Gone in a Flash

2 January, 2021

Thanks for using Adobe Flash Player.

On 1 January 2021, Adobe Flash was discontinued. In fact, Adobe went so far as to say that:

Adobe strongly recommends all users immediately uninstall Flash Player to help protect their systems.

If you've reading this, you should do the same - Flash has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. I already uninstalled Flash with the advent of Safari 14 - which doesn't support it. This has been a long time coming.

Flash, although initially a simple tool for animations, soon had grown into a more complex one supplementing every facet of web design. This came with consequences: a bevy of security issues, high usage requirements, and frequent crashes for any system that dared run it. A crowd of naysayers quickly developed around the technology, especially as open standards like HTML, JavaScript, and CSS became more advanced.

Chief among them was Apple's polarising and sometimes problematic CEO Steve Jobs, who decided to exclude Flash from the iPhone. In his manifesto Thoughts on Flash, he listed his problems with it. It wouldn't run quickly on the power-efficient iPhone OS (now iOS). It was proprietary. It was unreliable. And it was insecure.1

At the time, his piece received both support and strong criticism. Many viewed the Flash-less iPhone as handicapped, and Apple as wanting to stifle innovation. But the fact that Flash never took hold on the rival Android operating system proved its critics right. And with the corporate mothership now behind the rising sentiment, Flash begun to fall.

According to the internet consensus, Flash is a nostalgic part of the web that was mercilessly snuffed out. I too have plenty of nostalgia for the software: I grew up using it to play weird online games, interact with stuff, and... design kitchen layouts. Yes, the last one is true.2 I'm still convinced that the web is better off without it though. In addition to its many intractable problems, it's basically one company's toehold into the open web. Great emulation software like Ruffle and swf2js exists to carry its torch.

Nevertheless, I see where its supporters are coming from. Flash represents a time where the web was free for all. When everyone had their own site instead of being funnelled through mega-corporations. When netizens were more than commodities. When going online elicited wonder instead of frustration and alienation. But Flash just happened to die at an ominous time. And although my early web experience was more satisfying, in some ways it was never more than an ideal - remember AOL?

The Flash design tools were also great for quick content creation.3 The art of creating an early HTML page or spinning up an SWF has not been quite replicated - although there are projects out there trying to do it. Web design is now inaccessible to the beginner, an impenetrable stack composed of a million different technologies.

And although Flash is gone, what replaced it isn't really a whole lot better. The HTML/CSS/JS stack has become what it sought to destroy. Although ostensibly free, it is proprietary in practice: Google has dominance over both Chrome and search to such a degree that a newcomer couldn't hope to compete.4 Pages are swamped with gobs of JavaScript, damaging load time and PC performance.5 Browsers themselves are also full of cruft: arcane payment and video decoding technology, file system manipulation, MIDI, and more. The "open web" has became a colossus of intractable proportions encroaching on the once-open web.

Posted in Computing