Web development: HTML5 puts Flash on the sidelines

For a long time, Adobe Flash was everywhere on the internet. Website operators who wanted to provide their visitors with multimedia content such as videos, animation, or games couldn’t avoid the de facto standard, Flash. This has been despite security gaps, stability problems, performance defects, and complications on mobile devices. But the Flash-era is coming to an end. Even Adobe, the manufacturer, can see the writing on the wall. Since October 2014, the open web standard HTML5 with native multimedia elements offers an attractive alternative to the proprietary Adobe product. According to Apple and Mozilla, now even the internet giant Google has announced that it is turning away from the eternal problem child. And for good reason.

What is Flash?

As a software platform for the production and display of interactive multimedia content, Adobe Flash changed the look of the internet. The technology, originally developed by Macromedia, enables the animation of text and image elements to deliver videos, games, and interactive applications through a web browser. Flash supports a bi-directional streaming of audio and video content — also in 3D since 2011 – and accepts user input via mouse, keyboard, microphone, and camera. Interactive Flash animation programming uses the object-oriented programming language ActionScript. A graphical approach is also offered by the Flash authoring environment Animate CC (formerly Flash Professional). For the creation of video games and applications for in-browser use, desktop computers, or mobile devices, Adobe developed the cross-platform runtime environment AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime).

Flash-based projects are delivered in the proprietary file format Shockwave Flash (SWF). This contains the Flash animation in a compressed binary form. The specification of this format was released by Adobe as part of the Adobe Open Screen Project in 2008. But SWF doesn’t meet the criteria of an open standard.

On the user side, SWF files require the implementation of an application programming interface (API), which is integrated into the web browser in the form of a plugin. The most popular distribution was Adobe’s in-house Flash Player. In the early years of the 21st century, Flash dominated almost the entire net when it came to animated advertisements, interactive live tickers, menus, mini-games, or video players. This development was promoted using popular video portals — mainly YouTube, which used a Flash plugin for a long time.

The decline of the Flash-era

Until 2010, the Adobe Flash Player was installed on almost all internet-capable computers, making it a popular target for malware developers. Time and time again, serious security gaps appeared that were closed, thankfully, more or less promptly by the manufacturer. This trend was sadly highlighted in 2015 when Adobe was forced to announce twice in a row that there were risky vulnerabilities with no existing patch. As a result, leading browsers advocated immediate deactivation of the plugin. But the decline of the Flash-era had already been clearly visible for eight years.

Apple rejects Flash

With the iPhone in 2007, Apple presented not only the first modern smartphone with touchscreen technology, it was also the first popular web-enabled device that refused to use the quasi-standard Flash. The company received vast amounts of ridicule and resentment from both developers and users for this move. Three years later, Steve Jobs followed up with a personal explanation of this decision. In his Essay “Thoughts on Flash", the Apple founder cited six arguments as to why Flash would not be supported on Apple’s mobile devices:

  1. Adobe Flash is a closed, proprietary software
  2. Nearly all video content is also available in the modern H.264 format
  3. Adobe Flash is unsafe and unstable
  4. Flash significantly reduces the battery life of mobile devices
  5. The Flash standard is not suitable for touch devices
  6. Flash is an impeding layer between platform and programmer

Instead of continuing to implement an outdated technology, Apple announced the alignment of the mobile operating system iOS with the Flash alternative HTML5.

Adobe, on the other hand, saw primarily business motives behind Apple’s decision but had to accept that the popularity of the Apple devices meant that things had changed. More and more website operators began offering mobile versions without Flash content and making videos and animations available in HTML5 format instead.

YouTube switches to HTML5

From the beginning, Flash was the standard format of the video portal YouTube. Users who wanted to watch clips as a stream in their web browser were forced to install a Flash plugin as well as regular updates. This changed in 2010 when the developers of YouTube decided to offer videos in HTML5 format instead. Since 2015, all YouTube content can be streamed via HTML5 without a Flash plugin. Today, the open web standard Adobe Flash has been completely replaced on the video portal.

Adobe announces a reorientation

The increasing rejection of the SWF format didn’t meet Adobe unprepared. Already in 2011, the company announced its intention to integrate HTML5 into its own products and services. They also announced the introduction of mobile Flash versions. At the end of 2015, it finally renamed Flash Professional to Adobe Animate CC. The completely overworked version of the animation software supports the native HTML5 Canvas element and the 3D graphical interface WebGL. Both formats are open web standards. The company now recommends that applications that create animated web content with Adobe products use HTML5 instead of Flash.

Despite its reorientation, Adobe promises to continue to ensure the security and compatibility of Flash content. In the field of online gaming, new open standards haven’t been fully developed yet. Vendors such as Facebook continue to work with the software so that Flash-based game content continues to run safely and reliably.

Google Chrome blocks Flash content past Version 53

Like other browser manufacturers, Google also restricts Adobe Flash support. Since September 2015, the Flash plugin is disabled by default in Google browsers and Chrome users are required to actively confirm that they want to play the corresponding content. A clear sign that the unloved technology is most likely destined to soon disappear from the Google world.

In August 2016, Chrome developers announced that Flash content, which loads in the background of the browser, is blocked by default from version 53. The team cited security gaps as well as stability problems as its justification. According to the developers, 90% of all Flash content on the web is processed in the background without any added value for the user — primarily in the context of web analysis. This impairs load times.

In the foreseeable future, Flash will only play a minor role in Chrome. Already from Chrome version 55, which was released in December 2016, Google made clear that it would like to use HTML5 only. Flash content should be activated manually only if a website runs with it exclusively. As a market leader, Google could finally push Adobe Flash out of the internet for good.

HTML5: the native Adobe Flash alternative

The general shift from Flash to HTML5 has several causes. Two arguments stand in the foreground: HTML5 has the status of an open web standard and operates without additional plugins. While Flash is presented as a proprietary software under the control of Adobe, HTML5 is developed and documented openly and independently by an international panel. The web standard is therefore available to all software developers without restrictions or licensing conditions.

Multimedia content in HTML5 is integrated directly into the source code of a website via native audio and video elements as well as the drawing surface Canvas. An additional programming interface like Adobe Flash Player isn’t necessary. So HTML5 avoids a central security gap that hasn’t yet been reliably closed by Adobe: any additional plugin that needs to be installed in the web browser provides hackers with an attack surface. In addition, each platform needs its own plugin. Multimedia content embedded in a website via HTML5, on the other hand, can be displayed across platforms, since all well-known browsers are now able to interpret HTML5. Even if Adobe wants to continue supporting Flash, a significant advancement of the technology is unlikely. Instead, the service is likely to be restricted to providing security updates.

The new multimedia elements of the hypertext markup language aren’t the only thing sidelining Adobe’s proprietary software. Microsoft’s Flash alternative Silverlight, which is offered as a separate plugin for various browser models, must also be defeated. In the Edge web browser, which was introduced together with the Windows 10, Microsoft also runs without the plugin interface. Instead of Silverlight, HTML5 is primarily used to display multimedia content in the Edge browser. Flash content is still supported, as with Chrome but the player is no longer a plugin, rather it’s a module built into the software.

Website operators should also respond to this development and translate Flash content into HTML5-compatible formats.

Convert Flash to HTML5

Even today, access to Flash content is restricted to internet users who surf with Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. Considering the current developments, it’s foreseeable that animation in the SWF format will be completely blocked from popular browsers in the near future. This already applies to today’s mobile internet use. To make sure that visitors will continue to receive and be able to play all of the content of a website, website operators should convert all Flash-based animation to HTML5. The same goes for Flash-based ads that appear in ad networks like Google AdWords, BingAds or DoubleClick. In June 2015, Google already announced a switchover of all display ads to HTML5. The Flash to HTML5 converter Swiffy was available to Google customers until July 1, 2016. Anyone wishing to convert SWF files now, after the deadline has already passed, is referred by Google to the in-house software Google Web Designer or to Adobe’s Animate CC.

  • Google Web Designer: The free web editor Google Web Designer enables users to design dynamic websites and ads with HTML5. The tool is available as a desktop application for Windows, Mac, and Linux. A design view offers various drawing tools, a text editor, and 3D tools. Animations are controlled via timeline. Access to HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and XML is provided by the code view, which also provides syntax highlighting and auto-completion. But contrary to what Google promised, elaborate Flash projects can only be converted to a limited extent according to user reports.
  • Adobe Animate CC: The popular animation software Adobe Flash Professional is now called Animate CC and is available to users exclusively via Adobe’s Creative Cloud. Use of the software thus requires a subscription. If you have one, then the software can also be used as a desktop application without an internet connection. The range of functions corresponds largely to the previous version. But with the alignment to HTML5 and WebGL, Adobe opens itself up to open web standards. Support for the Flash format SWF is retained, though. A detailed video tutorial on how users can convert existing Flash animations to HTML5 Canvas elements is shown in the video tutorial on the manufacturer page. With Animate CC, you can export animations as well as OAM files, which gives you access to other Adobe programs such as Muse, InDesign, or Dreamweaver.
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