Last week Adobe announced end-of-life for Flash (fka Macromedia Flash), which was once one of the mighty technologies of the Internet. Back in 2005, Adobe acquired rival Macromedia for 3.4 billion dollars because Adobe hoped Flash would help it gain huge future profits in the emerging mobile device applications market. Looking back, Adobe did gain some from the acquisition, but Mobile Flash was a bust.
I feel great personal satisfaction about the death of Flash — I dedicated a major part of my career (sixteen years) fighting Flash and other proprietary Internet technologies.
For those that don’t know, a proprietary technology is where a single company has exclusive monopoly control, which allows them, if they are fortunate and clever enough, to reap obscene profits. Companies with monopolies often try to leverage their technology and deep pockets to extend their monopoly into other markets. For many companies, monopolies become addictive. Preserving and extending a monopoly becomes the highest priority at the expense of innovation and customer satisfaction. In my opinion as an observer with a front-row seat, Adobe fell into this trap with Flash.
Dictatorship vs constitutional democracy
Back in its heyday, the executives in charge of Flash would argue that having one company acting as dictator was good for the world. The argument was that a leading-edge single company could innovate faster than the alternative approach — open standards. For example, an Adobe executive said this in 2011 “… a single company like Adobe can develop and implement features on a platform more quickly than a standards body”. For the Web, the premier standards organization is the World Wide Web Consortium, which controls the definition of countless standards, including HTML(5), XML, CSS, Canvas, SVG and ePub.
A typical standards organization operates as a constitutional democracy, with carefully-crafted organizational rules, elections for the leadership team, open participation (where anyone in the world to participate either as an active member or send public comment) and transparent processes (e.g., processes, membership, schedules, milestones, working drafts, and even sometimes meeting notes are posted on the public Internet). Like many democratic governments, the inclusive and transparent process often slows the pace of technology advancement, particularly when major companies purposely try to submarine the democratic process because it threatens the monopoly position of their competing proprietary technology.
Sabotaging open standards
I experienced standards sabotage first-hand. From 1998-2001, I helped define and complete SVG 1.0, an open standards competitor to Flash. I learned years later from multiple insiders that, during this period, Macromedia and Microsoft had war room teleconferences to jointly undermine the SVG standards effort because both saw SVG as threatening their proprietary monopoly ambitions. To some degree, at the time, Macromedia and Microsoft were Hitler and Stalin trying to strike a temporary devils’ deal with each other (i.e., kill SVG in committee) even though they knew that soon enough they were destined to be at war with each other. (Microsoft had its own proprietary technologies that would compete against both Flash and the Open Web.)
Much like Nazi Germany, Flash conquered much of the Internet at blitzkrieg speed, catching the proponents of a free and “Open Web” unprepared. Among the reasons for Flash’s success were its centralized decision-making (i.e., its dictatorship), a great management team, great engineers and a strong communications effort. Basically, Flash was an awesome technology platform for its time.
But the problem with Flash’s success was that it was too great to be ignored by the rest of the computer industry. It was clear that Macromedia (and then Adobe after the acquisition) had ambitions of reaping extraordinary profit and power, often at the expense of other major companies.
As a result, many other companies and individuals with passion for the Open Web began clawing their way back to stop the Flash behemoth. IBM funded a native implementation of SVG in the open-source Firefox browser, which sparked a corresponding SVG implementation in open-source WebKit (used at the time by both Safari and Chrome) and the Opera browser. Apple invented Canvas, which also competed with some of Flash’s features. Some clever HTML engineers discovered a programming technique dubbed “AJAX” which spawned a whole industry that grew bigger than Flash. Ian Hickson led a rebellion against the stagnation that had slowed the Open Web, establishing a temporary technology dictatorship around “HTML5” (mostly a rebranding of AJAX) with the WhatWG.
Firefox, IE, Opera, Chrome, Safari
A key player in bringing the Open Web back on top was Google, which around 2008 performed a gap analysis of where the Open Web fell short of Flash. Using that gap analysis, Google assigned some of their genius engineers to fill the holes. The top problem was Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, which had received only one new release since 2002 and was stuck with 2002 code as the decade ended. (In fact, Microsoft had secretly disbanded the IE team because it planned on wresting control of the Internet using its own proprietary technologies. See Embrace, extend, extinguish.)
Two noteworthy Google projects to deal with the IE problem were SVGWeb (Brad Neuberg’s amazing technology that rendered SVG into old versions of IE by ironically using Flash under the hood) and Google Chrome Frame (Alex Russell’s even more amazing technology that installed the Chrome browser inside of IE to take over HTML page rendering, thereby instantly updating the capabilities of IE). Biggest of all was Google’s patient long-term strategy to slowly convert IE users to Chrome, diminishing Microsoft’s effective veto power over the advancement of the Open Web.
All of the above Open Web developments took years. Most of the efforts were motivated by a passion for (democratically-governed) open standards and/or fear of Microsoft and Flash. I personally played a minor role on the side of goodness as Director of OpenAjax Alliance from 2006-2012. All of these disparate efforts revived the Open Web and weakened Flash severely.
Steve Jobs and the coup de grâce
The coup de grâce for Flash came with the announcement by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, that Flash would not be allowed on the iPhone. Jobs broke his typical secrecy about Apple decision-making with an extraordinary open letter explaining the decision and trashing Flash in the process. Since the iPhone dominated the mobile market at the time, Adobe gave up on Mobile Flash, which was a mortal blow to the Flash franchise because mobile was the big growth market and the Open Web was proving unstoppable everywhere else.
Also critical to the demise of Flash was Microsoft rebuilding its Internet Explorer team as users slowly converted to other browsers, particularly Chrome. Microsoft has had to play catch-up in an effort to prevent Google Chrome from becoming the de facto standard browser on Windows PCs. As a result, all major browsers now embrace HTML5 and the Open Web. Furthermore, all major desktop browsers contain automatic update features so most users regularly get security updates and the latest new features, almost as soon as the browser engineers finish coding and testing.
You will find more statistics at Statista
The Open Web’s slow but steady rise from moribund to awesome
Here are my personal takeaways:
- If a monopolist becomes too greedy, rebellions will arise.
- Unlike Star Wars, which had a single, unified rebel force, effective rebellions have thousands of separate initiatives from passionate individuals whose conscience compels them to action and sacrifice.
- But major rebellions require deep pockets. Passionate individuals are not enough. The rebels need to partner with major players with deep pockets who share the same objectives, but potentially for somewhat different reasons. In the case of the Open Web, some of the critical big companies who invested large amounts included IBM, Apple, Google, Mozilla Foundation and, more recently, Facebook. Of these companies, only Mozilla is a nonprofit with an explicit commitment to the Open Web. For the other organizations, the motivation was self-interest; otherwise, shareholders would have reason to complain.
Those who share my passion for democracy can learn from the rise and fall of Flash. The selfish forces who seek to stack the deck so that government serves their interests at the expense of the many often have deep pockets and awesome skills. The fight to preserve government that is truly of the people, by the people and for the people requires continual vigilance, passion and effort — perhaps the equivalent of a Holy War.'Flash Dies, Democracy Thrives': How bottom-up democratic efforts saved the Internet from dictatorship Click To Tweet
About the author
Jon Ferraiolo is the author of Holy War for True Democracy and the founder of the nonpartisan nonprofit Democracy Guardians. He has advanced ALS which has resulted in near-paralysis of his arms and hands. As a result, he wrote this article, authored the book and launched the nonprofit using only his eyes. Before dedicating himself to helping the cause of democracy, he worked in the software industry, including time at Adobe (1992-2006) and IBM (2006-2014), retiring in 2014 as a Distinguished Engineer.