Increasingly in web development we’ve noticed a steady decline in the use of Adobe Flash within websites. The majority of the reasons developers once opted for Flash have now been replaced by such things as HTML5, CSS3 and other ‘official’ specs, leaving us to ponder what does the future hold for the once unstoppable force that was Flash.

Flash started life as a simple animation tool back in 1996. During the early years of the Internet Flash sites provided a breath of fresh air amongst the dull and boring text heavy sites. Flash allowed developers to create more exciting and immersive sites than simple HTML code allowed and as such a large proportion of sites incorporated Flash in some form or another. However, problems existed (and still do to a greater or lesser extent) with Flash.

Flash is proprietary and requires a separate plug-in to view – this means many browsers come ‘out of the box’ without Flash support (except for Google’s Chrome which packages Flash Player within). Confusion is often encountered with new users unable to view videos on YouTube (which makes heavy use of Flash for its video content) and so on.

Also, until very recently Flash was not ‘accessible’ – this means that people who need to use screen readers, keyboard shortcuts and so on could not use Flash content. It simply wasn’t set up for this kind of use. This has proved a major problem for developers when trying to meet Word Wide Web Consortium (W3C) accessibility guidelines and alternatives have to be provided.

Lastly, and crucially, Flash is still owned by Adobe. Although recently the specification was opened up to the public, this appears to be too little too late for the platform, as the move seems to have been motivated primarily by the competition to Flash – the main form being the W3C’s own draft specs.

With the development of JavaScript and JavaScript libraries such as jQuery, developers are able to generate similar effects without having to use Flash. This means that the content is much more accessible to users regardless of the platform they are using to access the website (assuming their browser is up to date). The end result is an interesting and exciting website that meets W3C guidelines without additional effort.

Apple’s dismissal of Flash is another reason developers opt for alternatives. Despite other smart phones incorporating Flash, Apple have stood firm over their decision not to incorporate the software, simply feeling that it isn’t necessary. Arguably Apple does have a point as more often developers are opting for the accessible and open alternatives.

Over the next year or two HTML5 and CSS3 will start to play a key role in the development of websites. Although neither have yet officially launched some websites have already started incorporating the features offered by the languages, and browsers have implemented their own (sometimes buggy or non-conformant) versions of features. From what we’ve seen the web appears to be merging with the desktop – with prominent web-apps such as Gmail, Google Docs, as well as Facebook and Twitter becoming very ‘rich’ in terms of functionality, the need is for non-proprietary ways to exploit this.

Is this the end of Flash then? Well that’s a tough question. I think what we will witness is the end of pure Flash websites, as they are outdated and inaccessible. However I feel there will still be a place for Flash elements. Flash is still the go-to tool for creating web character animations and interactive games and I think it’ll be a long time before a better tool comes along to do that job. Indeed Adobe themselves are experimenting with taking Flash to a new place and allowing it to export to HTML5 and CSS3.

It’s interesting that Flash started life as simple animation software, became one of the biggest tools in web development for a number of years, and is now slowly diminishing to its original role. Will it ever re-attain the heights it once reached? I doubt it, but it’s worth remembering that Flash paved the way for what the Internet has become today, and to where it’s heading in the future.

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