Blog • Insight & Opinion

Flash forward to the web of today.

In April 2010, Apple overlord Steve Jobs published an article entitled “Thoughts on Flash”. It was a response to the controversy around their decision not to include support for Adobe’s Flash player on the iPhone or iPad web browsers. Jobs told his loyal followers that the web just didn’t need it.

It caused a stir because at the time, the Flash player was ubiquitous. It had seen off all rivals to become the only proprietary technology to form a fundamental part of the web. It was used for everything; from banner ads to games to full browser-based applications. Without Flash we wouldn’t have YouTube or BBC iPlayer.

Now, the Flash player is limping off to retirement, its reign largely uncelebrated. Google has announced it will phase out full support for it in the Chrome browser by the end of this year, adding to the wider sense that it will soon be little more than internet history. Although many consider it the turning point, Jobs’ sermon was only part of the story. A lot of his claims about the readiness of HTML and Javascript were several years premature but, more critically, Adobe’s response to the mobile revolution was several years late.

Maybe Adobe were just too complacent after years of dominating their market but whatever the reason, it was their lack of strategy that sealed Flash’s fate for certain. Flash wasn’t always loved (to put it politely) and its decline was celebrated by many, but the timing was a bad thing for users. Contrary to what Jobs claimed, it was simply too soon. The web was years away from being ready to replace Flash.

Clients justifiably wanted their website to work on smartphones, and this left developers with no choice but to reign back their creativity. Doing Flash-type things without Flash was really time-consuming and expensive, and even then the performance was a long way off. The impact was clear. Websites began to look the same. Creativity was replaced by cold standardisation. Websites got boring. It wasn’t because developers had become a bit rubbish (well, not all of them). It was because we just couldn’t make those things any more without either putting restrictions on what devices it would work on, or sticking a few zeroes on the budget. The second one was the least popular solution.

Thankfully it was a reasonably short step backwards. The rush to fill the post-Flash void inspired what has probably been the most significant period of progress the web has seen so far. Browser performance increased rapidly and new features were adopted across each browser. Even Internet Explorer started to pretend to be a proper browser. At the same time, developers started to find new ways of solving the problems Flash had been the answer to, and SVG – an old vector image file format – was awoken from its slumber to offer us all sorts of dynamic animation options.

What this all means is that it’s a really exciting time to be a web developer. Now, when clients browse the web and see websites becoming more animated, more interactive, more user-friendly and more diverse, they inevitably want it for themselves. This pushes us to innovate and as everyone knows, working on the cool bits is the best part of any job and we’ve been fortunate to be a part of it and look forward to more, so bring it on.

Flash was instrumental in shaping the web we have today but because it meant we were all basically beholden to Adobe, it didn’t really belong. The web belongs to us all again and we’re going to see some mind-blowing stuff over the next few years.

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