The Rise and Fall of Flash

There’s been a lot of attention drawn to Adobe’s Flash platform in recent months and after years of being condemned by app and website developers around the world; it looks like it’s finally on its death bed. While many are quick to jump on the “about time” band wagon, it’s important to remember that Flash was once a very important tool for web developers and in many respects helped the internet to evolve into what it is today. Having said that, it is about time that Flash died; it presents a major security risk to many internet connected devices, with updates to the format being issued by Adobe becoming outdated on day zero of release. In this article we’re going to take a look at how and why Flash became such a prominent platform, how its downfall came about, and why we all need to move on.

From SmartSketch to Macromedia

Pen Computer
Unbeknownst to many (honestly, not an admission of ignorance on our part), Flash began as a part of the SmartSketch application which was a drawing application developed by FutureWave Software for pen computers running an old OS called PenPoint OS. Following the downfall of PenPoint OS SmatSketch became available on Windows and Mac, and it’s here that Flash began to evolve into something more recognizable. FutureWave felt that Flash would be a contender to the increasingly popular platform that you might remember called Macromedia Shockwave. Apart from its wide ranging uses, you likely remember Macromedia due to its acquisition of FutureSplash back in November of 1996 which after some rebranding and repurposing resulted in the release of the editing software Macromedia Flash and the popular Macromedia Flash Player.

Not Just a Flash in the Pan

Flash in the Pan
Macromedia soon began distributing Flash Player as a free plugin for the browsers of the time, and as of 2005 Flash Player was installed on more computers around the world than Windows Media Player, QuickTime, Java and even that other blast from the past; RealPlayer. Flash was capable of a wide range of tasks many of which we currently take for granted such as running games, playing videos and displaying previously complex web apps and website animations. It’s unsurprising that it became as popular as it did. In 2005 Adobe took note of this and acquired Macromedia and with it Dreamweaver, Shockwave and of course Flash Player. Adobe didn’t release their own version of Flash until 2007, giving it a push into the application and gaming development arena with better access to resources on computers making it a great way to make browser and mobile games. It might seem odd today, but when YouTube began it utilised Flash for video playback and didn’t adopt HTML5 as a standard until a few years later.

What Went Wrong with Flash?

What Went Wrong with Flash
Flash had a number of issues (a few of which we’ll get to shortly), but there’s a particular incident that can be attributed to the beginning of the end. You might already know who this harbinger of doom is, but if you’re not sure we’re referring to the late founder of Apple; Steve Jobs. Jobs very publically explained in April 2010 in an open letter that’s still live on the Apple website why Flash was dying, and why his stylish new Jony Ive designed rounded cornered rectangles (that’s iPhones, iPads and iPods in case you were wondering) would not be utilising the format. Jobs cited a number of issues with the format, such as it being a proprietary rather than open format, issues with security, problems with the format being battery intensive and not mobile friendly, not being well suited to touch screens due to its basing in PC architecture, but most importantly of all Jobs didn’t want to relinquish control over app development for iOS devices over to a company that wasn’t Apple. This spat between Apple and Adobe and the resulting break up lead to a number of memes and jokes from those who didn’t use Apple devices about how limited they were without support for Flash, something which many Android and BlackBerry devices of the time were capable of, but the writing was on the wall. As we all know smart phones and tablets came to dominate the technological landscape and we now live in a time where mobile web traffic has overtaken desktop traffic, and whether you attribute the growth of the smart phone to the early popularity of the BlackBerry, part of this paradigm shift is undeniably due to the exceptional number of people who purchased Apple’s iPhone. We can’t put the responsibility of the downfall of Flash solely at the feet of Steve Jobs, but he undoubtedly played a big role in dethroning Flash from the heady heights that it had previously achieved.

Flash is Broken

Plugin Needed
It might seem like a very ‘buzz word’ thing to say, but Flash really is broken. The format did a lot of things right, and some of those things were done really well, but there were a lot of problems that potentially would have lead to Flash’s fall from grace even without the help of Steve Jobs.

The Mobile Conundrum

While Android users enjoyed official Flash support early in the life of the operating system and later on through unofficial support for the format, following the aforementioned shunning of Flash by Steve Jobs on iOS devices, the format was doomed to failure on mobile, although it’s worth noting that many app developers still utilise Adobe AIR, a flash based app development tool.

Proprietary Format

Flash is a proprietary or closed format, meaning that it’s dependent on distribution from a single vendor, which since 2005 has been Adobe. The main issue with this is that Adobe are the gate keepers and that no one aside from them was ever granted full access to the source code behind Flash. Since Flash rose to prominence a number of competitors have come along with open source solutions, such as HTML5 which has subsequently overtaken Flash as the favoured way to play videos, play games and more online.

The CPU Killer

One of the big issues with Flash that Steve Jobs drew attention to is that it’s exceptionally resource heavy, placing a harsh workload on your computer when performing simple tasks such as playing videos. While the overall performance of Flash has improved over time, it still puts a strain on almost every system it runs on, particularly those which aren’t Windows PCs, leading to unwanted battery drain.

Irritating Advertisers

Online banner advertisements made great use of Flash to make elaborate and attention grabbing animations to draw you in and hopefully take the plunge and take a look at the product the advertiser is selling. We currently live in an age where a revolution is taking place and the masses are rising up to say “we’re sick of this!” We’re of course referring to the massively widespread adoption of ad blocking software of all shapes and sizes, all of which started out when browsers such as Firefox and Chrome offered the ability to block flash from running by default, and with Google stating that it will be banning Flash from display ads in favour of HTML5 in 2017; which is possibly the final nail in the coffin.

Security and Vulnerabilities

This is where things get a bit ugly and we’ll be dishing out a few low blows to Flash. Flash has some gaping security problems that are contributing to the ‘wild west’ culture that is still present online, and whether you’re a supporter of an open web or net neutrality, everyone wants to be secure when browsing websites. Over the years a number of exploits have been taken advantage of utilising the vulnerabilities in Flash, one such example is the ability for anyone who is so inclined to access the web cam and microphone that is present on practically every laptop, giving them the ability to see and hear what you’re doing remotely due to the local settings manager that was introduced by Flash Player 10.3 that allowed for remote access of your Privacy Settings. Many experts have called out the issues with the dying format, with prominent members of the online community such as Alex Stamos; Facebook’s chief security officer calling for Adobe to discontinue Flash distribution back in July 2015.

What’s Next?

HTML5
It’s becoming clear that HTML5 will be the new standard for a number of web applications going forwards, as Flash begins to recede into the annals of old internet formats that we one day tell our children about. We recommend not installing flash on your computer if you can avoid it, and if you already have it, it doesn’t hurt to uninstall it or at the very least ensure that your web browser asks your permission before running it. If you’re currently developing a website that utilises Flash then stop. Seriously, stop, you’ll be doing yourself a favour for your SEO today and for the success of your website in the future. If you still utilise Flash on your current website then it may be time to consider a redesign. At Michael Bell One we have long moved away from the use of flash in the websites that we design for our clients and we have no intentions of returning to what was once a great platform that has now had its day.

Get Some More Advice

In this article we’ve tried to put together a brief bit of history on Adobe’s dying format for you, but we’ve kept things brief and broad to give you an overview of the current Flash situation. If you want to find out more about this topic there are countless articles out there that a brief Google will take you to. Of course if you want to discuss this with us at Michael Bell One or if you would like to enquire about updating your website to get away from Flash, then we’d love to hear from you. You can contact me; James Golding by leaving a reply to this post, or you can complete the contact form right at the bottom of this page, send an email to info@juddassoc.com or call our Web Design Agency in Crowborough on 01273 478822, and I’ll be happy to help you with your enquiry.