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The Strange Demise of Adobe Flash

End of an era for file format that shaped today’s websites

Adobe Flash for every one of us...?

Flash: Several years from now, we could be watching ourselves at home and commenting on clips.
Dale Arden: I doubt it. They would rather waste their time in front of cat videos.
Flash: Leave it to me. Then again, I bet someone will beat me to it in 2005 and call it Adobe Flash. Anyway, the Majestic on Old Street wouldn’t allow it, let alone the ODEON on Leicester Square.

On the internet, Adobe Flash (née Macromedia Flash) has died gracefully in its sleep. In its wake came changes to HTML, which offered similar facilities to Adobe’s technologies. Today, Flash has diminished in general use. For example, YouTube supports HTML5 videos by default.

Adobe Flash – then known as Macromedia Flash – was created in 2000 for the use of video clips. At that time, the Dot.com Boom had passed its peak. There was also Shockwave, a similar product which predated Flash by five years. But Shockwave was heavy on the bandwidth – a critical issue in the late 1990s being as dial-up internet access was the norm for most users.

Come 2003, Flash was popular with web developers – far removed from the original intention of its use in video clips. It was popular for virtual tours, chat rooms and online gaming. Peak Flash use was probably 2004, a year before Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia. 2005 saw the launch of YouTube. Set up by former PayPal employees, they adopted Adobe Flash for its video clips. Google liked what they saw with YouTube and bought the company in 2006.

Google and its role in the demise of Adobe Flash

In 2007, cyberspace was a different place to that of 2000. After previous false attempts to popularise mobile browsing (who remembers the Palm PDA?), there was a sea change. Enter Apple’s first iPhone.

At that time, mobile browsing was a tedious affair; horizontal scroll bars, cut down web pages, and broken design features. Another bugbear was incompatible plugins. An Adobe Flash website was inaccessible on mobile devices. By then, Adobe Flash’s days were numbered, even more so as HTML5 offers native video support.

Furthermore, search engines had difficulty indexing Flash-based websites. The need for plugins destroyed functionality as well as rankings.

Then came Google’s Android operating system. In 2008, this made for cheaper smartphones and digital tablets. With the might of Google and Apple, Flash’s demise seemed likely. Web browsing shifted away from desktop PCs to laptops and mobile devices. With mobile devices on the ascendency came another revolution: responsive web design.

Adobe Flash became an anachronism. A dinosaur. A hangover from the era of Connie and free AOL discs. The last thing that mobile browsers wanted was memory-hogging plugins and slow loading times. In later years, Flash became a frequent vulnerability target.

As a consequence, HTML5 video has superseded Adobe Flash on YouTube. Firstly, in 2010, on browsers that supported H.264 and WebM formats. Five years on, HTML5 became YouTube’s default option, which enhanced support on mobile devices.

With Flash being a frequent vulnerability target, this year’s Global Media Format Report saw a 15% drop in Adobe Flash usage last year. This week, it was announced that Google will cease running Flash ads on the 02 January 2017 on its Google+ platform.

Not dead yet?

With Google’s latest decision, we wonder if Adobe Flash will still have a role. In the internet guise, it has passed its usefulness. On the other hand, Adobe Flash is still used for budget level video productions, which is where its short-term future lies.

For anyone who has struggled to load a Flash-based website on a mobile phone, there may be few mourners. With mobile browsing in its ascendency, Adobe Flash is redundant. Back in its day, it was revolutionary. In the last ten years, browser compatibility and HTML parsing have improved from browser to browser.

Thank you for the good times, Adobe Flash, and enjoy your retirement in peace. Please remember one thing, you no longer have 14 hours to save the internet.

Will you miss Adobe Flash? Do you hanker for the days of Flash websites? Were you peeved about its lack of mobile compatibility? Feel free to comment.

Net66, 11 February 2016.

Image Credit: a publicity still from Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe, Henry MacRae Productions/Universal Pictures, 1940 (Public Domain).

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