Flash is a proprietary technology

Flash is a technology owned by a Adobe, the same company that owns products you’ve probably heard of like Photoshop and Illustrator. Flash’s history involves being primarily an animation tool, then becoming a powerful development tool.

Websites and web tools built in Flash require a bolt-on piece of technology (called a “plug-in” called Flash Player. To use it, you download the plug-in from Adobe’s website and take some simple steps to install and activate it on your computer. Until the last few years or so Flash Player was often pre-installed on many computers you’d buy, so it was deemed ubiquitous – “everybody has Flash.” It’s still on over a billion computers today.

Brief history of Flash

From the early 2000’s to around 2008 Flash was incredibly popular. During this time there was a lot of disparity between web browsers, so what worked on Internet Explorer might not work exactly the same with Firefox which might be slightly different than the Chrome or Safari experience. Old Internet Explorer (particularly version 6 and earlier) was particularly unfriendly for web developers. Flash offered a single plug-in that would work across all browsers. In some ways it was the lazy solution – rather than build better browsers with consistent conventions, people could just tack on Flash.

Flash was the default video player for YouTube for many years, contributing to its proliferation and ubiquity. In its heyday, Flash was used to create cinematic websites or sites that were highly animated. It was also the go-to platform for ad developers and companies serving up ads for websites (you might remember blinking, shaking, flashing ads, or those banner ads that were mini-games, where you had to hit the bulls-eye or whatever). It was also the development platform for playing Facebook games like Farmville. For a long time Flash was everywhere, and everybody from web designers to elearning companies to online game developers and even broadcast animators used it extensively to deliver content.  Still today, many websites like Walgreens use Flash in the platform for their photos uploader.

Flash poses several issues, however. One is security – it’s frequently an easy target of hackers and malicious code because it’s a relatively easy entry into one’s computer. There have been instances where just having Flash play on your system, without your interaction (like an advertisement) can initialize something malicious. Just this morning Adobe issued a critical security update, requiring users to update their Flash Player (it seems Adobe issues such warnings every other week).  Another issue is resource consumption – it uses a lot of processing power. Back when we were all on big beige plugged-in desktops this was less of an issue, but as laptops got more popular, battery drain has become a significant issue. A third issue was simply propriety. A normal website is built on open standard HTML code. Nobody “owns” the code, though it is governed by a standards organization so that developers are all marching (coding?) to the same beat. Flash, on the other hand, is a product, owned by a company. That company can do whatever it wants with its products, and people who use the products have to play along.

The Fall of Flash

We have routinely asked Adobe to show us Flash performing well on a mobile device, any mobile device, for a few years now. We have never seen it. – Steve Jobs, Thoughts on Flash
The decline of Flash was precipitated by the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, which didn’t include Flash functionality on its browser. For a lot of early reviewers this was a mark against the iPhone – in the “cons” list was, for far too long, “does not play Flash content.” Steve Jobs drove home the reasoning behind Flash’s absence on iPhone in a letter called Thoughts on Flash – it’s worth a read if you’re at all curious about where Flash once was and how it’s declined.  While Android and BlackBerry devices (remember those?) tried, for awhile, to continue Flash capabilities as a competitive differentiator, they faced the same performance and usability issues Apple cited, and soon followed suit in not including Flash capabilities on their devices. The ship on the entire “Flash vs not Flash” conversation had really sailed by 2011 or so.

What this means for you

When I work with clients, the only time I tell them they really need a wholesale redesign of their website is if their site isn’t responsive – meaning it doesn’t automatically arrange itself appropropiately to whatever screen size the site is being viewed on (a smartphone, tablet, and computer all have different screen sizes and methods of interaction – tapping on a smartphone vs clicking on a computer mouse or trackpad, for instance), or if their existing site is built on Flash. If your site hasn’t been updated since the late 2000’s – and I know there are a lot of you, and that’s okay – it may have been built on Flash.

One way to tell if your website uses FlashYou can tell for sure if your site is built on Flash by putting your mouse cursor over the main body of your website content (or perhaps a particular section – a giveaway is if it’s a repeating animation of some kind) and then simply right clicking your mouse.  If you see this dialog box come up, you’re using Flash Player (another easy tell – does your site show up on mobile devices?  If not, you might have a Flash problem.)

Besides all the issues with Flash that I’ve just raised, the biggest for you is that increasingly, people can’t or won’t see your site. Flash doesn’t play on mobile, as I said – and most of us access the web today with our mobile devices. But even on desktops and laptop computers, modern browsers are increasingly deterrent to Flash, particularly because of the security and performance issues Flash raises. With modern web languages to code websites, a lot of the benefits Flash used to offer are no longer exclusive to Flash. The internet has moved on. Modern browsers often block Flash by default, don’t install the plug-in by default, or – as Microsoft announced just today (just a few hours after that Adobe critical security update) – disabling Flash whenever possible. For your users, this means hoops to jump through, concerning alert messages like, “you must download this plug-in” or “are you sure?” when they access your website, and a generally unpleasant experience that will, inevitably, reflect on you. If your website was built on Flash, it’s time for a redesign – the sooner the better.

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Chris Bintliff
Chris Bintliff
Digital Strategist; Instigator
Chris Bintliff is passionate about empowering people to create meaningful digital experiences. As a designer, creator, collaborator, educator, public speaker, writer, and practitioner of asking why Chris has helped huge international companies as well as small businesses to create better online content. He started (Not Really) Rocket Science to take the confusion and intimidation out of online strategy for people just like you. When he's not behind a screen or on his bike he enjoys talking about himself in the third person.