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Goodbye, Flash, We Hardly Knew Ye...

When Apple made it clear that the company had no intention of letting the apparently dangerous-to-life-on-Earth-as-we-know-it Adobe Flash conspiracy pollute its pristine iPhone/iPad universe, I kind of figured that a popular outcry would eventually force Cupertino to recant -- but it doesn't look like that's going to happen. Even worse, the Metro version of Internet Explorer doesn't accept any plug-ins, which means that any imaginary Metro-only tablet (such as one powered by an ARM processor) will also be Flash-free. Because Windows 8's main target seems to be tablets, this essentially means that Windows 8 will be almost flash-free. (Windows 8 has two versions of IE -- one for the Metro desktop and one for the old-style desktop -- and the one for the old-style desktop runs Flash just fine. ARM-based systems, however, probably won't be able to support the old-style desktop.)

Somehow, all of this ganging-up on Flash doesn't feel quite right to me. Now, understand that I don't really have a horse in this race. I've always seen those "Now loading..." messages on Flash-based home pages as a cue to close the web browser -- I've always felt that "bandwidth parsimony is next to godliness" or something like that. However, I've also seen the good side of Flash in that it's so easy to learn that I've known a number of garage bands whose demo was a Flash presentation that fit on a floppy. In addition, a bit of Googling will yield any number of small, simple, and entertaining Flash games on sundry websites. I guess I have a soft spot in my heart for Flash because as a development platform, Flash could be said to have been "cross-platform . . . when cross-platform wasn't cool."

So, what's so terrible about Flash? Well, it's been blamed for plenty of things. For one, Steve Jobs opined in a famous 2010 blog post that running Flash halved the battery life of an iPad. Heck, Steve, so does watching Netflix over an iPad's 3G connection, but I haven't seen anyone suggest blocking Netflix on an iPad. And then there's the pornography thing. According to some, a large percentage of porn is delivered via Flash, and Jobs is quoted as having said, "If you want porn, get an Android" -- supposedly meaning that getting rid of Flash will save us from the ills of pornography. Hey, that might be a good idea, as long as we also block ads for high-fat foods and violent movies and games. After all, the computer business is a global one, and some cultures worry less about people seeing the occasional half-naked body than about seeing graphic and fictional images of "good guys" blowing bad guys' heads off with automatic weapons and a sad lack of due process. Granted, those cultures aren't American cultures -- but we don't want to get all imperialist just because iOS and Windows both come from American companies, right?

In my mind, there are only two reasons why Apple and Microsoft want to kill Flash -- an arguably reasonable reason, and the real reason. The arguably reasonable reason is that as of a few years ago, the biggest hacker target became not Windows, OS X, or UNIX but instead Flash. For a while, Windows was no longer the low-hanging fruit for scumbag malware programmers. Flash was, with the added benefit being that Flash was cross-platform, and so a Flash exploit often played as well on Windows as on the Mac. Just as Microsoft said in 2006, "Badly-written third-party device drivers cause blue screens and make us look bad, so we're mandating that all drivers on a 64-bit system must be subject to a number of quality tests and won't run unless they're signed with our digital certificate that avers that they've passed those tests." Apple (and, later, Microsoft) said, "Flash makes our OS crash and makes us look bad."

This would be an understandable reason to block Flash (although not an acceptable one, in my opinion), but many folks seem to think that the real reason is much simpler. Remember when I mentioned that you can build some nice web-based games with Flash? Well, if an iPad supported Flash, then you'd be able to play games that you didn't acquire though iTunes. Is that also why Microsoft doesn't want Flash on the Metro desktop? We don't know, because it's not clear whether you'll have to acquire your Metro-style apps through the Windows Store or if you'll be able to just download and install any free application that you want on your PC (just as we've been able to do since August 11, 1981, when the original IBM PC arrived).

In the end analysis, I think my quibble with all of this no-Flash-allowed stuff is that although Flash has its problems, so do all software platforms. Just look at all the "install this patch or you'll be massively vulnerable" Windows patches in the past year -- but I haven't heard anyone argue that "it's about time we got rid of that bug farm called Windows." I can certainly understand that some people or organizations might want to block their browsers from using any Flash content -- heck, I think I'm one of those users! -- but I don't see how Apple and Microsoft can justify taking the choice out of my hands.
As many of you probably know, when a browser queries a website for its information, the browser adds a bit of metadata (user ID strings) describing itself (e.g., "I'm IE," "I'm IE version 7," "I'm running atop Windows 6.1"). Why not simply add the user ID string "noflash" that would signal to the website that the browser didn't want any Flash content? It'd be optional, of course, and responsible website designers could then adjust their content accordingly. Internet Explorer could know whether to include "noflash" based on some IE setting, and of course administrators could use a new Group Policy setting to enforce the policy enterprise-wide if they wanted to.

You know, it's odd. I remember sitting in a basic microeconomics class years ago, watching my professor prove mathematically that consumers are always better off when they have a choice. I wish Apple and Microsoft's management had been in the room that day.

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