A smartphone with a grid of colorful app icons on the screen. Other app icons are in bubbles surrounding the phone.

Today Adobe announced that it will no longer be making its Flash Player for mobile devices. With HTML5 being supported by all major mobile and desktop browsers Adobe has officially recognized that HTML 5 is the way to create and distribute rich content on many devices including mobile. In fact some mobile platforms such as iOS only support HTML5 for rich web content and do not support the Flash Player. While Blackberry and Android support the mobile browser Flash Player – the next release 11.1 will be the last. Flash has led innovation and creative rich media experience for over a decade but the industry is driving toward HTML 5 as the future. Apple’s refusal to allow Flash on iOS probably sped of the inevitable.

A glimpse into Flash’s ultimate market can be seen in Adobe’s Blog post today by one of its vice presidents Danny Winokur. “and innovate with Flash where it can have most impact for the industry, including advanced gaming and premium video.’. In fact the blog statement goes on to describe how Flash will be used on gaming consoles with 2D and 3D effects and through AIR for native apps on mobile devices. A number of commenters on Adobe’s Blog ask what this ultimately means for Flash? Will it be only used for advanced gaming? What does this mean for ActionScript and Flex? Adobe had promised accessibility support for the Flash Player on the Mac OS — what will come of this? These are all good question that answers hopefully will surface to in the near future.

I am certain that Adobe will innovate in the area of HTML 5 — creating and updating its tools to assist authors and designers to deliver rich and accessible applications. If HTML 5 is the method of the future, will adobe transform it’s current frameworks like Flex into something that produces HTML 5 or create other frameworks, or even partner with or pursue other frameworks? What does this mean for other RIA frameworks that are not JavaScript based such as Silverlight?

Rich Internet Applications (RIA) and HTML 5

RIA applications are designed to give the user the feel of a “desktop” application and provide typical desktop components like accordions, trees, sliders, and other structures that HTML does not explicitly contain. Web based RIA applications often use Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) to communicate with the server without causing a page refresh. These types of dynamic changes can be hard for assistive technologies to detect without the use of a specification to create a method for applications to communicate these changes with assistive technologies directly and with browsers that render platform accessibility information such as events. Despite the latest HTML 5 draft containing many accessibility enhancements including the ARIA role attribute – use of ARIA in addition to HTML 5 is critical to ensure a complete accessibility experience.

With so much emphasis placed on rich Internet applications (RIA) application Frameworks will need to increase and expand support for accessibility including the Accessible Rich Internet Application (ARIA) specification and still provide graceful degradation for assistive technologies and browsers that do not support ARIA or HTML 5.

Currently many mobile browsers and mobile assistive technologies such as screen readers have very limited or no support for HTML 5 specific and ARIA content. For example, landmarks are supported by iOS 5 but other ARIA and HTML 5 roles and properties are not supported by the VoiceOver screen reader on iOS. Third party browsers on the Android platform do not appear to support ARIA and HTML 5 specific roles and properties for accessibility. Other challenges exist with dynamically updating content in HTML based apps on mobile devices — for this type of content native apps are currently more accessible.

ARIA and HTML 5 are more supported on desktop browsers with widespread support via multiple major browsers on the PC and Safari on the Mac. ARIA support is strong for PC browsers like JAWS and NVDA but missing from Window-Eyes. With the release of Mac OS Lion VoiceOver support for ARIA increased considerably but is still more limited than PC based ARIA browser support. These challenges coupled with many US Federal agencies and some international organizations that are still using IE 7 without ARIA and HTML 5 support only increases the need for frameworks that can support browser and feature detection and gracefully degrade appropriately.

Wikipedia has a useful list of RIA frameworks with a row for accessibility support titled Comparison of JavaScript Frameworks.. Popular frameworks with accessibility graceful degradation support include JQuery, DOJO, YUI, and GWT. Inspection of different components indicates that DOJO and YUI provide the most comprehensive support for accessibility across the largest number of assistive technologies and browsers. Accessibility is often not just measured by which ARIA attributes are exposed but how and if complete keyboard and device independent access is implemented, how visual focus is applied to RIA components, high contrast, and how content resizing and flows for users. These aspects of accessible design are not covered by directly by the ARIA specification or by HTML 5 but are addressed by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 and by related guidelines such as the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) 2.0.

In summary, much progress has been made in advancing accessibility in different JavaScript based frameworks. The change in focus for Flash content will likely drive more vendors to abandon flash for non-gaming material in favor of cross device browser support for HTML 5 and RIA frameworks. Developers must consider the broad accessibility impact of choosing a framework that supports mobile, accessibility, graceful degradation, and device dependent access to ensure conformance to accessibility guidelines, legislation, and commitment to making the web usable to everyone.