Monday 31 August 2015

For SaaS sake Flash must go!

Update: In July 2017 Adobe has announced plans to end support forFlash plugin by the end of 2020. This means no more updates for Flash Player after that date and the end of support on many browsers, including Chrome, Internet Explorer and Edge, and Firefox.

If I could remove the most irritating obstacle to the effective teaching and management of IT in schools I would make Adobe Flash disappear, never to return. 

But why pick on the friendly graphics environment with the free player that has given students so much fun over the years creating dancing sprites and spinning boxes and is the bedrock of many educational websites. What harm does it do ?

Where to start ?

There’s little point rehashing the many articles that detail the numerous and ever increasing number of security faults, the drain on local resources or the failure of Flash to improve in either area in its fifteen years of existence. Indeed, the Steve Jobs article Thoughts on Flash explaining why Apple would not allow Adobe Flash on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad remains as prescient now as when it was first published in 2010.

However the recent spate of well publicised security loopholes has reached a point where content providers such as YouTube can no longer afford the risk of supporting it and most commentators are calling for it’s demise.

In fact some security experts have made the point that the only people who seem to be supporting Flash these days are the criminals who continue to use it as platform to deliver Trojans, keyloggers and other undesirables normally through a fake 'Flash Player Upgrade Required' message.

However the reality for education is that Flash will be around for some time yet.

This is because far too many educational websites are dependant on it’s capabilities even though HTML5 now provides a viable alternative platform. It will take time to convert all these sites and until Flash is removed entirely IT administrators will just have to deal with an unending stream of patches and comparability issues while managing two completely different environments, the desktop world that uses Flash and the mobile world that doesn’t.

Make schools a Flash free Zone.
In the meantime, what can you to do make things easier until Flash dies a natural death.

Move towards mobile friendly platforms.
In a classroom scenario Apple iPads, Android tablets and Google Chromebooks can help defend against the security flaws in Flash.

Chromebooks have the advantage of a secure ‘sandboxed’ operating system (Chrome OS) and a robust patching mechanism that automatically updates Chrome OS and Flash as single unit.  With Chrome OS there is nothing for the end user or administrator to configure and there are no warnings that a user can override. Since the updates are automatically managed by Google the Chrome OS is more likely to be up to date and therefore more secure.

iPads and Android tablets don’t support the Adobe Flash Player or plug-ins so the security aspect is solved. How you handle the different capabilities of the PC/Mac desktop and mobile devices in a teaching situation is another problem.

Unless the IT team is completely up to date with the weekly blizzard of security updates, Windows PCs running Flash Player are little more than network infections waiting to happen. Enjoy!

Keep the pressure up on service providers to migrate. 
Most modern SaaS services have adopted HTML5 and many well established sites have chosen to abandon Flash altogether.   In some respects Chrome OS has not helped the situation by creating an environment where Flash can be run relatively safely but it’s unlikely that this situation will be maintained for long as Google is keen migrate towards open standards.

As part of this inituative Chrome has finally removed support for Silverlight, Java, and Unity plugins now that version 45 has worked it’s way through to the stable channel within the last few weeks. Starting in September, the Google Chrome web browser will no longer automatically show Adobe Flash advertisements.

The decisions made by corporate giants are outside of the control of schools but why does education insist on shooting itself in the foot by incorporating Flash programming into the lesson plan?

Flash is a dead technology, hopefully in a few years time it will be gone. When today's students enter the job market will the world will not need thousands of programmers who understand Adobe Flash.

Why not  take the opportunity to introduce students to the open standard framework of HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript.  Even now the argument that Flash is  the  standard for industry is no longer true and the advantages in the classroom are clear.

Almost all of the development tools and training materials are available free as online SaaS resources rather than incorporated into an expensive development suite (Adobe Creative Cloud) that a requires access to high end desktop device before you can even get started.

Nobody could argue that Creative Cloud sits easily within a curriculum based around flexible learning practices. Why are students still filing onto IT suites to share a PC for an hour a week to engage with an exciting topic that will be the bedrock of application development, media delivery and many thousands of career paths for years to come ?

Cross platform open source tools can now give students an equally good understanding of the basics of image manipulation, animation and graphic design without being tied to a proprietary toolset.

Of course the argument you often hear is that that once a student has mastered the basics on a non-standard platform they'll will be a disadvantage when they encounter Adobe Creative Cloud in the workplace. But honestly, does anybody still still hold to this outdated idea in a world where students move seamlessly between dozens of combinations of UI styles and platforms in a single day without even blinking.

To be fair Adobe understands these limitations within education and has made effort to move towards a streamed delivery method but this is still limited to only offering Photoshop to North America based schools with a current Creative Cloud membership and since it's  a device licence it doesn't seriously address the issues of accessibility or cost.

It’s clear the landscape is changing really quickly at the moment and a lot of people are struggling to keep up but education really has to make an effort.

Don’t wait about, try some of the open source/SaaS based alternatives and plan for the future because in the end Flash must go.