Scribd: Goodbye Flash, Hello HTML5 (and Google Docs)

By  |  Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 11:46 am

Jared Friedman, cofounder and CTO of Scribd–the site that lets anyone upload almost any document and publish it to the Web–was among the last keynote speakers at the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco today. And he had big news (teased yesterday on TechCrunch): Scribd is dumping Flash and converting the millions of documents it hosts to HTML5.

I spoke with Friedman today, and he went to pains to emphasize that Scribd isn’t run by Flash haters. He said, for instance, that it’s the best technology for online games–but that it was never designed to display documents, and it shows.

Friedman showed me a demo of a Scribd document in HTML5–a fashion magazine with fancy layouts and lots of photos–and it looked great. Unlike Scribd’s Flash viewer, the HTML5 version takes up the whole browser rather than sitting in a little window, and downloads pages on the fly, so there’s no lengthy pause as you start reading. And because it’s HTML5, it works on the iPhone, the iPad, Android phones, and other mobile gizmos with modern mobile browsers.

Scribd’s HTML5 support is based on three technologies: Scalable Vector Graphics, Canvas, and Web fonts. But Friedman told me that the company has figured out how to get documents to display in nearly all browsers, including Internet Explorer all the way back to version 5.5.

The Flash-to-HTML5 switch is a massive undertaking: Scribd currently has 5,000 servers chugging away at converting the documents its hosts. Friedman told me that the company hopes to have everything converted by the end of the month. For about six months, it’ll deliver both Flash and HTML5 versions. And then it’ll go Flash-free.

In other Scribd news, Friedman also told me that the service is about to introduce compatibility with Google Docs. An option within Scribd will let Docs users import documents and publish them online (something that’s also possible using only Docs itself).

Judging from the demo I saw, the HTML5 changeover is going to make Scribd much more usable and much more useful. You don’t have to have any particular antipathy towards Flash to be excited about HTML5’s potential to make the Web a richer, more compatible, less hassle-prone place.


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10 Comments For This Post

  1. joe c Says:

    Friedman said 95% of browsers will be able to read the type of HTML5 Scribd will be using. But I thought only Safari and Chrome could handle HTML5 so far and that Firefox has made no announcement of ever supporting it?

    I’m so confused.

  2. Xetaray Says:

    @ joe c
    What you think is HTML5 is actually h.264 support. Opera, Firefox and (not sure) IE all have HTML5. Youtube’s HTML5 is h.264-based.

  3. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    > But I thought only Safari and Chrome could handle HTML5

    HTML5 is just HTML. It’s backwards compatible, like all HTML. You can write it in such a way that it works in HTML5-standardized browsers as well as in legacy browsers. The older browsers just render it with less fidelity. An “HTML5 browser” is not required to view HTML5, it’s only required to view HTML5 in full-fidelity.

    So you can view HTML5 in IE8, even though IE8 is not an “HTML5 browser”. Upgrading to IE9, which apparently will be an “HTML5 browser,” will just give you better fidelity. The page will look better, run faster, crash less, and work very similarly to how it works in Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, which are already HTML5-standardized today.

    > I’m so confused.

    The most important thing to understand about HTML5 is it’s standardized HTML. In the past, the HTML specifications were so incomplete that the Web was effectively not standardized. In HTML5, the specification doesn’t just specify how to write the code, it also specifies how the browser should decode it, so that no matter what browser is used, you get similar results. It doesn’t just tell you how to use text and images, it also tells you how to use audio video, vector graphics, animation, transitions, and more, so that no matter what content is in the page, the user will get similar results no matter what browser they use. The idea is to make the Web as reliable, user friendly, and vendor neutral as CD/DVD.

    It’s also important to understand that HTML5 is not particularly exotic because in many cases it standardized what browsers and Web developers were already doing. So even though we are only 3 years into the HTML5 era, most of the content on the Web is already 80-90% HTML5. It’s not a wholesale change, or something that only starts working for us a decade from now. That’s why YouTube and Scribd are well into their transitions to HTML5.

    > h.264

    H.264 has nothing to do with HTML5, except that they are both vendor neutral open interoperability standards. HTML5 is standardized by W3C and tells you how to encode and decode HTML in a standardized way. H.264 is standardized by ISO/IEC and tells you how to encode and decode video in a standardized way. Similarly, JPEG is standardized by ISO/IEC and tells you how to encode and decode a photographic image in a standardized way. UTF-8 tells you how to encode and decode text in a standardized way.

    Where they come together is that if you want your content to be viewable by the maximum number of people using any technology from any vendor, then you standardize it. You create HTML5 pages in UTF-8 text with H.264 video and JPEG images in them. None of those formats can lock anybody out of viewing or creating them. These formats are supported on every computing platform and consumer digital media devices, by dozens if not hundreds of vendors.

    For comparison, consider that you can’t play Flash without an Adobe media player, which only exists on Mac and PC and no other platform. You can’t play Windows Media without a Microsoft media player, which only exists on Windows. You can’t play QuickTime without an Apple media player, which only exists on Apple devices plus Windows. You can’t play Ogg without an Ogg decoder, which only exists on PC’s. The vendor neutral standards solve all of those problems and make the content universally playable. You can shoot H.264 with any make of camera, edit it with any kind of video editor on any platform, and play it on any make of media player, smartphone, PC, set-top box, or upload it to any video sharing services such as YouTube or Vimeo.

    So the HTML5 specification doesn’t tell you “use H.264 video”. You use H.264 in HTML5 for the same reason you use JPEG, or HTML5 itself: it’s standardized and universally playable.

  4. Gabriel Walker Says:

    Mobile browsers are still kind of crude if you compare it to the desktop browsers we use on PC.:.~

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