Skip menu

Celebrating information accessibility and raising awareness of Open Standards. Learn more.

All about Flash

What exactly is Flash?

Flash is a group of technologies for running applications on the Word Wide Web. 95% of Internet-enabled desktop computers have Flash installed, and it's used extensively by many popular websites including Facebook and YouTube. If you use flash, flash-enabled websites send apps stored in special formats (named .swf and .flv) to a your web browser when your visit Flash-dependent pages. For your web browser to be able to show the app and the media it contains, a Flash browser plug-in must already be installed (like the Adobe Flash plug-in for Firefox). Websites that include Flash content might require special server software to handle these files, and typically use Adobe Flash Media Server.

So "Flash" is not really one thing, but a system that comprises several components:

  1. An application file format (either .flv or .swf)
  2. A web browser plug-in
  3. A Flash media server

A point of additional confusion is that terms which appear to be a generic descriptive name, like "Flash Plug-in" or "Flash Media Server", also refer to specific product owned and trademarked by Adobe.

What's wrong with Flash?

It's not an Open Standard
Flash technology is owned and controlled by a single company (Adobe) exclusively for their benefit, and does not use Open Standards. They even control the words we use to refer to Flash - in many cases we can't even talk about Flash or Flash files without asking for permission first. How Flash files work is decided by Adobe, and although they've published a technical explanation, this information is again tightly controlled, and its use restricted.
It requires proprietary Software
Unfortunately, in order for a user to read Flash files consistently, Adobe's proprietary Flash Plug-in is required. Some Free Software alternatives exist, but they don't (yet) work reliably enough for most cases. Because Adobe's plug-in is proprietary, how it works is secret and so it can't be customised, improved, or shared by anyone else. Users have no choice but to hope that the software will be honest and trustworthy, as they have no way to check what it does on their computer or how it works.
It causes vendor lock-in
The Flash browser plug-in must be downloaded from Adobe, and users cannot choose to use an alternative plug-in from any other company or organisation. In this way Adobe maintains a monopoly on one of the world's most widely used computer technologies, and has little incentive to improve Flash according to user's needs. Although Flash is free of charge to use for website visitors, Adobe's monopoly often results in huge costs for organisiations which create and distribute Flash media, including governments and charities. Many organisations feel that they have no choice but to use Flash for videos and other rich online media due to its popularity, and purchase other expensive Adobe software for creating and publishing Flash as a result.
It threatens privacy
Adobe Flash plug-ins take direct control over users' microphone and camera, and make them accessible to websites. In the past, websites have exploited this and spied on visitors without their knowledge, for the purposes of sending spam and committing fraud.
Flash has a history of privacy problems, especially relating to their use of cookies. Once a Flash plug-in is installed it becomes part of the web browser, it has access to information about what websites have been visited and what they were used for. Because it is proprietary software, users don't know how this information is used.
It's insecure
Adobe Flash plug-ins and scripts are notoriously insecure, with many experts advising to disable it completely due to its vulnerabilities. Because it is proprietary, only Adobe employees can fix problems, even more than a year after they have been discovered, and only Adobe knows how their software actually works.

An Open alternative

HTML5 is a powerful new Open Standard that can be used to replace many uses of Adobe Flash. It comprises a family of technologies, including standards for audio and video, and advanced 2D and 3D graphics. Video sharing websites, for example, can switch entirely to HTML for video playback and in doing so offer more widely compatible, accessible, and impartial video playback.

Who is using HTML5?
Even before HTML5 was finalised, in 2011 34 of the world's top 100 Web sites were using it. Examples of websites using HTML5 for audio and video:
  • Grooveshark
  • Youtube
  • Vimeo
  • Daily Motion
  • BBC (mobile)
Is it a complete replacement?
Although Flash and HTML5 attempt to achieve similar things, they are very different technologies, and do not have identical features. HTML5 is already well suited to audio and video streaming, but some other uses may currently be difficult or impossible. New libraries for games and real-time communications (including video conferencing) are being frequently released however and its capabilities are growing.
How can I use HTML5 on my website?
How can I avoid flash online?
To completely prevent Flash media in your web browser, simply disable or uninstall the Flash plug-in (or don't install it if you don't already have it). How to do this varies from browser to browser. Alternatively you can Install a browser add-on such as 'Flashblock', that replaces flash media with a convenient "unblock" button, to provide greater control over your use of Flash.

To top