What Ever Happened to Adobe Flash?

I don’t know about you, but I spent a good portion of my childhood forcing animated monkeys to pop endless lines of balloons.

Bloons Tower Defense flash game
Bloons TD gameplay. Credit: Matt814211 on YouTube

I also spent an embarrassing amount of time creating impossible courses where some poor stick figure on a bike would fail at doing tricks.

Line Rider Flash game
Line Rider gameplay. Credit: Frederico Custodio on YouTube

Not to mention Mr. Fancy Pants guy, who was just constantly falling off the platforms as I tried to guide him through the level.

Fancy Pants Flash game
Fancy Pants gameplay. Credit: CallYourBrains on YouTube

If you grew up with the internet of the aughts, odds are at least one of the games above rings a bell. Even if you didn’t play any of these, you know you had one — that go-to Flash game you’d use to kill time when you were supposed to be doing homework.

You’re probably also familiar with this screen, and the unbelievable frustration it could cause:

Flash plugin required error screen

But as ubiquitous as Flash once was, you probably haven’t seen that message in at least a decade.

So what happened? Where did Flash go?

It turns out Flash was always doomed to failure. But it’s accepted its fate, and at the end of 2020, Flash will die a graceful, but extremely final death.

When it was first released in the late 1990s, Flash was revolutionary. It gave web browsers the ability to do things that just weren’t possible with the plain old HTML of the time. With Flash, you could display videos, put together all kinds of graphics and animations, and even create games.

Ever heard of Homestar Runner? It was a weekly animated web series that began in 2002, long before YouTube or anything like it existed, and gained a cult following that makes the old episodes (which have since been uploaded to YouTube) popular to this day.

Homestar has gotten himself stuck in the office water cooler.
Homestar at his finest.

The series was possible thanks to the magic of Flash.

Flash was created to fill a need, and at a time when the web was very much in its infancy, it gave developers all kinds of new possibilities.

But it also had some serious problems.

The most obvious was the need to install a separate plugin — the cause of that frustrating “you need to install flash” screen.

But once you did have it installed, it became a massive security risk.

Adobe, which bought the software behind Flash in 2005, was constantly finding vulnerabilities. Some of these were seriously dangerous, and would allow a hacker to run any code they wanted on your computer if you visited their website. Given that almost everyone was running Flash in their browser, it was a huge target.

Remember how often Adobe would tell you to update Flash? Yeah. That’s why.

Update Flash reminder message
I’m sure we all immediately clicked “Install.”

But everyone else was just as annoyed by the updates as you were, and a lot of people didn’t bother to install them.

So malicious hackers continued to exploit these bugs. The 2009–2012 era was especially bad, with antivirus companies reporting that Flash was consistently one of the most popular targets for attackers.

Enter HTML5. Its first public release was back in 2008, but it continued evolving until the official, completed version was released in 2014.

HTML5 is what virtually all modern web developers learn to use. It gave you a whole bunch of new ways to organize content, like navigation bars and footers, and critically, it contained special tags for embedding audio and video files.

Given Flash’s widespread use as a video player, that was a game-changer. You didn’t need a special plugin to display a video now — you could just embed it right in the HTML. A user could visit your site and the video would play natively in the browser.

HTML5 is also designed to work in tandem with Javascript, a programming language for creating interactive content on your site — including games.

Flash was always clunky. It was always full of security holes. It was always hard to get running properly in the user’s browser. And now, with all this multimedia and interactive support built right into the browser thanks to HTML5, Flash was no longer necessary.

Adobe continued supporting Flash for years after its popularity declined, but its time is coming to an end. After December 31, 2020, it will no longer be releasing security updates or patches. In fact, Flash now has a built-in time bomb that ensures you can’t create new content with it after 2020.

All the major browsers — Chrome, Firefox, Safari, you name it — have decided to remove Flash once Adobe stops supporting it.

Your favorite old Flash games probably won’t disappear forever, though. They’re a huge part of the internet’s history, and a few different groups have come together to preserve them, generally by converting them to Javascript. So playable versions of those games will still exist, but their original homes — all those mildly sketchy, ad-filled Flash sites — will no longer function.

Flash was amazing and wonderful for its time, but it has served its purpose, and with the advent of HTML5, its risk as a security threat has outweighed its usefulness. Collectively, the tech world has made its decision: It’s time to pull the plug.

Software developer and science/tech writer. Python, Ruby on Rails, JavaScript, React/Redux, Java. Fascinated by the amazing stories behind today’s tech.

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