Which Way Now? Web Development in the iPad Era.

Flash? No Thanks!

So it turns out Steve Jobs does not like Flash, and won’t be allowing it onto the iPad in the foreseeable future. This creates the first dent in the Flash player’s ubiquity for many years and leaves a more complex set of web development choices ahead of us.

Rather than get into the debate over whether Flash is good or evil, I would like to discuss what options are available for delivering rich interactive experiences on the web today. Most developers don’t have a philosophical preference over which tools they use, they simply want the technology that can provide the best experience while reaching the most users. With that in mind, let’s look at some numbers.

How Big is the iPad?

The iPad is selling phenomenally well and may be the herald of a new era in computing. That said, if we look at the web usage numbers for the iPad’s progenitors, we see that the usage numbers do not equate to the amount of media buzz these devices get.

In the last 12 months, mobile web usage accounted for 1.48% of total web usage, versus desktop usage at 98.52%.

Of that number 32% came from iDevices (iPhone + iPod Touch). That gives iDevices a whopping 0.45% of total web usage. Lets be generous and say the iPad doubles this usage in the coming year. That will give iDevices around 1% of total web usage in the coming year. Admittedly, mobile usage is about to explode and iDevices will be part of that, but I think it’s important to keep some perspective on the current state of the market.

What About HTML5?

Steve Jobs has suggested that we should drop Flash for HTML5. HTML5 holds a great deal of promise, however it is currently unsupported on the great majority of web browsers.

For example, based on current browser usage, 71% of web users cannot view the HTML5 video tag. This means that that building a website solely in HTML5 is not currently an option. Since IE9 will support HTML5, the IE9 adoption rates will be the deciding factor as to when we can start targeting HTML5

Where Does this Leave Web Developers Now?

So what should we recommend to our clients who want a brand experience or RIA today? It depends 🙂

  • If you can simplify the requirements enough, build it in plain HTML with a few jQuery animations thrown in. This will work in many situations. The truth is that many sites that are currently in Flash do not need to be. Most sites can get by with plain HTML, images and simple javascript animations.
  • If you need complex animations, interactivity, games, video, audio, web cam support, etc – build it in Flash. Your content will be viewable by the vast majority of web users. In addition, build a simplified HTML version for non-Flash devices. This is typically what we have been doing since the first web accessible mobile devices came around.

Looking Forward

Personally I find it hard to believe that Apple can single-handedly kill Flash when it is so ubiquitous on the web and has such a huge and loyal developer community. I still hold out hope that Flash will eventually come to the iPad in the same way that multitasking came to the iPhone. In the short-term, iPad users will be locked out from a lot of great content. Only when HTML5 browser support and tooling is broadly available can we start looking at developing RIAs with it.

[Credit to Noel Billing for pointing me to the StatCounter global data.]

16 Responses

  1. Mr.doob says:

    On all these stats, there is always one thing I tend to see people overlook. And it’s the fact that, although many people use IE, that doesn’t mean that that’s the kind of people is going to visit your website. I don’t know where StatCounter gets the data from, but on my sites the stats are quite different, IE it’s down to 10% most of the days.

    For example, lets say you decide to do a site. You decide to go the Flash route because much more people use Desktop/Flash than HTML5/Mobile. You would have open your site for all these people. But maybe these people are interested in Justin Bieber and not in your site. And maybe the potential rich guy that would invest on you checked your website from his iPad and there was a blue box on it.

    So, instead of really following those stats, maybe it’s better to consider what kind of people you expect/want to visit your site.

  2. Felix Turner says:

    @ Mr.doob. Good point. Browser support stats should not be the only factor when making a tech decision, but they are a big factor, especially when you are pitching to a client. For an experimental site, yeah by all means make it in HTML5, but it will be hard to sell that for http://www.doritos.com (for example).

  3. Zero Style says:

    Let’s face it HTML5 is amazing, but it still cannot do everything Flash can do. A good developer will choose the best weapon for the job, and the key word is choose.

  4. Bart says:

    Building websites, RIA’s and games still is a business. And business turns around money (ROI’s etc and all kinds of marketing and corparate based stuff that sometimes doesnt make sense to the devlopper or the end-user.. Mix that with the hassle of developping HTML5 (standards? oh really.. not so) and the cost-efffectiveness of the delopment side (maintainability, code base etc) that determines how much a project costs (in man-hours) and Flash is still the way to go for anything that needs more then some jQuery animation.

  5. Tomas says:

    Agree, you explained what most developers already now but it’s too much hype at the moment for many non-technical people to understand. I’m waiting for the big turn when media change direction and tell how the reality is, I think that it’s going to hurt Apple a lot more than many could believe. The majority has Windows and other systems so they are not going to be merciful.

  6. Rob McKeown says:

    One thing that seems to be missing from a lot of the arguments is the fact that Flash was created with “creativity” in mind while HTML 5 was created with “technology” in mind. You can see it just by how easily it is to use the tools. Flash is all about making it easier for visual designers, interaction designers and animators to create engaging content (games, applications, widgets, etc.). HTML 5 is not targeted at them at all. The fact that Flash is easier to develop too is just icing on the Flash cacke.

  7. Excellent writeup. Nice for someone to get realistic about it all.

    @Mr. Doob: I completely agree w/ the perspective and you are probably right for our personal blogs. However, for the vast majority of our *clients*, these kind of stats are very important. I do a lot of work for Disney and Nickelodeon, and I bet their stats would be quite similar to these graphs. For pre-established clients (like these), perhaps it would be good to get their actual stats for some hard numbers before making any decisions.

  8. MRB says:

    Flash can evolve too… again : )

  9. I like IPad; i will buy me one.

  10. lyle says:

    i picked up an iPad the other day to try it out while i was at best buy and it is a really awesome gadget. it looks like it’d be great for games and pictures etc, but i don’t know what else i’d use it for. i already have a macbook and an ipod so i don’t really know how useful it’d be for me. i did design an iPad app in my interactive web design class. that was really fun! i’m sure the web developers are working hard to make iPads more useful.

  11. @klimeklada says:

    Seriously, I mean, one thing is important just right now: developers could add to the boring flash error message some funny text:

    The Flash Player and a browser with Javascript support are needed. If you are browsing on iPhone or iPad and Steve Jobs is still alive, you are off one’s luck.

  12. Thanks for the stats, I’ve been looking for some evidence like this since the whole debate started. I normally only recommend the features in a Flash version when that version has reached over 70% penetration. Could be a while before Apple’s devices reach that sort of ubiquity I think 😉

  13. AYRTON360 says:

    I agree with the logic behind Flash being widely on the desktop computers …. but on my case, I do spcialised 360 degrees panoramic photos that are show with Flash, AND most of my clients are Marketing Director, and Art Directors at Advertising Agencies or big multi national companies all over and they ALL have an iPhone and/or an iPAD now
    And I need to get my work on their hands cause they’re the ones who hire me.
    So the only way to go is prepare new HTML5 pages showing my Imersive Panoramas in 360 degrees to them 🙂
    Thanks for the post and your considerations

  14. vtmonkey says:

    What most people do not understand is that Flash is actually a tool used for interactive web applications, not just a tool to deliver video. I have yet to see another development tool where I can develop a liquid interface and code all of the interactivity/logic in one place. The H.264 format that Steve Jobs recommends is actually very processor intensive and probably more so than FLV. Both can be delivered via the Flash player. It amazes me that Steve Jobs complains about Flashes processor usage when his hardware is always light on processing power/RAM and iTunes is one of the most processor intensive programs on my computer and has cause it to crash several times. JavaScript also has security issues. In reality, Jobs had a falling out with Adobe years back and still carries this grudge.

  15. vtmonkey says:

    PS- grudge at the cost of end-user experience and moving technology forward. However, hopefully this will make Adobe step ups its game a bit.

  16. ::alicea says:

    I think people are getting to heated up, on both sides of the Apple/Adobe Flash argument.
    I see both sides…but the fact is, right now you cannot say forget HTML5, develop using Flash only. Or vice-versa, forget Flash and move into HTML5.

    You can throw around all the generalized stats you want, but the decision has to come from what purpose the page/site is going to serve. The company I work for works with some of the largest retail chains around. We need to provide them with services that need to be mobile compatible, as they are using iPads and iPhones for these specific projects. Obviously, we cannot provide that using Flash. So, we are providing non-flash solutions to the clients.

    Whether to use Flash or not, is going to be on a case by case basis of what you are coding for. Use the method that gets you the desired results. That’s it.

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