The End of Flash: The impact and what comes next

By Victor Allen, Chief Technical Officer

Last week Adobe announced that it, along with several technical partners, were planning the end-of-life for the Flash Player in 2020. The announcement produced a mixed reaction, from die-hards who celebrate the end of one of the few remaining ubiquitous, proprietary web technologies to concern from those still invested in Flash or Flash development. At the same time, this news feels inevitable. As Adobe’s announcement calls out: Flash has proved to be a transitional technology, and in many ways has been superseded by open APIs and more sophisticated browsers. It was only a matter of time before the Flash Player was no longer necessary.

Flash made possible a revolution in web experiences, and its end-of-life is a sign of its success. Many of the newer standard APIs that make sophisticated web applications possible are based on capabilities that were first enabled via Flash. Mainstays of web media, such as YouTube, were only possible because of Flash. Features that are now taken for granted in web development: video and audio support, offline data, font rendering, file uploads, etc. were driven in part by Flash (and in some cases continue to use Flash for backwards compatibility). Smashing’s early history was tied closely to this technology, so it is with some nostalgia that we mark its end-of-life. The web owes a nod of thanks to Flash and the pioneering work that it enabled.

What does this mean for those that have invested in Flash? This roadmap reflects a shift to open standards and native platforms, but there is a tremendous investment in existing content and applications. In areas of early education, gaming, and media distribution, many companies are facing the possibility that their back catalogs will become inaccessible. In the three years the player continues to be supported, there are certain open transition paths, however, companies with a large catalog of existing content must start planning to move outside of the Flash platform. It will be important to identify which applications are worth preserving and are worth the effort to port to alternate platforms and which warrant being rebuilt from the ground up. This represents a strategic opportunity for those that are ready to embrace newer technology.

The web is now the domain of open standards. Applications that would have been made in Flash in the past are now better off developed using standard web tools: HTML/CSS and JavaScript. Migrating or building in these tools provides a measure of future-proofing that Flash could never offer. Alternately, proprietary tools such as Unity now target native web as a platform, so there are robust alternatives to Flash for game and 3D web development. The final piece of the puzzle is probably WebAssembly, which will make some kinds of high-performance applications available to JavaScript for the first time.

While Flash as a platform is sunsetting, hopefully at least one of the implementations of the player will eventually be made available via open source. Not because there is any long term viability to developing Flash content, but because there is a significant historical record that may be lost otherwise. The history of Flash is the history of the early interactive web (and all the highs, lows, and excesses that implies). It would be a pity if that history was lost, because the ability to run that content was lost in the next decade.

When the final release of Flash Player is released in 2020, it will be a significant milestone in the history of the web. It shaped many people’s experience of the web and for the better, but the web has moved past it, and it is also for the better.

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