Eli5: why was Flash (computer) so revolutionary and why it is not relevant / non exited today?


Flash the thing to make websites and games.

In: 46

It was one of the first programs to make interactive webpages possible without the need for serverside scripting. Opening a lot of possibilities but Flash was installed locally on your computer and had access to the file system. Creating a lot of security risks and it needed a lot of constant updates to keep it safe. Adobe stopped updating the software a while back. So for security reasons it got blocked more and more. There is, as far as I know, not a browser left that supports it.

HTML5 can do almost everything that was possible with flash without the security issues, as long as you make sure you keep updating your browser. HTML5 also works directly in your browser. No need for a third party tool that Flash was.

Flash animation used vector graphics, which use curves and areas of color, instead of individual pixels, meaning the animation files were smaller than normal video, which was super important in the early days of the Internet because bandwidth was limited. It was also pretty easy to work with. It’s no longer around for a few reasons, but mainly that it was buggy, full of security flaws, and didn’t play nicely with hardware. Flash was already in decline, but when Apple decided not to allow it on iOS, it was the nail in the coffin.

Early web pages were very static – they just sat there until the user tapped a link or button. In order to be interactive, you needed more than plain HTML, you needed a scripting language, graphics, sound, and an event model. Flash provided all of these.

Flash was cross-platform, running on both Windows and MacOS. It was pretty easy to write games using Macromedia/Adobe’s Flash app and the browser plugin was free. As others have pointed out, the original versions of Flash supported vector graphics and a very tight binary format that worked well even on slow dialup internet connections.

As for why it died, it got big, bloated, and had dozens and dozens of security issues that were never fixed. It used too much battery on smartphones. A more open language, JavaScript, replaced it for interactivity.

Before the mid 2000s, web pages could not change. If you were on a website like Ebay, you’d tell the website “I want to search for a used pink bathrobe,” and the website’s server would build a unique webpage filled with pink bathrobes and send it to you, similar to how a web designer might manually add a new webpage to a site.

As you can imagine, user’s wanted more interactivity. Things like interactive maps, games, and anything that needed to constantly react to user input was basically impossible. This is where Flash comes in, it allowed websites to add interactivity that fit a lot of these use cases, and more importantly made it pretty easy to do.

Why is it not used anymore? Better things replaced it. Web standards started to include interactivity out of the box (Javascript got more fleshed out, HTML Canvas became a thing and allowed dynamic 2D graphics, and WebSockets allowed constant updates), and thus Flash being a 3rd party app that needed constant updating (which lets face it, a lot of users aren’t going to do) meant it was deemed a security flaw and phased out.

Fun fact, a company I used to work for ended up paying 200k+ for a new website, completely rebuilt in flash around 2016…. Right after it was widely known flash sites were bad, they tech was going away. Contracts were signed and it was too late to change course.