Technology and the art of letting go — Flash Player and the web

September 2004 — I was in my early twenties and the web was a very different place. Macromedia still owned Flash and to my surprise I managed to get accepted into a select group of enthusiasts called “Team Macromedia”, helping out on the support forums in exchange for early access to product betas, some cool swag and the occasional free software.

Little did I know how much this technology would influence my career, I went from South Asian studies at university to going freelance doing consultancy for creative agencies, writing books, traveling the world from San Francisco to Sydney and anywhere in between delivering talks on what we all believed (and at the time certainly was) the most amazing cutting edge technology around.

Fast-forward a decade, the situation is very different. For a variety of reasons - some technical, some political - Flash is now the ugly stepchild of web technology. I don't want to reopen that discussion but instead focus on a productive way forward for Adobe to take ownership of the situation.

Flash Player and the mobile web

There is a lot of nuance that gets lost talking about Flash as a technology — there is the Flash Platform (which includes things like cross-compilation to native mobile apps using the Adobe Integrated Runtime), the Flash IDE and then the actual Flash Player.

What I want to bring up here is specifically Flash Player in the browser, which is arguably the most problematic piece of the puzzle right now. While Adobe briefly had an ally in Android, there of course famously is no Flash support on iOS. While mobile traffic is growing exponentially, there are (to my knowledge) no more official Flash Player releases on any significant mobile platform.

This is only part of the problem —Safari, Firefox and Chrome on desktop are all in the process of rolling out “click to play” features that prevent Flash content from running in the browser without user interaction.

Legacy and stewardship

It is fashionable these last few years for web standards enthusiasts to minimize what Flash has really meant for the web. The introduction of cross-browser video support for example is just one feature where the Flash Player was an absolute catalyst for bringing multimedia to the web.

Disruption happens and one of the key skills of any web developer is to recognize this, to adapt and be pragmatic.

That said, what I would like to bring up is what I think is a lack in Adobe’s leadership in what are severe issues for the remaining developer base and safeguarding a lot of historical Flash content on the web.

Flash as a brand has seemingly become so toxic for the company it’s hard to even find any mention of it. For example, the Creative Cloud landing page on adobe.com does not even mention the product or show its logo.

The strategy here seems to be to ignore the problem until it goes away by no fault of their own. We saw other signs like Linux support dropped for the Flash Player, the Flash Player installer bundled with third party toolbars,…

There is a clear opportunity here to address these problems head on and move forward.

What next?

It is obvious in my opinion that Flash Player needs a path towards deprecation, freeze the roadmap and work on a secure, sandboxed cross-browser solution (much like what has happened with PPAPI in Chrome).

There is a great ECMAScript based language in ActionScript —why not put more energy in evolving this and have it become either a service layer on the server-side or provide interop for products like PhoneGap and focus on the mobile side of things with app development.

Most of all what I'd like to see is Adobe take some ownership of the current situation. Flash was successful because it filled a clear void at the time, things have now definitively shifted away from desktop to mobile. It is time to make some important, pragmatic decisions and adapt to the current technology landscape.

Views expressed in this post are my own and may not reflect those of my employer.