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The death of Flash, and what it means for news sites (and consumers)

The clunkiness of Flash may have been issue No. 1 for advertising interests. But for the rest of us, the issue was its wretched security. 

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

It’s hard to find anyone mourning the death of Flash. And I don’t mean the comic book superhero. But rather the balky, perpetually updating and eminently hackable video­playing software responsible, until recently, for making everything from YouTube to ads on websites run more or less effectively. 

The Star Tribune sent a note recently touting itself as the first news organization in the state to completely transition from Flash to the new gold standard, HTML­5, a system heavily pushed by Google, which promises much greater speed and security and, oh, by the way, a far better experience for advertisers.

Ray Faust, the paper’s VP for Sales and Emerging Media explains, “​If you follow this stuff​, you know that both Google and Firefox have been very upfront about trying to push their browsers away from Flash and over to HTML­5, and of course Apple has been fighting with Flash (owned by Adobe but in reality a kind of step­child system it picked up via the acquisition of Macromedia 10 years ago) for what seems like forever.”

No kidding. Here’s Steve Jobs’ semi­famous memo on Flash: “Everything about Flash is pretty much outdated. It uses an inordinate amount of memory, which slows down your processor, which means web sites load slower and batteries wear out faster. Google, which makes a lot of money from banner ads can’t make this change­over fast enough.”

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Even non-­nerds may have noticed a growing number of grayed­-out boxes on websites they visit, some telling you to manually click somewhere to allow Flash to play videos. Obviously, when these big gray blanks are obscuring advertising that is still struggling to achieve anything close to sustainability for commercial news organizations, everyone has a problem.

There was, Faust admits, a push to get this Flash­-to­-HTML5 business cleaned up before the “Q4” Christmas-­buying season. And with “10-­plus creative folks” designing ads in the Strib’s own shop, they got it done.

The clunkiness of Flash may be issue No. 1 for advertising interests. But for the rest of us, the issue is the wretched security. According to reports, Adobe is now actively encouraging the migration away from Flash because of its vulnerability to hacking, an on­going nightmare that has the company’s engineers putting out fires 24/7 and eating up a lot of time that might be spent on more profitable ventures.

Faust says the effect of the transition on the Strib’s editorial content will be negligible, since most of the work making that end of the paper HTML­5 compliant was completed with its website redesign back in May, a redesign that (I say as a more-interested-than-average consumer) is both cleaner and more stable, that is to say less twitchy, with fewer ads and extraneous “non­-content content” firing at the slightest nudge of the mouse than most local competitors.

As recently as this past June, the advertising industry was still heavily dependent on Flash. But over the summer, Google essentially blocked Flash on Chrome, its web browser, and transitioned both Chrome and YouTube (which it owns) over to HTML­5. When that move was followed by Amazon, which declared Flash software non grata​ for its advertising purposes, the game was truly over.

As it seems with every news delivery issue today, the web experience you and I have on our laptop or desktop is one thing. The mobile web experience is another entirely, and growing more significant by the hour. Both Apple and Android mobile devices have eschewed Flash for years now and performed quite well. In a way, the cleaner, less balky interaction we have on phones and tablets is now coming to “old school” devices, like, you know, computers.

One stick in the spokes of this cleaner, more secure delivery service newspapers and other media are working toward is Apple, which recently launched its iOS9 system, the latest upgrade for its mobile devices. The bummer for advertising-­supported media is that this system comes with the ability to plug in ad­blocking services. Meaning, download the ad­blocking app of your choice and voila! no more alerts to Menards’ latest 11-percent-off sale.

As you might imagine, the commercial news industry is taking this very seriously. But more on that later.