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Was Apple responsible for the demise of Adobe Flash?

Adobe Flash is a multimedia technology that powered some of the most iconic websites in the internet’s early days like Newgrounds and Homestarrunner. It allowed content to be viewable whether you were on Mac, PC, or Linux, and it became so popular that almost every website had some form of Flash technology.

But today, the internet looks a lot different. Flash has gone extinct, and Apple had a lot to do with its demise. So in this blog, I’m going to explain the history of Flash, and how Apple accelerated its demise.  

So Flash has a long history, starting in 1993 as a piece of software called SmartSketch. Designed as a graphics editor for the Mac that was optimized for pen computing, which was a popular trend at the time. But the stylus computing hype fizzled out after a couple of years as the internet became the next big thing. So SmartSketch was rewritten as a web animation tool called FutureSplash, released in 1995. It allowed web developers to add custom animations to their websites, which was a novel concept at the time. And FutureSplash eventually attracted the attention of a software company called Macromedia in 1996, who purchased FutureSplash and shortened its name to ‘Flash.’ Macromedia was vital in modernizing the software and encouraging widespread adoption.  

In fact, Flash became so capable that it wasn’t only being used for website animations, but to create entire websites themselves.

Although there were drawbacks. Search engines couldn’t read content that was hidden inside a Flash website. So search engine optimization was severely crippled. And because the entire website had to be pre-loaded, Flash sites ended up being much slower than HTML. But because of its expansive functionality, Flash was quickly adopted by web designers looking to do more than what HTML and CSS allowed. This Flash uprising gave way to experiences never seen before on the Internet. Websites like Newgrounds and YouTube were possible because of the flash game, animation, and video technology. The importance of Flash in the internet’s history cannot be understated.  

In 2005, Adobe acquired Macromedia and became the sole owner of Flash. The technology had become ubiquitous. Web browsers automatically included Flash in their downloads, and it was the #1 tool of web developers. But despite its popularity, Flash still had problems. And that’s what discouraged Apple from including the technology on their mobile devices.

Perhaps, the Mac had supported flash just like PCs, but when it came to the iPhone, Apple decided not to support it. And they had some good reasons why. Adobe actually tried to get a mobile version of Flash working on the iPhone before its launch, which would optimize power consumption and patch its security flaws, but the product failed to materialize. This put Apple in a difficult position. They could support flash anyway, giving users access to many of their favourite flash-based websites, but those sites would quickly drain the iPhone’s battery and even crash it’s web browser altogether. So to prevent this instability, Apple decided not to support Flash on the iPhone. And Adobe appeared to be okay with the decision, at least initially. Users also weren’t too upset with the lack of Flash support, likely because they used apps to access websites rather than the Safari browser. But the drama between Adobe and Apple came to a head with the release of the iPad. Steve Jobs called the tablet the most important thing he’d ever done and based on its sales success, he was right. One million units were sold in just 28 days, compared to the iPhone’s 74 days. iPad was actually the fastest-selling electronic device ever. But there was one problem analysts and journalists kept bring up: it’s lack of flash support. And Adobe wanted as much attention brought to the issue as possible.

Apple restricts Adobe flash

With mobile web browsing on the rise and desktop browsing declining, the relevance of Flash was being threatened. Apple had been focusing their efforts on encouraging the development of HTML5 as not only an alternative to Flash but also an eventual replacement. And that made it much easier to do things like creating your own website. With Flash, the process was extremely complicated and required hiring a web developer.

Now Apple didn’t push for Flash to be replaced because of some personal vendetta against Adobe, it was simply because HTML5 offered a better browsing experience. Especially when it came to mobile devices. With HTML5, there are no plugins to install, it doesn’t require as much processing power, and it consumes less power. But perhaps the biggest benefit is that HTML5 is open source. So Apple can directly contribute to its development, without relying on Adobe to fix security holes or optimization issues. But Adobe wasn’t going to let Flash go down without a fight. They immediately began criticizing Apple’s devices, saying they can’t access “the full web” because 75% of videos online are in flash. But Apple pushed back, asserting that most video contents were available in other formats or as iOS apps. And while that was true when it came to the iPhone, many iPad users browsed the internet with Safari, rather than downloading individual apps. This made its lack of flash support more visible than on iPhone since users would see holes in websites where flash content should be. Steve Jobs was actually asked about this issue directly during the All Things Digital conference. So while Jobs was right in saying lots of flash content was being updated to HTML5 and therefore become visible on iPads, he avoided answering the question of entire flash-based websites not even being accessible. It sounded like a really big flaw in the iPad at the time, and competitors like Samsung used it to their advantage when promoting their own tablets.  

While Adobe used it as an opportunity to create as much bad press for Apple as possible. They regularly attacked Apple by claiming their decision to not support Flash was anti-competitive and potentially illegal. That Apple was protecting the App Store by preventing content from being delivered through Flash, and that Apple preferred closed systems, unlike Flash which is open. But in reality, the opposite was true. Flash was wholly owned by Adobe, who had control over every change made to the product. While HTML5, the technology Apple was encouraging developers to adopt, was literally open source. Anyone could contribute to it, make changes, or add features. Adobe never filed a lawsuit against Apple, but their accusations were strong enough that Steve Jobs was forced to publicly respond. He wrote a letter called “Thoughts on Flash” where he thoroughly outlined why Apple decided not to support the product on iOS. He wrote, “Flash was designed for PCs using mice, not for touch screens using fingers. For example, many Flash websites rely on "rollovers", which pop up menus or other elements when the mouse arrow hovers over a specific spot.  

Apple's revolutionary multi-touch interface doesn't use a mouse, and there is no concept of a rollover. Most Flash websites will need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices. If developers need to rewrite their Flash websites, why not use modern technologies like HTML5, CSS and JavaScript?” He ended the letter by saying“New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating  great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.”

And while Jobs managed to predict the future with stunning accuracy, that letter didn’t include all the reasons why Apple ditched Flash. Six years later, it was revealed in a series of tweets from Bob Burrough, who used to be a software development manager at Apple, that the technical issues with Flash were only one part of the equation. The other had everything to do with their CEO Shantanu Narayen. According to Burrough, Apple's stated reasons for not supporting Flash were poor UI and excessive power consumption. However, Steve Jobs explained to the team at Apple that the main reason was that Shantanu Narayen would not take his phone calls. He conceded that fixing bugs in the software were mere engineering problems. However, without an open dialogue with Adobe, he couldn't count on them to do it.

Was Apple responsible for the demise of Adobe Flash
Source: Bob Burrough Twitter

But despite all of the drama surrounding the lack of Flash support on the iPad, it didn’t seem to stop customers from buying it. The iPad continued to dominate the tablet market and the issue became less and less relevant as websites started transitioning away from Flash, to HTML5. Just as Jobs predicted.

Eventually, Adobe faced the music and announced in 2017 that they’d stop supporting Flash in 2020. Which they did on December 31, and they blocked Flash content from running completely on January 12, 2021.

So that is how Apple helped kill Flash.

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