Flash Is Done; Time For Digital Signage To Fully Adopt HTML5

Guest Post: Paul Vincent, Neuranet

Most computer technologies come and go quickly, with few people outside of software engineering noticing. But Adobe’s Flash was a major technology that lasted 20 years, and was familiar to just about any consumer with a laptop or smartphone. Consumers knew about the frequent updates needed for the Flash player plug-in, and were conditioned and resigned to ending up on websites that just didn’t work without the latest Flash.

Paul Vincent

Flash isn’t quite dead, but it’s dying quickly. It’s now rare to run into websites needing Flash players. Creative developers and programmers have largely moved on, but one of the holdover industries is digital signage.

One reason for this could be due to the way some signage management platforms were built, to create, update and manage content and schedules. Another reason, I’m guessing, is the cost of upgrading a network and customers to newer devices that support newer operating systems, and the technology that has supplanted Flash – HTML5. Consumer devices are generally updated faster than devices in the commercial space.

Adobe recently announced that by 2020, it will not support the Flash player. That may have you asking, “I thought Flash was already killed off years ago?”

Nope. While usage has significantly dropped, Adobe has still been updating the player. A good analogy is when analog TV was replaced with digital TV distribution. While most consumers had already transitioned to digital TV, the analog signal continued to be broadcast for many years, until networks finally pulled the plug.

So why did such a widely-used technology like Flash, that was once installed on over a billion devices, nosedive to obscurity so quickly?

A Brief Flash History

Flash was originally created by FutureWave Software in the early 1990’s, which was acquired by Macromedia, a company that focused on media and web design tools including Dreamweaver. In 2005, Adobe then acquired Macromedia for $3.4b in stock.

In the early 2000’s, web usability was very static, with simple text and images. Flash provided a leap in usability with advanced animation and interactive capabilities. The Flash player’s installation base grew very quickly, because as soon as someone loaded a page that had Flash content or ads on it somewhere, they would be prompted to install the Flash plugin.

Some designers started building content and even entire websites using Flash, but this quickly faded due to the cost and complexity of maintaining the content. Because Flash required users to install the Flash player and keep it updated, website designers were forced to create a non-flash experience when the player wasn’t detected, so creating two versions and maintaining both wasn’t efficient. There was also an end-user issue where Flash files couldn’t be seen or indexed by search engines.

The main use of Flash evolved towards online advertising campaigns that usually had a 3-6 month life span, or online games that required rich interaction and were more evergreen.

Rise Of HTML5

By 2010, an open source replacement for Flash had been in the works by the W3C, it was simply called HTML5 and it was an advancement on the HTML markup language that the entire web was based on. It leveraged other popular languages, such as Javascript, and included more advanced CSS that helped scale styling of HTML, making it easier to add effects and animation.

In April 2010, around the time of the original iPad launch, Steve Jobs’ wrote an open letter explaining why Apple decided to not support Flash in iOS. He suggested that HTML5 and related technologies were going to replace Flash and result in a better experience for users both on the web and devices by improving battery life, security, and of course, touch capabilities that were not possible in Flash.

With no Flash support on iPhone or iPad and limited support on Android devices, all with rapidly growing user bases, and with the HTML5 spec still somewhat embryonic, content and ads on iOS and Android regressed to the point that they were mostly simple text, static images or animated gifs. Apple essentially ended up promoting its own languages to build apps with, rather than pushing HTML5.

But by the end of 2014, the W3C released the final HTML5 spec, and a new era began. Due to HTML5’s responsive design capabilities, more developers were building cross device web apps that could work within the browser, or in native app environments. For many companies developing apps, especially in media or retail, this approach was far more efficient than having to maintain multiple codebases and teams for the web and native apps.

By 2015, the writing was on the wall for Flash – HTML5 is open source, while Flash was proprietary technology owned by one company. Open meant it could be built directly into all browsers, and didn’t require a plugin. All updates would come with the browser update.

A series of security issues that plagued Flash in 2015 and 2016 resulted in each of the major browsers announcing that they would be dropping support for not only Flash, but other plugins such as Quicktime, which was an Apple video technology. Flash had also helped bring mass market video to the web via thousands of major publishers.

Some publishers were still working hard to transition from their Flash video players to HTML5 until recently – a difficult transition due to the systems and partners they had integrated over years, and often internal concern of a possible revenue impact or DRM (Digital Rights Management) issues.

Shifting Content

While the online advertising industry has already made the shift to HTML5 leveraging animation and interactive capabilities, the content world is yet to fully embrace animation and interactivity, as most content is still being produced as simple text and images. Many companies are struggling to create HTML5 content and ads efficiently.

The association for the online ad industry – the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) quickly embraced HTML5 and its responsive and adaptive design capabilities to help improve the ad experience. The recent IAB launch of Flexible Ad Units are set to replace the old fixed size ad placements like 300×250 and 728×90, that we had all become used to in the world of Flash. The new Flexible Ads are based on aspect ratios like 16:9, 1:1, 1:2 etc., and adapt to different devices and screen resolutions.

The digital signage industry has had a somewhat slow movement to using HTML5 tech with most screens still displaying static images or video files – and still has a lot to gain from adopting HTML5its adoption. The responsive and adaptive design capabilities of HTML5 allows hundreds of different screen sizes and resolutions like 4k to be served by a single adaptive creative. Connecting page components dynamically, via the web, can enable instant updating of content such as new product images or pricing instantly across thousands of signage screens.

My Flexitive team works specifically on HTML5, on a platform designed to enable flexible, adaptive creative. We’re envisioning a world where teams can streamline production of richer, interactive experiences that will unlock a new era of enhanced web usability across both personal screens, and digital out of home devices and screens.