YouTube Finally Ditches Flash for HTML5

In a move that may just be the final nail in Adobe Flash Player’s coffin, the YouTube engineering team recently announced that YouTube will now stream videos using HTML5 by default for Chrome, Internet Explorer 11, Safari 8, and beta versions of Firefox.

YouTube Finally Ditches Flash for HTML5While YouTube originally experimented with HTML5 playback four years ago, the site has always relied on Flash Player by default due to HTML5’s lack of proper support for content protection, camera and microphone access, fullscreen videos, and more. “Most critically, HTML5 lacked support for Adaptive Bitrate (ABR) that lets us show you more videos with less buffering,” says YouTube. However, HTML5 and related technologies have improved significantly in the past few years, and YouTube is finally ready to ditch Flash.

The Rise and Fall of Flash

Not too long ago, Flash was the industry standard for any multimedia on the web – movies, games, ads, everything. However, Flash was frequently criticised for causing security problems and being too resource-intensive. Furthermore, many companies and advocates of open standards didn’t like the idea of relying on one company to power all of the web’s multimedia. One of Flash’s most vocal opponents – former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, publicly criticised Flash in an open letter and explained Apple’s refusal to support Flash on iOS.

Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc. While Adobe’s Flash products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Adobe and available only from Adobe. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system.

Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

With companies like Apple making a strong stance against Flash, HTML5 quickly began to gain traction. Other companies launched their own competing standards, like Microsoft’s Silverlight. Some browsers like Opera and Konqueror started blocking Flash content until the user clicked on it. HTML5’s benefits also extended beyond traditional desktop web browsers, as devices like smartphones and smart TVs became increasingly popular. The need for an open, cross-platform standard was becoming increasingly relevant, and even Adobe finally decided to shift towards HTML5 and ended support for Flash on mobile devices. Popular content providers like Netflix, Vimeo, and YouTube have all embraced HTML5, and Flash has become somewhat of a rarity online.

Does Anyone Still Use Flash?

Flash on the web is just about dead, as HTML5 can be used for the same type of rich, interactive multimedia, with much better performance and cross-platform compatibility. However, Flash is still used for many low-budget cartoons and games. Popular TV shows such as My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and games such as VVVVVV were created in Flash. However, for the most part, Flash is on its way out. Even the latest versions of Adobe Flash Professional, the software used to create Flash content, include HTML5 tools.

A New Standards Battle


While web developers can safely use HTML5’s <video> tag and expect most browsers to understand the code, video format is still an issue. Most of the web prefers the H.264/AVC and the upcoming H.265/HEVC compression formats for encoding and distributing video. However, Google prefers its own VP9 codec, “which gives you higher quality video resolution with an average bandwidth reduction of 35 percent,” says the company. Both Chrome and Firefox support H.264 and VP9, but Safari and Internet Explorer only support H.264. For cross-browser compatibility, YouTube currently has to offer videos in both formats. Furthermore, there are still many more competing video codecs, each with its own pros and cons.

Creating an open standard that everyone wants to use is difficult. However, at least when it comes to online multimedia, it seems like most developers agree that HTML5 is the way to go.

“Standards” comic from XKCD. Other images from Shutterstock.

I've always been interested in the latest stuff in science and technology, and I'm currently a freshman undergraduate electrical engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin.