Bruce Lawson's personal site

Eulogy for Flash

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.

9 Responses to “ Eulogy for Flash ”

Comment by Steve

I think there were additional benefits too. Coding in ActionScript (AS3) had all the simplicity of JavaScript but was strongly typed with extended data types beyond just Number and int.

I wonder how much Flash coding influenced the progression of JavaScript… Even if just coincidently?

Comment by Brian Rinaldi

Great post. As a former Flash and Flex developer myself (and even a Adobe employee for some years), I am generally in agreement with everything you said here. In fact, before I saw your post, I posted a similar (if more lengthy) look at this topic as well (What the Web Owes Flash) – though I did not consider the backwards compatibility issue you brought up.

Comment by Ahmad Murey

Totally agree,
I had a lot of good memories about AS2 while I was learning it and help other people to do so

my first impression when I first heard about css animation and canvas API and then followed by the Audio, Video, Camera, Microphone, etc… was:
“Are we going to re-invent the wheel?”

and it seemed hard to me back then to understand what’s happening outside

All respect to Flash for doing its best to fill the gaps in the browsers for years

Comment by Sean

For those of you who don’t know.
Adobe AIR (which uses the core of flash) will continue to live for many years as Adobe is pushing hard on AIR.
AIR is an AMAZING technology and based on AS3, so check it out.

Regards,

Sean – http://DigitalSignage.com

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Comment by Charlie

Good summary. Once Steve Jobs did it, it became fashionable to blame Flash for all the ills of the modern web. Jobs was only really interested in making Safari sophisticated enough for the I-Tunes walled garden so that he wouldn’t have to share revenue with Adobe.

We owe Flash two things: showing us what should be possible in the browser; and, with Google’s help, ending the format wars for video, which has led ultimately to royalty- and plugin-free video.

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