Scribd picks new Web technology over Flash

The online document repository is rebuilding without Adobe's plug-in. Also: the new Scribd adds support for Microsoft Office and Google Docs.

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Stephen Shankland
3 min read

In one of the clearest examples so far of just how much Flash is threatened by next-generation Web technologies, Scribd, a service for hosting and sharing documents online, is moving to a future that doesn't require Adobe Systems' plug-in.

"After three years of building on Flash, Scribd is starting over and moving everything to HTML5," said Scribd co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Jared Friedman in prepared remarks for a speech at the Web 2.0 Expo. "I think it's the largest deployment of HTML5 to date, and it's a bet-the-company decision for us."

So far, so good, he said. "When we first started working on this project six months ago, no one knew whether it was possible," he said. "We were abandoning a two-year investment in Flash technology, and for a totally unproven idea. Honestly, it wasn't an easy decision...In Scribd's case, though, we got lucky, and it actually works great."

Scribd is moving from Flash to Web standards.
Scribd is moving from Flash to Web standards.

Scribd is unveiling its new technology Thursday. In addition, it is expanding the types of documents it can host from PDF and ePub files to also include Microsoft Office and Google Docs formats.

The move spotlights the choice between Flash and HTML that Web developers face. Well, not just the new HTML5 version of Hypertext Markup Language for describing Web pages, but also a collection of associated technologies including Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for formatting and Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) for many graphics needs. Scribd is using all these, in particular HTML5's Canvas technology for 2D graphics and the @font-face feature of CSS for supporting downloadable typefaces.

Scribd hosts tens of millions of documents online and more than 50 million people visit it monthly, so its move to Web technologies is notable. An even brighter spotlight came last week when Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs explained why Apple has banned Flash from the iPhone.

But the new Web technologies aren't mature, much less implemented in browsers. Internet Explorer doesn't support SVG or Canvas, for example and even Microsoft's new IE9 preview version supports SVG but not Canvas. Missing and inconsistent support for any number of browser features is one reason that Flash has been successful over the years and one of Adobe's arguments for its continued relevance.

Adobe itself is hedging its bets. "We're going to try and make the best tools in the world for HTML5," Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch said Wednesday at the Web conference.

Many have relied on Flash for supporting vector graphics, animation, and streaming video, but support for many fonts also is an ability. For Scribd's transformation, reproducing fonts was a big issue.

"Until recently browsers only supported about a dozen fonts. Fonts, it turns out, are really essential to displaying documents. Without the right fonts, you can't reproduce formatting correctly, at least not without converting all the text in your document to an image," and offering images instead of real text poses problems with search, accessibility to blind people, and other important matters, Friedman said. "We had to extract over a billion fonts across tens of millions of documents and get them to render exactly the same way in every browser."

Update 5:16 p.m. PDT: You can give the new HTML5 viewer a spin on this document. For comparison's sake, here's one running in Scribd's Flash-powered viewer.