The long and painful death of Flash

Updated: It’s official, Adobe has announced Flash will makes its final exit by 2020.

If you’ve used the internet for longer than a few years then it’s more than likely you’ve come across Flash. Historically, the format has been a pervasive force on the web and, without the smartphone, likely still would have been today.

Many people associate Flash, which is actually a platform for a variety of multimedia, with Adobe, but its origins extend far back into the 1990s and a company called FutureWave Software, which made SmartSketch. The software was primarily used for vector drawing applications on Windows or OS X but it never caught on.

FutureWave was then acquired by Macromedia, the conglomerate behind many well-known productivity programs among other things. The FutureSplash Animator, a core part of SmartSketch, was rebranded as Macromedia Flash 1.0, which was comprised of two parts: a graphics and animation editor, and a media player.

Massive growth

The software grew in popularity between 1996 and 2005 and was thought to have been installed on more computers than all other media players – including Java, RealNetworks, QuickTime, and Windows Media Player – combined.

This growth was spurred by aggressive investment in improving Flash services by Macromedia, including adding MovieClips among other features. Over the years, the platform morphed from a media creation tool to a web platform, which is how most people think of it today.

In 2005, the year that Flash really came into its own, Adobe acquired Macromedia and incorporated Flash, Dreamweaver, Director/Shockwave, and Authorware. Some of these programs, especially Dreamweaver, are now relied upon in the professional community.

Over the years, Adobe continued to develop Flash, which had become a suite of applications, into a web-based platform for video, music, gaming, and much more. Many computers came pre-installed with Flash so that the web would be accessible to them.

But in 2007, the world of Flash would be rocked – even if Adobe didn’t realise it at the time.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs had serious beef with Flash

Curse of Jobs

Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, stood on stage in June 2007 and introduced the iPhone, a device he said would act as a phone, a media player, and, most importantly, an internet browser. This last capability would catapult the iPhone, especially the 3G and 3GS, into the hands of millions of users.

Unlike the first versions of Android or Windows Mobile (and later Windows Phone), iPhone OS (which later became iOS) did not support Flash.

“I wanted to jot down some of our thoughts on Adobe’s Flash products so that customers and critics may better understand why we do not allow Flash on iPhones, iPods and iPads,” Jobs later wrote in an infamous memo called ‘Thoughts on Flash’ which was written in the spring of 2010 and signaled the death of the platform.

Jobs laid out several grievances with Flash, including its proprietary nature, the fact that most websites (even then) were switching to other formats for video, the negative effect on battery life, and the poor security record of Flash.

“New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too),” Jobs concluded. “Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticising Apple for leaving the past behind.”

These words, read today, are still relevant and help explain the shortcomings of the Flash platform that have plagued it for many years, exposing users to security risks and dramatically reducing the performance and battery life of phones, tablets, and PCs.

Google puts the boot in

Google, a long-time Flash sceptic, sided with Apple against Flash and moved all of its YouTube videos onto the HTML5 format in 2015. The company also launched a tool, called Swiffy, to convert Flash to HTML5.

That service, which launched last year, was recently shut down by Google. “Today more consumers are using the web in HTML5-compatible environments than Flash-compatible environments,” wrote the company in a blog post. In other words, so few people are now using Flash that tools to convert files are no longer needed.

Continuing a longstanding trend, Apple recently announced that the next version of Safari, which comes as part of macOS Sierra, will disable Flash (along with some other online formats) by default. Google has taken a similar approach with Chrome, and indeed Microsoft is also hastening the demise of Flash with its new Edge browser.

Mobile gaming

Of course, Flash still exists and is used most frequently for mobile games, which have very few alternative platforms to run on. Many games that millions of people play, including Angry Birds, Farmville, and AdventureQuest, are based on Flash.

The Flash platform was, and remains, one of the reasons that the early web, which was predominantly used on desktop computers, existed and took off. Playing games on Facebook, watching videos and so on was all enabled by Flash and millions upon millions of people benefited.

Facebook, however, did not see it this way. “It is time for Adobe to announce the end-of-life date for Flash and to ask the browsers to set killbits on the same day,” tweeted Alex Stamos, the company’s head of security. “Nobody takes the time to rewrite their tools and upgrade to HTML5 because they expect Flash to live forever. We need a date to drive it.”

Demise of Flash
There are plenty of technical drawbacks when it comes to Flash

Flash flushed

Indeed, there were serious technical drawbacks to Flash – as highlighted by Jobs a long time back – and the format just isn’t compatible with mobile, where a mouse is not the primary source of input.

“Flash was designed for PCs using mice, not for touchscreens using fingers,” wrote Jobs in that aforementioned 2010 memo. “Even if iPhones, iPods and iPads ran Flash, it would not solve the problem that most Flash websites need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices.”

The death of Flash was long, painful, and its death throes are still not quite over, but the once-great platform did drive a good deal of the early worldwide web’s engagement. In the end, though, the future will be HTML5-based, available everywhere, and controlled by no one – just as the internet is.

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