The sunset years of Flash

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 31, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Come September, only primary Flash content will play automatically in the Chrome browser. By contrast, secondary content, such as ads, will have to be specifically clicked before it plays. It's a small change, done by Google in cooperation with Adobe, but it appears to signal the beginning of the end of Flasha nd a scramble by advertisers to change technologies. What's ominous, however, is the power that one corporation can have on the entire industry. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/08/28/google_says_flash_ads_out_september/?imm_mid=0d795f&cmp=em-prog-na-na-newsltr_20150829

Flash, of course, has been a long time dying. First developed in the mid-1990s, Flash rapidly became the dominant platform for online animation for websites, games, and ads. By the turn of the millennium, it was being favored by the artistic and the pretentious for portfolios and corporate sites.

Yet, even at its height, Flash was frequently criticized. Even when bandwidth was not a problem, Flash animations made for slow-loading sites, and could be a source of irritation when sites gave no option to skip them. Consequently, while becoming a common format for ads or for content on sites like YouTube, Flash soon became a rarity on personal and corporate sites, passing out of favor so suddenly that you can often be sure that any site that still uses it was first launched between 2000-2003.

Part of the reason for Flash's decline in the last decade is the move towards free software or, at the very least open standards. Unlike  Postscript or Acrobat, Flash remained a closed standard. Silverlight, a closed technology intended by Microsoft as a Flash replacement, never took off, and, in recent years, the call to replace Flash with HTML 5 has increased. Only the sheer volume of Flash on the web and its importance in advertising has probably kept it alive so long. It is no longer in keeping with industry expectations, and the sooner it is junked, the easier everything should be for everyone.

The ripple effect
For Linux users, any signs of the end of Flash are welcome. Adobe's support of Flash for Linux has always been half-hearted. Moreover, despite continual efforts, the Gnash project (short for "GNU Flash") has never achieved more than momentary usefulness in its struggle to become a replacement for Adobe Flash.

Not only that, but for the last half-year, Linux versions of Flash have been officially registered on Firefox as obsolete. In other words, Chrome users will have the same experience that Firefox users already endure. In fact, I wonder if the obsolescence of Linux versions was a first step and the change in Chrome is the second in a strategic withdrawal of Flash as a technology.

If so, then advertisers are likely to be less than pleased. Support for  HTML5 is becoming widespread, but I would be surprised if many advertisers have been systematically converting their ads to the new format. Now, their only option is either to convert or lose their market for ads that have only been marginally profitable for years.

Moreover, the conversion needs to be done quickly. I'm sure that advertisers don't care to wait long enough for users to discover -- as many Firefox and IceWeasel users have -- that non-automatic ads are preferable. Few users are going to shed tears if they miss a few ads. If replacements are not quickly made, users might even start to demand more ad-free services.

However, the most significant part of the news is that Google -- with a little help from Adobe -- is apparently the corporation that can dictate technical standards in computing today. Just as Adobe once decreed printer languages, and Microsoft the use of UEFI and Secure Boot, so Google has the power to accelerate the the replacement of Flash.
True, this change is overdue and perhaps especially welcome to free software users. Yet that does not change the fact that a single corporation is deciding the course of an entire industry. It's the kind of decision-making that led many of us to free software in the first place, and the fact that the change is a reasonable one does not alter the fact that it's a demonstration of power that shouldn't exist.

With luck, the next demonstration may curtail the use of Flash even farther. The problem, though, is that we can't count on the next one being as benign as this one.

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