Go back to home page of Unsolicited Advice from Tiffany B. Brown

Flash Is Dead.

Flash logo, circa 2005
Flash logo, circa 2005

In July of 2017, Adobe announced that December 31, 2020 would mark the end of the line for the Flash Player. Flash Player will no longer receive updates. Flash Player will no longer play Flash content as of January 12, 2021. If you have the Flash Player installed, you should remove it from your system.

Carolina Miranda, arts and culture columnist at the Los Angeles Times,says the end of Flash marks the end of oddball art and media pieces such as Tom Fulp's Teletubby Fun Land game. Flash dramatically expanded what it was possible to do on the web, both technically and aesthetically.

The fun we had with Flash

To understand the revolutionary power of Flash, you need to understand the state of the web in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We had CSS, but browsers were still sorting out how and whether to adhere to specifications. JavaScript was a cross-browser compatibility nightmare, with competing versions of the Document Object Model. Developers often had to build things twice: once for Internet Explorer, and again for Netscape. We also waited for pages to load over dial-up, DSL, or if we were, lucky ISDN. And there were maybe half-dozen fonts that were widely-available on most users machines, and therefore safe to use. In short, the early web had a lot of constraints.1

In his essay, Here Lies Flash, Mike Davidson then tells us about finding Kanwa Nagafuji’s Image Dive back in 1997.

It looked like nothing I had ever seen in a web browser. A beautiful, dynamic interface, driven by anti-aliased Helvetica type and buttery smooth vector animation? And the whole thing loaded instantly on a dial-up connection with nothing suspicious to install? What was this sorcery?

That sorcery was Flash.2

Flash changed everything. With it, we could add animated menus components, and special effects to our web projects. In the days before widespread support for CSS transforms, and filters, I used Flash transforms and filters to create a faux-Polaroid component with rotated photos, and drop shadows that worked in Internet Explorer 8, and that the client could update by editing a text file. Better developers than I used Flash to build and deliver games for the web.

Thanks to Inman Flash Replacement or IFR, and it's scalable descendant, sIFR (or Scalable Inman Flash Replacement) we used Flash for robust web typography. No longer were we limited to Arial and Times New Roman. Now, we could use any appropriately-licensed font on the web, and perhaps fonts that weren't licensed for that purpose.

Flash also accelerated the rise of audio and video on the web. Thanks to its cross-platform availability and its ubiquity, Flash became the leading mechanism for creating media players and delivering audio and video. Before Flash, web users had the choice of installing the QuickTime or RealPlayer plug-ins, depending on their operating system. Web creators had to decide which to support. Flash, on the other hand, allowed web creators to support users, (almost) regardless of their OS and browser. At one point, the Flash Player was the delivery mechanism for about 75% of videos on the web, including early versions of YouTube.

But Flash was not just an editor and player. It also came with a robust scripting language: ActionScript. ActionScript 3.0 was an early implementation of ECMAScript 4. For me, personally, ActionScript was my bridge to JavaScript.

Why Flash died

The decline of Flash began with the advent of the smart phone — sometime around 2005. Early smart phones lacked the processing power and storage capacity of desktop and laptop computers. Instead of a full-fledged Flash Player, early smart phones shipped with Flash Lite, which was pared down and far less-capable.

Mobile data speeds were also abysmal in the 2000s. In the United States, at least, 3G network speeds were just starting to become widespread. Most Flash of the era were large in both file size and pizels. Not only did they take a long time to load on a mobile device, but as I remember it, sites made for Flash Player often didn't work with Flash Lite. Nor were they optimized for small device screens.

Steve Jobs' Thoughts on Flash was the next nail in the proverbial coffin. Thoughts on Flash was Jobs' 2010 open letter explaining why Apple would never allow Flash on its mobile phones or tablets. His reasons boiled down toincluded performance, a lack of support for touch input, and security. A year or so later, Flash abandoned development of its Flash-for-mobile platform.

Security would become a recurring theme for Flash over the next half-decade, and the final nail in its coffin.

The Hacking Team breach

The final nail in the coffin was the hack of Hacking Team. Back in 2015, a group of hackers breached an Italian company named Hacking Team. Hacking Team sells exploits and surveillance capabilities to government agencies, and probably to anyone else with deep enough pockets3. Their internal documents and tools were published online.

This breach-and-dump lead to the announcement of three zero-day Flash exploits in a single week. About a dozen-and-a-half more were announced soon thereafter. Mozilla quickly released an update for Firefox that blocked Flash Player by default. Soon lots of people were calling on Adobe to kill Flash. Eventually, major browsers disabled Flash by default. Chrome, for example, published Intent to implement: HTML5 by Default in 2016. The following year, Adobe announced plans to kill Flash altogether.

As this was happening the World Wide Web Consortium and WHATWG resumed and expanded their work to make open web languages more robust and better-supported. Eliminating the need for plugins, such as Flash, drove much of this activity. Browser vendors also started to smooth out their quirks and inconsistencies. Eventually we reached the point where Flash was no longer necessary for creating or displaying animations and multimedia content.

Viva La Flash: Its legacy

Much of what Flash and Flash developers brought to the web lives on in the form of browser-native APIs and features. HTML, SVG, CSS, and JavaScript can replace Flash's slick vector graphics and silky animations, even for games.

Instead of relying on Flash to stream and display multimedia, for instance, we can use the audio and video elements of HTML. Add CSS, a few button elements, and a bit of JavaScript and some images to create a custom player.

Flash wasn't just good for playing multimedia. It was also good for manipulating it. Using ActionScript, you could pan audio, adjusting the input for the user's left and right speakers, perhaps when they shifted their mouse from one side of the screen to the other. Now we can do that using the Web Audio API.

Web Storage and the localStorage/ sessionStorage APIs are conceptually similar to SharedObjects, or Flash cookies. And the demand for rich web typography enabled by Flash and sIFR, helped bring us @font-face, WOFF, and web-licensed fonts.

Flash also popularized the idea of the cross-domain policy file, an XML file that specifies whether one domain can read the content and data of another. It's a precursor to cross-origin resource sharing (CORS), which uses HTTP headers instead of an XML configuration file.

Although Flash is no longer with us, its spirit lives on in the form of native APIs and better browsers.

  1. In much of the world, internet speeds are still slow and / or expensive and those constraints still exist. 

  2. Microsoft and later Google Chrome, bundled Flash with their browsers. That made it widely available, without end users having to install it. 

  3. In 2016, Foreign Policy magazine described Hacking Team as The Blackwater of surveillance