Flash: Back from the dead again?

Microsoft changes its IE Flash policies, there are ructions in HTML5, and Adobe is readying a new release of its Flash development tools. Is it time for the return of the plug-in?
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor on

Although Microsoft has been proselytising the 'plugin-free Web' for the last couple of years, it doesn't think Flash is dead yet, either.

That's why Internet Explorer 10 on Windows RT ended up including Flash built into the browser (and updated along with the rest of Windows, to avoid the security problems as hackers turn their attention away from the better-secured Windows operating system and onto common applications like Flash and Acrobat).

Initially, Flash was locked down on Windows RT and in the 'modern' version of IE 10 even on Windows 8, so that it would only run if sites were on a Microsoft approved whitelist.

Microsoft is also pushing the touchable web, so sites that use Flash behaviours that need a mouse hovering in the right place to trigger them were blocked.

Blocking Flash was a way to protect battery life, but recent improvements to the Flash player - like Stage3D hardware acceleration (along with better coding on many websites using Flash) - led to Microsoft switching from a whitelist to a blacklist. And the blacklist has a mere handful of sites on as well; you can see it at the very bottom of the list.

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IE 10 now blocks very few Flash sites, even on ARM devices.

Why is there still a blacklist at all? A Microsoft spokesperson told us: "Inclusion on the Compatibility View list occurs when we have reports from users or when we find through our own testing that an experience is severely degraded or non-functional.  

"When the experience is fixed, the site owner can contact Microsoft for removal from the Compatibility View list."

I also wondered why the blacklist blocks Flash on sites that need other ActiveX plug-ins (which don't work on Windows RT); would that just make an already bad experience just a little bit worse for the user?

The problem is that on those sites, Flash only works if, say, Java, is also available - so even if Flash was turned on, it wouldn't work. The browser can't detect on its own that Flash needs Java, so it would load Flash even though it wouldn't work.

Realistically, Flash isn't going away for a while.

Yes, there are other Web video options, although continuing disagreements mean HTML5 video is still split between WebM and the popular H.264.

And the recent bitter philosophical arguments within the W3C about adding Encrypted Media Extensions to HTML5 for playing back encrypted content — even though this is intended not as a new DRM system but a standards-based way to interact with DRM systems — mean there isn't going to be a way to do everything you can do in Flash without a plugin any time soon. So Adobe should have a market for its next generation of developer tools.

Much of Adobe's recent public focus has been on its HTML5 development tools. But despite a shift of emphasis Flash hasn't been left behind, and a new generation of Flash design and programming tooling isn't far away.

Over the Easter holiday weekend the company posted a new video on its Flash Professional Team blog, demonstrating a handful of features from the next release of the Flash tooling.

Currently codenamed Hellcat (a change from the sandwich codenames of the last batch of Flash development tools), the new version of Flash Professional is being designed to take advantage of the current generation of computer hardware.

If you've got a high DPI screen, on a Surface Pro or a Retina MacBook (or even a Chromebook Pixel), you'll get a UI that takes advantage of all those pixels – and based on the video, it appears also lets you build Flash apps that work on those new screens. The new UI can also switch between light and dark themes, much like other components of Adobe's Creative Suite.

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Hellcat is the code name for the next release of Flash Professional, expected to be unveiled in May at Adobe's MAX conference.

Developers need tools that are fast and flexible, and the new Flash Professional will be available as a 64-bit application, and as native Cocoa on Mac OS. That means it'll load large files quickly, and Adobe's video demo shows Hellcat launching around 10x faster than Flash Professional CS6. It’s also a lot faster for common interactions, like scrubbing through timelines.

There's a lot still to learn about Hellcat. For one thing Adobe hasn't talked about new features in Flash, or shown anything of the ActionScript code development experience.

With Flash still a common tool for developing casual games, and for complex web user interfaces, it's important for developers to understand the roadmap for the player, as well as for the development tooling. If Flash is to remain relevant, Adobe will need to show a lot more at its upcoming MAX event.

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