The rise and fall of Adobe Flash

Before Flash Player sunsets this December, we talk its legacy with those who built it.

Few technologies have yielded such divisive and widespread passion as Flash. Many gush over its versatility and ease of use as a creative platform or its critical role in the rise of web video. Others abhor Flash-based advertising and Web design, or they despise the resource-intensiveness of the Flash Player plugin in its later years.

Whichever side of the love-hate divide you land on, there’s no denying the fact that Flash changed how we consume, create, and interact with content on the Web. For better and worse, it helped shape the Internet of today.

But now, after roughly 25 years, Flash is finally nearing its end. In less than six months—December 2020—Adobe will officially end support and distribution of Flash Player, the browser plugin we all associate most strongly with the technology. And already, months ahead of this end-of-life switch, Flash has been disabled in most Web browsers (often flagged as a security risk should you choose to override the default settings). Even Google Chrome, long the browser of choice for Flash content, will soon remove Flash Player.

Technically speaking, the technology will live on. The Flash authoring tool is part of Adobe Animate, while the rendering engine is included in Adobe AIR—which will be handed over to enterprise electronics company Harman International for ongoing maintenance, as it’s still widely used in the enterprise arena. But it’s safe to say that, after a decade in decline, Flash as we know it is about to say goodbye.

In recognition of its service to content creators and consumers of all stripes, of its contribution to the proliferation of online video and multimedia, and of that divisiveness that’s followed the platform around, the time has come to revisit the rise and fall of Flash—with a little help from its principal creator, Jonathan Gay; a raft of Web resources; and interviews with others who had a hand in its ultimate success.https://www.youtube.com/embed/D6K3VsanmvI?autoplay=0&mute=0&controls=1&start=0&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fapp.getpocket.com&playsinline=1&showinfo=0&rel=0&iv_load_policy=3&modestbranding=1&enablejsapi=1&widgetid=1

Birth, or a wave of the future

Sometime around the middle of 1992, Jonathan Gay decided he wanted to start a company to make something. What, precisely, he’d not figured out. But something.

More than eight years earlier, his friend and former boss Charlie Jackson had founded Silicon Beach Software—a Mac-focused software company that had great success with its Dark Castle games and the SuperPaint and Digital Darkroom creative tools. Gay had been there from day one as a teenage programmer working afternoons after school. (Not just any programmer, either, but the “most phenomenal programmer” that Jackson had ever seen.) Then early in 1990, to fund his dream of competing for the United States in international rapid-fire pistol shooting (a dream he later fulfilled), Jackson sold Silicon Beach to Aldus Corporation.

Gay asked Jackson for help starting this new company, but Jackson still had six months remaining on his non-compete agreement with Aldus and couldn’t do anything until then. He told Gay to take that time to think of a product. The pair soon landed on the idea of making software for GO Corporation’s PenPoint operating system, an OS designed specifically for tablet computers and personal digital assistants.

It was impressive technology. PenPoint-based tablets could be the next big thing, and the new EO Personal Communicator, made by a company spun out from GO’s hardware division, seemed particularly impressive.

Silicon Beach had built its success on being early to market—on embracing the Macintosh before bigger companies jumped in. This new company, which they named FutureWave, would endeavor to do the same. “The idea was, ‘We can own the graphics space on this tablet,'” Jackson told Ars. “So we started to design a vector drawing program. And we called this SmartSketch.”

With the combined business acumen of FutureWave’s three co-founders—marketing VP Michelle Welsh was the other one—plus Gay and programmer Robert Tatsumi’s technical wizardry, SmartSketch quickly took shape. But the gamble backfired when AT&T bought a majority stake in the company behind the EO tablet—also called EO—and subsequently killed the product, then bought GO and, to cut a long story short, effectively killed them too.

“I think we sold two copies,” Jackson said. “And one was to the architect who was designing Bill Gates’ house.”

FutureWave soon ported SmartSketch to Windows and Mac, and they hoped to find an audience that appreciated their efforts “to make drawing on a computer as easy as it is drawing on paper.” But the company struggled to pull attention away from their many larger competitors (Corel, Adobe, Autodesk, etc).

Their course changed when Wacom—which had been bundling SmartSketch with some of its digitizer tablets—ran into budgetary problems and needed to pull out of SIGGRAPH ’95. They gave their booth to FutureWave and told the tiny startup to bring lots of SmartSketch boxes—as it’s always a good event for product sales. “We didn’t sell anything,” recalled Gay. “It was pretty embarrassing.”

Across the aisle, a company called Animo had a Disney-style animation package for television and movie production. Lots of people were drawn to that booth, and many of them stopped by FutureWave’s space to look at SmartSketch—whereupon they’d recommend FutureWave make a rotoscoping app. “We thought there was never going to be a market for an animation tool,” said Gay, “but it sounded like a fun thing to build.”

Around the same time, Jackson had been struggling to convince retailers to stock SmartSketch. Then he noticed that CompUSA had kiosks and shelves of products in prime positioning with the phrase ‘made for the Web’ stamped on them. So, he told Gay they needed to do something for the Web.

Gay wondered if maybe somehow they could combine these ideas together: a cel-based animation program that could produce animations that play on webpages.

They initially called this new program SmartSketch Animator, though they would later rename it CelAnimator and then FutureSplash Animator. And to fulfill the Web requirement, they hacked together a prototype Web animation player—the FutureSplash Player—in Java.

They’d grown tired of running a company with no money and no market traction, however, so before they shipped they decided to try to sell the technology. Their friend and fellow Silicon Beach co-founder Eric Zocher—who was VP of engineering at Adobe—set up a meeting for them with Adobe CEO John Warnock.

“I still remember getting on the airplane with a 486 mini desktop in a duffel bag to go meet with John Warnock and show him our incredibly slow Java prototype,” said Gay. “It was doing like two frames a second of this simple animation. It worked, but it was just really slow.”

Enlarge / Wait a second, that doesn
Enlarge / Wait a second, that doesn’t say “Adobe.”

Unfortunately for Gay and Jackson, Warnock was unmoved. This FutureSplash thing was kind of cool technology, but, he said, “If people really need animation, we can add animation into Acrobat [the PDF reader].”

“It was kind of a silly thing to say in retrospect,” Zocher told Ars. “But he was really on that Acrobat train at the time. He was trying to get it established and make it a standard.” (Which he most-definitely did.)

Adobe passed on the deal, so FutureSplash Animator went to market in August 1996 (complete with a version of their Java-based player plugin that performed poorly in Netscape but well enough in Internet Explorer—provided you could convince Web users to actually install it).

A number of Microsoft product managers soon saw FutureSplash at a trade show and thought it was great. They decided they’d use it as an integral component of their new MSN Web portal, seemingly unaware that their multi-million-dollar product launch was reliant on a tiny company that, in Gay’s words, “was barely—barely—hanging on.”

Microsoft weren’t the only believers. A Disney-owned subscription site called The Daily Blast figured that FutureSplash would be perfect for their multimedia kids’ Web content. They, too, embraced the tiny company’s product. But they also mentioned it to Macromedia.

Established in 1992 through the merger of Macintosh creative software company MacroMind with multimedia authoring tool company Authorware, Macromedia had been pushing for Disney Blast to use its Director and Shockwave products. “They approached us because of what Disney was saying to them,” recalled Jackson. “Because it was right at the time, I think, that we were talking to somebody else [Fractal Design] and we were open to acquisition.”

Macromedia soon agreed to acquire FutureWave—a deal formally completed in January 1997, alongside a rebranding of FutureSplash Animator to Flash. And in May 1997, just a few months later, they published Macromedia Flash 2—with audio synchronization, photo imports, and autotracing (to convert bitmap images to vector format) as the hallmark features.

In retrospect, joining Macromedia was the best thing that could have happened to the product. Some within the company were initially resistant to Flash and saw it as either a distraction from or competitor to Director, but Flash had support where it counted. Gay and his team could do what they wanted with it. It was just like before, when they were independent, except now Gay and Jackson had the backing of Macromedia’s sales and marketing machine to ensure Flash got the attention it needed in order to gather momentum.

Jackson and Zocher told Ars that the timing was perfect, too, because the Web had just become powerful enough to handle multimedia content while CD-ROMs—Macromedia’s previous focal point—were fading into the background. “Macromedia really was the master of that kind of tool and technology—a combination authoring tool and player,” noted Zocher. “They were the leaders in that. And as Director was to CD-ROM, Flash was to the Web.”

Life, and prosperity

By 1998, Flash had a firm foothold on the Web. It was the de-facto choice for website builders who wanted more pizzazz than the Web standards of the day could provide, and it was growing in popularity among creative artists who saw the Web as an exciting new medium.

The key element—besides the easy-to-use drawing tools and the Web player plugin that together formed Flash’s foundation—was its versatility. And this versatility was rooted in its ability to combine multimedia content with interactivity. Nowadays, Gay admits that the credit for its interactivity—that critical component of Flash’s massive success—lay at the feet of a single journalist at MacUser magazine.

“We gave these guys a preview before FutureSplash Animator shipped,” said Gay. “And one of the reviewers went like, ‘You really should add a button.’ We’re like, ‘A button!? That’s a good idea.'”

Right before launch, the programmers bolted-on buttons for things like play, stop, seek, and go-to frame. “The interactivity was sort of a last-minute afterthought,” said Gay. “It’s really a simple sort of feature. But it made a big difference. And it was definitely the idea of this reviewer.”

With this simple feature, Flash could be about more than mere passivity. More than just an animation engine. It could—and often would—power entire websites. (That was for better or worse, as anyone who saw the mix of ridiculous excesses and playful flourishes of Flash-based websites can attest.)

With Flash 2, this basic interactivity gained nesting capabilities like gotoAndPlay or nextScene for controlling your place in the timeline. One clever soul recognized the true potential of these new functions and hacked together a Flash-based pinball game. “We didn’t think that was possible,” said Gay. “But it was everyday—the developers would just figure stuff out.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/EVbsWkQat0E?autoplay=0&mute=0&controls=1&start=0&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fapp.getpocket.com&playsinline=1&showinfo=0&rel=0&iv_load_policy=3&modestbranding=1&enablejsapi=1&widgetid=3

One such envelope-pushing developer was Tom Fulp, who owned a website called Newgrounds—on which he had several (ratherrisqué) joke Web pages and a few simple JavaScript games. He started playing around with Flash in 1998 and soon came up with the Teletubby Fun Land, a simple Flash-powered game in which the fun-loving children’s TV characters sodomize sheep, drink vodka, play with guns, and do other age-inappropriate things. (The BBC was not amused.)

“Flash was the creative tool I had always been dreaming of,” Fulp told Ars. It finally allowed him an easy way to combine animation and code, though in these early days there wasn’t much code to speak of. Flash programming language ActionScript (created by Gary Grossman) didn’t arrive until Flash 5 dropped in August 2000, and even conditional logic and basic variables weren’t properly implemented until Flash 4 introduced Actions. But like the creator of that early Flash pinball game, Fulp found a way.

His Flash 3-based point-and-click adventure/shoot-’em-up hybrid Pico’s School wasn’t just popular, either; it helped kickstart the Flash games scene. Fulp soon created a page on his site called “The Portal” for showcasing his unfinished work and, shortly thereafter, any Flash games and animations sent to him by other people. By the time the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, Fulp and a small full-time staff had turned Newgrounds into one of the biggest, most-active online user communities as well as the de-facto home of Flash entertainment content on the Web.

“Newgrounds is basically where everyone would go to submit their [Flash] game and test it out,” said Armor Games founder Dan McNeely. It was a place where anyone could publish their Flash games and movies, and within a few years it became profitable not only for Fulp but for swathes of Flash creators.

Getting featured on the front page was huge—not just for the confidence boost, but also for the massive number of eyeballs and plays it got you. At its peak, Fulp said, Newgrounds was getting around 18 million unique visitors a month. And all that attention could prove extremely profitable.

Starting from around 2005, McNeely told Ars, top Flash game developers could earn five or six figures in sponsorship deals per game. Most were getting paid this sort of money just to have promotional material for another business included on their loading and/or title screens.

The Flash entertainment boom wasn’t limited just to Newgrounds, either. McNeely’s Armor Games peaked at around 1.2 million visitors a day, he told Ars. Several other Flash game and animation portals, including Kongregate, Addicting Games, and adultswim.com, got massive numbers, too.

It was all part of a Flash-powered content industry. Careers were made and companies big and small established across the world in animation, games, Web development, online advertising, and—as Flash expanded its capabilities—desktop and embedded software.

“I remember somebody found out I had been involved in getting Flash going,” Jackson told Ars. “He said, ‘Oh, I just want to thank you.’ For what? He said, ‘For giving me a career.’ We’d been thanked before for giving people a nice tool, with other things that we’d done in the past. That’s great. Thanks. But this guy said thanks for a career. I was really blown away by that. That’s very humbling.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/r3tROTfNTgw?autoplay=0&mute=0&controls=1&start=0&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fapp.getpocket.com&playsinline=1&showinfo=0&rel=0&iv_load_policy=3&modestbranding=1&enablejsapi=1&widgetid=5

As big as the various kinds of web content that were created with Flash became, the platform of course made perhaps an even bigger impact elsewhere: in video.

“It was kind of a debate inside Macromedia as to whether we would even add video to Flash,” recalled Gay. “We had some concern that if we had video, we were going to get crushed by Microsoft and Real Networks.”

Several corporate behemoths had cooked up their own Web video solutions by this point, but Gay noticed two common weaknesses. These competitors were all trying to replicate a television experience that the Internet just wasn’t robust enough to handle, and they were all using “flawed networking protocols that didn’t work well past firewalls or across the sort of messiness of the Internet network of the day.”

Gay thought he could offer something new and different that would extend the simplicity of Flash to communications. “We called it the Tin Can Team,” he said. This Tin Can Team built a two-way Flash video and audio communications server, which soon thereafter got adopted on trial terms (and later licensed for use) by a tiny video sharing startup called YouTube—where it remained the default player until 2015. It also found its way into a WebEx competitor called Macromedia Breeze (now known as Adobe Connect), but the YouTube deal is the one that really changed things.

Soon after, just as it had done with animation, Web games, and flashy websites and advertising, Flash quickly took over the Web video space.

“Everybody had to get the Flash player at a certain point,” said Jackson. “And it wasn’t so much because of Web pages doing Flash animations. It was really all that video. It was how you could watch a video [in a browser].”

Adobe clearly recognized this. In 2005, a decade after turning down a deal to buy Flash, they acquired the technology as part of a $3.6 billion buyout of Macromedia. Adobe’s CEO of the time, Bruce Chizen, later told Jackson that Flash was a $3 billion apportionment of that amount. (The remaining point-six was for everything else—the Macromedia brand, its patents and technologies, all of its other products, etc.)

But for all that market dominance—all that success as a technology—Flash never made the transition from a de-facto standard to an actual one. Gradually, the real Web standards caught up. HTML and CSS got more powerful. Implementations of these and other Web standards like SVG and JavaScript got more consistent between browsers. And over time, Flash lost some of its competitive advantage on the Web.

With Adobe at the helm, Gay moved on and Flash tried to move forward. Flash Player added 3D rendering, while Adobe introduced its Flex Builder and Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) products to make Flash a full cross-platform application environment—desktop, a myriad of embedded computing platforms, and phones. Mobile was the next frontier for Flash to conquer, and, with the iPhone and Google’s Android platform exploding in popularity, the future looked bright if it could make a strong transition.

Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs had other ideas.

This man was eventually coming for you, Flash.
This man was eventually coming for you, Flash.

Decline, or who killed Flash?

On April 29, 2010, Jobs published an open letter called “Thoughts on Flash.” In it, he pointed to the closed and proprietary nature of Flash, which was wholly owned and controlled by Adobe and which required a browser plugin to use on the Web. Furthermore, he added, Flash had become increasingly problematic on reliability (it was apparently at that time “the number one reason Macs crash”), security, and performance.

Flash was also noted as having been designed for mouse input, not multi-touch, which meant Web developers would need to overhaul their designs to eliminate hover/rollover-triggered interface elements. And, as if that wasn’t enough of a takedown for Flash on Apple’s iDevices, Jobs added that Apple wanted apps on its platform to use its platform-specific features—but Adobe was slow to support such features in its cross-platform development tools.

Flash had a lot of great games, sure, but the App Store did, too. In the mobile era, Jobs wrote, “Flash falls short.”

The industry response was divided. But sure enough, Mobile Flash struggled to overcome its performance and reliability problems. In November 2011, Adobe gave up and pivoted its mobile tool development to HTML5.

So did Steve Jobs kill Flash? Dan McNeely thinks yes. “He kind of starts the first nail in the coffin,” he told Ars. “And I think everything else kind of flowed from that.” Tom Fulp is more circumspect—he notes the value of the non-Flash marketplace that smartphones offered to small developers—but agrees that “you could feel the confidence in Flash start to dry up the moment Steve Jobs penned his ‘Thoughts on Flash’ letter.”

Jonathan Gay and Eric Zocher both point to earlier events as the turning point. For Gay, the mistake was turning Flash into an enterprise platform—a process that began back at Macromedia. “I was always resistant to that idea,” he said. “There’s so much more we could do with media and the creative professional and whatnot. So [enterprise] was kind of a distraction, I think, that kind of encumbered Flash.”

It was a distraction, and a source of bloating, and it made it harder to jump quickly onto mobile.

Zocher adds that the App Store brought with it a paradigm shift that made it easier than ever both for developers to monetize their software with a huge audience and for brands to gain mindshare among consumers with free apps. “And the other thing that didn’t help Flash,” he noted, “is the photo-centric Web.” Call it the Instagram effect—the transition to websites that are composed mainly of large static photos, which can easily be created without Flash.

So to circle back to the question at the top of this section: who killed Flash? We all did, to an extent. But mainly Adobe, Macromedia, and Apple.

Its death may not be mourned by the millions who knew it only as an annoying plugin that had to be constantly updated just to keep watching videos and playing little Web games (to say nothing of its myriad of security issues). But for people like Dan McNeely, the impending death of Flash leaves a hole that may never be filled.

Game makers now have a bewildering selection of tools to choose from—Unity, Game Maker, Godot, Construct, Phaser, and more, many of which share Flash’s content-centric approach to development and most of which extend the “build once, deploy everywhere” philosophy of Flash to the modern era. But both McNeely and Fulp argue that none of these can match the fun, simplicity, or ease-of-use as Flash.

Web developer Rob Eberhardt told Ars that it’s much the same with website building, too—modern tools are powerful, but he and his current boss “reminisce all the time about how much we miss Flash and what a great experience it was [to use for creative work].”

Enlarge / Everyone beats up on Flash nowadays, but it truly was an early Web hero.
Enlarge / Everyone beats up on Flash nowadays, but it truly was an early Web hero.

Legacy

Flash Player, the browser plugin, may be as good as dead. But technically Flash, the authoring tool, is still alive and kicking. Its usefulness has been reduced, but it remains a popular tool among animators and, as noted previously, it also retains an audience in a variety of specialized business settings.And on Newgrounds (and elsewhere?), where HTML5 has long been supported, Flash now also lives on (somewhat ironically) through open-source in-browser emulation of select Flash content.

But beyond that continued life it leads, in the shadow of its former self, how are we to look back on the legacy of Flash?

For Jonathan Gay, there are three key points here. For one thing, he argues, Flash was instrumental in the rise of UX (user experience) design, as it forced Web developers in particular to think about how people would actually interact with the computer and the Web. Then there’s video—as Flash “provided the plumbing for YouTube” to establish short-form and amateur video on the internet.

And “the biggest legacy,” he said, “is probably just helping creative people get into interactive media.” Indeed, as Tom Fulp noted, “Flash brought a lot of new voices into the industry that may otherwise never have been there. Kids who grew up outside of industry families, away from industry cities. Getting into the gaming or film industry feels daunting, while making Web content with Flash was super inviting.”

So even if many of us now scoff at pop-ups asking us to enable Flash or sigh at news of the platform’s involvement in a security issue, when looking back at the platform’s totality it’s not difficult to argue it provided far more good for the Web than bad. And especially for the generations of professionals who now owe their career to Flash’s powerful simplicity, the platform’s legacy can never be overstated.

All Rights Reserved for Richard C. Moss

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