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Gone in a Flash: Adobe's long march to HTML5

Rise and fall of the Player

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Analysis Surf the web and it's ubiquitous. Ask most web developers building media content what runtime stack tools set they should – or do – target. The answer is simple: Flash.

Or it has been until recently. For the better part of a decade, Adobe's media player plug-in has dominated everything from modest web animations to films and complex ads online.

Only now there is uncertainty and with an industry backing off, Flash seems marooned at its high-water mark. Apple and Microsoft and the most vocal of developers are moving to HTML5.

Is this the end for Flash, and how did we reach this point?

Flash dates from 1993, when Jonathan Gay started a company called FutureWave. Its product was SmartSketch, co-authored with Robert Tatsumi, and was billed as: "Software that would make drawing on the computer easier than drawing on paper."

SmartSketch was soon enhanced to add animation, but the problem was how to play back those animations in a web browser. Experiments with Java proved too slow, so when Netscape announced a plug-in API, the company started work on FutureSplash Animator, released in May 1996. Adobe was offered the product, but turned it down.

Two early customers were Microsoft and Disney. The Disney contact got the attention of Macromedia, which purchased FutureWave in December 1996 and renamed the product Macromedia Flash 1.0.

Flash took off fast. By February 1999, Macromedia claimed that 76.8 per cent of web users had Flash installed. In September 2000 it was claiming 96.4 per cent. But results were mixed, and this became the era of "skip the intro". Not everyone was in love with Flash, and usability advocate Jakob Nielsen famously declared it "99 per cent bad."

It turned out that Flash was not just for prettifying websites, however. In 2001 a company called WebVertising Inc built an online reservation system for the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, an early example of a full Flash application. In 2002 Macromedia's Jeremy Allaire wrote a paper called The Internet and client-side applications in which he described how Flash was becoming "a 'rich client' environment for Internet content and applications".

A common complaint back then was that the Flash authoring tool was developer-hostile. Macromedia responded by creating Flex, first released in March 2004, which let you code for Flash using just XML and ActionScript, the Flash scripting language. The original concept was that you would host Flex code on the server alongside HTML, while Flex was compiled to Flash by Flex Server and rendered by the Flash player. Macromedia also released middleware called Flex Data Services to enable Flex clients to talk to databases and Java applications on the server.

Adobe's Flex-ible friend

Flex arrived at the same time Microsoft was talking up XAML and the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), first presented in 2003. Both companies had a similar goal: to be the platform that took over when HTML was no longer enough. Microsoft played this game from both sides, holding HTML back by making little progress with the market-dominating Internet Explorer, while investing instead in Windows-only XAML and WPF. There was real risk that the web would become a more proprietary platform.

Flash was also popular for video. Video support arrived in Flash 6 (2002) and its simplicity and reliability compared to rival approaches made it the obvious choice for web video, and a factor in the success of YouTube, founded in February 2005.

Adobe acquired Macromedia in December 2005 and gradually enmeshed Flash into its design tools. Most tools in Adobe's Creative Suite gained the ability to export to Flash. Acrobat's PDF format could embed Flash content and the cloud-based Acrobat.com featured a Flash-driven online word processor and later a spreadsheet and presentation editor.

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