In 2017 Adobe announced it would end development and support for Flash by 2020, and with it, they sounded the death knell on one of the great World Wide Web stories. Flash in many ways is the classic tech story; accidental beginnings, failure, rebirth, moments of fortune, glorious highs and an unpredictable demise.
To understand the death of Flash though we must first go back to its beginnings …
How it all started (1993-95)
It began with a chance meeting between Jonathan Gay and Charlie Jackson. Gay, on a whim, had decided to attend Jackson’s local Macintosh Group. The two got talking and immediately hit it off.
Jackson, an early investor in Wired Magazine, was impressed with the software Gay had developed for Apple computers and wondered if there was an opportunity for the two of them to work on something together. They joined forces but needed help selling, so enlisted the help of Michelle Walsh, a former colleague of Gay’s from Silicon Beach / Aldus, and asked her to head up marketing.
So in 1993, Walsh, Gay and Jackson founded FutureWave software, with Gay as the CEO/CFO and Jackson providing investment. There was one glaring problem, however – they didn’t have a product.
The latest buzz around the time were computers that could be operated by a pen. Keen to jump on this trend, FutureWave created their first product, known as SmartSketch, a graphics editor that would be operated by a pen. They were building it for the new PenPoint Operating System an innovative new gesture-based O.S. built by GO Corporation. The FutureWave team felt GO Corp. were a company going places and wanted to become the Operating System’s default drawing tool.
If you ever think Flash is difficult to use, you should try drawing with a joystick on an Apple II before the concept of undo was invented. — Jonathan Gay
FutureWave gambled that pen technology was here to stay and that their product, SmartSketch, would allow users to create pictures more easily. Just as the product was about to ship, GO Corp, who had been sold to AT&T, was abruptly closed down. FutureWave were left with a product but no outlet to push it to.
Realising that competition would be stiff on Windows or Macintosh they decided to tweak their product, now called “CelAnimator”, and market it to creators of webpages for the World Wide Web which was beginning to gain some traction. CelAnimator would allow users to create vector-based drawings and buttons, animate them and embed the results in HTML Web pages. It would turn out to be a prescient move.
Netscape & IE come calling (1996)
Another name change, this time to FutureSplash, focused the team on their new web product which was split into two parts – the “Animator” and the “Viewer”.
The Animator was built on SmartSketch’s technology and allowed users to drag and drop drawing elements around the page. These animations could then be embedded on the web using their newly built Viewer program. Viewer was a web player that worked on both Internet Explorer and Netscape.
Viewer was appealing because it allowed people to view animations quickly and the file sizes were small, a potent combination. However, Gay, Jackson and Walsh faced the classic chicken and egg dilemma – people wanting to view animations would have to download the viewer. Would people bother? And if they didn’t, then who would use the animator program?
This dilemma was resolved thanks to a large slice of good fortune – just months after the release of FutureSplash, Netscape added the viewer application to their featured extensions, which meant thousands of downloads for FutureSplash. One of those downloads was by a Microsoft employee who would prove key to the future of FutureSplash.
Microsoft wanted to bring the television viewing experience to the web, and specifically to MSN.com. To achieve this aim, they needed an embeddable player. So when that employee downloaded FutureSplash and was impressed with what he saw, he was able to recommend FutureSplash to be that embedded player for MSN.com. At the time this website was the default homepage for all users of Internet Explorer. So suddenly FutureSplash found itself featured on one of the heaviest hitting properties on the early Web and with the backing of the two biggest browser players.
Macromedia & the birth of Flash (1997-2001)
Having had so much exposure, it was only a matter of time before FutureSplash gained the interest of a tech heavyweight. The deal with MSN.com had been sealed in August 1996, and three months later, Macromedia began their interest in FutureSplash.
Macromedia, an American graphics and web development software company had IPO’s in 1993 and had their web player, Shockwave. It had nowhere near the level of exposure that FlashSplash had enjoyed though. Believing that web players were going to explode as the World Wide Web grew, Macromedia wanted to ensure they lead the market which meant they had to buy FutureSplash. They did so in December 1996. The first thing Macromedia did was to change the name – out went FutureSplash and in came Macromedia Flash (an abbreviation of FuturespLASH).
Macromedia went on to develop Flash into the next Millennium, and that development saw Flash come to dominate the web viewer market. Developments included the creation of a programming language designed specifically for Flash, known as ActionScript. ActionScript allowed users of Flash to do more than create simple animations, by adding a suite of interactivity tools. It caused an explosion in Web-based games, rich Internet applications, web cartoons and full-blown interactive websites. The early 2000s saw an explosion of Flash websites, some more successful than others!
Flash birthed an entirely new industry. Flash developers and animators were suddenly in strong demand to create websites with ever more bells and whistles. The World Wide Web of this era became a Smorgasbord of games, videos and animations all powered by Flash technology.
The video revolution (2002-2008)
Macromedia had realised that reliable video streaming was a problem that hadn’t been addressed online, and so in 2002, they added full video support to the Flash software as part of Flash v6 (via the infamous “Sorenson Spark” video codec). This was a potential game-changer for Macromedia as developers could use their technology to create working, flexible, cross-platform video players.
As Flash and video became synonymous with each other Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim arrived on the scene and created a video site that was underpinned by Flash technology. That site was YouTube.
As the legend goes, the reason YouTube got investment in the first place was because of the very reason their video player used Flash. Their first investor, Keith Rabois, had long wanted to invest in a video player that used Flash – a technology Rabois was convinced could be a game changer.
So when Karim (who was the first person ever to upload a video to YouTube) met Rabois at a Barbecue in early 2005 the stars aligned yet again for Flash. Rabois had the money, and Karim had the product, and after some gentle persuading by Rabois to tell the YouTube three to focus on streaming videos he wrote them a cheque. The rest is history.
Ten years on from Macromedia buying FutureSplash, Flash was everywhere. Nike, HP, YouTube, Nokia, HBO were all using Flash. Flash was so interwoven into the fabric of the Web that browsers rolled up Flash players as part of their downloads. Flash was a key reason Adobe came knocking at Macromedia’s door in 2005. They acquired the company behind Flash for $3.4 billion.
Then everything changed…
The iPhone & the beginning of the end (2007-2015)
Steve Jobs and Apple landed a fatal blow to Flash in 2007. The Apple iPhone announcement made no mention of support for Flash player on the new device. This had been rumoured in the run up the release of the iPhone; browsers had begun playing around with native HTML audio and video elements which made a lot of what Flash offered redundant. This caused significant tension between Apple and Adobe, who just 12 months earlier parted with billions to buy Macromedia, a decision made in part because of the earnings potential of Flash technology.
Suddenly, one of Adobe’s most significant assets was now one of its biggest problems. A ‘spat‘ played out in which Adobe accused Apple of protecting its App store, while Apple claimed it was purely a technology issue. Jobs vented that Flash was not open source, drained mobile batteries and was stuck in the past. The truth is that Apple had strong commercial motivations to prevent a competing ecosystem of applications from challenging the walled garden of their app store, but the net result for Adobe was the same – Flash was barred from one of the most lucrative new computing platforms in a generation.
Adobe claims that we are a closed system and that Flash is open, but in fact, the opposite is true. — Steve Jobs, April 2010.
Jobs outlined his issues with Flash in a widely circulated essay in 2010. In it, he attacked Adobe, arguing that … “Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.”
Adobe refused to open up or modernise Flash, choosing instead to maintain full control over the technology. They found themselves frozen out by Apple.
The final nail in the coffin (2016-)
If that wasn’t bad enough, Flash was increasingly besieged with security issues. It became notorious for annoying ads and backdoor malware installation. As far back as 2009, Symantec highlighted Flash as having a poor record on security.
Steve Jobs even commented that, “We also know first hand that Flash is the number one reason Macs crash.” He advocated a move to HTML5 as a safer technology.
As recently as 2017, Flash was still causing major security problems for users worldwide. The “BadRabbit” virus began with fake Adobe Flash pop-ups on compromised websites and spread as a targeted campaign against corporate networks.
Google followed in the footsteps of Apple and began to sound warning bells about the use of Flash. In 2010 they announced that YouTube would start experimenting with HTML5 video players, and by 2015 it was the default playback method on the website. In May 2016 the company announced that its popular Chrome web browser would start blocking Flash by default, and only a year later it doubled-down on plans to remove support completely. One of the first companies to switch from Flash to HTML5 was YouTube. It’s ironic that the video player that helped put Flash firmly on the map helped to strike the final blow against it.
In 2017 Adobe announced it was ending development and support for Flash in 2020 and with it, they sounded the end for one of the great Internet stories.