HTML5 vs Flash

Updated: October 11, 2010

Adobe Flash has long been the way to watch videos or create interactive content on the web. From the early 2000s all-Flash website templates to the modern day YouTube video collection, Flash is present everywhere you turn on the Internet, but some say its days are numbered. HTML5, a new version of the programming language of the Internet, has been hailed by Apple as a superior alternative, capable of making Flash irrelevant by allowing people to watch videos in their browsers without having to install special software. Though it is said by Apple to use less computer resources and reduce the lag associated with Flash-heavy content, the actual research on the efficiency of HTML5 is still a mixed bag. Today we uncover the findings of various HTML5 vs Flash "stress tests" and explore the future of this new turf war.

Apple And Adobe

It's no secret that Apple CEO Steve Jobs has never been a fan of Adobe. The rivalry was ignited with Apple released the iPhone without Flash support, which both limited the capabilities of application developers and hindered the web-surfing experience for users. Though they've taken heat over the decision, Jobs remains resolute in his conviction that HTML5 is the superior technology. In an interview at the 2010 D8 conference, Jobs commented that "[Apple] picks the things that look like they're going to be the right horses to ride going forward, and Flash looks like the technology that had its day and is waning, and HTML5 looks like the technology that's really on the ascendency right now."

The iPhone was only the beginning. It wasn't until the Apple released their iPad tablet computer without support for Flash that Adobe started crying foul play. "We believe that Apple...has taken a step that could undermine this next chapter of the web," they announced in a press release, and immediately began running anti-Apple advertising campaigns. So with Apple's supported HTML5 in one corner and Adobe's Flash in the other, how has the battle been turning out?

CPU Usage On A Mac

One of the rumors circling tech fields about HTML5 is that it will uses less CPU resources than Flash, which likely came from Steve Jobs calling Flash a "CPU hog," but is it really? The answer relies entirely on what system and browser you run your tests with. An article published by ReadWriteWeb discusses the results of a battery of CPU power consumption tests between the two tools.

On a Mac, it was discovered that HTML5 was superior when surfing with the Safari web browser, using only 12.39% CPU while Flash 10.1 used 32.07%. The difference is so striking at first that it seems like Steve Jobs was correct in his assertions, until the same tests were run using Google Chrome. These results told an entirely different story, showing that both HTML5 and Flash were equally matched, using about 50% CPU. Finally, benchmarks were run using the popular Mozilla Firefox browser and results similar to Safari were found.

CPU Usage On A PC

So far, the tests seem to suggest that Mac users can expect HTML5 to be at least as efficient, if not far better, than Flash. But when the same tests were run on a PC the opposite results were seen. Using Safari, HTML5 would not even play videos, however Flash 10.1 used a mere 7.43%. which is far less than the best HTML5 outcome on the Mac. Using Google Chrome, Flash 10.1 destroyed HTML5, showing 58% greater efficiency over the new format.

The results so far were impressive, but it was the Mozilla Firefox test that made Flash 10.1 really stand out. Flash 10.1 used only 6% CPU in this test, setting a new standard that HTML5 never came close to matching.

What Accounts For The Difference?

By this point, Mac users are probably wondering why Flash runs so much more efficiently on a PC than it does on their native system. The answer is hardware acceleration. On the PC, Flash 10.1 has access to the graphics card, which it uses to decode the video. Moving this process from software level to the graphics card saves the CPU a great deal of work, reducing computer lag and promoting smooth performance.

Unfortunately, Apple's idealistic stance against Flash means that they are keeping their system closed and not allowing Adobe software to access their hardware components. Without the ability to use the graphics card for video decoding, all of the responsibility falls on the CPU, creating the resource hogging seen in the Mac tests. Adobe announced that "the Flash Player team will continue to evaluate adding hardware acceleration to...Mac OS X in future releases," indicating that they are trying to negotiate this ability from Apple, but so far Steve Jobs has stood firm that Flash technology is too outdated to invest in.

Gaming

Online video isn't all that Flash does. A review of this turf war from TheNextWeb reminds us that Flash is also one of the biggest gaming platforms in the world. Many video games for the XBOX 360, Nintendo WII, and Sony PS3 have Flash elements, and with hundreds of millions of consoles sold, the codec has achieved a sweeping global presence in the gaming market.

Additionally, almost every significantly popular online video game is programmed in Flash, including FarmVille, a Facebook video game with over 80 million active players according to Mashable. Given that these games are already designed and optimized in Flash, and their fans crave the same experience they've gotten used to, HTML5 has a serious uphill battle if they hope to replace Flash in this regard.

Where Is The Future Headed?

Even if HTML5 succeeded in ousting Flash from the Internet, TheNextWeb shrewdly points out that Adobe is in the business of making tools and developer applications - they are not directly profiting from "Flash" itself. If HTML5 takes off the way Steve Jobs predicts it will, someone will need to develop programming tool-kits for it, and that job will likely be taken up by Adobe. In an interview earlier this year, Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch indicated that he was already thinking along these very lines. "I think HTML5 is a terrific step forward for HTML," he exclaimed. "Of course, we're going to make great tooling for HTML5. We're going to try to make the best tools in the world for HTML5."

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