Another day, another crumbling pillar of the ugly old internet finally collapses: The day after Microsoft announced it would deprecate MS Paint, Adobe has finally announced that Flash, the once widespread, and widely hated, web plug-in will halt release at the end of 2020, a little over three years from now.
For years, Flash was all but required to do anything “fun” on the web — games, animations, videos, all needed the plug-in to be installed to work. But it gobbled up system memory and was a persistent security vulnerability, and by now its benefits have been superseded by open web standards like HTML5, which has become the preferred method for displaying video. The rise of new standards and techniques means that the types of interactive games and videos that once required Flash to display no longer do — and developers have been all but forced to move away from developing Flash products as more browsing shifts to mobile, where Flash is unsupported. (It could easily be argued that Steve Jobs killed Flash by refusing to allow it on the iPhone.)
What’s left now is an incalculably sprawling cleanup operation that touches just about every corner of the World Wide Web. There’s a reason Adobe is giving three years’ notice: Adobe is developing tools and encouraging programmers to migrate their Flash content to other formats, but that is a decision left up to millions of individual websites and creators. What will become of Flash-powered sites like Homestar Runner and Newgrounds and approximately 14 bazillion spammy banner ads? (You can rest easy: QWOP has already been ported over).
Upon hearing the news, Newgrounds founder Tom Fulp encouraged Adobe to open-source the software to aid preservation and emulation efforts. Archiving Flash content is a particular challenge that can’t just be fixed by having the Internet Archive store tons of data. The biggest problem is that Flash itself requires a client-side program, meaning that it runs locally on a user’s computer rather than from a remote server. So while saving .swf files is possible, displaying them, or playing them back in a browser, still requires this legacy (soon-to-be-dead) software. For the sake of technological progress, whole swaths of the early internet have now been given a concrete expiration date. The clock is ticking.