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Thoughts on browsing without Flash

July 27, 2015

flash-earth

Adobe is facing renewed calls to retire its 19-year-old Flash Player plug-in after June and July’s security holes proved to be especially nasty. And many pundits have gone so far as to recommend that people delete the plug-in off of their computers altogether — they might not even miss it, they’re told.

But who’s to say whether you will miss Flash Player based on the way that you use the web?

It would be nice if a software agent could be rigged to crawl a selected portion of browser history and report back on how many of the sites a person visited (in the last month, say) required Flash Player for some reason.

A Firefox add-on that I use, called Wappalyzer, parses the software used by the websites that I visit but it doesn’t show Flash. The closest it comes is SWFObject, an open source JavaScript that can be used to detect if a browser is running Flash Player as well as embed Flash video. But the presence of SWFObject is no guarantee that a website is using Flash.

To make a long story short, I decided to test a bunch of websites, local and global, to see how many still used Flash for some purpose. First the tables, then some of the conclusions that I drew from the exercise.

  • “Flash, HTML5” = has some videos/audio encoded for Flash and some for HYML5.
  • “Flash/HTML5: = all videos/audio is available in both encodings.
  • “mp3 stream” = downloadable m3u link to an audio stream that can be opened with most media players.

Taking in the sites of Vancouver

Site Content Technology Details

Local radio

CBC radio Audio Flash
CFUV Audio Flash/Java
CJSF FM Audio mp3 stream Desktop media player.
CITR FM Audio HTML5 Streaming options.
CKNW AM Audio Flash
Jack FM Audio Flash
KISS FM Audia Flash
News 1130 AM Audio Flash
QMFM Audio Flash
Spice Radio AM Audio Flash
TSN Team1040 Audio Flash
Virgin Radio Audio Flash

Local TV

CBC Vidio Flash/HTML5 Playback defaults to Flash.
CHEK-DT Video Flash
City Vancouver Video HTML5
CTV News Video Flash
Global News Video HTML5
Omni TV Video Flash

Local publications

Georgia Straight Video HTML5 Via YouTube.
Metro News Video HTML5 Via YouTube.
The Province Video HTML5
Tyee Video HTML5 Via YouTube.
Vancouver Courier Video HTML5
Vancouver Sun Video HTML5
Westender No video on site!

Conventional wisdom says that small single-market media websites are more likely to be hanging on to embedded Flash content and that certainly seems to be the case with Vancouver radio stations but the majority of other media sites that I tested have moved over to HTML5; often by just uploading all of their video to YouTube.

Taking a site-seeing trip around the world

Site Content Technology Details

eCommerce

Amazon Video HTML5
Ebay Video Flash YouTube Flash.
Ikea Video HTML5 Via YouTube.

Finance

Bloomberg Charts HTML5/JS
Fed. Res. Bank of NY Charts Flash
Financial Times Video HTML5
Charts JavaScript
Fortune Video Flash
Free Stockcharts Charts Silverlight
Google Finance Charts Flash Real-time charts.
J.P. Morgan Video Flash
NASDAQ Charts Flash/HTML5 Most charts are Flash.
Trading View Charts HTML5/JS

Fun and games

Ganespot Video Flash
Makezine Video Flash
Neave Interactive Games Flash Flash req. by 7/9 games.

Marketing

CampaignMonitor Charts HTML5

News and current affairs

ABC News (US) Video Flash,HTML5 Some plays w/o Flash.
The Altlantic Video HTML5
Bloomberg Video Flash
Business Insider Video Flash/HTML5
CBS News Video Flash
CNN Video HTML5
Daily Mail Video Flash
The Economist Video Flash
Audio Soundcloud
Fox News Video HTML5
Guardian Video Flash
Huffington Post UK Video Flash
IBN Video Flash
IBTimes Video HTML5
ITV News Video Flash/HLS HLS=Apple & Andr.
Mother Jones Video HTML5 Via YouTube.
National Post Video HTML5
New York Times Video HTML5
NPR Audio Flash,HTML5 HTML5 live stream.
The Paris Review Video Flash
PBS Newshour Video HTML5 Via YouTube.
Reuters Video Flash
Tech News Taday Video Flash
Times of India Video Flash
Toronto Star Video HTML5
Washington Post Video HTML5
Revision 3 Tekzilla Video HTML5

Portal

Yahoo Video Flash/HTML5

Productivity/Data visualization 

Google Charts Charts HTML5/SVG Uses VML for older IE.
OpenStreetMap Maps HTML5,JS Ditched Flash 2013.
Prezi Video Flash Free & pay tiers.
Prezi Business Video HTML5 Pay-only.
Seismic Monitor Maps HTML5,JS
Tripline Maps JavasScript Ditched Flash 2014.
TripperMap Geomap Flash Maps Flikr photos.
U.K. Nat. Stats Office
Map Flash
 Weather Network Charts Flash

Social networking

Facebook Video HTML5 Adopting HTML5.
Linkedin Video Flash

Streaming audio

BBC World Serv. Audio Flash iPlayer uses Flash.
Soundcloud Audio HTML5
Spotify Audio Flash

Streaming video / image sharing

Blinkx Video Flash YouTube=HTML5.
Blip Video Flash Use Vid w/o Flash.
Comedy Central Video Flash
DailyMotion Video HTML5
Hulu Video Flash
Imgur GIFV HTML5 .
Internet Archive Video HTML5 Also has audio.
ITVPlayer Video Flash
Metacafe Video Flash,HTML5 hit & miss HTML5.
Newgrounds Video HTML5 Indie animation!
Netflix Video HTML5 System requirments.
TVDuck Video Flash,HTML5 Full TV series & movies.
Twitch Video Flash Switching to .HTML5.
YouTube Video Flash/HTML5
Vimeo Video HTML5
Veoh Video Flash
Vevo Video Flash

Sports

ESPN Video HTML5,Flash Front pg. is HTML5.
SportsCentre
Video Flash
B.ball Tonight
Video Flash
FIFA Video HTML5 via YouTube.
MLB Video HTML5 Used Silverlight in 2008
NBA Video HTML5
NBC Sports Video HTML5
NFL Video HTML5
NHL Video Flash
Formula One Video Flash
Wimbledon Video HTML5

Last update:  June 10, 2016

Money talks and says if Flash walks

It appears to me that the use of Flash to embed and stream multimedia is being ditched from the pointy end of the Internet pyramid down. The more a website depends on traffic for its income the more likely it is to be moving to HTML5.

chart-sites-with-flash

November 15, 2010 to July 15, 2015: a 26 percent decline. —HTTP Archive

It’s fitting that YouTube, which adopted, and thus legitimized, Flash video in 2005, is leading the move away from it. Not only does YouTube’s move to HTML5 encourage other websites to follow suit but many small websites are making the jump by simply using YouTube to host all their videos.

But there remain tens of thousands of small and medium-size company websites at the bottom of the pile that are sticking with Flash video and audio for many of the same reasons that people have stuck with Windows XP: they can’t see why they should go to the trouble and expense of changing something that they don’t think is broken and that generates, at best, good will but no revenue. A lot of radio and television stations around the world fall into this category.

chart-flash-transfers

November 15, 2010 to July 15, 2015: average per-site Flash requests go from 1.5 to 0.8, a 46 percent decline. — HTTP Archive

Yet even as its use as a multimedia encoder shrinks, Flash continues to be overwhelmingly strong in at least two areas: the creation of web-based games and data visualizations.

Until someone creates the next FarmVille in HTML5 and the next Candy Crush Saga and so on — until then, Flash will remain the de facto choice for creating such social games, because it’s proven its worth — billions and billions of dollars-worth.

The financial sector of the web continues to use Flash-based tools to create interactive, real-time data visualizations of stock market activity and they likewise won’t be rushed to abandon what works and helps earn them money.

On the technical side, I found that when testing a site’s ability to deliver content in pure HTML5, it wasn’t always enough just to disable Flash Player in the browser, I had to remove it.

It’s default of the servers

A case in point was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) which said that Flash Player was required for video playback and this appeared to be true but only when I had the Flash Player installed:

  • With Flash Player installed and activated, the CBC played the video with Flash.
  • With Flash Player set for click to play, the CBC showed the “Activate Flash” block screen.
  • With Flash Player disabled , the CBC said that I was missing the necessary Flash plug-in.

But after I completely uninstalled Flash Player from my laptop all the CBC’s videos played — meaning they are all being provided in both Flash format and an open standard HTML5 format but the CBC will default to offering the Flash version unless there is no hint of Flash Player in your browser!

The NBA website was the same way.

HTML5 — an open source of some confusion

HTML, or HyperText Markup Language, is a system of text “tags” that tell web browsers how to make web pages look and act. Adobe Flash originally gained its foothold delivering so-called rich media on the web because HTML could define text and colour and static images but had no tags to control multimedia.

The latest revisions to the HTML markup language — the fifth, hence “HTML5” — finally adds the tags (like <video> and <audio>) that can allow web browsers to handle multimedia, without the need for third party plug-ins like Adobe’s Flash Player and Microsoft’s Silverlight.

Ideally, the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) that oversaw the HTML5 revisions, would have settled on two open source encoders (or codecs) — one for video and one for audio — as the only two codecs that web browsers needed to build-in support for.

This made a world of sense and many expected and hoped that the two high quality open source codecs chosen would be Ogg Vorbis (for audio) and  Ogg Theora (for video).

Instead, for whatever reason, the W3C settled on nothing whatsoever, forcing browsers to choose between three competing “open standard” video codecs:

  • H.264, created by the MPEG and ITU-T, is an open standard subject to royalties.
  • Ogg Theora, created by On2 Technologies and made open source by 2002.
  • WebM, an open source version of another On2 codec, released by Google after it bought On2 in 2010.

Apple stands behind H.264 and this is seemingly the only video coding format of the three that is natively supported by Apple’s Safari web browser. Neither Mozilla Firefox nor Opera can afford the licensing fees for H.264 and instead both support Ogg Theora and WebM. Google’s Chrome still supports all three codecs and more. Microsoft supported H.264 and WebM in Internet Explorer 9 but it’s not clear yet what the Edge browser in Windows 10 supports.

A confusion of competing video codecs was one of the things that made the one stop solution of Flash so attractive in the early 2000s and it was exactly what the revised HTML5 standards were supposed to avoid but didn’t.

If Flash dies it will be from old age, not HTML5

The new HTML5 standard is powerful but adoption has clearly been handicapped by both an unwillingness to settle on explicit audio and video encoding formats and by a lack of multimedia authoring tools.

The former means that web browser makers are left to decide which of the three video encoding schemes they will build support for and web developers wanting to deliver streaming video using pure HTML5 must make up to three versions of the same video available if they want to be compatible with all the major web browsers — as opposed to doing it once for Flash.

This can only make converting an existing multimedia library over to HTML5 that much more expensive.

And HTML5 seems to be nowhere near having the development capabilities to match Adobe Flash in the creation of animated content, but I’m honestly not qualified to talk about that (the last time that I built with Flash was with version 5 in 2000!).

And I cannot competently speak to the security questions either.

But I will say that the charge leveled against the Flash Player, that it has become a popular attack vector because it allows malicious coders the same weak doorway into all operating systems, seems to equally apply to HTML5.

And HTML5’s answer to Flash’s animation capabilities, resting as it does on SVG files and JavaScript, appears to have its own genuine security implications to address.

Scalable vector graphics (SVG) image files can contain unseen interactive code structures, such as HTML, JavaScript and Flash, allowing something called code injection. Security experts say that any SVG image should be treated as a potential application program, with all the security issues that entails. And JavaScript can also store hidden data payloads and allows HTML code injection.

Many social media web platforms, including WordPress.com, which hosts my blog, will not support the upload of SVG images due to their inherent security risk and will only accept JavaScript from trusted content providers, such as Google.

A short history of Adobe Flash

1993: FutureWave Software releases SmartSketch, renamed FutureSplash Animator three years later.
1997: Macromedia buys FutureSplash Animator and renames it Macromedia Flash.
2000: Flash 5 adds ActionScript which turns Flash into a full multimedia development platform.
2004: Apple adopts the royalty-encumbered H.264 video coding format (MP4) developed by MPG and ITU
2005: YouTube goes online using Flash technology to embed its videos. Every other website on Earth follows suit.
Adobe buys Macromedia for US$3.4 billion in stock.
2006: Google buys YouTube for $1.65 billion.
Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, is elected to Apple Inc.‘s board of directors.
2007: Apple iPhone released — without Flash Player!
YouTube quietly begins encoding all videos in both Flash and the Apple-supported H.264 format.
Microsoft releases Silverlight, its Flash-like rich Internet application platform.
WC3 removes Ogg Theora (video) and Ogg Vorbis (audio) open source encoders from the HTML5 standard.
2009: Zynga’s Flash-based FarmVille social game debuts on Facebook.
2010: Apple iPad is released with native H.264 support and without Flash.
Steve Jobs publishes his “Thoughts on Flash” explaining why Apple won’t be putting Flash on any iProducts.
Google buys On2 Technologies for an estimated $124.6 million.
Google releases royalty free WebM video file format built on the core of On2’s VP8 technology.
Chrome browser adds support for WebM (VP8) and Theora but says it will drop H.264 (doesn’t).
Microsoft creates experimental HTML5 plug-in to add H.264 support to Windows Firefox.
2011: Adobe ceases development of Flash for Android.
2013: Microsoft ceases development of Silverlight.
In a four month span, Flash useage by top 17,000 websites drops 2 percent from 49 to 47 percent.
2014: By September Flash Player has been the subject of 70 Common Vulnerability and Exposure (CVE) security notices!
WC3 consortium finally endorses HTML5 as an official standard.
2015: By June, Adobe has to patch at least 31 security vulnerabilities in Flash Player.
In July, Abobe rushes out three patches to especially serious security flaws in Flash P;layer.
By July, Flash is used by only 10.5 percent of all websites — a drop of nearly 3 percent in seven months!
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