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A week without Flash

06.28.2011
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Last weekend I had an idea: buying an ARM laptop instead of a x86/x64 one, which would be wonderful for battery life; I do not need much computing power, and I prefer lower weight and price. The idea naufragated due to the lack of such a laptop with a VGA exit, or supporting more than 512 megabytes of RAM; however, I started to think about the lack of official Flash support in the ARM architecture.

According to some, Flash should be eliminated from the web as it does not respect the HTTP paradigm, and we should transition to HTML 5. According to other opinions, Flash is an integral part of the web which isn't going anyway soon.

Thus I started a full week without Flash support in my computer, to see what it would be like to be on an ARM laptop (or other devices where there is no support for it.)

Some biases

I started this experiment on my home computer, so the experience is a bit different from the one of laptop or a netbook. It's also different from tablets or other mobile devices, which may have specialized applications to substitute Flash-heavy websites like YouTube.

Another disclaimer is that the workflow (or funflow) of a geek/programmer is different from the general usage of the web. But you're probably a programmer too if you're reading here.

Monday

On Monday morning, I started using Firefox with the flashblock extension exclusively, with an empty whitelist of sites where Flash should be loaded.

Immediately, I went to youtube.com/html5 and activated the HTML5 trial. WebM, Google's alternative format, is well-supported in Firefox4.

But not all videos have a WebM version: while many song videos were available to me, on many others. I don't have statistics for this, and don't know if Google publishes how many videos are available in both formats.

The same went for some Facebook videos (posted on there, not necessarily hosted on facebook.com), that used a Flash player; I could not watch them:

Tuesday

I remembered that there was a small button in the older version of bit.ly, whose purpose was to copy the shortened link into the clipboard. Evidently this is a feature that HTML5 lacks, since also Github employs a copy to clipboard button. Can we copy to clipboard with HTML5 or only intercept CTRL+cCTRL+v in WYSIWYG editors?

Wednesday

I could add other two kinds of videos where WebM and HTML5 are not supported:

  • programming screencasts (e.g. zendcasts.com)
  • TED talks, although TED is one of the largest conferences in the world. Yet if you come to their site with Flash disabled, there's no support for you, or at least there is no detection.

Thursday

Other resources were not accessible at all without Flash:

  • Justin.tv streaming, recently used for an Italian conference (Pane web e salame, approximately bread, web and salami), didn't work at all
  • Prezi.com: application for producing presentations (the famous zooming presentation editor).
  • InfoQ also features videos with automated slides on the bottom of them, which require Flash to be seen. However, you can just download a PDF version if you're registered to the site, so Flash is not the only way to reach the slides.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday

By now, I have reached every use case: other YouTube and Facebook videos were not accessible to me. By the way, I skipped lots of ads: particularly, Flashis used in the most blinking and invasive (and thus annoying) ones.

My conclusions

On an standard computer, the web experience without Flash is a nightmare, as almost all multimedia resources are not available. Different platforms, like mobile devices, mitigate this issue with specialized applications. But can you support all the available platforms and produce an application for each of them like YouTube does?

On the web developer side, supporting Flash and an alternative fruition medium for videos is going to be costly: not even YouTube, in fact, support a full double platform (yet). And we can't just ditch Flash as the alternative formats, like WebM, are not ubiquitous at all. But this is an old story.

A positive note is that sometimes providing a fallback to access content without Flash is possible: InfoQ allows slides downloading, and in general public domain or Creative Commons videos can just be linked in case the user does not have a browser capable of streaming them. These are different experiences than what we are accustomed with, but nonetheless they can be helpful in this period of standards turmoil.

Published at DZone with permission of Giorgio Sironi, author and DZone MVB.

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