This debate has been all-the-rage in the tech community as of late: who will win the online streaming video wars, Adobe’s Flash or the new HTML5-based video codecs such as h.264 or WebM. Both platforms have their own benefits and weaknesses depending on your opinion, including open/closed platforms, whether the format is secure or not and most importantly the performance of the technology. With the explosion of mobile computing devices we’ve seen in the past couple of years via smartphones, and now considering the success of tablet computers such as Apple’s iPad, a fierce debate has been waged over whether Flash is stable or streamlined enough to function on these devices. Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs posted a public letter on the company’s website in which he lambasted Flash for being buggy, insecure and a resource hog. On the other hand, Google has shown confidence in Flash evidenced by their decision to support it in the latest version of the Android operating system. So who’s right?
Open or Closed
Probably the most significant trend in the tech industry right now is the push towards open platforms. HTML5 is leading the way on that front, as it is an open standard, meaning it is controlled by a standards committee rather than one single company or entity. HTML5 has also been backed by some big players in the space including both Apple and Google among many others. The webkit-based browsers, Google Chrome and Apple’s Safari, as well as countless mobile browsers such as those found on Android, Apple, Nokia, Palm and soon RIM (BlackBerry) smartphones all support HTML5.
Flash on the other hand is controlled solely by Adobe. If you want to watch a Flash video or develop Flash software you have to look to Adobe to provide the solution. That being said what it lacks in openness it makes up for in market dominance - Adobe Flash makes up fully 75% of the streaming video online. Not only that, a huge gaming industry has been cultivated using Flash, most notably by developers like Zynga who are currently raking in an estimated $300 million in annual revenue.
The next issue is security. Flash has had several zero-day exploits and vulnerabilities that have taken varying amounts of time to fix. With that said, as I alluded to earlier, it’s also the dominant player in the internet video space. If HTML5-based codecs were to take off and gain a significant market share it’s possible that it might turn out to be just as bad security wise, or worse. The hope is that because HTML5 is an open standard and is therefore more accessible than Flash, holes would be plugged in a more timely fashion.
How Do They Perform
Finally we come to the most significant part of the debate - performance. As I stated in the opening paragraph there’s a huge push in the tech industry to move towards mobile computing despite the risk of lesser battery life and more modest technical specs. If one platform can significantly outperform the other and help to squeeze the most out of these small devices it would have a huge advantage moving forward. So then, rather than simply prognosticate on the benefits of Adobe’s Flash Player or HTML5 video I went ahead and put them to the test.
I’m currently running an iMac with OSX 10.6 “Snow Leopard.” In order to test the impact both video formats had on my system’s resources I installed an application called iStat Menus which monitors CPU usage as well as many other hardware statistics. My test was simple - first I took a baseline capture when my system was for all intents and purposes idling, then I took another capture while watching a flash video on YouTube, then finally took a 3rd capture of that same video running in HTML5. Here are the results:
As you can see Flash is much more taxing on my CPU than HTML5. At its peak Flash whittled my CPU down to 58% of its full potential whereas HTML5 left me with 93% to work with. Personally, if only based on this test, I’m sold on HTML5 as a future web standard. That’s not to say that I think Adobe’s Flash should be abandoned or couldn’t be improved, but as of right now, especially considering the amount of support HTML5 has already received, I don’t mind going without Flash in its current form.