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Yesterday, Adobe announced that Flash will be discontinued after 2020, news that was met with some rejoicing in the web development community, as confirmation that open standards “won”.
But the story is more nuanced than that. Glossing over the fact that Adobe didn’t invent Flash, the announcement is correct:
Where a format didn’t exist, we invented one – such as with Flash and Shockwave. And over time, as the web evolved, these new formats were adopted by the community, in some cases formed the basis for open standards, and became an essential part of the web.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Flash drove the web forward. It was eagerly adopted by many developers, partly because of excellent development tools, and because once deployed, it looked the same in all browsers and platforms (that Adobe released their plugin for).
In 2001, the W3C ended development of HTML on Xmas Eve 1999, and then gazed endlessly into its XHTML2 navel. Meanwhile browser vendors like Mozilla and Opera saw that Rich Internet Applications (like those Flash enabled) were part of the future of the Web, so WHATWG was founded to develop a spec called Web Applications 1.0 (later “HTML5”).
Browser vendors were scared of Flash (and Silverlight) with good reason. For example, when I set up glasshaus, a publishing imprint for web developers, colleagues in friends of ED (an imprint for Flash and Photoshop professionals) joked that there was no point, because browsers would be replaced by the Flash Player.
HTML5 was set up by browser vendors explicitly “in direct competition with other technologies intended for applications deployed over the Web, in particular Flash and Silverlight” and stole features directly from Flash: video, scriptable images (<canvas>), Web Sockets, in-browser storage, access to camera and microphone … the list goes on. Indeed, many of the early polyfills and fallbacks for these features used Flash. Apple invented CSS transitions and keyframe animations because they needed them on iOS, where they wouldn’t allow Flash to be.
And now Flash is reaching the end of its life. I’m glad, because now we have a more robust and future-proof open standard and open standards are always superior to proprietary ones. But I’m also nervous; one of the central tenets of HTML is to be backwards-compatible and not to break the web. It would be a huge loss if millions of Flash movies become unplayable. How can we preserve this part of our digital heritage? (Update 27 July: there’s a petition to open-source Flash Player to preserve content.)
As we open standards advocates pat ourselves on the back, it’s good manners to acknowledge the debt we owe to the Macromedia and Adobe engineers, and hundreds of thousands of Flash developers for pushing the web forward. Thank you.
Update 1 August 2018: It seems that someone named Ben Latimore is archiving Flash games: Adobe Flash’s Gaming Legacy — Thousands upon Thousands of Titles — and My Efforts To Save It.