For many years, Adobe Flash was synonymous with animation on the web, browser games, and interactive websites. In 2011, the Flash Player plug-in was installed on 99% of desktop browsers in the Western world. One decade later, no modern web browser supports Flash outside of China.
In the 1990s, the internet was growing rapidly, and web browsers could not keep up with the pace of new file types that were designed to be shared over it. That led to the development of plug-ins: small apps that weren’t designed to work independently, but add functions to the browser, like browser extensions do today.
Video plug-ins such as Apple QuickTime and the Windows Media Player showed video content that was made of individual frames, somewhat similar to how animated GIFs work, but with the added capability of showing some of those frames while the rest were downloading, and adding compression to improve loading speed at the expense of quality.
In the era of dial-up modems, internet video was either of low resolution, despairingly slow to load, or both. In that kind of context, interactive videos that loaded quickly and fully utilized the resolution of every screen looked like a miracle. This is the story of how a big part of the early web culture was formed.
Drawing a Future
In 1993, a company called FutureWave was founded by Charlie Jackson, Jonathan Gay and Michelle Welsh, releasing the SmartSketch drawing app for the PenPoint OS, which was one of the first operating systems for graphical tablets. SmartSketch created files based on vector graphics, similar to the modern SVG image format. In small tablets, it was important to be able to create images that would look the same when viewed on larger and higher-resolution screens.
When PenPoint flopped, the app was ported to Mac and Windows. In 1995, FutureWave added animation capabilities to the app and released it as FutureSplash Animator. In an early ironic move, Adobe declined an offer to buy FutureWave that year.
The FutureSplash Player plug-in released in 1996 was a strong alternative to Macromedia’s Shockwave Player, which had become available the year prior and was capable of playing heavier file types that were also used in CD-ROM games. As impressive as it was, the scalable nature of FutureSplash videos wasn’t the reason that they were seeing success. Rather, it was the ability to create surprisingly small files with the use of limited animation.
For showing an object moving on a static background, a FutureSplash file wouldn’t need to include tens or hundreds of frames with the object in different places — it only needed to include instructions to move the object. Within hundreds of kilobytes, FutureSplash could create videos that were several minutes long.
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 failed quickly, making Microsoft completely abandon the concept. FutureSplash was later used in websites that were more successful at the time, including Disney Online and The Simpsons.
Interactive and Popular
Near the end of 1996, Macromedia acquired FutureWave, shortened the name FutureSplash to Flash, and re-released the FutureSplash Animator as Macromedia Flash.
The following year, Flash was used to create what’s considered to be the first web-exclusive cartoon series: The Goddamn George Liquor Program, created by John Kricfalusi, known for The Ren & Stimpy Show. While more detailed than most Flash videos, it was still surprisingly watchable on the internet. In 1999, Showtime’s WhirlGirl became the first series to be released simultaneously on a cable network and on the internet.
Adult-minded web cartoons such as Happy Tree Friends and Queer Duck later became TV shows. Flash-based series that were broadcast on TV from the start include The Powerpuff Girls, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.
In the Macromedia era, Flash was getting more and more interactive. One popular example of that was “Frog in a Blender,” released by Joe Cartoon in 1999, which was one of the first viral videos on the internet. The user was able to go back and forth between the blender’s first and ninth speed levels, but switching to the 10th level would quickly end the video (in Joe’s defense, it was a very disrespectful frog).
A more impressive example of 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 turned Flash into a popular gaming platform, and Newgrounds into a central browser gaming 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 out using Flash.
Starting 2003, many mobile phones shipped with the Flash Lite app, which allowed them to play Flash content that was created with mobile platforms in mind.
In 2005, YouTube was launched, requiring the Flash Player to watch videos, even though the videos on the site weren’t scalable or interactive in themselves. 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 improved Photoshop integration, and drawing tools that were similar to those offered by Adobe Illustrator. That same year, the first iPhone was launched with no Flash support. Despite being a fully fledged web browser (for a mobile device of that era), Safari did not support Flash websites which were very common then. The iPhone could play YouTube videos within the dedicated app, thanks to Google converting videos to the H.264 format following the iPhone’s announcement.
Later in 2008, Adobe released its Integrated Systems development app, later called Adobe AIR, which enabled Flash content, such as games, to run within dedicated apps, removing the need for Flash Lite.
It took Adobe several years to create a fully functional mobile version of the Flash Player, and Steve Jobs wasn’t willing to wait. In 2010, following the first iPad’s announcement, the CEO famously published the Thoughts on Flash open letter, saying that Apple’s mobile devices would never support the plug-in, citing performance, security and battery-life issues.
Jobs added that interactive Flash elements would need to be rewritten anyway for mobile sites 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 about iOS.
About two months after the letter, YouTube switched to HTML5-based playback on mobile platforms. At first, Apple didn’t allow the development of Flash-based apps for iOS, but reversed that decision later. The Flash Player did come to Android devices eventually, but the disappointing performance shed a more positive light on Jobs’ letter. In late 2011, Adobe halted the development of Flash Player for mobile devices.
In 2015, YouTube switched to an HTML5-based player by default on all devices. The next year, Adobe Flash was renamed Adobe Animate to disassociate 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 started blocking Flash content by default, with the block becoming entirely effective after 2020. The last versions of Flash Player itself actually had a kill switch, which prevented them from running after January 12, 2021. Moreover, Later in 2021, Microsoft issued a mandatory an update that removed Flash Player from Windows.
The Chinese variant of Flash, which is used for showing ads and collecting personal data from users, is still developed by a company called Zhongcheng. In 2021, Adobe partnered with Harman, a Samsung subsidiary, to keep supporting Flash for enterprise users.
Several emulators were created to allow the playing of Flash content on HTML5 sites. The most successful of which is Ruffle, which is used by the Internet Archive and many others.
The Flashpoint project was created to preserve games and apps that related on Flash Player and other browser plug-ins. So far, the project has grouped together over 100,000 such games, making them available for offline play. You can download the main app (3GB), which only downloads games when you choose to play them or the entire collection which weighs in at almost 900GB.
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