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5 takeaways from Adobe Flash’s death march

Sep 25, 20156 mins
Adobe SystemsApplication Security

What can developers learn from the steady decline of the once-popular multimedia platform? And what should they do to prepare for Flash’s imminent demise?

flash death
Credit: Thinkstock

Rumors of the demise of Flash have been greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain. The multimedia and software platform’s days may well be numbered, but today it’s still alive, even if its kicks are not exactly vigorous.

It’s now five years since the late Steve Jobs published his famous Thoughts on Flash memo, in which he put the knife in to Flash on the grounds that it was proprietary, unreliable and insecure, that it drains mobile device batteries and is a cross-platform development tool that results in developers using only a lowest common denominator set of features.

It’s certainly true that Flash has been plagued by security issues – prompting Mozilla to block Flash plugins in Firefox and Google to block most Flash content from its Chrome browser. Google also converts many Flash ads on its AdWords system into HTML5, and Amazon has also stopped accepting Flash ads entirely.

This is partly a response to the rise in “malvertising” – advertisements often written in Flash that contain malicious code. A report by security firm Cyphort found that the incidence of malvertising has grown by 325 percent in the last year.

“I think the rise in malvertising really started last fall and can be synced with the Flash Player debacle and the ensuing slew of zero-days,” Jeremy Segura, a senior researcher at anti-malware vendor Malwarebytes, told The Verge last month.

And in July, Alex Stamos, Facebook’s CSO, tweeted that: “It is time for Adobe to announce the end-of-life date for Flash and to ask the browsers to set killbits on the same day,” adding: “Even if 18 months from now, one set date is the only way to disentangle the dependencies and upgrade the whole ecosystem at once.”

The slow decline of Flash may be welcomed by security officers and consumers who are fed up with the constant flow of security patches for the platform, but it is less good news for Flash developers – especially those who have built up years of skill and expertise.

The good news is that when it comes, the end won’t be unexpected. “I went freelance just as the Steve Jobs letter came out, and since then I have never had big Flash projects,” says Naomi Spirit, a Flash developer and Web designer specializing in interactive content. “I get very few now: one or two agencies call me up to quote on a Flash job now and again, but I think most of these jobs end up being cancelled,” she adds.

And Flash work has not dried up completely: In some fields like e-learning it could be said still to be in poor health. “Right now I am working on an app in Flash which is quite old, says Mike Rigley, an award-winning Flash and HTML5 developer and director of Transparent Design.

 “Most developers have been aware that Flash was going downhill and many have switched to HTML5, but in this case it’s not possible to do it in HTML5 because it has to store video and HTML5 is limited in what it can do. Eventually that will come [to HTML5], but it’s not a direct replacement for Flash.”

But finding yourself with specialist developer skills in a market that’s rapidly shrinking to nothing is a losing proposition. So what lessons can be learned from the slow death of Flash?

1. A dying platform brings opportunity …

There’s little point in anyone entering the world of software development today spending time acquiring Flash programming skills, but that doesn’t mean that that there’s no  money to be made in the short-term by people who already possess Flash skills and experience.

That’s because while few organizations would embark on a large scale Flash development program now, there are plenty of Flash-based projects that need maintaining, updating and even completing.

“I don’t know how many companies are still using Flash because many are not publicly stating it, [probably] because they’re embarrassed, but there are definitely still opportunities for Flash developers,” says Spirit.

2. … but it may be wise to keep quiet about Flash

The writing has been on the wall for Flash for so long that admitting to a deep knowledge of Flash risks marking you as a has-been rather than an eager young developer with skills in the latest languages.

“Yes, there’s a temptation to drop Flash from my [resume] because it does make me look out of date,” says Spirit.

But you have to weigh the cost of any Flash jobs that might have been offered had your Flash credentials been out there for all to see.

3. Learning new skills early is key …

Flash isn’t the first language to fall out of favor, and it certainly won’t be the last. So knowing when to ditch a set of skills – or at least put them on the back burner – is vital.

“Everyone is moving away from Flash now,” says Spirit. “I went on a training course in JavaScript and HTML5 and everyone had a Flash background and was trying to make themselves more saleable.”

[Related: It’s time to rid your Mac of Adobe Flash]

That means getting in early and gaining experience with a new programming language is important if you want to stay ahead of the pack of ex-Flash developers.

4. … but so is choosing the right language

Many Flash developers are looking with increasing interest at JavaScript, and for good reason: it’s similar to Flash, so it’s not hard to learn, and there’s no reason right now to assume it won’t be around for many years to come.

While choosing a popular language means there is more competition for jobs, it also means there is more work around, and less of a chance that the language will fail.

In fact, JavaScript appears to be going from strength to strength, especially thanks to the rise of Node.js and the server side Web applications it enables. And JavaScript was recently promoted to the No. 1 spot in RedMonk’s “Programming Language Rankings: June 2015” study.

JavaScript may be popular, but it is – along with HTML5 – certainly not the only options for Flash developers. So in general terms what else is worth considering?

“I am sure that a situation like Flash will happen again, so it’s almost certainly best to avoid obscure languages,” says Rigley. “I would suggest that an open source language is the way to go,” he adds.  

5. The end of Flash may be the end of an era

Flash-borne malvertising, ad blockers and steps taken by Amazon, Apple, Google and others to clamp down on the use of Flash means that many advertisers have felt they have had  little choice but to look at alternative technologies – such as HTML5 – to get their marketing messages across.

But there’s a risk that advertisers may choose not go down this path, instead choosing alternative ways of getting their messages to their desired target audiences – by making increased use of social media marketing or using paid-for editorial (custom content, native advertising, whatever it’s being called this week), for example. That means that the days of flashy, Flash-style ads may be over – and so too may be many of the opportunities for creative developers.