Adobe recently announced that Flash will become completely obsolete as of December 31st, 2020; “specifically, we will stop updating and distributing the Flash player at the end of 2020 and encourage content creators to migrate any existing Flash content to [sic] open formats.”
So why did it happen, and what does it mean for the future of web development?
Why Flash doesn’t cut it anymore
Steve Jobs called it when he said that Flash was stuck in the era of PC, rather than touchscreen devices. He turned out to be right - Android tried to support Flash but users suffered through video playback that halved battery life, and web scrolling which stuttered.
But let’s give Flash some credit where it’s due. Flash was truly a pioneer for web animation - and without it, we probably wouldn’t have the advancements in technology that we enjoy today.
Thanks to Flash, we had:
- Animation technology that was good for games
- Interactivity that let people build things like photo galleries; and
- The ability to use webcams for video chat.
As for programmers, Flash meant that they didn’t need to worry about the differences between web browsers anymore, because when people installed Flash, everything just worked.
While Flash paved the way for major advancements in today’s web standards, this unfortunately resulted in making Flash unnecessary:
- Most browser vendors now integrate the capabilities once provided by plugins directly into their browsers, meaning that animations and other interactive features can run faster and smoother.
- WebGL allows for hardware-accelerated 3D graphics.
- HTML5 makes web based audio and video easy to build into any website, and is more secure than Flash.
- SVG is a better alternative to Flash for vector graphics.
- W3C’s WebAssembly is a community group which is committed to dramatically speeding up web software games.
This is probably why back in 2010, Apple chose not to support Flash in their iOS devices - and even chose to keep Flash disabled by default when it was installed on Mac. Adobe then killed Flash for mobile devices in 2011. The end was near, and they could see it coming.
So what can we expect?
Killing something as widespread as Flash has fairly significant repercussions for the world wide web.
The number of Flash-powered websites has plummeted over the years.
In fact, while around half of all websites used Flash in 2011, the number of websites using Flash has been dropping by a percentage point every 6 months for some time - and only 5% use it today. Still, that’s millions of websites that will require a transition plan.
Most browsers have announced how they’re handling the change:
- As a default, Chrome will ask you if you want to let Flash run at the moment, and then disable it completely closer to the 2020.
- This month (August 2017), Mozilla Firefox will ask you which sites you want to enable Flash on. In 2019, it will disable Flash by default, and provide limited support until the end of 2020.
- In 2019, Microsoft will disable Flash by default for Edge, and by the end of 2020, Flash will be disabled from both Edge and Internet Explorer.
- Safari started blocking Flash from running last year, but if you really want it, you can re-enable it on websites that ask you if you want to download it.
For developers who don’t currently rely on Flash, there is probably a sense of sweeping relief that they will no longer have to support it. They don’t have to hope that users have installed the latest Flash update for animations to run, deal with complaints about sites crashing, or worry about file sizes.
Also, while Flash was certainly popular, it was never an open standard as recommended by the W3C (the institute which aims to develop protocols and guidelines for the web).
Adobe announced that they will continue with their commitment to provide tools and services for designers and developers to create content on the web. They’ll do this by contributing to the HTML5 standard, and participating in the WebAssembly community group.
What can we learn from the death of Flash?
The web is constantly evolving to adapt to our changing needs. We have an ever-increasing preference for mobile, touchscreen devices but we also have higher standards - we want things to run faster, more smoothly and constantly. We want larger file sizes, accessible instantly on wafer-thin devices.
The death of Flash is just another indication that businesses technologies continually evolve to meet fast-changing customer needs. The question is: can you keep up?
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