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Goodbye, Flash: The web application everybody used — and hated

It’s the long-awaited demise of a technology from an earlier era of the internet that helped spawn digital culture — and security breaches.
Image: An Adobe Flash logo on a headstone that reads 1996-2020.
Adobe will stop updating and patching Flash Player on Thursday and begin to block it Jan 12. NBC News; Getty Images

With 2020 in the rearview mirror, most people will need to visit a digital museum to relive cartoons such as Homestar Runner and Peanut Butter Jelly Time or their favorite early web-based tower defense games.

Adobe Flash, the web application behind a host of bright animation and games in the ‘90s and the aughts, finally officially kicks the bucket in 2021. Adobe will stop updating and patching Flash Player on Thursday and begin to block it Jan 12. Microsoft will block it from almost all versions of Windows with the start of the new year, and major browsers such as Chrome and Firefox will block Flash extensions, joining Safari, which already does.

It’s the long-awaited demise of a technology from an earlier era of the internet, a relic from when there were fewer industrywide standards for audio and video formatting, making Flash a convenient way for people with different computers and browsers to see the same content. For several years before memes became a household concept, Flash cartoons and games were a dominant form of internet culture.

But it was ridden with bugs and prone to getting hacked, especially as newer versions tried to keep up with the internet’s evolving speeds and file sizes and browsers could handle better applications, said Tarah Wheeler, a cybersecurity fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“It was a guaranteed way to execute these often very large files (remember when it took a long time to download media files and you were MAD when they wouldn’t play?),” Wheeler said in a text message.

“However, that guarantee that audio and video files would execute on a system that had Flash meant that sometimes your guests would be tracking mud through the door and onto your nice clean carpets,” she said.

A handful of projects aim to preserve existing Flash content after its end date. One open-source program called Ruffle translates specific Flash files to be readable to modern browsers.

The Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library, has an ongoing project to use Ruffle to preserve the most influential games and videos that thrived during Flash’s heyday, its software curator, Jason Scott, said.

“There’s an entire little strata of this culture, and it gets buried over in 2006,” when video streaming started to become more common, he said.

“At the archive, we have been uploading a couple thousand flash animations, games, programs, with the only downside being that I have been having to hand-verify them,” Scott said. ‘“Where I can, I’ve tried to get them up on the archive, to go, ‘please don’t worry: we have 200 episodes of the Strongbad emails.’”

Much of Flash’s use in recent years has been by the cottage industry of websites such as Kongregate, Armor Games and Addicting Games that churn out bright, simple web browser games. They have had to phase out Flash in favor of games written in more contemporary languages.

“It’s a bittersweet, because when it comes to Flash and the impact that it had from the creator community, it was the probably the most impactful set of tools for the indie developer that has ever existed,” Bill Karamouzis, CEO of Addicting Games, said.

“In the later years, security was a concern and legitimate performance concerns, but early on Flash really enabled a lot of people to be creative on the web,” he said.

“The gaming library is probably the largest collection of gaming titles ever created. A lot of them are of questionable quality, but there’s no doubt when it comes to the actual number,” Karamouzis said.

Flash’s end date isn’t a surprise to developers: it’s been set since 2017. But a number of companies around the world that use it for various internal purposes, such as employee training or management software, are suddenly scrambling for a solution, said Stefano De Rossi, CEO of Leaning Technologies, a web software development company that last year began selling an application that functionally makes a webpage’s Flash content appear and look normal.

“We get contacted by banks one week before deadline, large defense contractors, all sorts of companies. It’s honestly remarkable,” he said.

Such companies tend to resist the urge to rebuild their internal Flash programs from scratch, De Rossi said.

“You can see companies resisting this move and hoping perhaps that with time, some type of extension is announced,” he said. “I’ve even heard several saying, ‘surely with Covid, it’s going to be postponed.’”