Flash: The Rise and Fall of an Innovator
2020 continues to be a year of notable changes with the ubiquitous internet plugin Flash coming to the end of its life this year. Adobe Flash played a pivotal role in web design – paving the way for innovation and the chance for creatives to express themselves digitally through graphics, games and interactive website features. As a leading web agency, we’ve had our fair share of experience with Adobe Flash and thought we’d explore its rise and fall in this article as a tribute.
As it turns out, what we today know as Adobe Flash was not always owned by Adobe. SmartSketch – a vector drawing application created by FutureWave Software – was the earliest version of Flash created in the mid-’90s. It was then transformed into FutureSplash and sold in 1996 to Macromedia who rebranded it to Macromedia Flash 1.0. FutureWave actually attempted to sell it to Adobe prior but they weren’t interested. In 2005, however, Adobe acquired Macromedia and thus Adobe Flash was born.
Flash was being used by major players such as YouTube, Nike, HP and HBO to name a few from the early 2000s and occupied a large amount of web real estate. At the time, its unique properties gave web designers, developers and even casual artists the platform they were looking for to digitise their ideas and immortalise them online in a previously unknown manner.
There’s no denying that the Flash technology had a certain era-appropriate charm to it which can be observed in this showcase of Shane Mielke’s Flash-based work during his time as Creative Director at 2 Advance Studio – a designer and developer who went on to create websites for Hollywood movies and video games such as Kong: Skull Island and Batman Arkham VR. Note the boisterous colours and cartoonish aesthetic. 2 Advance Studio were considered frontrunners in the Flash industry at the time with so many other agencies aspiring to learn from their creations and follow their trends.
Web design teams would no longer have to rely on static images or gifs to entice users on websites as they now had Flash to help visualise their ideas with animations and moving elements. A good example of the type of creative innovation that Flash encouraged is this 2010 website redesign from AgencyNet which allowed real-time interaction and even smartphone integration for a virtual, interactive website.
Almost every internet browser had the Adobe Flash Player plugin installed because there wasn’t a site you could go to that didn’t have some form of Flash element that required the latest version to operate. If you grew up in the ‘00s then it’s most likely that the menial games you might’ve played on websites every now and then were flash-based. It was the most used browser plugin. However, it wasn’t without its issues.
Security issues and pitfalls
The fact that millions of internet browsers around the world had the plugin installed was also a negative aspect as it presented a high-level security risk that is still being exploited to this day. Third-party plugins are easier targets for malware and other malicious agents and with so many people having installed the plugin, it became a popular attack surface. One of the more common approaches was the claim that you needed to update your Flash Player.
With the false update pop-ups looking more and more like the genuine ones – countless computers were compromised as users would unknowingly welcome malicious software onto their computers. This is why my father told me growing up to always update directly from the website and never from pop-ups. Even a quick search on the Adobe website will present you with the staggering number of software security updates Flash has undergone since 2006. Security vulnerabilities aside – Adobe Flash Player also caused websites to load slower than they should have.
The departure from Adobe Flash – and its downfall
Apple was the most notable and first tech-giant to publicly announce their departure from Adobe Flash back in 2010 when Steve Jobs penned an open letter detailing the reasons for this departure – two of which were its security flaws and incompatibility with Safari, as well as citing that Flash is the number one reason why so many Mac devices crash. Additionally, other platforms such as HTML5 became more popular – taking the core ideas of Flash and honing them to be more efficient.
HTML5 ran natively on browsers without a plugin. It was a faster alternative that didn’t require media to be streamed over the internet as it aimed to allow media to work natively with webpages. This improved the overall speed of websites and also consumed less power from portable devices. It was also open-source instead of proprietary – making it seem more attractive to developers.
In 2015 – YouTube announced that it was switching from Adobe Flash to HTML5 and in 2017 Adobe announced that Flash would face EOL in 2020. Adobe stated that open-source standards such as HTML5 and WebGL had “matured” over the years and become “viable alternatives for Flash content”. At the same time – Google issued an accompanying statement explaining that Chrome would stop supporting Flash at the end of 2020. They also stated that in 2014, “80 percent of desktop Chrome users visited a site with Flash each day” and that in 2017 that number had dropped to 17 percent.
When you consider that Chrome is a fairly new browser that was only launched in 2008 – those numbers are pretty impressive. Whilst Adobe Flash has come to the end of its road – the way it paved for other standards and the lessons it taught developers and designers alike are invaluable. Such as the earlier generations of home gaming consoles, Flash will no longer be sustained or supported. However, it will always be recognised as an innovator of its time.
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