Few technologies have yielded such divisive and widespread passion as Flash. Many gush over its versatility and ease of use as a creative platform or its critical role in the rise of web video. Others abhor Flash-based advertising and Web design, or they despise the resource-intensiveness of the Flash Player plugin in its later years.
Whichever side of the love-hate divide you land on, there’s no denying the fact that Flash changed how we consume, create, and interact with content on the Web. For better and worse, it helped shape the Internet of today.
But now, after roughly 25 years, Flash is finally nearing its end. In less than six months—December 2020—Adobe will officially end support and distribution of Flash Player, the browser plugin we all associate most strongly with the technology. And already, months ahead of this end-of-life switch, Flash has been disabled in most Web browsers (often flagged as a security risk should you choose to override the default settings). Even Google Chrome, long the browser of choice for Flash content, will soon remove Flash Player.
Technically speaking, 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 enterprise electronics company Harman International for ongoing maintenance, as it’s still widely used in the enterprise arena. But it’s safe to say that, after a decade in decline, Flash as we know it is about to say goodbye.
In recognition of its service to content creators and consumers of all stripes, of its contribution to the proliferation of online video and multimedia, and of that divisiveness that’s followed the platform around, the time has come to revisit the rise and fall of Flash—with a little help from its principal creator, Jonathan Gay; a raft of Web resources; and interviews with others who had a hand in its ultimate success.
Birth, or a wave of the future
Sometime around the middle of 1992, Jonathan Gay decided he wanted to start a company to make something. What, precisely, he’d not figured out. But something.
More than eight years earlier, his friend and former boss Charlie Jackson had founded Silicon Beach Software—a Mac-focused software company that had great success with its Dark Castle games and the SuperPaint and Digital Darkroom creative tools. Gay had been there from day one as a teenage programmer working afternoons after school. (Not just any programmer, either, but the “most phenomenal programmer” that Jackson had ever seen.) Then early in 1990, 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 company, but Jackson still had six months remaining on his non-compete agreement with Aldus and couldn’t do anything until then. He told Gay to take that time to think of a product. The pair soon landed on the idea of making software for GO Corporation’s PenPoint operating system, an OS 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 spun out from GO’s hardware division, seemed particularly impressive.
Silicon Beach had built its success on being early to market—on embracing the Macintosh before bigger companies jumped in. This new company, which they named FutureWave, would endeavor to do the same. “The idea was, ‘We can own the graphics space on this tablet,'” Jackson told Ars. “So we started to design a vector drawing program. And we called this SmartSketch.”
With the combined business acumen of FutureWave’s three co-founders—marketing VP Michelle Welsh was the other one—plus Gay and programmer Robert Tatsumi’s technical wizardry, SmartSketch quickly took shape. But the gamble backfired when AT&T bought a majority stake in the company behind the EO tablet—also called EO—and subsequently killed the product, then bought GO and, to cut a long story short, effectively killed them too.
“I think we sold two copies,” Jackson said. “And one was to the architect who was designing 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 it is drawing on paper.” But the company struggled to pull attention away from their many larger competitors (Corel, Adobe, Autodesk, etc).
Their course changed when Wacom—which had been bundling SmartSketch with some of its digitizer tablets—ran into budgetary problems and needed to pull out of SIGGRAPH ’95. They gave their booth to FutureWave and told the tiny startup to bring lots of SmartSketch boxes—as it’s always a good event for product sales. “We didn’t sell anything,” recalled Gay. “It was pretty embarrassing.”
Across the aisle, a company called Animo had a Disney-style animation package for television and movie production. Lots of people were drawn to that booth, and many of them stopped by FutureWave’s space to look at SmartSketch—whereupon they’d recommend FutureWave make a rotoscoping app. “We thought there was never going to be a market for an animation tool,” said Gay, “but it sounded like a fun thing to build.”
Around the same time, Jackson had been struggling to convince retailers to stock SmartSketch. Then he noticed that CompUSA had kiosks and shelves of products in prime positioning with the phrase ‘made for the Web’ stamped on them. So, he told Gay they needed to do something for the Web.
Gay wondered if maybe somehow they could combine these ideas together: a cel-based animation program that could produce animations that play on webpages.
They initially called this new program SmartSketch Animator, though they would later rename it CelAnimator and then FutureSplash Animator. And to fulfill the Web requirement, they hacked together a prototype Web animation player—the FutureSplash Player—in Java.
They’d grown tired of running a company with no money and no market traction, however, so before they shipped they decided to try to sell the technology. Their friend and fellow Silicon Beach co-founder Eric Zocher—who was VP of engineering at Adobe—set up a meeting for them with Adobe CEO John Warnock.
“I still remember getting on the airplane with a 486 mini desktop in a duffel bag to go meet with John Warnock and show him our incredibly slow Java prototype,” said Gay. “It was doing like two frames a second of this simple animation. It worked, but it was just really slow.”
Listing image by WebDesignMuseum.org