Few technologies have sparked such divisiveness and widespread passion as Flash. Many speak of its versatility and ease of use as a creative platform or of its pivotal role in the rise of web video. Others abhor Flash-based advertising and web design, or despise the resource-intensity of the Flash Player plugin in the later years.
Whichever side of the love-hate relationship you end up on, there’s no denying that Flash has changed the way we consume, create and interact with content on the web. for better and worse, it helped shape today’s internet.
But now, after about 25 years, Flash is finally nearing its end. In less than six months, December 2020, Adobe will officially stop supporting and distributing Flash Player, the browser plugin we all associate most strongly with technology. And for months prior to this end-of-life move, Flash has been disabled in most web browsers (often flagged as a security risk if you choose to override the default settings). Even Google Chrome, long the browser of choice for Flash content, will soon remove Flash Player.
Technically, 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 corporate electronics company Harman International for ongoing maintenance as it is still widely used in the corporate arena. But it’s safe to say that, after a decade of decline, Flash as we know it is about to say goodbye.
In recognition of its service to content creators and consumers of all walks of life, its contribution to the spread of online video and multimedia, and that division that has engulfed the platform everywhere, it’s time to rethink the rise and fall of Flash. – with a little help from the main creator, Jonathan Gay; a large number of web resources; and interviews with others who contributed to its ultimate success.
Birth, or a wave of the future
Sometime in mid-1992, Jonathan Gay decided he wanted to start a company to make something. What exactly, he hadn’t found out. But something†
More than eight years earlier, his friend and former boss Charlie Jackson had founded Silicon Beach Software, a Mac-centric software company that had great success with its dark castle games and the creative tools SuperPaint and Digital Darkroom. Gay was there from day one as a teen programmer working afternoons after school. (Not just any programmer, either, but the “most phenomenal programmer” Jackson had ever seen.) Then in the early 1990s, 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 business, but Jackson still had six months left on his non-compete with Aldus and could do nothing until then. He told Gay to take the time to come up with a product. The couple soon came up with the idea of creating software for GO Corporation’s PenPoint operating system, an operating system 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 that grew out of GO’s hardware division, looked particularly impressive.
Silicon Beach had built its success by hitting the market early – embracing the Macintosh before bigger companies jumped in. This new company, which they called FutureWave, would try to do the same. “The idea was, ‘We can own the graphics space on this tablet,'” Jackson told Ars. “So we started designing a vector drawing program. And we called it SmartSketch.”
With the combined business acumen of FutureWave’s three co-founders — marketing VP Michelle Welsh was the other — plus the tech wizardry of Gay and programmer Robert Tatsumi, SmartSketch quickly took shape. But the gamble backfired when AT&T bought a majority stake in the company behind the EO tablet — also known as EO — then killed the product, then bought GO and, long story short, effectively killed them too.
“I think we sold two copies,” Jackson said. “And one of them was for the architect who designed 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 drawing on paper.” But the company struggled to divert attention from their many larger competitors (Corel, Adobe, Autodesk, etc.).
Their course changed when Wacom – which had bundled SmartSketch with some of its digitizer tablets – ran into budget difficulties and had to pull out of SIGGRAPH ’95. They gave their booth to FutureWave and told the small startup to bring lots of SmartSketch boxes as it’s always a good event for product sales. “We didn’t sell anything,” Gay recalls. “It was pretty embarrassing.”
Across the aisle, a company called Animo had a Disney-style animation package for television and movie production. A lot of people were drawn to that booth, and many of them stopped by FutureWave’s space to look at SmartSketch, after which they would recommend FutureWave to make a rotoscoping app. “We never thought there would be a market for an animation tool,” says Gay, “but it seemed fun to build.”
Around the same time, Jackson was struggling to convince retailers to keep SmartSketch in stock. Then he noticed that CompUSA had kiosks and shelves of products in prime position with the phrase “Made for the Web” stamped on it. So he told Gay to do something for the web.
Gay wondered if maybe they could somehow combine these ideas: a cell-based animation program that could produce animations that play on web pages.
Initially, they called this new program SmartSketch Animator, although they would later rename it CelAnimator and then FutureSplash Animator. And to meet the web requirements, they hacked into Java a prototype web animation player, the FutureSplash Player.
However, they were tired of running a business with no money and no market traction, so before releasing it, they decided to try and sell the technology. Their friend and Silicon Beach co-founder Eric Zocher, who was VP of Engineering at Adobe, arranged a meeting for them with Adobe CEO John Warnock.
“I remember getting on a plane with a 486 mini desktop in a duffel bag to meet John Warnock and show him our incredibly slow Java prototype,” Gay said. “It was doing about two frames per second of this simple animation. It worked, but it was just really slow.”