Why Was Flash Doomed to Fail? Usability, Usability, Usability (2023)

Today in Tedium: Flash had to die. It had too many knocks against it years before it finally met its maker this week, and the internet moved forward without it. But the groundbreaking internet plugin’s death in many ways reflects a win in favor of a more technical, more methodical internet, one where systems are built to work efficiently, rather than experimental playthings that kind of sit in their own space. In a world where the conventions of user experience win out more times than not, Flash was simply about being creative at the start. And that made it divisive. Today’s Tedium, the first of 2021, ponders the departure of an old friend from our digital lives—and what we might have lost in the process. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is from the famed “Badger, Badger, Badger” Flash animation by Jonti Picking.

Why Was Flash Doomed to Fail? Usability, Usability, Usability (1)

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“About 99 percent of the time, the presence of Flash on a website constitutes a usability disease. Although there are rare occurrences of good Flash design (it even adds value on occasion), the use of Flash typically lowers usability. In most cases, we would be better off if these multimedia objects were removed.”

— Jakob Nielsen, the famed Danish usability expert, hating on Flash in a 2000 article about its failings. Among the ones he lists: gratuitous animation, less-granular user controls, nonstandard GUI controls, broken web fundamentals, and a distraction from a site’s core values. Flash removed convention, usability, and search engine optimization from the equation. In many ways, he was absolutely right—but it’s still a shame we lost it.

A video of FutureSplash Animator, circa 1996. It would soon become the basis of Flash.

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Five quick facts about the evolution of Flash software

  1. Its original development use case was for pen computers. It may be weird to think about, but the birth of what we came to know as Flash shares the same roots with the EO Personal Communicator, an iPad predecessor that relied on pen-based input. The concepts of Flash came to life in the form of SmartSketch, a drawing app for EO’s operating system, GO. Just one problem for its developer, FutureWave Software: By the time it was ready, AT&T had killed the EO and its operating system, PenPoint. Jonathan Gay, the early developer of what became Flash, noted: “We did actually make a few sales of SmartSketch, though. The most noteworthy sale was to an architect working on Bill Gates' house.”
  2. Flash initially piggybacked on top of Java. As you may be aware, one of the first ways interactivity found its way to the web was through a Java applet—essentially a virtual machine that operated within the browser and ran applications written in Java, a programming language Sun Microsystems invented for interactive TV use cases. (Jakob Nielsen hated it, of course, despite being a Sun employee at the time!) First using the homespun HotJava browser, Java had much in common with what Flash became, and fittingly, early prototype versions of FutureSplash Animator ran within a Java embed. It was a little pokey, but it worked.
  3. The success of Flash is a mixture of good timing and obvious need. FutureSplash Animator adapted with the times to become more of lightweight animation tool for the web, at a time when dial-up connections required something lightweight. But two things helped solidify its market position: When Netscape added a plugin API to its browser, FutureSplash adapted by bringing a much faster native viewer to web browsers, leading to heavy promotion by Netscape. Then, as Jay Hoffman recalls on The History of the Web, Microsoft came calling because of a need for a dedicated viewing page on the front page of the MSN website—a.k.a. the default page on Internet Explorer. FutureSplash was the ticket for both Microsoft and a close partner on that endeavor, Disney.
  4. Flash somehow overtook an effort by a much larger developer—which then bought it. The software developer Macromedia had developed its own interactive animation tool, Shockwave, but had found out some in-depth details about FutureSplash from its collaboration with Disney, and decided it wanted FutureSplash as well. At the end of 1996, Macromedia bought FutureWave and renamed the software Flash (after FuturespLASH).
  5. Flash evolved into something closer to a programming toolkit. After Macromedia’s acquisition by Adobe in 2006—a move that angered a lot of fans of Freehand, the tool became something closer to a programming-like language in part because many of its use cases had evolved past animation, into offering interactive additions to otherwise static sites. ActionScript, its underlying programming language introduced in 1998, was a key element of this shift.

Why Was Flash Doomed to Fail? Usability, Usability, Usability (2)

A screenshot of Macromedia Flash. (via WinWorldPC)

The problem that led to Flash’s long-term demise was that usability mattered too much

A couple of years ago, I was hired by Vice to write a profile about a coffee-table book about web design. It was a relatively brief story, about 600 words, but for some reason it carried a lot more weight than those 600 words might have suggested.

And the reason comes down to what I found in the book—and the headline the piece got as a result: “Flash Is Responsible for the Internet's Most Creative Era.”

Digging through the years of old designs in Web Design. The Evolution of the Digital World 1990–Today, I had found that Favourite Web Awards (FWA) mastermind Rob Ford and his editor, Julius Wiedemann, had made a compelling case for Flash-based sites as being a compelling, powerful medium for creation, and that the modern web, while having some of these elements, had failed to maintain it to quite the same degree.

The book did not focus on websites that simply laid out content efficiently. Jakob Nielsen would most assuredly hate what this book represented for the web. Instead, it emphasized sites that went all-out—for advertisers, for marketers, or even just for creative projects created by college students in their dorm rooms. And when that advertising money went to social media instead in its historical arc, the book lamented what was lost as those once-wide creative parameters were winnowed in.

And somehow, the story became perhaps my most talked about piece during my entire time writing for Vice, despite it effectively being a book profile.

I’ve always wondered why that might be—and I think I have something of an answer. To put it as succinctly as possible: Jakob Nielsen won.

Nielsen, as I pointed out above, is legendarily laser-focused on usability over all other considerations. He has tons of patents to his name, and he was needling others about bad design conventions years before large companies realized that they needed to take UX seriously.

Usability means a few things in this context—simplicity, ease of use, convention, and accessibility. Flash was none of those things. It took the blank-canvas approach to creativity—which was great for the artists and illustrators that originally made up its target audience, but morphed into numerous other forms that it wasn’t necessarily designed for. It fell into overuse and quickly became abused by others.

This is something Nielsen warned about early, even before Flash had gained popularity, when he wrote about HotJava in comparison to the late, lamented Mac tool HyperCard. He predicted exactly what would happen with Flash before it even existed. Just read this:

HyperCard had one unfortunate aspect that will probably repeat itself with HotJava: the profusion of new work included huge amounts of complete junk when people went overboard with inappropriate use of animated transition techniques, mixed weird fonts, and drew plain ugly background bitmaps. The specific attributes of bad user interface design employed by newly unleashed designers with no UI expertise will probably be different for HotJava, but rest assured that there will be some. Caution is recommended in picking up Java design ideas as long as there is no considered user interface styleguide available for appropriate use of the new technology in ways that will help users rather than hinder them.

He wrote that in 1995, about a completely different technology that was being used in much the same way Flash would be. Love him or hate him, he called it years before everyone else had caught up.

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In the early years of the web, the costs of going with this approach—which couldn’t be viewed in search engines properly, which left out entire groups of people who couldn’t access these tools, and which was often the one proprietary part of an otherwise open-source stack—were worth it because they were significantly better than HTML was on its own. The browser wars did a lot of damage to the consistency of the web; Flash was able to step in and offer a bridge to interactivity at a time when the web just wasn’t good enough for that on its own.

But that eventually changed, and when standardization came into play, putting an entire company in charge of a key element of how the internet works was perhaps too dangerous. Flash became a vector for many things beyond its original mission—much of the ad-tracking junk we malign as spyware today is a part of this, and it was also a key vector for malware over the last decade as well.

Adobe had standards that came to life in similar ways that were eventually spun off in open ways, most notably PDF, but Flash was acquired from another developer and was seen as a strategic tool for the company’s future growth in cross-platform development. Its mission had diverged from its original goals.

The web—most effectively built around consistency, convention, and usability—eventually no longer had a place for Flash. But Flash was still ready to shove its way in.

2011

The year the YouTube relegated its legacy Flash player to legacy status, pushing its users to rely on iframe-based embeds instead, which use native HTML5-based technologies. YouTube is an interesting case, as it effectively took advantage of existing plumbing in web browsers to build its service when it started in 2005, reflecting the most prominent example of when Flash became a programming vessel of sorts.

Why Was Flash Doomed to Fail? Usability, Usability, Usability (3)

Flash was a mainstay of “For Dummies” books. (via Amazon)

The problem the modern web never solved that Flash did: an ease of getting started

In many ways, the story of YouTube accidentally using Flash almost as a Trojan horse of sorts really highlights the way that the social network, quickly purchased by Google, has replaced Flash for many of the types of users that might have used it back in the day.

For boundless creatives, video has always been a little bit more accessible as a way for capturing creative ideas. But it is by no means 100 percent equivalent, and that means that other mediums have had to do a lot to pick up the weight of an overburdened Flash.

In many ways, Flash sat at the center of a tension between programming and design in how the web was to be shaped. HTML was built as a methodical tool, with concepts borrowed from a standardized markup language. It wasn’t a complicated language, but it did require you to get your hands dirty, and that made it less appealing for visual learners.

(Microsoft FrontPage exists as something of a reaction to this.)

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Flash came from the same world as desktop publishing and illustration tools, and as a result, carries less of the technical feel to it. And while it has programming elements, like ActionScript, it ultimately appealed to audiences beyond programmers.

I am not writing a long-as-heck piece about Flash without including a Neil Cicierega animutation. It would just be wrong.

As a creative tool, it pulls you in. In the wrong hands, you can create a huge mess. But in the right hands, it can lead to create some really great stuff.

For the latter audience, the last decade has forced some serious rethinking of the path forward—the animators and game developers went to alternative tools, most notably the game development tool Unity, to do the things they might have once used Flash for.

But Flash’s perch in the market was changing during the latter half of the 2000s, as new formats for computing, particularly mobile, became more important. Adobe attempted to reinvent Flash as AIR, an application development tool with a programming runtime. But that meant carrying nearly two decades of cruft around in areas that didn’t need it.

Flash was a drawing tool that became an animation tool that became a programming language that became an interactivity layer over the web. And now Adobe wanted to make it an application development tool.

This level of contortion would be like turning Photoshop into Excel. Flash, as great as it was, simply was not flexible or light enough on its feet for such acrobatics. In fact, it grew belabored because of all the extra stuff that was added.

The signs were already there as early as 2009. One developer, Matmi, said during a keynote around that time that “Unity could well be the new platform to replace Flash.”

And that was before Flash suffered a body blow: An open letter, written by Steve Jobs in April of 2010, that methodically ripped apart Flash’s role in the modern web and pushed for the use of modern technologies to replace it, while also discouraging its use for mobile apps.

In just under 1,700 words, Jobs told Adobe that the proprietary, outdated Flash technology would not be touching iOS.

“New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too),” Jobs wrote. “Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.”

“Thoughts on Flash” is probably the greatest open letter to come out of the business world in the last quarter-century. It was the right letter for the right time. (To be clear, Jobs’ letter. This one is merely a homage of sorts.)

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And even if you could argue that Jobs’ motivation was fairly self-serving, it came from much the same place as Jakob Nielsen’s thinking 15 years before.

But the problem was that, to push things forward, it required the technology industry to step up and create an ample open replacement for Flash that was both capable and open-source.

While the growth of game development tools like the proprietary Unity have helped create alternatives for certain professional contexts, the truth is that we never got a true replacement for Flash.

The question is, do we need one? I think, in some ways, we do, even if I can’t tell you what that might look like.

The reason I say this is because of the tension between the technical and non-technical when it comes to web development. As the web evolved, it became much heavier and required more tooling just for developers to keep up.

Developing a website nowadays is full of parameters. It needs to be flexible enough for different use cases and screen sizes, considering of accessibility and convention. And things like development stacks have to come up at the beginning of the conversation. It can feel like a lot of rules for people who want to simply create even before they put down their first brush stroke.

And that left a class of users, the pure creatives that found something appealing about Flash’s simplicity, behind. Again, Jakob Nielsen won.

The push to get Flash out of the bloodstream of HTML was necessary. The internet needed a cleanse. But the truth is, the wild abandon that Flash created for those who could best take advantage of it was the essence we needed to keep.

And as much as Jakob Nielsen was right, there still needs to be room for the dreamers who might have more time for big ideas than slapping down complex code.

After all, they’re the ones who push us forward.

--

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FAQs

Why is Flash no longer used? ›

The biggest reason was security. With a huge part of the tech world running Flash, it became a massive target for hackers, forcing Adobe to release updates often to patch problems. It also offered poor performance, causing some users to see full CPU usage when viewing web pages with Flash content.

Why did Flash become less popular? ›

There are a few reasons for this decline in popularity. Because Flash Player is a relatively old plug-in, it has become increasingly vulnerable to online threats like viruses and hackers. Most web browsers have even started disabling Flash Player content by default for security reasons.

When did Flash become obsolete? ›

31 December 2020

What happened to the flash? ›

The Flash is Cancelled Officially

The Flash is officially ending after its ninth season, estimated to debut on the network in early 2023. The series will feature only 13 episodes, marking the end of an era for The CW's The Flash. This show began in 2014 and became one of the most watched and popular on the network.

What is used now instead of Flash? ›

Lightspark is an open-source tool available both as a desktop application and a browser extension. This player runs any kind of Flash-based format on Windows and Linux and works well in Chrome, Opera, Firefox, and other browsers.

Is the flash losing viewers? ›

In the latest TV show ratings, The Flash's Season 8 finale drew 570,000 total viewers and a 0.1 rating, dropping a few eyeballs week-to-week while steady in the demo.

Which hero can beat Flash? ›

The Flash can hit pretty hard with his incredible speed, but his strength is nowhere near the level of Captain Marvel. In addition to her ability to fly and resilience, Captain Marvel's powerful energy blasts could trip up The Flash.

Why did Steve Jobs not like Flash? ›

In a letter posted this morning on Apple's website, Jobs said Flash is unreliable, outdated and proprietary, and criticized the program for sapping battery power, failing to support touch-based devices and having technical and security drawbacks.

What is Flash and its uses? ›

Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash and FutureSplash) is a multimedia software platform used for production of animations, rich web applications, desktop applications, mobile apps, mobile games, and embedded web browser video players.

Is Flash ever coming back? ›

It's official: The upcoming ninth season of The Flash on the CW will be its last. It will debut in 2023 and consist of 13 episodes, making this the shortest season of its run.

Did The Flash just end? ›

The Flash's final season will premiere in 2023 on The CW and consist of 13 episodes. Entering its ninth season, it is the longest-running Arrowverse series. Arrow wrapped with a shortened (10-episode) eighth and final season in 2020.

Does Flash still work in 2022? ›

Play games, videos, and other Flash content on any website. Also play local Flash files and direct SWF URLs with Premium. This Flash Player extension will work in 2022, 2023, and beyond.

Who did The Flash lose to? ›

No one. The first Flash, Jay Garrick, was never defeated. Not even the end of his original universe or old age did him in. New 52 remade his Earth and he even became younger.

Does Flash survive the crisis? ›

While there's a lot to unpack in terms of storylines, cameos, and twists, there's one thing “Crisis” managed to avoid altogether, and that's Barry Allen's death. The Flash was more than ready to give up his life in the hope of saving the multiverse, but another Flash died in his place.

Is The Flash more popular than Arrow? ›

The Flash is undoubtedly the most popular of all the Arrowverse shows. The CW's superhero shared universe has been a staple of TV fans' lives for close to a decade now, with Arrow first leading the charge for a new wave of comic book television back in 2012.

Who can run faster than Flash? ›

Wally is widely considered to be the Fastest Flash, and is significantly faster than his mentor, Barry Allen. He has been confirmed to be the fastest being in the entire DC Multiverse.

Can Flash beat Spider? ›

6/10 Couldn't Beat: The Flash

The fight might be close, but Spider-Man would have a difficult time slowing down the Flash enough to beat him. Spider-Man definitely has a chance to land a few good blows, but the Flash is just too fast and unpredictable for him to beat.

Can Flash defeat Thor? ›

Thor gets absolutely obliterated. If we're talking about Barry Allen, all he'd have to do is a speed steal and an infinite mass punch. Heck, even Jay Garrick—the slowest Flash—was able to steal Superman's speed. The only speed feat people use for Thor is his ability to throw Mjolnir at the speed of light.

Does Batman care about Flash? ›

While he might wish he could be like Barry, his past remains as the emotional obstacle he may never circumvent. Additionally, Batman's high regard for the Flash goes both ways, as seen in the more recent Flash #64 from writer Joshua Williamson with art by Rafa Sandoval published in 2019.

Why can Captain Cold beat Flash? ›

Captain Cold has undergone experiments that have given him ice-based metahuman powers, including the ability to slow down the molecules around him, creating a field of inertia that reduces the Flash's speed to human level, allowing Captain Cold to touch him and effortlessly beat him.

Why does The Flash go missing for 25 years? ›

In the original timeline, the Crisis took place on the night of April 25, 2024, where the Flash fought his nemesis, the Reverse-Flash, with the help of his allies in an extreme street battle in Central City. The fight ended with the speedsters disappearing in an explosion of light.

Is there a way to use Flash in 2022? ›

The key to getting Flash Player to work in-browser in 2022 and beyond is simply to pair an old (non-updating) version of Flash Player, with either an older version of one of the major browsers or a hip, indie browser which doesn't have a financial interest in quashing Flash.

Do any browsers still support Flash? ›

Most of the popular web browsers do not support Adobe Flash Player. However, there are some web browsers that still support Flash. The web browsers that support Flash are Opera, Dolphin, Kiwi, FlashFox, and Puffin. On the contrary, Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple Safari do NOT support Flash.

What is the future of Adobe Flash? ›

Adobe Flash Player EOL General Information

Adobe has announced that they will no longer support Flash Player as of December 31, 2020. In addition, Adobe started blocking Flash content from running in Flash Player as of January 12, 2021.

How do I still use Flash? ›

A better option is to use the open-source Flash Player emulator Ruffle. This free download is compatible with modern operating systems, including Windows, Mac, and Linux. Once it's installed, you can simply double-click an . SWF file, choose to open in Ruffle, and enjoy.

Is the Arrowverse ending? ›

While not every show within that multiverse of DC heroes is ending, the original core of the Arrowverse will finally be laid to rest when The Flash finishes up its epic 13 episode final season in 2023.

What happens to The Flash in 2024? ›

The Flash foreshadowed its future in its 2014 pilot episode. A newspaper from the year 2024 stated that The Flash would disappear in order to save the world from a mysterious "crisis." This put an expiration date on Barry Allen's exploits, while exciting fans who were left wondering how the show would get there.

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