The Life, Death and Rebirth of Adobe Flash
Just as interesting as Flash’s future is looking back at its past. In just short of 20 years, Flash has evolved from a sketching program for pen computers to a framework for building interactivity into the web to a conduit for allowing video playback into its current role as a platform that supports the next generation of interactive web tools, including HTML5.
The Early Days
Flash was the brainchild of Jonathan Gay. Gay’s childhood interest in legos and architecture led him to create computer software for the Apple II. In his essay chronicling the history of Flash, Gay writes:
“If you think Flash is difficult to use, you should try drawing with a joystick on an Apple II before the concept of undo was invented.”
After spending some time writing games, Gay refocused his efforts on building a graphics editor.
Enamored with the idea of pen computing (led by the burgeoning PenPoint operating system), Gay co-founded FutureWave Software in 1993 with the intention of dominating the market for graphics software on pen computers. FutureWave’s first product, SmartSketch, was doomed for failure, however, after AT&T decided to end support for the PenPoint operating system.
This was in 1994 and with the demise of pen computing, Gay focused his efforts on taking his software to Windows and the Macintosh. The problem was that whereas the burgeoning pen computing industry didn’t have much competition by way of graphics editors — Macs and PCs did. Programs such as Adobe Illustrator dominated the drawing space.
What Illustrator, Free Hand and other vector tools lacked, however, was support for animation. In 1995, Gay and his team started to add animation features to SmartSketch with the idea of making that animation playable over the Internet. This program eventually shipped in 1996 as FutureSplash Animator.
FutureSplash was used by some of the biggest brands on the web in the mid 1990s, including MSN and Disney Online. Disney was also working with a company, Macromedia, and its interactive web framework, Shockwave. The FutureWave and Macromedia teams discussed collaborating and working together. In December 1996. FutureWave Software was sold to Macromedia and FutureSplash Animator became Macromedia Flash.
For the next five years, Flash’s use on the web — mostly as a way to display animations or help in playing games — increased significantly. In 2000. Flash 5 was released and it added support for a new technology called ActionScript. ActionScript allowed Flash developers to author and create more complex interfaces and interactions using the Flash platform.
In early 2000s, Flash was ubiquitous on desktop computers and was increasingly used not only as a way to display interactive web pages and games, but as a way to playback music and video.
Adobe Purchase and the Rise of Flash Video
In 2005, Adobe purchased Macromedia and Flash became part of Adobe’s Creative Suite. At the same time, web video usage was starting to explode across the web, thanks to widespread broadband access, the burgeoning Web 2.0 movement and advancements within Adobe Flash Player that made embedding and playing back video faster and easier than ever.
The same year that Adobe acquired Flash, a few former PayPal employees started a scrappy startup designed to make it easy for people to upload and watch videos online. It was called YouTube and you know where this story is going.
Overnight, Flash — which had been primarily viewed as an animation and authoring tool — became an integral part for enabling multimedia across the web.
For the next few years, Adobe added additional codecs (supported video formats) to Flash Player, making it possible for users to more easily take footage from their video cameras or Flips and put them online.
The Rise of Mobile and the Fall of Mobile Flash
In 2007, Apple released the iPhone. The iPhone was significant for many reasons, not least of which being that it was the first mainstream full-functioning web browser on a mobile device.
Before the first iPhone launched, Adobe was in talks with Apple to make Flash work on its platform. While Adobe had used its Flash Lite platform on mobile platforms since 2005, it struggled with making Flash work well on mobile processors and battery constrained devices.
As the story goes, Adobe had the opportunity to be on the iPhone at launch, but its performance was such that support was pulled by Apple. This story would repeat itself over and over for the next three years.
In 2007, YouTube made the decision to offer up access to its videos in a format optimized for mobile phones — bypassing the need for Flash. This was done in large part so the iPhone could ship with a YouTube app and YouTube support at its launch that June.
This is the moment that Flash started to lose ground in the mobile space. Over the next few years, video encoding technology increasingly moved to H.264, a codec that could be played back natively on lots of modern operating systems (not to mention mobile devices). While Flash also supported H.264, its primary role was just to act as a wrapper around the video.
By 2010, when the iPad made its debut — Adobe Flash was again nowhere to be seen on the iPad. Instead, Steve Jobs jetted off his famous memo, “Thoughts On Flash” — denouncing the technology and its ability to support mobile devices.
This kicked off a big war between HTML5 and Flash — with pundits on both sides denouncing the viability of the technology. While Adobe was originally bullish on continuing to support and develop its Flash APIs for mobile, the company’s message transitioned over the ensuing two years.
By November 2011, Adobe had pulled the plug on Flash for Mobile, instead focusing its efforts on HTML5 playback and encoding solutions and making Flash the software more HTML5 friendly.
Flash in the Future
Flash has always existed in two forms. There is Flash Player — which is how end users interact with content on a web page (or in an app) and then there is Flash Professional, the software that creators use to create Flash elements.
Over the last two years, Adobe has started to transition Flash away from its more traditional ActionScript roots with more of a focus on cross-platform and mobile development, including support for HTML5.
Moreover, Flash is still heavily used in animation (including TV shows such as Squidbillies), interactive games and for interactions still not available in HTML5.
Video, however, has increasingly become more HTML5 and mobile-aware — with Adobe’s own Flash player compatible with becoming an HTML5 wrapper on devices that don’t support the Flash plugin.