What I Learned In A Week Without Flash

I’ve spent the last week browsing the web using a bang-up-to-date NEWT browser. And yet, almost none of the videos I’ve been linked to have worked, and a couple of sites have fallen down horribly. Why? Because I don’t have Flash installed.

Since the rise of iOS, and latterly Apple’s decision to ship MacBook Airs (and indeed any clean install of Lion) without Flash installed for the sake of battery life, people have taken to arguing that you can largely live without Flash now. Standardistas (and I count myself as a Standardista) have crowed at the imminent ousting of this non-semantic, non-Standards technology. The Open Web can do multimedia at last!

What I’ve discovered this week is that Flash is far from dead, and, at least when it comes to video, the “Open Web” is far from open. Come down the rabbit hole with me and discover why…

The main interaction that any user will have with Flash is video, either on sites like YouTube or Vimeo, or on any site that hosts its own or uses a hosted solution like Brightcove. Indeed my rolling diary of the week reveals that I clicked through to about fifteen times as much video as I did games or other interactive content. So for the most part this is about video, with a small dose of progressive enhancement later on.

If you know anything about HTML5 video, you probably know about the Great Patent War that is at play right now. Essentially there is competition between the H.264 standard, which you (the browser vendor) pay to licence, and a succession of free formats which you (the browser vendor) get for free, at the risk of being exposed to later patent litigation. This latter format was Ogg Theora until May last year, at which point Google released WebM, which is (in theory at least) both free and unencumbered by patents (from the browser vendors’ point of view at least).

Apologies for all the parentheses in that paragraph, but the state of web video right now is such that a lot of assumptions have to be couched.

So, we have a situation where some browsers support H.264, some support WebM, some support both and some support neither without a plugin enabling it. H.264, by the way, is not going to go away. It’s supported in hardware by iOS and most other video-capable mobile devices. So WebM is not going to supplant H.264; its best option is to live as the desktop-quality, free-as-in-speech variant of web video.

What is important is this: H.264 is the only web video format supported by iOS devices and Safari. H.264 is not supported by Opera (or indeed Firefox, and if Google live up to their promise it will shortly be pulled from Chrome too). iOS has been the primary driver for sites to move from Flash video to “HTML5 video,” and so most of the sites that serve “HTML5 video” are serving H.264, and not serving WebM.

Obviously, the definition of an “Open Web” is not “a web where content is viewable only by users of Flash or Apple browsers.” And yet from my experience, that is the situation in which HTML5 video stands today.

It doesn’t have to be this way. HTML5 includes a simple mechanism to support multiple formats, but it does mean encoding your video three times (once as FLV, once as H.264, once as WebM). That’s not as onerous as it sounds; CPU time is cheap. Storage is cheap. Adding an extra format to an automated encode process could be expensive, but is a one-time cost. The content-creating parties just need the confidence to know that the HTML5 video space is going to solidify around H.264 and WebM.

And that brings us to the second problem; the web is the ultimate Long Tail. There’s a vast amount of video content on the web in FLV, or worse, encapsulated into SWF. That is content that is neither going to go away nor be re-encoded any time soon. Some of it may not even be available in its original format any more. What is to be done with this long tail of content? Well, there’s really only one answer to that: View it in Flash.

How are the big guns of web video doing with this? Poorly. YouTube has a HTML5 trial which you can opt into, but I had to download an Opera extension to stop me being opted out twice a day, and it presents what appears to be the minority of its content in WebM. When it can’t serve a file in WebM, for any of several reasons, it provides no messaging more useful than “You need to upgrade your Flash player.” Even using desktop Safari, a lot of its content can’t be viewed as anything but Flash unless you enable the Developer menu and identify as an iPad. Not exactly wholehearted support for HTML5 video.

Opera is complicit in the confusion surrounding video formats. When it encounters H.264, it shows the poster frame and video controls, and no message stating that it couldn’t find a compatible format. This is misleading to the viewer (and indeed I’d been scratching my head over this behaviour for a year before working out what was going on). I’ve filed a bug.

It surprised me that Vimeo was actually worse. The best outcome you can hope for is a blank bit where the video should be. More often you’ll end up with shamefully patronising messaging that helps not one jot.

Slideshare gets one thumb up for allowing you to download its content as PDF, and one thumb down for its non-Flash messaging proclaiming that “We’ve encountered an error!" This is the wrong tack to take for non-Flash messages. It’s not your error. It’s my choice, and what I want is to be told how to work around this because if I don’t have Flash on my device by now, it can only be because I can’t or won’t install Flash on my device. Apologies are not much comfort to me here.

Speaking of a simple “download file” option I got that for video in just one place, TED.com. It’s a simple solution that works, but of course TED want their content to be shared openly. Content producers that want to at least track embeds the way YouTube or Vimeo allow them to don’t want it to be easy to get video down to your computer and out of their network. I can’t decide whether I want the HTMLWG to work out a mechanism by which this can be done without Flash, but as it stands now any media producer that wants to control duplication can’t even consider HTML5 video.

The absolute worst attitude I encountered in my week was The Escapist, a games magazine and home to the often-entertaining Zero Punctuation column. ZP is served usually as Flash, but you can get a “HTML5 video” feed (which I strongly suspect to be H.264 only) if you pay them $20 a year. Any site that makes standards-compliant content an upgrade is just evil in my book.

The most complete failure I encountered was when I tried to use Texterity to read content I’d just bought. Either their non-Flash experience is akin to what happens when their back end totally collapses, or their back end totally collapsed.

Of course there are places where my lack of Flash was something I didn’t even notice, and the irony of a post like this is that for the most part I can’t congratulate the sites that are doing progressive enhancement right because I wasn’t aware it was happening. I can call out Twitpic and Bit.ly as doing it nearly right and right respectively. I hope this is an effect of being part of the Twitter ecosystem, because the Twitter model is one that is being studied intensively by the next generation of startups.

One other observation about Twitter - I got to a LOT of the content I couldn’t view by links from my timeline in Twitter. I mostly follow UX and web development people on Twitter. It says something that even the people one would expect to be at the vanguard of the standards movement are clearly reliant on Flash to consume media (or all tweeting from Safari or iPads). The truly open web isn’t arriving any time soon if my peers–and I, except for the last week-are setting the example.

 So, now my week is over, shall I bother re-installing Flash? There are upsides and downsides. Opera has been a lot more stable, and an odd bug I constantly encounter around application quitting has gone away without Flash. On the other hand it’s been an enormous pain to view any sort of multimedia on the web. I could go the John Gruber route and keep Chrome around for Flash content, but that’s just juggling stuff away to another browser the same as I have been doing all week with Safari. I could leave it uninstalled, of course, but my job is incompatible with the digital hermit lifestyle that would entail.

I don’t want to install Flash, but I think I have to install Flash. That is the state of the Open Web in 2011.