If one were to ask, “What was the most terrible technology ever created?” it’s hard to argue with those who scream, “Aieeeeeee!!!” (AKA Internet Explorer 6). Even Microsoft was embarrassed by its browser debacle, launching and a “Friends don’t’ let friends use IE6” campaign in 2009 and an IE6 Deathwatch site in 2011.
Fast forward to 2015 and we have an arguably new public web-enemy number one – Flash!
Steve Jobs’ saw it coming in 2010, banning Adobe’s popular multi-media player from iOS devices, claiming it was buggy and insecure. And although it took five years for the rest of the world to openly subscribe to Jobs’ sentiments, there’s no denying it now – Flash is finished.
- Google now blocks auto-playing of Flash videos
- Amazon has axed Flash Ads
- Facebook has called for an end-of-life date on Flash
- Firefox kills Flash by default in its browser
Rigor mortis has not set in quite yet, but the ripple effects of Flash’s pending demise have many publishers wondering how they will sufficiently serve all of their readers when the underlying publishing technology they use is Flash-based.
Many of those platform vendors are announcing moves to HTML5, which is great. But is it enough?
Why publishers should care about HTML5
In 2014, for the first time ever, internet use on mobile devices exceeded desktop browsing, with 99.5 per cent of people using mobiles to access content. This trend is only expected to continue, which is good news for publishers looking to enjoy all the benefits HTML5 can bring to their digital properties.
In addition to being “Flash-free”, HTML5 brings the rich native app experience to the browser as a web-based application (web app) and delivers:
A unified and engaging user experience across every single platform
Prior to the adoption of HTML5, the web and app experiences were quite different; today they are consistent in both presentation and functionality.
Multimedia support for editorial and advertising
Multimedia content is much easier to integrate into web apps due to HTML5’s native support for streaming audio and video (e.g. no plug-ins are required to watch a video or listen to audio).
Embedded rich media is more battery-friendly for mobile devices, which allows publishers to integrate multimedia into digital editions without fear of impacting resources for smartphone users.
Faster time to market
HTML5 provides a single cross-platform solution that allows all web apps to be updated across the myriad of devices readers carry at the same time. Users no longer need to download and install the latest updates for each different platform every time new functionality or enhancements are added to digital editions.
Easier geo-targeting of content
Dynamic location-based geo-targeted news, images, advertising and redirects are much easier to implement with HTML5-powered digital editions.
Better marketing opportunities
Because HTML5 is SEO-friendly, it is much easier to increase brand awareness and drive traffic to web apps through both paid and non-paid channels, allowing publishers to attract new readers through search and monetise their content in new ways.
A single ecosystem regardless of platform
In addition to charging a healthy fee to publish apps in their app stores, every device manufacturer enforces rules publishers must follow with their apps, including compliance with:
- Pricing tiers (No, you can’t price your apps the way you want)
- Content “suitability” standards (Yes, they impose their moral standards on your content)
- User data policies (No, you can’t access the personal data of your subscribers)
The benefits of HTML5 are undeniable, but there is a but….It can’t help the millions of readers who choose to use older browsers that don’t, and never will, adequately support HTML5.
Stuck in the Past
Would it shock you to know that a fifth of all computers still run Windows XP? Released in 2001, the highly popular operating system (which should have been put to bed in 2009) was given an end-of-life extension by Microsoft until 2014. And even though it’s no longer supported and is vulnerable to security risks, it still retains a sizeable fan base.
I’ve seen this mind-boggling reality in action in the 16,000+ libraries worldwide that offer sponsored access to PressReader for their patrons. Many still use antiquated browsers and see no reason to invest in an upgrade.
To understand how big that audience really is, I decided to look at one month of PressReader access to see what percentage of our 30m readers were using older browsers without ample HTML5 support.
I discovered that more than 15 per cent of our readers (~4m people) still use HTML4 browsers to consume our publishing partners’ content. If one were to extrapolate that to the global magazine web audience, we’d be looking at more than 37m people!
Suggesting that they all upgrade their browsers in order to enjoy an HTML5 reading experience is like asking UK Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage, to switch sides in the “modern-day Battle of Britain” and vote, “Yes” in the European Union referendum. It just ain’t going to happen.
There needs to be another solution – one that offers support for older browsers without the baggage that’s been inherent in Flash from the beginning…
In 1993, two years before the consumerisation of the internet, two talented techies set out to create a graphics editor for “pen” computers. Their vector-drawing program evolved into a web animation tool and was snapped up my Macromedia in 1996 (after Adobe turned down an offer to buy it in 1995).
Over the next nine years, the technology matured and evolved into the ubiquitous web application platform of this century; Macromedia Flash was everywhere.
There was little competition for the “de facto standard” at the time, except for one – SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) – the official W3C standard that provided an XML-based vector image format for two-dimensional graphics with support for interactivity and animation.
Now, unless you’re a software developer, you might never have heard of SVG, but the 16-year-old standard is supported by every major browser and is a key element of HTML5.
The use of SVG in the design of most publishing platforms today is almost non-existent, not because it’s not a superior technology to Flash, but because Flash was perceived to be the easier and faster road to revenues.
SVG versus Flash
SVG and Flash have a lot in common. They are both vector-based and support animation, hyperlinking, database connectivity and scripting.
But there are some significant differences between them, not the least of which is the fact that Flash is a proprietary technology controlled by a single vendor, while SVG is an open standard supported by many.
Simple text editor (easy to read and edit)
Binary editor (not readable by humans)
Compatible with affordable packages such as PHP, XSLT, JSP, etc.
Expensive Flash Generator license required for large-scale dynamic graphics
Supports filter effects on vector graphics
Does not support filter effects
Above: SVG versus Flash
SVG also trumps Flash with all the advantages of XML, including:
- Easy integration with emerging XML standards, standard APIs and web services
- No need for plug-ins on major browsers
- Being mobile-friendly
But developing digital publishing solutions using only open standard technologies (e.g. HTML, SVG) takes more time and talent than building a Flash-based one. Which is why there are dozens of platforms that use Flash for magazine publishing, all of which are vulnerable to Flash’s critical security issues, poor performance and chronic instabilities.
I only know of one publishing platform that is completely “Flash-free” and supports both HTML4 and HTML5 browsers. If you know of any others that fully meet that criteria please tweet me.
History keeps repeating itself
Flash wasn’t the only technology bandwagon that publishers hopped on with high hopes. Banner ads were also the easy choice for newspaper and magazines executives looking to capitalise on digital.
But look what happened to them. Not only did they not deliver more than digital dimes to the bottom lines of headlines, they annoyed readers to the point that a growing list of over 200m people are now using ad blocking software to avoid ever having to see them again.
And ads aren’t the only things being blocked. More and more browsers are also offering users a clutter-free reading experience by stripping out all the “non-essential” content with just a click.
It won’t be long before the web will be an ad- and image-free zone, where the only content readers will see is what they opt-in for.
Beware of what’s too good to be true
Like many other industries fooled by Flash, the publishing community has been too quick to jump on cheaper short-term solutions without considering the longer-term consequences of their actions.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that we need to think several steps ahead of where we are now when choosing technologies. Flash and banner ads were just two myopic moves of many we’ve made throughout the last decade. Heading down the proprietary native app development road was another. It seemed so easy five years ago to build apps in-house, but in the end the development
- Cost too much
- Didn’t pay back anticipated dividends
- Limited the distribution of content to only a few select platforms
Publishers need to be more like chess masters, making strategic decisions based on long-term gain, not on short-term pain. No one ever said it would be easy; but it really is that simple.
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