For many years, Adobe Flash has been synonymous with web animation, browser games, and interactive websites. In 2011, the Flash Player plug-in was installed on 99% of desktop browsers in the Western world. A decade later, no modern web browser supports Flash outside of China.
In the 1990s, the Internet was growing rapidly, and web browsers couldn’t keep pace with new file types designed to be shared. This led to the development of plug-ins: small applications that were not designed to operate independently, but which add functions to the browser, as browser extensions do today.
Video plug-ins such as Apple QuickTime and Windows Media Player displayed video content consisting of individual frames, somewhat similar to how animated GIFs worked, but with the added ability to display some of those frames while others were playing. downloading, and adding compression to improve loading speed at the expense of quality.
In the era of dial-up modems, video on the Internet was either low resolution, frustratingly slow to load, or both. In this kind of context, interactive videos that loaded quickly and made full use of each screen’s resolution felt like a miracle. It is the story of how much of the early web culture was formed.
Draw a future
In 1993, a company called FutureWave was founded by Charlie Jackson, Jonathan Gay, and Michelle Welsh, releasing the SmartSketch drawing application for PenPoint OS, which was one of the first graphics tablet operating systems. SmartSketch created files based on vector graphics, similar to the modern SVG image format. In smaller tablets, it was important to be able to create images that would look the same when viewed on larger, higher-resolution screens.
When PenPoint failed, the application was ported to Mac and Windows. In 1995, FutureWave added animation functionality to the app and released it as FutureSplash Animator. In an ironic first move, Adobe declined an offer to buy FutureWave that year.
The FutureSplash Player plug-in released in 1996 was a solid alternative to Macromedia’s Shockwave Player, which had become available the previous year and was capable of playing heavier file types that were also used in CD-ROM games. Impressive as it was, the evolving nature of FutureSplash videos was not the reason for their success. Rather, it was the ability to create surprisingly small files with the use of limited animation.
To show an object moving against a static background, a FutureSplash file wouldn’t need to include dozens or hundreds of frames with the object in different places – it just had to include instructions for move the object. In hundreds of kilobytes, FutureSplash could create videos of several minutes.
Later that year, Microsoft used FutureSplash in the menu of MSN Program Viewer, a video streaming service that was years ahead of its time and quickly failed, forcing Microsoft to abandon the concept entirely. FutureSplash was later used on websites that were more successful at the time, including Disney Online and The Simpsons.
Interactive and popular
Towards the end of 1996, Macromedia acquired FutureWave, shortened the FutureSplash name to Flash, and re-released FutureSplash Animator as Macromedia Flash.
The following year, Flash was used to create what is considered the first web-exclusive cartoon series: The Goddamn George Liquor Program, created by John Kricfalusi, known for The Ren & Stimpy Show. Although more detailed than most Flash videos, it was still surprisingly viewable on the Internet. In 1999, Showtime’s WhirlGirl became the first series to air simultaneously on a cable network and the Internet.
Adult-oriented web cartoons such as Happy Tree Friends and Queer Duck later became television shows. Flash-based series that have aired on television since its inception include The Powerpuff Girls, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.
In the era of Macromedia, Flash was becoming more and more interactive. A popular example of this was “Frog in a Blender”, published by Joe Cartoon in 1999, which was one of the first viral videos on the internet. The user was able to cycle back and forth between the first and ninth levels of blender speed, but going to the 10th level would quickly end the video (in Joe’s dump, that was a very disrespectful frog).
A more impressive example from the same year was Pico’s School, a point-and-click action-adventure game inspired by the Columbine High School massacre, developed by Tom Fulp and released on Newgrounds. The game transformed Flash into a popular gaming platform and Newgrounds into a central browser game hub.
Macromedia Flash 5, released in 2000, was the first to officially support ActionScript, a programming language that enabled the creation of much more sophisticated games. Over the years, games like Alien Hominid, Farmville, Club Penguin, and the Meat Boy series started using Flash.
Starting in 2003, many mobile phones came with the Flash Lite application, which allowed them to play Flash content created with mobile platforms in mind.
In 2005, YouTube was launched, requiring the Flash Player to watch videos, although the videos on the site were not scalable or interactive on their own. That year, the plug-in was installed on more than 98% of PCs connected to the Internet. By the end of that year, Macromedia had been acquired by Adobe.
bitten by an apple
The first version of Adobe Flash was released in 2007 with better Photoshop integration and drawing tools similar to those offered by Adobe Illustrator. That same year, the first iPhone was launched without Flash support. Although it was a full-fledged web browser (for a mobile device of that era), Safari did not support Flash websites which were then very common. The iPhone could play YouTube videos in the dedicated app, thanks to Google converting videos to H.264 following the iPhone announcement.
Later in 2008, Adobe released its embedded systems development application, later called Adobe AIR, which allowed Flash content, such as games, to run in dedicated applications, removing the need for Flash Lite.
It took several years for Adobe to create a fully functional mobile version of Flash Player, and Steve Jobs was unwilling to wait. In 2010, following the announcement of the first iPad, the CEO released the open letter Reflections on Flash, claiming that Apple’s mobile devices would never support the plug-in, citing performance issues, safety and battery life.
Jobs added that interactive Flash elements would have to be rewritten for mobile sites anyway to compensate for the lack of a mouse. His claim that Flash was a “closed system” was criticized as hypocritical, as the same could be said of iOS.
About two months after the letter, YouTube switched to HTML5-based playback on mobile platforms. At first, Apple did not allow development of Flash-based applications for iOS, but later reversed this decision. The Flash Player eventually made it to Android devices, but the disappointing performance shed a more positive light on Jobs’ letter. At the end of 2011, Adobe discontinued development of Flash Player for mobile devices.
In 2015, YouTube defaulted to an HTML5 player on all devices. The following year, Adobe Flash was renamed Adobe Animate to decouple it from the ill-fated Flash Player.
In 2017, Adobe announced that it would stop supporting Flash by the end of 2020.
Following Adobe’s announcement, all modern web browsers began blocking Flash content by default, with blocking becoming fully effective after 2020. The latest versions of Flash Player themselves actually had a kill switch, which prevented them from working after January 12, 2021. Also, later in 2021, Microsoft released a mandatory update that removed Flash Player from Windows.
The Chinese variant of Flash, which is used to display advertisements and collect personal data from users, is still developed by a company called Zhongcheng. In 2021, Adobe partnered with Harman, a subsidiary of Samsung, to continue to support Flash for enterprise users.
Several emulators have been created to allow playback of Flash content on HTML5 sites. The most successful is Ruffle, which is used by the Internet Archive and many others.
The Flashpoint project was created to preserve games and applications that relied on Flash Player and other browser plug-ins. So far, the project has bundled over 100,000 such games, making them available for offline play. You can download the main app (3 GB), which only downloads the games when you choose to play them or the entire collection which weighs almost 900 GB.
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