Flash is dead: long live HTML5 for eLearning?

LearnUpon considers the future of Flash and HTML5 technology for the eLearning industryAdobe Flash technology has helped support the delivery of online multimedia content for nearly two decades. Three popular eLearning formats are also largely dependent on Flash technology for their delivery medium: SCORM, Tin Can (xAPI), and video. Extensive use of Flash makes rumors of its decline a concern for those of us working in the eLearning industry. With doubts about the security of the technology continuing to surface, the implications for eLearning are unclear. Many of us will continue to rely on some combination of SCORM, Tin Can and video content when developing courses. While files can be exported for equivalent HTML5 compatibility, the movement away from Flash is certain to generate cost and complexity for online learning professionals. How is the decline of Flash likely to impact you and your LMS?

 

The troubled history of Flash

Flash has been a useful technology for developers working with a broad range of online content types for many years – 20 maybe? Wow! So why the fall? The two most commonly cited reasons are security and performance. For the second half of its history, it has been plagued by serious security bugs that made it possible to control a user’s device once it had visited a website that contained Flash content. These security holes are routinely fixed but, in many cases, the damage has already been done. Operating systems manufacturers like Microsoft, Ubuntu and Apple tired of the overheads accrued by keeping their systems secure with frequent patches. And Flash developed a poor security reputation as a result.

Flash’s position was also compromised by the hardware requirements it needs to play heavily animated or video content. Although not an issue for most desktop PCs these days, mobile devices and smaller laptops still struggle to deliver a smooth user experience that includes Flash. Apple famously, or perhaps infamously, excluded Flash from iOS devices by default. Android tried, and largely failed, to deliver a rich Flash experience on mobile devices. Adobe has implemented many changes to combat these performance issues but has still suffered reputational damage in the interim.

Web browsers ultimately stepped forward to deal with the growing frustrations of end-users, hardware manufacturers, and software providers. Modern browsers like Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and eventually, Internet Explorer, became equipped to provide the powerful features associated with Flash, like animation, scripting, and video playback. These browsers continue to evolve today, with Flash still offering some advantages for video playback on desktop hardware. But the demise of Flash was only slightly exaggerated!

 

The rise of HTML5?

The good news is that HTML5 technology provides many tools urgently needed to fill the gap left by the decline of Flash. HTML5 enables video and audio content to render directly in the browser, for example. It also offers “fun stuff” that enhances animations and what I’ll describe as “wizardry in the UI”. HTML5 is also more efficient than Flash, using less processing power. That sounds great! All of the bells and whistles we enjoyed with Flash can simply be replaced by HTML5.

While I agree with the HTML5 movement in general, I still have a problem. I can’t overlook the bugbear that video content in HTML5 format is handled differently in every browser. Browsers still have some work to do to improve the experience of playback over poor internet connections. And the feature-incomplete players embedded in browsers most undergo further development to deliver a truly smooth user experience. In the meantime, eLearning course developers must endure mixed results. At worst, learners become frustrated by attempting to absorb information from videos that struggle to buffer thanks to poor connections coupled with their browser’s specific HTML5 implementation.

There are solutions to these problems. Some issues can be tackled using CDNs, for example. But it’s a battle that looks set to continue until browser and HTML5 technologies mature further.

 

What it means for your LMS

Most of the impacts for LMS users relate to the production of SCORM and Tin Can courses that are exported into Flash formats. While the rendering and streaming of eLearning video content will also be affected, SCORM and Tin Can courseware is most vulnerable, built as it is on Flash technology. It’s certainly helpful that SCORM and Tin Can modules can be rendered using HTML5 as an alternative. But the falling away of default compatibility with Flash will create problems for all who use an LMS to deliver eLearning. Migrating course content to HTML5 is one solution that’s been simplified by enhancements made to the newest generation of authoring tools. The alternative may be a drastically diminished user experience for learners unable to access Flash. And the ultimate result of that is likely to be unhappy customers and unhappy learners.

A less frequently discussed problem concerns support for Internet Explorer 8 and 9. At LearnUpon, we also offer support for IE7 in cases where customers request it for specific clients. But as LMS vendors, we generally have no control over performance issues experienced with browsers installed on clients networks. There’s limited HTML5 support for versions earlier than IE9, while support available for IE9 is itself poor. For many organizations, upgrading from IE9 can generate significant upheaval. Both scenarios lead to considerable inconvenience for developers and users in affected organizations. In some ways, I hope that the movement away from Flash encourages upgrades to more recent versions of IE. Whether that will actually happen or not remains to be seen. With Microsoft dropping support for old versions of Internet Explorer in 2016, this wish may be granted sooner than expected.

 

The future of Flash vs. HTML5

There’s no question that the end is in sight for Flash. Its growing reputation as a vulnerable technology will eventually dominate, even if developers continue to release updates and fixes. Flash might continue to serve some purpose until browsers finally make it obsolete by discontinuing support altogether. I guess Apple called it correctly all those years ago. Should we ever have doubted them?! In the meantime, the adoption of video and mobile content will continue to grow within eLearning. All of these factors support the rise of HTML5, just as the technology will continue to improve.

My advice for eLearning professionals and organizations is to plan for the future. In LearnUpon, we offer customers alternatives to using Flash for video content. Most admin users continue to use our video streaming service that works with Flash players. But we’re seeing that usage pattern change with the development of mobile learning or mLearning, based on HTML5 video and courseware.

If you’re an LMS admin, it’s time to begin gradually migrating existing courses to HTML5 formats. Authoring tools now allow you to export to both Flash and HTML5, delivering the best of both options. In scenarios where a course determines Flash is not supported, the HTML5 version kicks in instead. A gradual move towards HTML5 is best, far better than waiting for the big “flash in the pan” that’s surely coming down the tracks.

 

Update: The relaunch of Flash Professional as Animate CC confirms Adobe’s agreement with our prognosis. Even Flash’s founders are finally ready to move beyond legacy issues and into an improved HTML5 future.

Hi Des, great article, thanks. I’m just getting into eLearning development so this probably seems like a daft question: is it strictly necessary for eLearning apps to run in a browser? I guess for larger companies it’s easier to deploy that way, but for smaller ones couldn’t they just install a native app? If the user experience is compromised as much as you state above then maybe it’s worth it…would be interested to hear your thoughts!

Hi Daire, it’s definitely not strictly necessary, at all. There are still LMS offerings that are not browser-based. However, the trends are all towards browser delivery! Why? Likely to do with the low cost of delivery (versus the costs, and hassle associated with native application development). Even with native apps (mobile or desktop), the trend is towards HTML content for true cross-platform delivery.

Whilst that’s all possible without a browser (using Flash), it’s a lot harder to control the user experience across devices/platforms. Whether a big or a small company, it costs a lot less to tweak HTML content for cross-platform delivery, than to deliver a native application to do the same.

Embrace the move to HTML content, we say, without too much of a vested interest (we’ll happily host Flash content as well!). It’s a format that is easier to develop, cheaper to author, and more cross-platform than any rich format before it.

Thanks for the feedback!

Des, what’s the likely timescale for Flash to become a real problem? We are still heavily dependent on it, as Articulate Studio 09 (publish in Flash only) users who are struggling to convert our courses to Studio 13 (Publish in HTML5/Flash) because Articulate removed some essential functionality in the later version. Or we think they did, because we can’t work out how to do it. That’s between us and them, but it would be good to know how long we’ve got before the house of cards collapses around us.

Hi Jon,

There’s no defined timescale here, at all, so there’s no need to panic. This is not another Y2K. However, the message is clear, Flash (in its current form) is dead; even Adobe seem to be on the same hymn sheet.

I would say that definitely any new content being authored should really be done in HTML5, just to secure some longevity for the content. Existing content in Flash form will obviously continue to work, but you should be at least planning upgrade paths for that content; even if it means re-authoring it because you don’t manage to workaround the Articulate issues.

How much time have you got? How long is a piece of string?! The best parallel I can think of is probably Java. It used to come pre-installed on every browser, and now you have to go well out of your way to install it. So whilst Flash is dead, it’s not going anywhere any time soon! A bit like how Java fell out of favour. It took years for the criticism of Java’s many security issues to eventually turn browser/operating-system manufacturers away from the technology. But, for example, some banks still rely on you using Java to access their online services, so it hasn’t gone away (some 5 years later!).

Flash might not last that long (given that there is a viable alternative in HTML5, so Flash will probably fade away naturally that bit quicker), but it will still be around for a while more. My best guess is that relying on a user/learner’s easy access to a Flash plugin in 2017 would be a risky strategy!

Hope that eases the panic (without diluting the need to set the wheels in motion)! Thanks for the comment.

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