A world without Flash: The countdown begins

Adobe's much-maligned rich Internet technology could effectively be dead within five years, according to analysts

Adobe's Flash technology is under siege -- again. Could a world without Flash be close at hand?

Mozilla this week temporarily blocked the use of the Flash Player plug-in in the Firefox browser after the Hacking Team, which makes surveillance software, had three working exploits for the proprietary rich Internet technology. Facebook CSO Alex Stamos called for and end of life for Flash. And an update to Google's Chrome browser is now pausing some Flash content to improve power consumption; Apple made a similar move with Safari nearly two years ago.

These setbacks are the latest hits to Flash's already-bad reputation. In fact, complaints about the technology date back many years, and the drumbeat for a post-Flash world is only going to get louder, given that HTML5 may serve as a standardized, safer alternative.

"Adobe has tried hard over the years to improve Flash, and it has become much more responsive at dealing with security issues," says security blogger Graham Cluley. "But it's clear that online criminals continue to find critical holes in its code which they are able to exploit." Adobe, Cluley says, "should make the difficult decision to kill [Flash] off."

While Flash has been ubiquitous on desktops, it currently is used by only 10.6 percent of websites and has been trending downward, according to W3Techs. But what would a world without Flash actually look like?

We are already starting to see it, says Andy Kahl, director of research at Sizmek, which builds a management platform for ads that use Flash, HTML, or other formats. YouTube moved away from Flash as its primary video player in January, Kahl notes. "There's no noise about people not being able to watch videos on YouTube. They seem to be doing fine."

Indeed, if Flash goes away, the average user will not notice because the transition to alternative tools will happen on the back end, says Kahl. In the advertising industry and other places where Flash is heavily relied on to create content, there will be big changes in tools and processes and maybe even personnel, he adds. "That's where you're going to notice change. The average user sitting on the other side of the browser probably won't notice."

"I would say it's less than five years before Flash is gone entirely," he says.

Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond also sees momentum in this direction. "We aren't that far away from it on the consumer side. So many of the popular sites have already moved to HTML5 video, and Flash is used mainly for ads," Hammond says.

"Corporate websites are a bit of a different beast, they don't just have Flash and Flex, but also some residual Java Applets and ActiveX controls. But I think we are at the beginning of the end there too as we see browsers like Edge and Chrome scaling back their plug-in APIs to reduce the threat that rogue plug-ins create."

HTML5 and JavaScript have caught up to Flash, says Steven Lee, CTO of Tremor Video, which provides video-driven ad technology. "Without Flash, the Web will be more efficient, stable, and safe. In the short term -- weeks to months -- content developers who depend on Flash -- websites, game sites, video sites, ad creative agencies -- and have not transitioned off will be scrambling to migrate from Flash to HTML5. This migration has been happening for a while for many."

It has been several years since Apple CEO Steve Jobs threw Flash for a loop by refusing to allow it on the company's popular iOS devices. Google quickly followed suit, causing Adobe to drop development of Flash for Android in 2012. Judging by the enormous sales of iPhones, iPads, and Android devices since then, the absence of Flash hasn't hindered mobile users at all.

Still, Cluley sees the complete elimination of Flash as unrealistic. "You'd never get rid of it entirely," he says. "But if browsers stopped supporting it, and the Flash plug-in was withdrawn, then there would be no incentive for people to carry on coding in Flash."

"No doubt there would be corners of the Web which could continue to love Flash apps," he adds. "For instance, there are probably some retro games coded in Flash which no one is motivated enough to switch to other platforms. I would imagine that someone would write a Flash emulator to continue to support such things for those communities."

What would be helpful would be a drop-date for Flash's demise, says Cluley. "I don't think there's any danger of the Web dying if Flash is killed off. The best approach would be for a clear announcement to be made as to the kill-off date, giving those sites that care an opportunity to sort out their websites."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.