Somewhat lost in our collective excitement about the end of the year 2020 – and many hoped, an end to all the unpleasantness associated with that year – was the fact that 31 December 2020 also marked the end of an important period in internet history: the Adobe Flash era.
For over 15 years, Flash was the de facto standard for web interactivity and multimedia delivery. Most websites that featured embedded audio players, video players, and games relied on Flash. Flash was used to create interactive tutorials; widgets for sports, weather, markets, and news; photo galleries and slide shows; and all sorts of animations.
But by 2015, the shortcomings of Flash were becoming obvious:
- High power requirements – Flash on mobile drained the device’s battery much faster than more-efficient alternatives.
- No support for touch – Flash was designed for the desktop experience and didn’t translate well to mobile devices.
- Poor performance – The Adobe Flash Player plug-in, once a standard feature on most web browsers, was a resource hog that slowed down other applications and had a nasty habit of crashing browsers.
- Security concerns – Flash technology had a number of fundamental security vulnerabilities that were not easily patched.
As early as 2010, the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs wrote that Flash would soon no longer have a place in modern web development, in particular for mobile applications. He didn’t live to see its full demise, but it’s widely regarded that his opinions planted the seeds of its fate.
Adobe itself came to realize that it didn’t make business-sense to keep Flash going. With free, open-source technologies making inroads on the market, it was clear the effort required to solve its shortcomings would cost more than Adobe would get out of it.
In 2017 Adobe announced it would end support for Flash by the end of 2020. There would be no more Flash development and no more updates to the player plug-in. All the major browsers announced they would disable the plug-in at the same time.
What was the effect of the demise of Adobe Flash?
To paraphrase poet T.S. Eliot, Flash ended not with a bang but a whimper. Web developers had plenty of time to replace the Flash content on their sites with alternatives. By the time Adobe pulled the plug, most sites had discontinued all use of Flash, and in most browsers, the player plug-in was already disabled by default. Most endusers didn’t even notice anything had changed.
The only problems were observed on those sites that wouldn’t or couldn’t replace their Flash content. Most of these sites were older and lacked any kind of developer support.
For endusers, there are alternatives to Flash Player, such as Gnash or the Photon browser for Android, that will play some Flash content. The performance and support for these players vary quite a bit, and none are included by default in any major browser. It’s probable only those few people who have a compelling need to play specific Flash content will go to the trouble of finding an alternative player that works.
How do we develop and deliver the kind of content that made Flash so dominant for so long?
The Rise of HTML5
The decline and fall of the Flash empire corresponded with the rise of the fifth version of the HTML standard, known as (Surprise!) HTML5. It became an official standard in 2016.
One of the goals of HTML5 was to incorporate native support for rendering and playing multimedia content. That is, web developers could use HTML tags such as <video> to embed video content in a web page, and the browser would take care of the rest without the need for a special third-party plug-in.
This approach has advantages and disadvantages:
- Web designers and developers no longer need to rely on a proprietary format and a sometimes-balky third-party plug-in with iffy security. Further, they need not depend on endusers keeping the plug-in up-to-date on their devices.
- However, because each browser develops its own code for presenting the content, there can be wide discrepancies in how the same content is displayed in different browsers. An animation that runs perfectly on one browser could be glitchy on another.
Gone but Never Missed
Flash was once a mighty force in internet technology. Many people made their livelihoods developing Flash content and Flash-based websites. But by the end, few people mourned its passing.
A new era in internet history has begun. Will something come along that will be even better, replacing HTML5? It’s way too early to tell. For now, we can enjoy the benefits of the current technologies and build the best sites and applications possible.