A Flash in the Pan

Transcript of podcast below.

In the last week of November 2015 Adobe pronounced the last rites over Adobe Flash, and no-one apparently noticed. In it’s day Flash was a revolutionary product but the Flash revolution got too big, too fast for anyone to control it.

Go back 10 years and you’d find that Flash powered YouTube, BBC’s then revolutionary iPlayer and a multitude of media heavy web sites. At the time Adobe made the bold claim, disputed by competitors, that Flash was responsible for 75% of all video content on the web. You don’t get much bigger than that.

Of course you can have too much of a good thing and that was certainly the case with Adobe’s Flash. It felt like everyone was using Flash to do the daftest of things, and at times, entirely inappropriate stuff that shouldn’t have made it onto any web site. Then again that’s the nature of the Internet, if it can be done, it will be done and done to death, and sometimes beyond that point too.

Such was the success of Adobe Flash that pretty much every computer system had to have it installed; otherwise large chunks of web content simply weren’t visible. The problem was that Flash was present on so many devices, in so many different variations and versions that hackers began to pay a lot of attention to its vulnerabilities. Their attention paid off, as they found a rich vein of exploitable computers out there that were running vulnerable versions of Flash.

Before anyone could say “quick as a flash” large numbers of computers were infected with computer viruses that exploited Flash vulnerabilities and the number of viruses that used Flash to exploit computers began to snowball. Internet users were left confused, they needed this software to watch and interact with media centric sites, but were becoming increasingly nervous about security problems associated with running Flash.

Something had to give, or rather something had to be taken away. Steve Jobs, the then Chief Executive of Apple Computer published a letter entitled “Thoughts on Flash”, where he bluntly stated that Flash was never going to appear on another Apple product. Given Apple’s share of the device market, it was the beginning of the end. It was a matter of a few years before a significant number of manufacturers followed suit, and the writing was on the wall – in animated letters – for Flash.

It goes to show that being successful – Internet successful – can come at a heavy price. In it’s day Adobe Flash was the King, Queen and Ace for any media web site, today it’s HTML5 and a basket of other products. Perhaps the moral of the tale is that no piece of software should attempt to be all things to all people, and any effort to do so will ultimately cause the product to fail.