The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Flash


To be perfectly honest, prior to Flash, browser based graphics were pretty boring. Once the novelty of animated GIFs faded, web pages were a static affair in their appearance. If you were lucky enough to have an Internet connection fast enough to stream video, you were probably running a separate streaming video application in a tiny thumb nail window.

However, all that changed in 1996 with a browser based plug in called Flash. Flash was like nothing else before it. Applications could have developed with it, video could be streamed with it and the two could be combined together, creating an interactive browser based experience with integrated video. Naturally, it exploded with both developers and advertisers. Soon after, entire chunks of the Internet featured embedded Flash objects.

Back in 1996, the computing landscape was significantly different than what it is today. You really had only two choices of operating system and Internet browser, Windows with Netscape Navigator or Windows with Internet Explorer. Sure, some of you will say what about OS2 and the Mac of yesteryear, but these were the golden years for Microsoft and Windows was the dominant platform of choice.

Developing and improving a closed source platform such as Macromedia Flash, as it was known then, was a reliably straightforward affair, since there was only a single platform to support. Coupled with a comprehensive set of development tools, Flash was a recipe for success. So, why is there so much discussion today about pushing it off the playing field altogether?

The answer to this is twofold. Today, we are seeing a breakup of the operating system monopoly with the increasing dominance of mobile OS's such as Android and Apple IOS, and the increasing speed of both hardware Internet services. The result of which has created a demand for high definition video playback on battery powered devices. On portable devices such as tablets and smartphones to reduce the number of processing cycles on the CPU , graphics rendering, which has traditionally been the most processor intensive task, is now off loaded to a separate hardware graphics CPU called a GPU.

This allows background processes to continue functioning on the low powered CPU, while the GPU which only handles video display, renders HD video content. Flash was developed in an era where the CPU did all the heavy lifting of both processing and graphics and as a result was never designed to natively support the hardware acceleration required for mobile devices. Early mobile versions of Flash was kind of disappointing in this regard. Since Flash became a major source of power drain on the pea brain CPU of the mobile device, and video playback lagged as a result.

This was also the conclusion of Apple founder Steve Jobs in 2010, when he declared in an open letter that Apple would not include Flash on Apple's IOS operating system. Since subsequent owner Adobe's best attempts to address the hardware acceleration issues and improved support of multiple operating systems, Flash is slowly being stranded by a newcomer called HTML5.

HTML5 is everything Flash is not. To begin with, unlike Flash, it is open source, which instantly gives developers access to code optimization taking full advantage of hardware acceleration. Secondly, it fully supports modern video and audio codecs like H.264 and WebM, which are quickly becoming the standard for distributing video content over the Internet. The graphics rendering of HTML5 is far superior to Flash. Animated graphics can be rendered in full screen on hardware optimized systems, since the CPU is free of the graphics processing burden.

However, it is not all smooth sailing for HTML5, which is still a developing standard. Different browsers such as Firefox and Chrome have different levels of compatibility, (see ) and older browsers such as the still significant installation base of Windows XP users with Internet Explorer 8 have no support.

Advertisers and Webmasters wishing to reach the maximum audience for content will need to relly on Flash for a few more years yet, until the HTML5 standard matures. There is currently no Webcam support for HTML5 and coupled with the huge number of Flash based applications and games ensures Flash will be with us for some time yet.

Indeed Adobe is realizing this, and hedging its bets with the release of Adobe Edge. A fully fledged HTML5 animation suite, while still supporting Flash. Adobe Labs has created a utility called Wallaby to help developers convert existing Flash animation content into HTML format. In addition, Adobe has announced it will no longer develop web plugins for Flash for Linux, (Google Chrome being the exception), or support mobile operating systems all of which heralds the beginning of the end for Flash.

Flash absolutely created more than it was ever designed for, allowing complete applications to be developed much in the same way Java works today, but without open source. How long before support is dropped entirely? That is entirely dependent on the development community, but I would be surprised to learn if any new coding projects are being created solely for Flash given its questionable future.


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