Demise Of Adobe’s Flash Tool Can Be An Opportunity For India’s Software Geeks

Demise Of Adobe’s Flash Tool Can Be An Opportunity For India’s Software GeeksAdobe Flash comes to the end of its life
Snapshot
  • The Flash player that helps play multimedia content on web browsers has stopped working on most browsers.

    All Flash content will be blocked from 12 January. The industry has moved on to a new standard – HTML5.

    With lakhs of Flash-based games unplayable on user desktops, Indian ingenuity can be counted on to offer a fix.

Flash, the software tool used to display graphics and animation content on websites for a quarter century, has come to the end of its life.

On 31 December, parent company Adobe ended all support and encouraged users to uninstall it from their desktops announcing: “Adobe will block Flash content from running in Flash Player beginning January 12, 2021 … and strongly recommends that all users immediately uninstall Flash Player to help protect their systems.”

Major browsers, including the dominant brands Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge, have started to shut it down, tagging the application as “out of date”.

The end has been slow in coming. Adobe announced that it would phase out Flash in 2017, giving web administrators and developers enough time to migrate their multimedia content from Flash to today’s de facto standard, HTML5.

Web portals of large private entities in India have, by and large, removed content that would require a Flash player and replaced them with HTML5-based graphics, which have the advantage of not requiring users to install a proprietary – albeit free – player.

But many government-run web portals may still have vestiges of Flash content. A simple check today shows that major Indian official websites, including the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, Ministry of Corporate Affairs, Central Information Commission, and Ministry of Civil Aviation continue to display a link – now dead – to download a Flash Player. This in itself may not affect viewers too much, since these sites are not big on animation anyway, but dead links on official websites speak of unprofessionalism.

The demise of Flash also means that FarmVille, one of the most popular online games, will no longer run. Its makers Zynga announced recently: “Following an incredible 11 years since its initial launch back in 2009, we are officially announcing the closure of the original FarmVille game on Facebook.” However, a new avatar, FarmVille 3, will shortly debut in a mobile phone version.

The original FarmVille game on Facebook was based on Flash
The original FarmVille game on Facebook was based on Flash

Cultural Icon

Flash has been something of a cultural icon ever since it was globally launched in November 1996 as Macromedia Flash 1.0. Macromedia, in fact, did not create the software that fueled Flash but obtained rights to it through its acquisition of a small company called Future Splash. Flash consisted of two parts: a graphics and animation editor known as Macromedia Flash, and a Flash Player.

Macromedia, in its turn, was acquired by Adobe in December 2005, and the company has redistributed the tool ever since, rechristening it as Adobe Flash. The proposition remained the same – to create Flash content, developers had to pay and use a proprietary software. Users could view such content by downloading and installing a free Flash Player.

This was a lucrative proposition for Adobe. By giving away the player free, it proliferated the use of Flash – and increased the sales of the designer software. (The same model prevails in Adobe’s other offering, Acrobat, where the Acrobat reader is free, but editing and creating a PDF file requires a paid version of Acrobat).

When YouTube was founded in 2005, it adopted Flash as the tool to create compressed video content – and exploded the business for Adobe. If you owned a PC laptop, you had to install a Flash Player or miss out on a lot of web content because it became fashionable for company and consumer websites to display not just static but interactive content as well. Then the worm turned.

The decade gone by saw a sort of rebellion against such proprietary strangleholds on widely used software tools. Today, you can create a PDF file from a Word document using the Microsoft Office suite. And the increasing popularity of HTML or Hyper Text Markup Language as the go-to language for creating all types of web content sealed the fate of Flash.

The fifth iteration of HTML or HTML5, which came in 2008, was powerful enough to do everything that Flash could do – with better security features. Push came to shove in 2015 when YouTube, the biggest Flash user, shifted to using HTML5 to display video on all devices – desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone. The end of Flash was imminent, though it lingered on, and the final rites were delayed till the last day of 2020.

Flash alternatives – and an opportunity for India

The real loss of Flash will be felt by millions of users who have been playing older, Flash-based games on their PCs. It is estimated that there are nearly 500 GB of such games still in vogue.

A community called Flashpoint has sprung up to preserve old web games. Since 2018, it has helped to keep over 70,000 animated games alive. Its site offers a couple of OpenSource Flashpoint emulators, Ultimate and Infinity, which allow hardcore Flash gamers to continue playing.

Another popular Flash emulator is Ruffle. There is an ethical grey area surrounding these Flash-y knights-to-the-rescue, as they did not build the tens of thousands of Flash games they are enabling. But it seems unlikely that Adobe will flog its own dead horse and go after these ventures.

And if you are over 60 – but have nostalgia for ‘Prince of Persia’ or PacMan, as you played it on your first PC, you may not care – as long as you can still play.

Don’t be surprised too if young Indian developers see the resurrection of Flash as an opportunity and come up with desi options so that you never feel the lack of a Flash plug-in.

Remember what happened with COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) that everyone gave up for dead as the twenty-first century dawned?

Millions of lines of COBOL are still running business applications 60 years after the language was born and it is mostly Indian software programmers – some 30,000 at rough count – who continue to maintain them. Indeed, it was Indian expertise in COBOL that helped the country seize the opportunity to rewrite code for customers worldwide, faced by the so-called Y2K or Year 2000 Bug.

If they could keep a specialist software like COBOL alive for 20 years after most people gave it up for dead, imagine what they could do for a mass-market consumer tool like Flash. It could well turn out to be another Y2K moment for Indian software geeks, even if a small one.

And here’s another pointer: Indian job sites like Naukri.com still offer dozens of openings in every major IT city for “Graphics Designer/Flash developer”. It’s highly unlikely that the employers haven’t heard that Flash is officially dead. They just know a new opportunity when they see one. This is an instance of good-old jugaad in action. If the speed with which Indian developers filled the gap when China-based apps were banned is any indicator, they will soon breathe new life into old Flash apps.

So, don’t be surprised if this week’s obituaries for Adobe Flash turn out to be a case of flash forward rather than a flashback.

Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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