The slow death of Flash

Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to InsightaaS.com
Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to InsightaaS.com

For as long as most of us can remember, Adobe Flash has been generating ads and videos on websites and mobile devices. There are many millions of SWF (Shockwave) files lurking on systems and websites worldwide, and enterprise developers use the product to author content for corporate websites.

The trouble is, Flash has also been roundly cursed by users when, all too often, it served as the vector through which malware and attackers got onto their systems. It has historically been buggy and insecure, to the point that Microsoft actually began to distribute patches for it through Windows Update in pure self-defence. Today, Flash lives in a sort of limbo, reviled, yet entrenched.

That, however, is changing – too quickly for some, too slowly for others. In January 2015, YouTube dropped Flash as the default player for its HTML5 video, and in February 2015, it began automatically converting Flash ads to HTML5.

Starting June 30, 2016, advertisers will no longer be able to upload display ads built in Flash into the AdWords and DoubleClick Digital Marketing services, and on January 2, 2017, they won’t be able to run display ads in the Flash format on the Google Display Network or through DoubleClick. Video ads will not be affected. Yet.

It's death by 1000 cuts. And it's been a long time coming.

Flash got its start in the mid-1990s as an animation program called FutureSplash Animator. It was sold to Macromedia in 1996 and renamed Flash. Adobe purchased Macromedia in 2005.

At the same time, YouTube was born, and adopted Flash as its video format of choice. But things started to go off the rails when the iPhone was launched in 2007, and Flash did not work well on mobile devices. Apple decided not to support Flash, so YouTube's mobile app used the H.264 codec (Flash supported the codec, but only acted as a wrapper for it). The result: in 2010, Steve Jobs denounced Flash, especially on mobile devices, in a now-famous memo. And that started the Flash vs HTML5 battle that continues to this day.

With mobile continuing to present challenges, Adobe decided to cut its losses and stopped developing Flash for mobile in 2011. It began to develop HTML5 technology for playback and recording, and to make Flash HTML5-friendly.

Still, Flash refused to die. Despite attempts by browser creators to banish the Flash plug-in for security reasons, user demand kept bringing it back. Although its user base keeps shrinking, it still enjoys substantial market penetration. Of the almost half a million websites monitored by the HTTP Archive, 21 percent used Flash as of November 2015; today that number is 18 percent.

It seems, however, that Adobe is finally backing away from the beleaguered technology. This month, it released a new version of its authoring tool, Flash Professional – but renamed it Adobe Animate CC. The company said that since about one third of the content produced by the tool is actually HTML5, the name change reflected its changing function, although it still supports the Flash format. It also connects the product to Adobe's Creative Cloud, and Adobe says that it can output animations to virtually any format through its extensible architecture.

But that doesn't mean that enterprises can neglect the fact that – let's face it – Flash is doomed. The bug-infested codebase, despite a lot of patching, doesn't seem to be becoming less of a security problem, and given the declining support by websites, it doesn't make sense to continue to develop in Flash. Its natural successor, HTML5, has the advantage of being mobile-friendly, which is absolutely critical now that people tend to live on their smartphones.

The switch will involve some developer retraining, and adaptation by designers because not all of Flash's functionality is available in HTML5 (although Adobe is remedying that problem). The move to Creative Cloud adds a lot of functionality, but it also hits software budgets; it changes the pricing model from perpetual licensing to a subscription. It's a mixed blessing: cloud-based subscription software is automatically kept up-to-date, reducing the risk of security problems, but it does add to the total cost over time, compared to perpetual licensing where you buy the license once and that's it. Assuming, of course, you don't have to upgrade to each new standalone version – then the subscription, if not cheaper, at least spreads the cost out (however, for many software vendors, it's a moot point – they are moving their entire offering to the cloud, and to a subscription model).

Regardless, moving away from Flash can't wait. Despite the fact it has hung on this long, support is not going to continue for long – that roughly one percent per month decline in use since November is an indicator that the time has come.

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