The Rise and Fall of Adobe Flash

A long, long time ago, I wanted to make lava lamp buttons for my Web site. I wanted the shape of the lava blobs to be random and mathematically controlled, and it had to be done with vector graphics – animated gifs would have been huge to provide something that even remotely felt random, and back in those days most people connected with dialup modems.

I searched high and low for a vector animation tool and couldn’t find one. There was Macromedia Director, which I used extensively back then, which put out files for Web play in a format called Shockwave, but it wasn’t a true vector-based program. Not the right tool for lava lamp buttons, that was for sure. I’d started playing with a java applet to draw my buttons, but it seemed like vector animation was something the Web really needed. I mentioned this to a friend of mine, and he said, “Oh I know some guys with the tool you’re looking for.” At the time it was called FutureSplash.

I mentioned FutureSplash to my boss. It was going to be huge, I predicted. His response: “Maybe we should buy them.” (Ah, those dot-com boom days, how I miss them.) Three days later Macromedia announced that they had bought FutureSplash (for a lot more than we could have paid) and contracted the name to Flash.

The rest is history — until the present.

There was even a time when I imagined that a lot of the Web would end up as Flash. Or at least it should. Flash had a lot of things right that HTML had managed to screw up. You could do a lot more, and with Flash the Web experience began to approach the quality of experience people had in other parts of their computing lives.

Macromedia and later Adobe seemed to go out of their way to prevent Flash from taking over the Web. Creating Flash became ever more complex and ever more expensive. Nowhere was the simple “baby Flash” that Joe Amateur could use to build a nice site without first getting extensive training and shelling out a few hundred bucks for tools.

Meanwhile, Flash designers didn’t help in those early years, either. So much Flash became “look what I can do” rather than “look how I can make your visit to my Web site better” that Jane Surfer started resenting Flash. “I waited 60 seconds to download this?” A good example of that sort of waste is at the top of this page, in fact. There are a couple of fun things in the banner, but they don’t enhance the Muddled Experience very much.

Now, the world is shifting again. If you’re reading this site from your iPad, you don’t see the banner at all. No Flash in iOS. This is something the other tablet manufacturers have made a big deal of—but maybe not for very much longer. Microsoft’s next tablet OS won’t support Flash, either.

HTML, the platform I get paid to dislike, is becoming HTML, the platform I get paid to deal with. HTML5, CSS3, full SVG support, and robust JavaScript libraries make possible just about everything Flash can do, without Flash. That’s a lot of things to learn and manage to get a job done, however. Before, a designer could just master Flash and be confident that their work would look right wherever the Flash plugin was installed.

What’s needed is a tool like Flash that, after you’re done designing, outputs your masterpiece in Web-standard format, with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. When something like that comes out, the handwriting will be on the wall for Flash.

And here it is. Adobe, makers of Flash, have announced Edge, the animation tool that will eventually replace Flash. It looks pretty good. It doesn’t do anything remotely close to what Flash does (no mention of audio that I’ve found, for instance, so my banner would have to forego the theme song, and interactivity will have to be handled outside the tool as well, as far as my first glance tells me), but it does a great deal, and when you’re done the product will work in all modern browsers, including mobile ones. Adobe has applied their long, long experience making animation tools to make the user interface slick and clean (though you will want a really big monitor).

Flash will be around a long, long time yet; it still lets a developer build Web-based user interfaces that would be a pain in the butt to create from HTML and the rest of the alphabet soup. That gap is narrowing, however, and as Edge gains in features (and, alas, complexity), the marginalization of Flash will accelerate. I’m impressed that Adobe said, “If Flash dies, we’ll be the ones to kill it.” They really are the right people for the job. Now all we need is “baby Edge.”

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