Adobe Flash went dark on Dec. 31. The software had been flickering out since 2017, when Adobe announced it would discontinue Flash with three and a half years’ warning. Reminder statements, press attention, and pop-ups warning about Flash’s discontinuation all followed. But despite the ample time to prepare, multiple government and corporate systems across the world were still caught by surprise when the Flash plugin finally died.
Flash first burst onto the web in 1996, revolutionizing how video and audio was used and shared online. The software essentially transported the internet from Kansas to the technicolor land of Oz. A plethora of animations and games were produced using Flash: Salad Fingers, Peanut Butter Jelly Time, Facebook games like FarmVille, and “All Your Base Are Belong to Us,” a Flash video—derived from the game Zero Wing—whose 20th anniversary is this month. Flash provided the foundation for creating viral videos and for streaming high-quality videos. YouTube, Facebook, and Netflix all ran on Flash. In 2009, 99 percent of PCs with internet connection had Flash installed.
Flash’s heyday didn’t last long. Steve Jobs stopped running Flash on Apple products in 2010 and released a letter titled “Thoughts on Flash” that criticized the software, citing security and performance concerns. Flash had become a popular target for malware attacks. The technology struggled to keep pace with the times. It stopped running on mobile sites. So it wasn’t a surprise when Adobe announced its plans to discontinue its once premier product, providing three years for its users to transition, extricate, and disengage before pulling the kill switch.
Officially, the Flash demise occurred in two parts. First, Adobe stopped supporting Flash on Dec. 31, 2020. Then, on Jan. 12, Flash stopped running on all servers, rendering it defunct. Since some old Adobe software wasn’t programmed to self-destruct, Adobe instructed its users to uninstall Flash manually, lest leaving themselves vulnerable to attack.
In late 2020, as Flash D-day drew near, supporters scrambled to rescue it. Petitions to save Flash collected thousands of signatures online. A movement to save a Flash game called Habbo Hotel trended on Twitter. Social media feeds buzzed with nostalgia for the “old internet.” Flash fans organized to preserve beloved video games and animations, which now live on forever in the Internet Archive blog, Flashpoint, and Ruffle.
But, some company and government systems were not as well organized. They continued running on Flash until its last moments. Crashes and chaos ensued. The Flash blackout reverberated across the world:
A Chinese railway
On Jan. 12, the entire railroad system in Dalian crashed with Flash, preventing China Railway Shenyang workers from viewing train schedules or launching their train cars, bringing all operations to a halt. The shutdown lasted 20 hours, until I.T. directors finally figured out how to shift the rail system to run on a pirated version of Flash—one that didn’t have the “kill switch” update. The Railway Operation Depot reported their rescue mission as “20+ hours of fight.”
The people of the internet, though, were not too impressed–and even found the situation laughable: “Just imagining somehow running a railway on one of the buggiest, most exploitable and hackable pieces of corporate malware. Extremely good idea,” tweeted one critic.
The South African Revenue Service
The tax collectors of South Africa were in the throes of the tax filing season and in the middle of weaning their e-filing system off of Adobe Flash when it collapsed on Jan. 12, sending waves of anxiety and frustration rippling through the country.
“It is unacceptable that we use outdated and insecure technology to run our country’s tax system,” Hennie Ferreira, a South African cybersecurity expert, said.
To solve the problem, SARS moved its e-filing system to a new “browser,” seemingly built by a Russian software company, that ran on an old version of Flash. Adding to the security concerns of this bypass system are complaints that it doesn’t even work.
SARS issued an apology explaining that it misinterpreted the significance of Flash’s End-of-Life date and didn’t expect Adobe to “actually block” the software in January.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control
The DHEC, which regulates death certificate filing, relied on Flash software until Jan. 11, the day before Flash’s own death. Their late and rocky software transition extended the limbo period for people waiting to lay their family members to rest. “My system has failed me,” said one woman, whose husband’s death certificate was delayed for weeks. As errors in the filing system persisted, funeral homes began to overflow with bodies lying in wait, as a death certificate is required before a burial or cremation.
“We all knew, even people who are not in our profession. The world knew three-and-a-half years ago that Adobe was going to shut down Flash in January 2021,” said Rodney Pendell, a funeral director in Charleston, who called the DHEC’s transfer to a new system “a disaster.”
The DHEC hasn’t offered an explanation for its slow move from Flash but has set up a technical hotline to figure out glitches in the new system.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
On Jan. 13, the SEC announced that people were experiencing technical issues filing form 13H, which is used as a reporting measure for people trading in very large sums of money ($20 million or more in a day)— and still ran on Flash. Little assistance was offered except for a few workarounds, such as using Internet Explorer 11. On Jan. 26—almost two weeks later—the technical issues were finally resolved.
Schools across the world
Educational animations, used heavily in elementary schools and science classes, relied on Adobe Flash. Flash’s free and accessible educational content had long been a favorite among teachers for its animations, which they embedded in PowerPoints, homework assignments, and explanatory videos—so much so that one blog post called Flash’s impending end “a threat to education.” Northview Public Schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan, sent out a letter warning of “Flash Doomsday” and apologizing for the administration’s powerlessness to stop it.
St. Patrick’s National School in Ireland had posted important admissions and enrollment updates on its website, when it failed with Flash. The school moved the information to Facebook instead.
But not everyone in the school system has caught on that Flash-reliant programs are now inoperable: Teachers are still assigning homework and labs that run on Flash. Students, unable to complete their assignments have resorted to Twitter to lament the fall of Flash—and, with it, their grades too.