Opinion, Technology

Opinion: Flipping heck! Adobe Flash and HTML5

When we tried to kill our usage of Flipping Book document previews, I realised with horror that it’s more than four years since I declared in a podcast that Flash would be dead within eighteen months. Not only is it still here, but there’s no end in sight to the long tail of Flash.

And that long tail is causing us problems; as an independent publisher on the web, my current client is struggling not only with a reliable preview technology, but also wants to sell read-only resources via it’s website. Welcome to the digital realm…

When Steve Jobs declared Adobe Flash a dead platform three years ago
and banned it from Apple devices, the rest of us cheered and looked
forward to the  shift away from Flash in favour of HTML5.

The trouble was, and is, many web browsers were unable to reproduce Flash effects in HTML5, while web audiences became used to Flash-based transitions  where everything moves and flips. There are still homepages that are wholly encapsulated in Flash that you can’t get past; FLV-format Flash video is ubiquitous, SWF (Shockwave Flash) files persist. It is so deeply embedded that it’s one of the few formats that can be viewed cross-plaform on various devices including mobile and tablets.

Which is why many sites that feature digital publications use embedded Flash-based viewers, adding those page-curling (‘toe-curling’) page-flip animations. Skeumorphism, I believe it’s called; the design concept of making digital artefacts resemble their real-world counterparts; faux-leather bindings, stitching, page-curls. Oh, please. My digital calendar is not a Filofax or Collins desk diary.

Adobe Flash has been dominant because it was the de facto standard for  multimedia features for so long, and however much HTML5 has caught up to Flash in the web-multimedia, it seems to have barely nudged the course of the web super tanker.

We said at the time that sooner or later HTML5 will replace Flash technology. Turns out it’s later. Much later.

Despite the advantages – simplified services with no need to install complex, insecure plug-ins – the disadvantages of HTML5, from newness to high resource consumption, are holding it back.

FlippingBook was one of the first companies to offer software previewing PDF’s with fancy page-turning effects. Currently its’
document viewer, which we’re using, displays publications in Flash, HTML5 and plain HTML formats – in that order, depending on what browser and HML5 support it finds installed on the client device.

FlippingBook also has settings to prevent downloading and printing of the source publication, which in theory makes it ideal for providing read-only resources. In theory.

Unfortunately, those read-only settings get lost when the publication is rendered down in the plain HTML format. Here, the publication is just a set of web pages inside a container. I don’t run Flash on my Linux machine, or on some Windows 7 and 10 installs. I know, it’s a tough call, but I’m getting by just fine without it.

But as I discovered, with no Flash, a switched-on user can do anything they like with that content. Which pretty much blows the read-only product idea.

What now? Unfortunately, there is no clear successor to the Flash-based previewer and the PDF itself remains notoriously insecure; passwords are a cheap, but inconvenient and crackable means of protection, whilst conventional dial-home or digitally finger-printed DRM costs money and is a royal pain in the rear for both publisher and consumer –  which is why so many publishers have abandoned it.

It seems Flash the Magic Dragon, unslain, is still parading slowly by, and we’re looking at the long, long tail, long after the beast itself has passed by into legend; but with nothing yet to replace it. RC

About Robin Catling

Robin Catling gained degrees in both arts and technology which led to a diverse portfolio of employment. A freelance systems analyst, project manager and business change manager for the likes of American Express, British Airways and IBM, he moved on to web design, journalism and technical authoring. He has also worked in film and television, both behind and in front of the camera, including productions by Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese, Ron Howard and Ridley Scott. A qualified three-weapon coach, he runs West Devon Swords teaching sports fencing to all age groups, and in recent years qualified with the British Federation of Historical Swordplay to teach medieval and renaissance combat in the Historical Western Martial Arts.


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