For those video content publishers smaller than the organizations and sites listed in Table 1, the business requirements surrounding the video content will most likely dictate the degree of Flash use for playback. If your video catalog is small and/or not updated frequently, and you do not have DRM mandates for the content, you can likely reach the majority of your audience without Flash assistance. However, you’d still reach more viewers if you deployed alternative playback via Flash.

Figure 2. Amazon Prime Instant Video 

Why is it so difficult to achieve a more singular focused deployment path, one not using a third-party plug-in? Three major factors contribute to this problem:

  • Desktop browser upgrade path: Installing or upgrading a new browser to support new technology requires more time and effort by the end user than a typical plug-in update or installation does. Microsoft, particularly, does not enable its operating systems prior to Windows 8 to use the latest version of Internet Explorer (IE). So, if a website visitor is running Windows Vista or Windows 7 and prefers to use IE, that visitor can’t upgrade to a version of IE that supports MSE and EME.
  • Video and audio codecs: While the vast majority of the industry has rallied behind AVC/H.264 (and the forthcoming HEVC/H.265), video codecs are not consistently supported across HTML5 browsers. Flash enabled H.264 to be the de facto video codec for web deployment. Currently, only DivX has produced a browser plug-in to support H.265 playback in desktop browsers. If Adobe adds support for H.265 playback in a future release of Flash Player, the need for Flash-assisted playback will continue for the foreseeable future.
  • Existing deployment paths: If you’ve already invested heavily in multiple deployment strategies that include a Flash playback solution and you’re reaching your target audience, there’s no pressing need to change your deployment strategy. Adding a new video deployment to a system that already has a viable solution in place is not likely going to recoup any of the investment put into resources.

So, will the immediate future of web video technologies dictate a change to your online video deployment?

The most pressing use case is that of a “Silverlight-only” desktop browser experience. Until recently, Netflix relied exclusively on Silverlight to deliver DRM-protected content to viewers on desktop browsers. And like Netflix, video content providers in this category will need to augment their existing deployment with DASH delivery using MSE (and EME for DRM) in order to service any visitor using the latest version after September 2015. Alternatively, you could develop a Flash-based solution to replace the Silverlight portion of your video deployment strategy, but a DASH investment would likely open more deployment options for OTT.

Figure 3. NPR audio player 

As HEVC/H.265 matures as a video codec, the industry will likely embrace it as the next generation to H.264. H.264 content will remain “in play,” but newer content, especially 4K resolution content, will likely be encoded in both H.265 and H.264 to support a wider audience. You won’t necessarily need to update your existing video deployment paths to H.265, but for larger catalogs and providers that offer adaptive bitrate streaming, the file size and bitrate reductions offered by H.265 will be attractive. Flash Player doesn’t currently support H.265. If a vendor such as DivX provides a cross-platform cross-browser plug-in for H.265, its technology will likely become the fallback for H.265 playback just as Flash Player was for H.264.

And where does that leave us with Flash Player? Flash Player has been part of the web video experience since 2002, when Flash Player 6 first introduced video playback. Over the past decade, video solutions and pipelines—especially those involving DRM content—have evolved around Flash playback. While HTML5 technologies have certainly reduced the dependency of third-party plug-ins for video playback, Flash Player continues to fill in the gaps left behind by lack of consistent standards among browser vendors. Most online video providers, though, will not want to advertise its critical importance to their success.

Figure 4. The Daily Show on Hulu.com 

This article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Streaming Media as “Is Flash Undead?”

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