Today, in a Flash-free world, developers must test their creations on a variety of different hardware, operating systems, and browsers to ensure that the often-inconsistent rules that dictate layout and behavior don’t “break” and render all their work unusable. Any time you’ve seen an application or website with buttons out of place or a popup that reads, “This website is best experienced using Chrome," you are seeing the concessions many developers make in the face of how web development works now. For users, this can mean a frustrating experience that recalls the days of the “browser wars” that divided the early web.
The impact of Flash’s death goes beyond the lives of programmers and impacts web users everywhere. Many encounter the subtle battle when they visit sites like Yelp or Google Maps on our phones—places that have both a website and a native app. It will always ask: Do you want to download the app? They’re hoping you say yes, because the user experience for many of these applications are superior to even the most finely tuned sites designed for mobile. They take advantage of how the phone is designed, not just physically in terms of screen size, but computationally—phones process animations and transitions differently. But saying yes also reinforces the control over revenue and distribution that Apple and other platform providers have an iron hold on.
So HTML5 is not a revolution, it’s a throwback: a return to dealing with problems that Flash once allowed developers to rocket past. And unlike Flash, HTML5 has no single guiding company taking a dominant role in its future, a circumstance that is both blessing and pitfall. It seems like every day another tool or library is released to bring HTML5 up to speed for one development need or another, from animation and web graphics to game engines and timeline-based interfaces. Even Adobe has entered the fray, under the guise of both Flash and Adobe Edge.
So the war has begun between apps and the web. Designers have to think about both, and use very different tools to design for each one. That’s because we’re using the web from different places now. The results of the latest Pew Internet survey on cell internet access suggested that 34 percent of cell Internet users go online mostly using their phones, not a PC. Slowly, for users looking at things on their phones, maybe become even more important than designing for those using computers. As the industry moves further into emerging hardware, wearables, and other potentially restricted platforms, we’re adding more situations for which designers must design.
Flash certainly was never perfect, but for a proprietary platform, Flash at its height offered us unprecedented tools for the production and distribution of an open interactive web. Its interface invited in amateurs who could play around with drawing tools; its programming environment was largely self contained, and its content-neutral approach invited experimentation and controversial work. Tom Fulp’s violent point-and-click game Pico’s School, inspired by the Columbine shootings, in which the main character must navigate a school after a shooting and take down the goth murderer Cassandra, was coded in Flash.