So Long, And Thanks For All The Flash

I’ve been an open web standards enthusiast and evangelist for many years and have long dreamed of the day that Flash would either become an open technology—meaning, not proprietary and controlled by only one company, originally Macromedia, Adobe today—or that it would simply go away and become irrelevant.

This desire has had nothing to do with any disdain you might think I have for the controlling company; it’s all about the impact Flash has had on the usability of websites throughout the entirety of my career as a web professional. We’ll get to my criticisms in a moment; I want to start with a very true argument made by John Nack, an Adobe blogger who has nothing to do with the Flash team but has valuable insights nonetheless. The recent announcement of the new Apple iPad—which, like its smaller-in-size device siblings the iPhone and iPod Touch, does not support the Flash plugin for web content—has stirred up a lot of debate online and Nack’s piece is worth reading in full. I want to address just this bit, however:

But let’s also be honest and say that Flash is the reason we all have fast, reliable, ubiquitous online video today. It’s the reason that YouTube took off & video consumption exploded four years ago. It’s the reason we have Hulu, Vimeo, and all the rest–and the reason that people now watch billions of videos per day (and nearly 10 hours apiece per month) online. Without it, we’d all still be bumbling along.

Flash has indeed been the sole piece of technology that drove video on the web forward and brought it to the millions of users enjoying it today. For that, we should be thankful because the Web would not have been quite so interesting without sites like Youtube, Vimeo, Hulu and countless others.

But Nack conveniently ignores a similarly big impact Flash has had on the web, one that is rather negative. After video, what are the two most common uses of Flash on the Web? Online games, and advertisements.

The games, I couldn’t really care less about. Flash on OS X is so slow and cpu-heavy (not just video, all of it) that graphically rich Flash games aren’t particularly enjoyable for me and simple ones are nothing compared to even basic iPhone games. The ads, on the other hand, well, they’ve been a source of endless frustration since the very first time I came across one. Flash-blocking plugins exist for almost every browser, without a doubt in large part thanks to the pervasiveness of Flash ads, their average intrusiveness and the high degree to which Flash causes browsers to crash or lock up.

Ever heard of an SVG blocker? A CSS3 blocker? They don’t exist because they’re not considered necessary; these technologies are open, but more importantly, they don’t get abused and they don’t create terrible user experiences.

If it weren’t for the utter necessity to sometimes visit certain websites for their information and data, I would have flat out across-the-board abandoned any and all sites that had the distasteful audacity to put a Flash ad covering most or, worse, all of the page’s content until clicked away. Even with plugins like ClickToFlash I sometimes have to deal with this nonsense, and the only reason I can imagine sites keep doing this is because the ads are so utterly intrusive that users accidentally click on them a lot, making them a financially worthwhile affront to any sense of taste.

Then there are the entirely-Flash-made websites, which roughly 99% of the time are made in such a way as to be completely inaccessible to anyone besides the fully-capable mouse users, and even then there often exists a usability drop that, to me, greatly diminishes the value of using the technology in the first place. I would have given some examples, but Google can’t index such sites and even Adobe’s own OpenGovernment site got recreated using standard HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

It really accentuates how Flash makes it easy to build something that looks fancy and pretty, but typically lacks great usability and/or accessibility.

Back to the situation at hand: the iPad, a handheld computing device aimed expressly (among other things) at browsing the Web and providing the best experience in doing so. What does its lack of Flash mean for that?

Well, evidently far less than Adobe would like you to believe. With big fanfare, an Adobe employee (speaking solely on his own terms and not representative of the company, it should be noted) pointed to a number of popular websites that use Flash technology to provide (predominantly video) content. And all but two of them were debunked as they had mobile device-optimized sites or even dedicated applications that allowed users without Flash to experience the same content. Oops.

Are iPad users going to notice anything missing? Probably not. Writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, Andy Ihnatko provides a telling example:

Months ago, I installed a browser plugin for Safari called “ClickToFlash.” It blocks all Flash content. You’ll see a placeholder image in the webpage and if you want to view the content, give it a click and it’ll load in. I have not noticed any drop in my ability to enjoy the Web. What I have noticed is that my browser is faster and more responsive, and that I can leave a couple of dozen tabs and windows up for weeks without having to force-restart my Mac.

Not much of a strong case in favor of Flash’s value to the web, there.

Developers of websites tend to understand this concept pretty well: use a proprietary plugin to deliver your content, and you’ll almost certainly have to offer a version for those without the plugin. Without the latter you risk losing part of your audience and thus, income. Websites that exist solely as a Flash app will have to make a difficult choice: create a non-Flash version, or place the against-all-odds bet that Flash will soon be added to the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad devices.

Lastly, there are the advertisers who make Flash ads; their ads will not be served to this growing segment of users, so they’ll have to reconsider the technology or simply lose money at an increasing rate.

From Adobe’s perspective, this appears to be a pretty grim situation. Flash, for all its contributions to bringing video to the Web, is set on a course to irrelevance. Worthwhile content is already being delivered by alternative technologies—including video, thanks to HTML5—and worthless content like Flash ads are not particularly missed by users. The only real use case left for Flash is games, a huge sub-industry it must be said, but not one that is likely to change the course of our industry as a whole.

Flash, I’ll tell you right now, is dead.

What about opening it up?

Nack argues that open-sourcing Flash would not benefit the platform:

Open-sourcing Flash would lead to a fragmentation of the format & Flash runtimes, and that would destroy the predictability and agility that differentiate Flash from other standards.

I’m not really convinced by this; opening up Flash and documenting it to become an open Web Standard, allowing for its runtime to be improved by countless developers all over the world and for browser developers to implement much better, native support, could well be the only thing that could save Flash. Adobe would have a huge lead on competitors in terms of authoring tools, and it would take a long time for the open source community to create an authoring tool just worth mentioning (and I don’t see Apple bothering with it), so from a business perspective this wouldn’t disrupt things that much; far more important is the long-term situation, where Flash actually remains relevant.

Nack suggests that Flash will stay relevant anyway, by continuing to innovate and “deliver better features more quickly”, but those arguments are worthless to developers when they have to build the same content twice—once in Flash, nice and easy, and once for mobile devices that otherwise wouldn’t be able to access it.

One such “innovation” was the Flash-to-iPhone-App idea, which converted Flash games to native iPhone games. A laudable effort, but the depth and usability of the first series of games made with this technology was so severely lacking that it’s hard to imagine it’ll really take off, let alone sometime real soon.

Meaning, if you think that the Flash team is capable of bringing such amazingly great features to market that developers would forgo supporting the iPhone, iPad and similar non-Apple-product but equally Flash-deprived users, you’re fooling yourself and you’ve clearly not paid attention to the past ten years of technology development on the Web.

The symptoms are all over the place, starting with the discussion raging online right now—this piece included. Another telling development is that Flash-lacking user percentages are now being measured publicly for websites on Twitter, via the #shareyourflashstats hash tag. Another is that because of all this, the soon-to-be-released Modernizr 1.2 will feature a check against the user’s ability to render Flash.

Developers are smart, they balance tradeoffs all the time. For the past ten years, Flash’s ubiquity and ease-of-authoring has heavily outweighed the various downsides (for enough people, anyway). Now that there are well over 75 million mobile devices that browse the Web with no support for Flash at all, as well as an increasing number of people using Flash-blocking plugins in their desktop browser, that tradeoff becomes a much harder sell. Clients wanting to reach as large as possible an audience will soon realize, if they don’t already, that Flash is not going to get them there. Authoring content twice is more expensive than authoring it once, and Flash is not the one technology that works across the board.

There are innovations that Adobe could do that make authoring Flash continuously worthwhile, like having a respectable “basic HTML, CSS and JavaScript export” feature or something along those lines, but those lead to the question: why bother putting the Flash version online at all, if the authoring tool also creates a good enough non-Flash alternative that actually works the same for all users?

Flash may well continue to exist as a technology for authoring specific content or as part of other tools—like how it is used in the Adobe Creative Suite, not that I or anyone I know is a fan of that—but as for being a technology to deliver Web content with, it is effectively dead.

Some people just won’t acknowledge this yet.

I’m not mournful about this myself—my criticisms outlined above explain as much—but I also don’t want to dismiss the good things Flash has brought to the Web. We have awesome video sites delivering great content, now and for many more years to come, and I’m quite thankful for that and will be for as long as that lasts. Flash also brought about some fun games I enjoyed, though none that captured the depth or excitement I’ve found in many iPhone games. But Flash’s days as a part of the Web’s technological infrastructure are numbered, and as time passes more and more people will realize this and move on. This process will take years, but I’m ready to say goodbye now.

So long, and thanks for all the Flash.

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