An Ill Wind?

Driving home, I happened behind a brand new Renault being driven at showroom-slow speed. Emblazoned across its tailgate was the name Wind, with its inevitable connotations of belches and farts, possibly the most unfortunate model name since Subaru’s BRAT. As it wound through the lanes like an erratic breeze rather than a zephyr, I could imagine the humorous jibes that must have greeted it on Top Gear.

Every Renault dealer in the UK must have breathed a sigh of relief when the Wind passed into history a couple of years ago, and they were able to sell cars again without having to pinch their thighs or bite their lips to stifle sniggers.

It made me think of other product names that have proved less than prescient. Among the most worrying to me, at least, is Flash, associated as it is with the momentary or ephemeral, and vainglorious bling.

It originated innocently enough, when Macromedia bought FutureSplash in 1996, just a year after Adobe had declined its purchase, and decided to concertina its name into a single syllable. I suppose it is preferable to other portmanteaux that they could have coined, such as Flush.

Shortly after parting company with Renault’s Wind, I was back at my Mac reading Adobe’s blog entry announcing the next releases of Flash Player and AIR. In somewhat fractured English, it claimed that Flash was “inspired by experiences of playing with LEGOs as kids”, and painted a dazzling picture of its importance in online game-play.

But the elephant in the room, the one word that Adobe dared not mention, is security. Curiously, as if crafted by a consummate (if still distressingly unidiomatic) propagandist, the blog stated that “nearly half of the web updates Flash Player within four weeks of a new release”.

Given the frequency of updates to fix ‘critical security issues’, and the fact that Flash’s internal update engine defaults to checking for new updates once a month, this observation may have more obvious and elephantine explanations than the implicit fan frenzy.

There is no doubt that Adobe’s cross-platform content carriers, PDF and Flash, have been the targets of sustained and determined efforts by many hackers, as ideal vectors for the delivery of malware. Nevertheless, given the steady stream of exploited bugs in Flash Player’s code, it also begs serious questions on the internal quality control of its developers.

Neither did this blog entry address the open conflict between the behaviour of most Flash websites in respect of cookies – disguised under the official name of ‘Local Shared Objects’ – and the revised regulations on consent to the use of cookies (see the guidance).

Even when you know about Flash cookies, they can be elusive items to pin down, being tucked away within a warren of folders inside ~/Library/Preferences/Macromedia/Flash Player. Since Macromedia was engulfed within Adobe nearly a decade ago, the innocent user might assume this to be merely a historical relic.

Flash cookies can now be removed through the preference panes of all the better browsers, including Safari, but remain the objects of justified suspicion. Current controls are all or none, and given their continuing cavalier disregard for users in not obtaining informed consent, many Flash sites still abuse their audience.

Credit is due to the Information Commissioner for providing exemplarily detailed disclosure, which interestingly does not include Flash cookies.

Now Microsoft looks to be trying to load Windows 8 features against Flash, and in favour of its own Silverlight, which at present uses regular browser cookies, rather than hidden local data storage. Whether Silverlight will ever match the quarter or more of all websites that once used Flash remains to be seen; the latest figures give Silverlight just over 0.1% of all websites, and Flash in steady decline at 11.1%.

At least Silverlight’s name is overtly more auspicious and less suspicious.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 27 issue 23, 2011. How little has changed.