What the 'Death of Flash' Means for E-learning Developers

Well it's finally official, and even Adobe itself now says so: Flash IS Dead.  

Don't believe me? You can read Adobe's statement for yourself here in a blog post dated November 30, 2015 entitled: Flash, HTML5 and Open Web Standards

Now, I realize you've all been hearing this rhetoric for years now, but this is different.  When your own mother says you're dead, you must be dead, right?

How this whole 'Flash is Dead' thing got started

Of course, Flash and the SWF file format have come under attack from time to time since its birth by a small company called Future Wave Software back in May 1996.  That little company was gobbled up by software giant Macromedia barely six months later. And Adobe itself gobbled up Macromedia in 2005 when it began to realize SWF's abilities to deliver multimedia as well as text could threaten the ubiquitous dominance of its own PDF file format.

But the long slow Death March of Flash really began around April 2010 when Steve Jobs issued his now famous missive entitled: Thoughts on Flash.  In that (rather lengthy) article he listed several issues that forced Apple to conclude there would be no future for Flash on any Apple iOS, starting with iOS mobile devices. Instead, Apple threw their support behind the new HTML5 web standard and encouraged all other web or application developers to do the same.

Apple's user base supported Steve's comments, but they weren't the only ones.  Despite other mobile manufacturers initially saying they would support Flash, virtually all of them failed to do so, and instead pulled the plug on Flash as well.  

But Flash content isn't just in trouble with mobiles. Desktop browsers are also backing away from it now:

Adobe must have seen all this coming long ago.  On November 8, 2011, Adobe announced cessation of development of the Flash Player plugin for browsers on mobile devices. Now, four years later, it is hammering the final nails in SWF's coffin.  Whatever its strengths may be, Flash has become the pariah of the web world.

As if to confirm that Adobe no longer even wants the very name of Flash anywhere near their own, the same Adobe blog post mentioned above, as well as another web page released the same day entitled Welcome Adobe Animate both announced Adobe Flash has been rewritten from the ground up as an HTML5 authoring tool and would be renamed in January 2016 as Adobe Animate

What does this have to do with Adobe Captivate e-learning?

Simply this...if your content is still SWF, it needs to change.

STARTING RIGHT NOW Adobe Captivate e-learning developers should be telling their managers and clients NOT to build any more Flash SWF-based course content, and redesign everything for compatibility with HTML5 instead. 

Here are just some of the reasons:

  1. Flash SWF content is effectively unsupported on any mobile device platform. Although there are many e-learning courses that are simply not suited to viewing on tiny mobile phone view screens, these same courses still look good and can work well on tablets...as long as the content is properly designed for that target device and tablet-sized view-ports.  So, this means there is a viable middle ground for courses that run on both mobile and desktop if you design your content properly. It's not an either/all choice. You can have both.
  2. Like it or not, the known security issues with Flash will force organizations to act against it. Many organizations have deferred updating to newer HTML5-compatible web browsers because they have so many legacy web apps that will not function on modern browsers with tighter security. Additionally, in many cases the only reason the company-approved web browser still has a Flash Player plugin is because all online training content is SWF-based. They're usually leaving things this way in an attempt to keep costs down. But how long do you think any of these arguments are going to hold sway when security experts and risk managers alike are telling management they may get blamed for financial ruin if hackers get into their systems via the Flash Plugin? So, if your organization's default web browser is years old and not as yet HTML5-compatible, you need to start lobbying someone in management or IT to fix it. (IE8 came out in 2009. It should NOT still be in use!) 
  3. If you ignore the signs and stick with SWF, you could be forced to rebuild your entire e-learning curriculum again at any time...in a hurry. E-learning courses can take months to build and tend to have long life-spans measured in years...several years in many cases. Any sudden change in your operating environment could disable SWF, leaving your organization potentially without content, and no time to re-build it. Given the current precarious situation with Flash and SWF, only HTML5 content could be regarded as having a secure future. 
  4. Converting an SWF course to HTML5 can require significant re-design and re-work. Many course developers mistakenly believe changing a course from SWF to HTML5 is just a matter of selecting a different publishing option in a drop-down menu. The truth is that in many cases the course design has to change significantly, including altering view-port sizes, removing non HTML5-compatible components, and breaking modules into smaller chunks. Why? Because the evidence shows mobile devices are simply not powerful enough to run the same media-heavy content that instructional designers have been accustomed to getting away with on desktops. Mobile CPUs and RAM resource configurations are far smaller than desktop computers and the browser caches are extremely limited. All of this means content-heavy courses that play smoothly and reliably on a desktop system often stutter, buffer or crash the browser on mobile devices. Some companies are even forced into building two different versions of the same course; one for desktop and another lighter one for mobiles.  Build for Mobile First and you only need one course.

    And (for me) the clincher when it comes to Adobe Captivate is...

     
  5. No version of Adobe Captivate is capable of publishing to Flash Player versions above FP 11.  This includes both Captivate 8 and 9. At time of writing this blog post, the latest Flash Player version is 19.0.0. But as stated above, due to alleged critical security flaws, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox browsers are now blocking any content published in certain minor versions of Flash Player 11. Other browser makers are following this lead. This means your HTM/SWF e-learning content may even now be impossible to view in some browsers. And even if it DOES still work, that situation could change at any moment. I believe it's a risk you cannot afford.

In what may have been a warning, Adobe dropped support for the EXE publish output in the first version of Captivate 8.  After howls of protest from the Captivate community, they restored EXE output in the next dot-point update a few months later. ​Don't take this as 'inside information', but I believe one of the next major versions of Adobe Captivate will drop publishing to SWF.  And since EXE is basically just an SWF packaged inside a self-running Flash Player, it's probably going down again as well.

To cover themselves, Adobe will likely give everyone fair warning about such a change. But when it happens, you won't have any choice but to go HTML5 and start rebuilding everything in a hurry. Personally, I'd rather be in control of that situation and pre-empt it, rather than get mowed down by impossible deadlines. Wouldn't you?

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