Latest security risk is only the latest strike against with the video software
The Mozilla Firefox and Google browsers blocked the Adobe Flash plugin from activating due to a security issue last week.PHOTO: SEAN GALLUP/GETTY IMAGES
Flash, the popular software from Adobe Systems Inc., once brought Web to life, endowing pages formerly occupied by static text and photos with video clips and animated cartoons. Last week the program, criticized for years as a security risk and a drag on online progress, became a top contender for the technology dead pool.
Facebook Inc. chief security officer Alex Stamos last week offered Adobe some unsolicited advice: Stop trying to fix Flash and kill it outright. Google Inc. and Mozilla Corp. followed suit, temporarily disabling Flash in their Web browsers after it was revealed that hackers were exploiting a bug in the software. The tech giants’ offensive was the latest chapter in Flash’s downfall and an illustration of how mobile devices— Apple Inc.’s iPhone in particular —are rapidly reshaping the business landscape.
Adobe continues to distribute Flash and regular security updates for users to download. If consumers remain concerned about it being a drag on their system or a security risk, they can uninstall it from their computers, though they might then not be able to view some video and interactive content.
But Danny Brian, vice president of research at Gartner Inc., views Flash’s demise as inevitable. “The writing has been on the wall for at least a year or two,” he said.
Introduced in the early 1990s as an easy-to-use digital animation program, Flash went on to be included on virtually every computer shipped. It was the strategic cornerstone of Adobe’s $3.4 billion purchase of Macromedia Inc. in 2005. YouTube founded its streaming video operation on the technology, and Netflix used it as well. Advertising agencies championed it as a way to produce eye-catching online ads. It seemed as though Flash was a permanent fixture of the Web.
Then, in 2007, along came the iPhone. Adobe engineers embraced it immediately. “Everyone who was in the organization was carrying an iPhone,” said Carlos Icaza, an Adobe senior engineer at the time.
But Apple’s smartphone also troubled Mr. Icaza, who was in charge of Flash development on mobile phones. Flash had become bloated over the years and required lots of computing power to run. That wasn’t a big deal on PCs, but on mobile phones, with their limited battery life, it was a major problem, and Apple had opted not to support the technology.
Flash needed a major rewrite to work on the iPhone, but Mr. Icaza couldn’t get his superiors to allocate the necessary resources.
"For me, it was, ‘What the hell is going on? We have this amazing device that is going to change the world and everybody knows it,’” he said in an interview. “Nobody at the organization was trying to make Flash work on this device.”
Other former Adobe executives interviewed for this article said Adobe wanted very much to license Flash on the iPhone but couldn’t come to terms with Apple.
With the advent of the iPad tablet in April 2010, Apple CEO Steve Jobs made a public issue of the same problems Mr. Icaza had spotted years earlier: Adobe Flash was a battery hog, a security risk, and ultimately a bad choice for Apple’s mobile platforms, he said.
Mr. Jobs also had a personal grudge to settle. According to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, he never forgave Adobe for refusing to make its industry-standard Adobe Premiere video-editing software run on Macintosh computers in 1999, when Apple was struggling to survive.
Mr. Jobs’s condemnation was enough for companies like BrightcoveInc., a Boston, Mass., video software developer. Brightcove, which had built its business on Flash, scrambled to replace it.
“Immediately, the entire ecosystem of people involved in video pivoted,” said Jeremy Allaire, Brightcove’s chairman and founder. Like YouTube, his company switched to free software based on open standards that were equally well suited to desktop and mobile devices.
Adobe continued to make money on tools for making Flash-based websites, but it was unable to fully capitalize on them. It tried to sell Flash server software, but that product couldn’t compete with a free alternative. Flash still comes bundled with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Google’s ChromeOS, and Apple’s MacOS, but Adobe doesn’t get any revenue from those deals.
Adobe itself now considers flash to be immaterial to its business, meaning that it accounts for less than 5% of company revenue, but it is still widely used on websites built for browsers. The software runs on under 6% of the Internet’s home pages and its use is declining, according to BuiltWith Pty Ltd, which tracks Internet technology.
Like Brightcove, Adobe has pivoted. It built its Creative Cloud tools for software developers around the technologies that replaced Flash. Creative Cloud can take advantage of Flash, but Adobe has increased its investment in the open Web standard HTML5 over the past four years. Microsoft, whose Silverlight software is a Flash competitor, has embraced HTML5, too. Microsoft says it will stop supporting Silverlight in six years.
For all of its initial success, Flash’s slide hasn’t hammered Adobe’s bottom line. The company’s stock has more than doubled since Mr. Jobs pushed Flash into a downhill slide.
Adobe has yet to grant Mr. Stamos’s request, but if Flash isn’t yet dead, it is breathing its last gasps—and some in the tech community still think of it fondly.
Netflix, for instance, still retains one of what once was a five-person Flash development team. Roman Staroushnik is the last man standing. Asked about the product’s decline, he delivered something of a eulogy.
“It’s kind of sad that it happened, because it was a great platform,” he said. “It did a great job of merging the gap between designers and developers.”
A BRIGHT FLASH THAT FADED
A timeline of Adobe Flash
1993: FutureWave software introduces SmartSketch graphics software for computers that used a stylus rather than a keyboard.
1996: With the World Wide Web on the rise, FutureWave’s reworks SmartSketch software into FutureSplash Animator software—which adds animation and video to the static Web experience—takes off. Macromedia buys FutureWave.
2005: Youtube launches its streaming-video service based on Flash. The software comes pre-installed on virtually every computer sold. In the Japanese mobile phone market, Flash content generates more than $1.4 billion for NTT DoCoMo. Adobe buys Macromedia for $3.4 billion.
2007: Apple introduces the iPhone but declines to support Flash, wary of the software’s drain on battery power.
2010: Apple introduces the iPad. Steve Jobs says it will never run Flash. Digital video companies including Brightcove abandon Flash for open standards.
2011: Netflix uses Flash to deliver streaming video on televisions and Blu-ray players. Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen begins to play down Flash, telling then-Wall Street Journal reporter Walt Mossberg that it’s a ‘small part of the company.’
2015: Security researchers discover serious bugs in Flash. Google and Mozilla temporarily disable it in their browsers. Facebook’s CSO calls on Adobe to kill the product.