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A Eulogy for Adobe Flash

I’ve had a rocky relationship with Flash from the start, and apparently I’m not the only one.

In the days after Adobe’s announcement that Flash is now Animate, (and in doing so metaphorically putting the final nail in its coffin) I mostly saw reactions that amounted to “good riddance,” and I must admit that, in the past, I expressed the same sentiment.

I’m not going to argue that Flash didn’t have it’s problems (I couldn’t defend that position if I wanted to). What I do want to remind everyone of is that the beautiful, functional place we call the internet today owes much of it’s success to Flash. I’m also going to attempt to make a case that we are actually worse off now that Flash is gone.

I vividly remember the day back in 1999 when I walked into the Center for Instructional Design where I worked as a college student. There was techno music blasting from the far side of the room where a group of my co-workers were oohing and aahing around a computer. “Have you seen this yet?” the student art director asked. “Reload it!” he said excitedly when I responded negatively.

I was then treated to a website that was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was balthaser.com, an early Flash website that might have been single-handedly responsible for the Flash intro. It is embarrassingly bad, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t absolutely love it. It was such a contrast to the static, ugly world of the internet that I was used to.

Flash made the internet accessible to graphic designers, many of who are the interaction designers of today. Before Flash the internet was a wasteland. The constraints and limitations of web design overwhelmed and consumed any hope of creating anything beautiful or sophisticated. That’s not to say that creating successful and visually appealing websites wasn’t possible, it was mostly that the tools and knowledge needed to do so were in the hands of web developers whose priorities didn’t always include aesthetics.

Flash allowed graphic designers to make things look exactly the way they wanted, and designers responded in the most unlikely and incredible ways. The internet of the early 2000’s was the wild west. Every website was a unique experience. Granted, some of those experiences were awful. I remember wanting to like a site so much because it looked amazing but I could not access the content of the site no matter how desperately I tried to decrypt their site navigation.

And I tried, a lot. I was addicted to seeing every site, every new use of animation, navigation, and interaction. My bookmark list was ridiculously long. I visited Linkdup, K10k, NewsToday, Well-Vetted and FWA religiously. I consumed and savored each new site with absolute relish. I was energized by each easter egg, gratuitous animation, and random interaction. Creatives owned the web! (At least the interesting part.)

Everything that could be done, was. Every web standard and convention was ignored. Despite the warnings and promptings of web developers the entire graphic design community raised a middle finger to the internet of the past. Flash was the future!

And it was. The present that we enjoy is all due to the dumb, misguided, untrained, (yet amazing) decisions of graphic designers. Despite the (many) problems that Flash websites had, the designs that were produced raised the standards of what was expected from websites in general. For years websites had merely functioned, but now they entertained, informed and influenced in a way that static HTML hadn’t before.

So even though Flash wasn’t a good web technology with it’s constant bugs, incessant updates, and compatibility issues, it prompted the creation of the tools that we needed to make the internet as good as it is today. Flash gave us a taste of what the internet could be and if developers didn’t universally hate it so much, while simultaneously winning over companies and viewers, there would have been no incentive to create a better option. That option being the HTML5/CSS/JQuery/PHP world of the modern internet.

The standards and conventions of web design that we enjoy today are due in large part to the freedom and lack of constraints available to designers during the Flash era. If we hadn’t broken the internet so badly we wouldn’t have exposed the real need for an in-depth analysis of usability. Today we don’t have to reinvent the interactive experience of shopping, posting content, searching, entering information and navigating websites because someone (many people, actually) put a great deal of time into thinking about, prototyping, and testing what actually works best when it comes to web usability. Would we have arrived here so quickly and with such visual sophistication without the help of Flash? I think not.

The internet is a better place not in spite of, but because of Flash.

So to all the people who have been dancing on Flash’s grave, enjoy your victory. Heaven knows you deserve it. It’s a victory for all of us.

Or is it?

Now that Flash is gone, the internet feels a little less interesting. The death (or perhaps the martyrdom) of Flash has happened so slowly that it’s been barely perceptible, but I realize today that it’s also been years since I was excited about a website. Things I’ve seen on websites, sure, but the website itself?

You can download a bootstrap template, UI kit or Wordpress theme and have a site beautifully designed and running in a few hours if you want. But who is going to push boundaries? Ask questions? Make messes? Break stuff? And for those people who want to, how do they do it? The primary tool for the lay-person to do interactive experiments has been relegated to making stickman cartoons.

As accessible and user-friendly as the modern web is it’s only good at making websites that are websites. It’s fantastic for people who want an easy, decent-looking, usable website, but what about those individuals who want to use interactivity as a medium? The people who could contribute to the discussion of interaction have lost a valuable tool. There have been many tools created in an attempt to replace Flash as the visual interface for interactive work, but I haven’t seen anything as well accepted or universally adopted. Most of the options are either not intuitive enough to entice creative individuals or not powerful enough to do anything interesting.

Have we mastered interaction to the point where innovation and experimentation are no longer needed? I highly doubt it.

With Flash gone I hope that something replaces it (and that it’s a million times better). My fear is that nothing will fully grant the same level of accessibility to visually minded, yet code-averse, young individuals who want to shake things up. And that is something worth mourning.