Flash: A Eulogy

Adobe’s recent announcement to discontinue work on Flash Player for mobile strikes me as hugely ironic.

I was with Flash from the beginning. Almost the beginning, Flash 4 to be exact. It was the late 90s. The web was young, broadband was 56K modem, most computers were slower than today’s phones. Video on the web was still sci fi. You’d have to wait hours to download minutes of video only to find out that you then needed to download a player.

Then there was Flash! It was absolutely amazing. Flash was high res animation streaming right through your 28K dial-up. How could it be? The answer was vectors. Flash, at the beginning and through mid-life was vector-graphics timeline animation. As I often explained at the time, vectors were pictures made with equations, whereas the opposite, bitmaps, were pixel colors for every damn pixel in the picture. You might not get photographic detail with vectors, but you sure got more bang for your buck and as a bonus the pictures were scalable. You could zoom in without it getting blotchy. Web animators could get really smart with Flash too. It allowed you to make pictures into symbols, and reuse them with out increasing the file size or streaming bandwidth of the animation.

Then Macromedia introduced interactivity in Flash 4 with the ability to write short lines of code into the timeline. At first it was stuff like “click this button and go to this other frame. ” You could also nest one timeline in another, so besides having a car animation with independently turning wheels, a smart Flash person could make games or complete websites.

Notice how I said “Flash person,” I could have said animator or designer or developer, but none of those really fit for the stage Flash was in at he turn of the century. At the time, serious animators drew by hand or worked in after-effects, serious designers were still mostly in print, and developers were writing code. To do Flash required all 3 skills. That what was so great about it for me, personally. When I got into Flash, I was working as a graphic artist mostly PowerPoint presentations. I loved working with vectors in Illustrator, so I dove into Flash with excitement. At first I feared writing code, using the novice mode which was like selecting choices from a menu, so there was no chance of a typo. Soon I was making my living at it, being a designer and learning to code as the language of Flash, Action Script, developed.

Flash reached it’s peak in 2004 when it launched a piece of software with the longest name ever, “Flash MX 2004 Professional Edition.” It was the first release to allow streaming video.   At that point it was still largely timeline based, but developers had started moving away from that controlling things with code.  Folks at Macromedia started touting RIA, or Rich Internet Applications, meaning Flashy apps that showed you data in a cool, fun way. A good developer could make a whole interactive , fun flashy website which displayed and submitted real data, like shop inventory and user’s credit cards. The world would be ours! And yet, there were still plenty of low bandwidth animations to be made. Flash was taking over but kept it’s soul.

Then adobe bought Macromedia and ruined it all. It tried to turn Flash into a platform for the web. The soul of vector-based timeline animation withered under the weight of a platform tasked with the ability to do anything on any kind of system.

This is where it gets ironic. Soon the mobile web began to emerge. A web browsing phone in 2005 was about as powerful as a desktop in 1997, and the cell phone bandwidth similar to dial-up. Early Flash could have rocked the mobile phone market! But sad to say, Flash was now all grown up into a platform and was just to bulky, too combersome, used too much memory to work at all on a phone. It’s really too bad, but life does go on…

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