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Who Framed Roger ‘Flash’​ Rabbit?

Posted on: July 26th, 2019

The Fall of Flash

For a long time, Flash was the tool of choice for the development of online courses.

Flash is a development tool that emerged in the late 1990s, during a period when the internet was at its ugliest. During those days, the most exciting thing you could find on a webpage was a low-resolution GIF or blinking text. And what you saw was pretty ugly compared to what you get nowadays.

Flash brought web-based video, animation, and interactivity into ubiquity; it allowed designers and developers alike to make a new kind of rich content that would work on any computer or browser. It incorporated the tools required to make slick animations. And for good measure, it incorporated a programming language that allowed a developer to add a new dimension to the end product. Basically, flash gave everyone – from the beginner to the advanced programmer – the ability to create slick online content that could also be deployed as a stand-alone program.

The earliest signal of Flash’s fall came in 2007 when Apple decided not to support it in the newly introduced iPhone. In 2010, Steve Jobs (of Apple Computer) posted on line a laundry list of reasons why flash is no longer appropriate for the ‘modern’ world wide web. These reasons were quickly repeated by experts who never really bothered to pick apart the arguments. Apple Computer was about to destroy a programming platform that had a 98% penetration rate on the web, and no one asked any questions about the whys!

I’m not arguing that Flash needs to make a come back – I won’t. HTML5 has been pushed as the new standard ‘du jour’, and it’s here to stay until the community finds something better. However, I think it’s an interesting mental exercise to try to understand the reasons for the demise of a hyper-useful tool.

Steve Jobs of Apple Computer wrote a ‘thoughts on Flash‘ in April 2010, to explain his reasons (boiled down to 6 bullet points) that Flash no longer had a future in the web. Some of the points were valid, but most of them had counter-points, some quite sarcastic. Just to give you an example, one the reasons given was:

“Third, there’s reliability, security, and performance.

Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009.”

Here are the sarcastic (and quite true) counterpoints:

  1.  Windows has one of the worst security records; Software patches are made on a regular basis, sometimes several times a month. The purpose of these patches is to fix security holes.  Using Apple’s logic, there should be a concerted effort to kill the windows operating system.
  2. The Apple IOS is starting to have security issues of its own. Using Steve’s logic, we should be killing the iOS as well.

I can repeat the same process on pretty much every point made in that document, but that’s not the point I’m going for.

My question is “Who is behind the death of flash and why?” And to be honest, I think the suspects are Apple Computer and the advertising industry. Let’s take a look at the motives of each.

Apple Computer

As you know, there are a lot of programs available for your phone or tablet. These programs (called apps) are available for download, but you can only install them on your device using the apple store app (you can also ‘jailbreak’ your device, but that’s a different story). Software developers can add apps to the apple store, but you need to pay an annual subscription fee in order to do that. I’m sure you can imagine the billions of dollars that Apple is bringing in with this… And by the way, one of the arguments that Jobs used was that ‘Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary’. Never mind that you can only distribute your latest and greatest app through a web store that is “100% proprietary and not free (flash was!).”

SO why kill flash? Because with flash, you can run a program via the web without downloading it, which means that you could get useful programs without having to pay Apple for the privilege of distributing it to your tablet!

Another point about the Apple store – at first, you could only upload apps developed with Objective C – a 30-year-old programming language. In the face of potential litigation, Apple decided to allow the use of other development platforms, including Adobe Air… Which is basically Flash adapted to the tablet… In other words, Flash is OK as long as we don’t call it flash. Avsoft’s Portable Classroom is actually based on Adobe Air.

Advertising Industry

This theory is probably worthy of the label “conspiracy theory” but I’ll bring it up anyway. What’s life if you don’t theorize a little intensely now and then, right?

From the very beginning, the world wide web has been used for advertising purposes. At first, companies would set up web pages to increase their exposure to their market. This was quickly followed by the news outlets and the news outlets – whether TV or printed press – rely on advertising revenues to pay for the publication of news. At first, this was limited to images and perhaps animated gifs, but these aren’t very effective. Something was needed to really capture a visitor’s attention. And the best way to grab that attention is animation. Flash turned out to be heavily used by the advertising industry for that purpose. The problem with flash, though, is that it relies on something called a plugin. A plugin is a piece of software that the browser uses to display content in the browser. But for the advertising industry, the plugin presents a problem – it can be turned off automatically for a particular web site.

So, if you like to read the news online, but you don’t want to look at the advertising, all you needed to do was to set the browser up to disable that plugin on your favorite news web site.

So how would an advertiser force you to be exposed to their advertising? Simple! Make it so that it can’t be turned off. And the only way to do that was to use a method that did not rely on that plugin.  And that method is called HTML5!

Shortly after Steve Jobs’ manifesto, HTML5 driven advertising started to become in vogue. This resulted in ads that nowadays seem to follow you from your home computer to your smartphone, and then the office.

From the aviation eLearning developer’s point of view, it basically means that our industry has been forced to change so that someone else could advertise.

Regardless of the reason, the fact is that Flash is pretty much done with. It will no longer be supported starting next year, so there is no sense in commiserating over its demise. It might be worth asking ourselves whether HTML5 is really the holy grail of the eLearning industry or not, but we’ll dive deeper into that topic on another day.

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