A Tribute To Flash, Hero of the Internet

The late nineties, early aughts were an awesome time. We were finally getting to the point where pictures could be sent across the internet without having time to grab a snack, Napster was lighting the fire under the record labels feet that eventually led to the creation of an identical competitive product a short ten years later, and the word “broadband” was worming its way into our lives as a status symbol. Oh yeah and Flash. Flash was awesome.

For those of you who don’t remember the early days of video on the internet (and why should you? It was a barren wasteland), if you wanted video, you were stuck with animated gifs. They were low quality, looped whether you wanted them to or not, and had no sound. You could download an .mpg if you didn’t mind watching your video a few days later. If you were really desperate then you could even try RealPlayer….may god have mercy on your soul.

When Flash came on the scene, though, it was a┬árenaissance of sorts. Flash artists became a thing.Do you guys remember Flash videos? Not video streaming via Flash. I’m talking videos, animations, made entirely in Flash software. Yep, that’s right! It’s an animation software too! And for years, if you wanted audio/video entertainment on the internet, that was how you got it. Sites like NewGround and Albinoblacksheep and eBaum’s World (may it die a slow and painful death) were the havens for great pieces of art.

Then YouTube. Oh, YouTube. I remember when YouTube first came on the scene. It seemed like a scam. Seriously! When YouTube first arrived, before it was owned by Google, before it was used in political debates or as CNN filler, before anyone was asking ninjas, or if they should microwave this, or whatever, YouTube seemed like it was a scam, it was just that good. Around that time, yours truly had a blog that I posted in regularly, and I was also fiddling around with backyard video projects. I wanted to be able to embed videos in my blog. Turns out that wasn’t easy! Any site that had the capacity to hold videos (which were very few) would accuse you of “bandwidth stealing” if you tried to link to the videos from another site. A few sites like Photobucket still do this if they catch you linking directly to an image or whatnot, and webcomic artists tend to prefer you don’t do this, but the practice of enforcing anti-bandwidth-theft policies has largely been eliminated from the net. Why? Because YouTube took the hit for everyone.

And who was it that made YouTube possible? Flash. Flash was never designed to be a primarily video-streaming service. Flash was designed for custom animations and games. Someone figured out that you could load a video file up into an animation as an element, and that you could use some of Flash’s tools to optimize the video stream for use as an online video player. Adobe eventually started catering to this crowd, but it wasn’t the original design.

Meanwhile, compare what our current champions were doing around that time: HTML was still a long ways off from version 5. There was no such thing as a “video” tag. The HTML standard had a place for text, images, quotes, bulleted lists, italics, and embedded objects, but no video. It did not enter the equation. In fact, alternative approaches to streaming video didn’t come until years later. Many believed that it was a bad idea for a single company to control the fate of video on the internet, but few stepped up to do anything about it. Those few underdogs who did try it were met with the uncomfortable realization that holy crap. Flash is huge. Everyone is using it. nevermind, we’ll just go home now.

Flash brought about the modern age of video and interactivity. Without Flash, we might arguably still be living in the stone age of multimedia content. Lord Al Gore knows that major movie and television studios weren’t going to do it. Hell, they still don’t really push streaming video forward despite having stakes in a myriad of online streaming services for just such a purpose.

“But Eric,” I hear you cry, “Just because Flash was a gateway drug to all the awesome stuff the internet has to offer doesn’t mean it’s not buggy and bloated and crappy and needs to die.”

I hear you. Well, technically I read you. But that makes it sound like I’m talking to you over a radio where, oddly, I would actually be hearing you. Anyways. It’s true. Flash does need to die off. Not that it is, mind you. Flash is far from dead. Adobe has announced they will no longer develop Flash player for mobile platforms. It lives on in the desktop world, and as long as mobile platforms don’t break the support already built-in, Flash can continue to live even there. However, it is a sign of the times. And it did need to happen. But not for the reasons you thought.

Here’s a bit of cold water for the folks who have gotten all hot and bothered by the news of Flash’s death: we use buggy things all the time. As the saying goes, if architects designed buildings the way programmers write programs, the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization. This goes for all platforms. Sorry, but it’s true. Even in the Apple world, iTunes, the single largest purveyor of digital music, is a buggy piece of crap on Windows, where the largest majority of iPod owners reside.┬áThis is not to say that buggy software should be allowed, or that we should just accept our fate. No, we should always look to bigger and better things. However, in the mean time, we still have things to do. And we use these buggy tools to get the job done. For those who disagree, I have one word for you:

Solaris.

Do you know what Solaris is? Of course you don’t. Outside of computer science majors and IT professionals, Solaris doesn’t exist. Solaris is an operating system developed by Oracle, formerly Sun Microsystems. It’s not Windows, not Mac OS, and not Linux. It’s an entirely separate Unix-derivative. And no one ever complains about it. There is no movement to get rid of it. There is no campaign decrying the use of Solaris. There are no major gadget blogs writing editorials on the use of Solaris, weighing the pros and cons. Solaris is still in use and in development to this day, and you never hear about it. Yet you do hear about Flash. Why? Because, unlike Solaris, everyone does use Flash.

It’s been said that we no longer need Flash. We have HTML5 and CSS3 and all the other fancy new web technologies. Why should we bog ourselves down with Flash? Just get rid of it! Everything is fine! Well, the truth is, while that might someday be accurate, it’s not quite there yet. We’re working on it. Kind of like how we’re working on transitioning to an IPv6 system which will give us plenty of IP addresses, but in the meantime we can’t quite shut off IPv4. There’s still stragglers, there’s still major internet players that use the old system.

It’s impossible to argue that a system can be shut off today and no one would notice and that said system is a huge pain in the ass for millions upon millions of users. It’s just contradictory.

Does this mean that Flash doesn’t need to go away? Of course not. It’s never been a good idea for a single company to control that much of the multimedia on the internet. And it’s certainly never a good idea for something so crucial to be so slow to update. That being said, those who believe that the obsolescence of Flash will herald in an era of everything “just working” are in for a nasty surprise. For starters, the video codec issue for HTML5 is far from standardized. Not to mention the vast number of major and minor websites who haven’t even implemented HTML5 solutions for their video or interactive elements. Even YouTube, which has been pushing forward on HTML5 adoption in a big way, hasn’t made the HTML5 player the default yet. To put it simply, nothing is dead until YouTube stops using it.

This is a step in the right direction. It’s a step we should’ve taken a decade ago, and frankly it’s embarrassing that we haven’t done so yet. So good on everyone involved (yes, including Apple) for pushing us in this direction. But before we start dancing on the grave of the not-quite-dead-yet Flash, let’s at least take a moment to appreciate both where Flash has brought us and the long road we have ahead.

It’s not quite so simple as Apple versus Adobe, my friends.

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