Answerman Why Do Streaming Websites Still Use Flash?

by Justin Sevakis, Apr 22nd 2016
Stefan asks:

I notice that all the major anime streaming providers use Flash-based players for their desktop services. In view of the performance and compatibility advantages to HTML5 videos, why do you think this is the case? Is it a requirement imposed by advertisers, or is it simply a lingering (and increasingly outmoded) industrial norm?

Ah yes, Flash, the technology we all love to hate. First, a little primer for the less nerdy of us: Adobe Flash (originally Shockwave Flash) was originally a web plug-in that introduced a lot of vector animation effects to the early web. It was by far the most popular web plug-in technology ever developed, and many mainstream websites required it. (A lot of developers, drunk on its power, made these ridiculous full-screen animated interfaces that took forever to load.) Before streaming video was a thing, this was THE way to introduce motion into a web page.

As the 2000s progressed, people wanted to stream actual video as well, and for a while there was a war between Windows Media Player, QuickTime Player and (cough) RealPlayer to be the dominant technology. And then, when Adobe bought Flash, they added video streaming, and pretty much wiped out everyone else. Then a rudimentary programming layer was added, known as ActionScript. By this time, Flash had gotten really big and bloated, and the browser plug-in introduced a ton of security issues.

Finally, when the iPhone exploded onto the scene, Apple caused a stink by not having Flash baked into iOS. This was a problem because the iPhone touted the "full web" experience on a mobile device, but not having Flash meant that quite a few things were still not accessible. Steve Jobs, who then ran Apple, publicly explained that Adobe had never given them a lightweight, smartphone-ready version that worked, and that the desktop versions were so buggy and inefficient that they caused the vast majority of web browser crashes. Adobe tried to defend its product, but ultimately Jobs was proven right. After releasing a few extremely awful versions of Flash for Android devices, they gave up. And now even they're trying to get everyone to switch away from using Flash as a web technology.

Replacing Flash is HTML5, the last major revision to the gigantic set of instructions by which web pages are designed, which now includes plenty of tools to do everything from animation and streaming video to full working emulators. It's way, way, way more efficient, it's compatible with everything from Mac workstations to cheap Chinese Android phones, and it doesn't require people to install anything more than the web browser they already use. It's not just the future, it's how everything should be right now.

But while HTML5 has been around for a few years now, it was sort of a mess for most of that time, with web browser companies fighting over what media formats would be supported, and what underlying frameworks to support. It was only in the last year or so that developers could consider it for streaming "sensitive" content. (By sensitive, I mean the sort of stuff people would want to rip and pirate.) Plain HTML5 streaming video is extremely simple and offers literally zero protection against any sort of unwanted ripping. Most websites code their own video player (which is a surprisingly involved process) but without additional toolkits and APIs, locking down the video is pretty much impossible. And most major media companies won't allow streaming without at least some rudimentary protection against that content getting ripped.

So far, only Netflix and Amazon have been able to come up with a working premium video service that can run on HTML5, using new Encrypted Media Extensions. As both have a huge development team and a ton of money, this is obviously something they've poured significant resources into. (They also used to rely on Microsoft's Silverlight extension, which was like a worse Flash but with stronger media security, and it was discontinued years ago.) But so far, they're the only ones. Hulu, Crunchyroll, Funimation, and most of the others still rely on Flash for PC support. Smartphone and tablet streaming is done with proprietary apps, naturally.

Switching to HTML5 requires rebuilding a huge amount of the underlying technical infrastructure of a streaming site. Advertising, that ephemeral nightmare that helps pay the bills, is still almost entirely reliant on Flash (something neither Amazon or Netflix has to worry about), and runs largely on servers far outside of the streaming service's control. The servers that host the video have to be switched from Adobe Media Server to the new DASH streaming format.

And add to that, the entire video player app that runs on the website has to be reprogrammed from scratch. One of Crunchyroll's crowning engineering achievements was building a Flash player that not only streamed video pretty well, but also added on removable subtitles from a text script. This is important, because while many Flash video players can do that, theirs actually will accept Aegisub subtitles, which was popularized by fansubs and offers insanely tight controls over typesetting and font size. While I'm sure this can be replicated in HTML5 and Javascript, I'm also sure that it's something that would be extremely difficult for them.

In a Reddit AMA from last year, CEO Kun Gao was asked directly why they don't support HTML5 video, and at the time he cited contractural reasons: they are required to protect their video streams AND run ads, and right now Flash is the only sane way to do that. HTML5's protected streaming was (and really, still is) so hard to implement that it remains out of reach for many companies, and video advertising over HTML5 is still not ready. It will come eventually -- nobody wants to be stuck with Flash, after all. But change is going to come very, very slowly.


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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.