A Fond Farewell to Flash

Adobe FlashThe popular technology media would have us believe Flash is the worst technology flub since Windows Vista/Apple Maps. It is nothing but a giant security flaw and should never have existed. But pause for a moment and consider this – if it weren’t for Flash there would most likely be no Netflix, no Meerkat or Periscope, no YouTube, no Facebook Live.

You see, while these services may not have all been built on Flash originally, they all stand on the shoulders of the pioneering work Flash did around online video. So, while we’re all quick to celebrate its downfall and lament its many obvious flaws, let’s pause for a moment and remember that if not for the pioneers who inevitably make mistakes (Adobe with Flash perhaps more than most), there would be no progress.

We’ve moved into a world driven by live video and interactive online broadcasting. This is being led by traditional broadcasters such as Fox Sports or MLB, or everyday people via platforms like Meerkat, Periscope and Facebook Live, or the raft of companies who are creating innovative new broadcasting models like Blab. In this world scale is critical, and historically Flash was the only platform that could enable mega audiences. But, now that WebRTC is scalable and without the drawbacks inherent to Flash, it is inconceivable we would do these things with Flash.

Yes, it was flawed. And yes, it has been superseded by better and more reliable and scalable technologies. But there was an extended period where Flash was the only platform that allowed for, among other things, web-based video communication.

While we were one of the first platforms to move onto WebRTC, our origins are firmly and proudly in Flash. We recall that in its day it actually enabled the interactive web experience we take for granted now.

Many have highlighted the importance of Flash to advertisers amongst others, but on behalf of the WebRTC community and the entire live video and real-time communications movement, and the future generation of developers and broadcasters, I want to say thanks to Flash for all it has done.

In 2007 we had a vision to bring real time video calling to the Web. No downloads, no clients, no walled gardens, no barriers. And we did that, with Flash. Flash was used to power live experiences for MLB, Ford, Diet Coke, American Idol, Atlantic Records, Ford, Universal Music Group and more.

WebRTC opened up a whole new world, where communications (voice, video and data) are embedded into websites, apps and other online services. In this world housebound patients can talk to their doctors within the context of their medical files, students collaborate on research papers with peers all round the world, developers work on code collaboratively across different offices and countries, and fans can come face to face with their sporting heroes during live interactive broadcasts.

Beyond its well documented security vulnerabilities, Flash’s greatest weakness was the fact real-time communications was never built in as a first class priority. But it is simply inconceivable we would have reached this point had Flash not filled a vital gap that existed in the fabric of the Web.

Technology, in fact all, innovation, is iterative. Rather than lightbulb moments, most breakthroughs are the result of the thousand experiments that failed. Inventors and developers are inspired by the feats of their predecessors. For example, iTunes radio is an iteration of Spotify which was an iteration of iTunes, incorporating a different distribution model which in turn was an iteration of Napster.

In the near future legacy communications platforms such as PSTN, and in a bit more time SMS, will find their rightful resting places alongside Flash on the shelves of technology museums. We will look back on them fondly, but wondering how we ever thought they were usable.

Rather than deride the clear foibles of our technology ancestors we should say thanks, and move on. As innovators we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. As I see it, we stand on the shoulders of Flash.