Thoughts On Flash

Pondering the demise of Adobe’s Flash through shifting approaches to digital creation these days—and why we may not have anything quite like it again.

Today in Tedium: Flash had to die. It had too many knocks against it years before it finally met its maker this week, and the internet moved forward without it. But the groundbreaking internet plugin’s death in many ways reflects a win in favor of a more technical, more methodical internet, one where systems are built to work efficiently, rather than experimental playthings that kind of sit in their own space. In a world where the conventions of user experience win out more times than not, Flash was simply about being creative at the start. And that made it divisive. Today’s Tedium, the first of 2021, ponders the departure of an old friend from our digital lives—and what we might have lost in the process. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is from the famed “Badger, Badger, Badger” Flash animation by Jonti Picking.

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“About 99 percent of the time, the presence of Flash on a website constitutes a usability disease. Although there are rare occurrences of good Flash design (it even adds value on occasion), the use of Flash typically lowers usability. In most cases, we would be better off if these multimedia objects were removed.”

— Jakob Nielsen, the famed Danish usability expert, hating on Flash in a 2000 article about its failings. Among the ones he lists: gratuitous animation, less-granular user controls, nonstandard GUI controls, broken web fundamentals, and a distraction from a site’s core values. Flash removed convention, usability, and search engine optimization from the equation. In many ways, he was absolutely right—but it’s still a shame we lost it.

A video of FutureSplash Animator, circa 1996. It would soon become the basis of Flash.

Five quick facts about the evolution of Flash software

  1. Its original development use case was for pen computers. It may be weird to think about, but the birth of what we came to know as Flash shares the same roots with the EO Personal Communicator, an iPad predecessor that relied on pen-based input. The concepts of Flash came to life in the form of SmartSketch, a drawing app for EO’s operating system, GO. Just one problem for its developer, FutureWave Software: By the time it was ready, AT&T had killed the EO and its operating system, PenPoint. Jonathan Gay, the early developer of what became Flash, noted: “We did actually make a few sales of SmartSketch, though. The most noteworthy sale was to an architect working on Bill Gates' house.”
  2. Flash initially piggybacked on top of Java. As you may be aware, one of the first ways interactivity found its way to the web was through a Java applet—essentially a virtual machine that operated within the browser and ran applications written in Java, a programming language Sun Microsystems invented for interactive TV use cases. (Jakob Nielsen hated it, of course, despite being a Sun employee at the time!) First using the homespun HotJava browser, Java had much in common with what Flash became, and fittingly, early prototype versions of FutureSplash Animator ran within a Java embed. It was a little pokey, but it worked.
  3. The success of Flash is a mixture of good timing and obvious need. FutureSplash Animator adapted with the times to become more of lightweight animation tool for the web, at a time when dial-up connections required something lightweight. But two things helped solidify its market position: When Netscape added a plugin API to its browser, FutureSplash adapted by bringing a much faster native viewer to web browsers, leading to heavy promotion by Netscape. Then, as Jay Hoffman recalls on The History of the Web, Microsoft came calling because of a need for a dedicated viewing page on the front page of the MSN website—a.k.a. the default page on Internet Explorer. FutureSplash was the ticket for both Microsoft and a close partner on that endeavor, Disney.
  4. Flash somehow overtook an effort by a much larger developer—which then bought it. The software developer Macromedia had developed its own interactive animation tool, Shockwave, but had found out some in-depth details about FutureSplash from its collaboration with Disney, and decided it wanted FutureSplash as well. At the end of 1996, Macromedia bought FutureWave and renamed the software Flash (after FuturespLASH).
  5. Flash evolved into something closer to a programming toolkit. After Macromedia’s acquisition by Adobe in 2006—a move that angered a lot of fans of Freehand, the tool became something closer to a programming-like language in part because many of its use cases had evolved past animation, into offering interactive additions to otherwise static sites. ActionScript, its underlying programming language introduced in 1998, was a key element of this shift.

Macromedia Flash

A screenshot of Macromedia Flash. (via WinWorldPC)

The problem that led to Flash’s long-term demise was that usability mattered too much

A couple of years ago, I was hired by Vice to write a profile about a coffee-table book about web design. It was a relatively brief story, about 600 words, but for some reason it carried a lot more weight than those 600 words might have suggested.

And the reason comes down to what I found in the book—and the headline the piece got as a result: “Flash Is Responsible for the Internet's Most Creative Era.”

Digging through the years of old designs in Web Design. The Evolution of the Digital World 1990–Today, I had found that Favourite Web Awards (FWA) mastermind Rob Ford and his editor, Julius Wiedemann, had made a compelling case for Flash-based sites as being a compelling, powerful medium for creation, and that the modern web, while having some of these elements, had failed to maintain it to quite the same degree.

The book did not focus on websites that simply laid out content efficiently. Jakob Nielsen would most assuredly hate what this book represented for the web. Instead, it emphasized sites that went all-out—for advertisers, for marketers, or even just for creative projects created by college students in their dorm rooms. And when that advertising money went to social media instead in its historical arc, the book lamented what was lost as those once-wide creative parameters were winnowed in.

And somehow, the story became perhaps my most talked about piece during my entire time writing for Vice, despite it effectively being a book profile.

I’ve always wondered why that might be—and I think I have something of an answer. To put it as succinctly as possible: Jakob Nielsen won.

Nielsen, as I pointed out above, is legendarily laser-focused on usability over all other considerations. He has tons of patents to his name, and he was needling others about bad design conventions years before large companies realized that they needed to take UX seriously.

Usability means a few things in this context—simplicity, ease of use, convention, and accessibility. Flash was none of those things. It took the blank-canvas approach to creativity—which was great for the artists and illustrators that originally made up its target audience, but morphed into numerous other forms that it wasn’t necessarily designed for. It fell into overuse and quickly became abused by others.

This is something Nielsen warned about early, even before Flash had gained popularity, when he wrote about HotJava in comparison to the late, lamented Mac tool HyperCard. He predicted exactly what would happen with Flash before it even existed. Just read this:

HyperCard had one unfortunate aspect that will probably repeat itself with HotJava: the profusion of new work included huge amounts of complete junk when people went overboard with inappropriate use of animated transition techniques, mixed weird fonts, and drew plain ugly background bitmaps. The specific attributes of bad user interface design employed by newly unleashed designers with no UI expertise will probably be different for HotJava, but rest assured that there will be some. Caution is recommended in picking up Java design ideas as long as there is no considered user interface styleguide available for appropriate use of the new technology in ways that will help users rather than hinder them.

He wrote that in 1995, about a completely different technology that was being used in much the same way Flash would be. Love him or hate him, he called it years before everyone else had caught up.

In the early years of the web, the costs of going with this approach—which couldn’t be viewed in search engines properly, which left out entire groups of people who couldn’t access these tools, and which was often the one proprietary part of an otherwise open-source stack—were worth it because they were significantly better than HTML was on its own. The browser wars did a lot of damage to the consistency of the web; Flash was able to step in and offer a bridge to interactivity at a time when the web just wasn’t good enough for that on its own.

But that eventually changed, and when standardization came into play, putting an entire company in charge of a key element of how the internet works was perhaps too dangerous. Flash became a vector for many things beyond its original mission—much of the ad-tracking junk we malign as spyware today is a part of this, and it was also a key vector for malware over the last decade as well.

Adobe had standards that came to life in similar ways that were eventually spun off in open ways, most notably PDF, but Flash was acquired from another developer and was seen as a strategic tool for the company’s future growth in cross-platform development. Its mission had diverged from its original goals.

The web—most effectively built around consistency, convention, and usability—eventually no longer had a place for Flash. But Flash was still ready to shove its way in.

2011

The year the YouTube relegated its legacy Flash player to legacy status, pushing its users to rely on iframe-based embeds instead, which use native HTML5-based technologies. YouTube is an interesting case, as it effectively took advantage of existing plumbing in web browsers to build its service when it started in 2005, reflecting the most prominent example of when Flash became a programming vessel of sorts.

Flash for Dummies

Flash was a mainstay of “For Dummies” books. (via Amazon)

The problem the modern web never solved that Flash did: an ease of getting started

In many ways, the story of YouTube accidentally using Flash almost as a Trojan horse of sorts really highlights the way that the social network, quickly purchased by Google, has replaced Flash for many of the types of users that might have used it back in the day.

For boundless creatives, video has always been a little bit more accessible as a way for capturing creative ideas. But it is by no means 100 percent equivalent, and that means that other mediums have had to do a lot to pick up the weight of an overburdened Flash.

In many ways, Flash sat at the center of a tension between programming and design in how the web was to be shaped. HTML was built as a methodical tool, with concepts borrowed from a standardized markup language. It wasn’t a complicated language, but it did require you to get your hands dirty, and that made it less appealing for visual learners.

(Microsoft FrontPage exists as something of a reaction to this.)

Flash came from the same world as desktop publishing and illustration tools, and as a result, carries less of the technical feel to it. And while it has programming elements, like ActionScript, it ultimately appealed to audiences beyond programmers.

I am not writing a long-as-heck piece about Flash without including a Neil Cicierega animutation. It would just be wrong.

As a creative tool, it pulls you in. In the wrong hands, you can create a huge mess. But in the right hands, it can lead to create some really great stuff.

For the latter audience, the last decade has forced some serious rethinking of the path forward—the animators and game developers went to alternative tools, most notably the game development tool Unity, to do the things they might have once used Flash for.

But Flash’s perch in the market was changing during the latter half of the 2000s, as new formats for computing, particularly mobile, became more important. Adobe attempted to reinvent Flash as AIR, an application development tool with a programming runtime. But that meant carrying nearly two decades of cruft around in areas that didn’t need it.

Flash was a drawing tool that became an animation tool that became a programming language that became an interactivity layer over the web. And now Adobe wanted to make it an application development tool.

This level of contortion would be like turning Photoshop into Excel. Flash, as great as it was, simply was not flexible or light enough on its feet for such acrobatics. In fact, it grew belabored because of all the extra stuff that was added.

The signs were already there as early as 2009. One developer, Matmi, said during a keynote around that time that “Unity could well be the new platform to replace Flash.”

And that was before Flash suffered a body blow: An open letter, written by Steve Jobs in April of 2010, that methodically ripped apart Flash’s role in the modern web and pushed for the use of modern technologies to replace it, while also discouraging its use for mobile apps.

In just under 1,700 words, Jobs told Adobe that the proprietary, outdated Flash technology would not be touching iOS.

“New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too),” Jobs wrote. “Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.”

“Thoughts on Flash” is probably the greatest open letter to come out of the business world in the last quarter-century. It was the right letter for the right time. (To be clear, Jobs’ letter. This one is merely a homage of sorts.)

And even if you could argue that Jobs’ motivation was fairly self-serving, it came from much the same place as Jakob Nielsen’s thinking 15 years before.

But the problem was that, to push things forward, it required the technology industry to step up and create an ample open replacement for Flash that was both capable and open-source.

While the growth of game development tools like the proprietary Unity have helped create alternatives for certain professional contexts, the truth is that we never got a true replacement for Flash.

The question is, do we need one? I think, in some ways, we do, even if I can’t tell you what that might look like.

The reason I say this is because of the tension between the technical and non-technical when it comes to web development. As the web evolved, it became much heavier and required more tooling just for developers to keep up.

Developing a website nowadays is full of parameters. It needs to be flexible enough for different use cases and screen sizes, considering of accessibility and convention. And things like development stacks have to come up at the beginning of the conversation. It can feel like a lot of rules for people who want to simply create even before they put down their first brush stroke.

And that left a class of users, the pure creatives that found something appealing about Flash’s simplicity, behind. Again, Jakob Nielsen won.

The push to get Flash out of the bloodstream of HTML was necessary. The internet needed a cleanse. But the truth is, the wild abandon that Flash created for those who could best take advantage of it was the essence we needed to keep.

And as much as Jakob Nielsen was right, there still needs to be room for the dreamers who might have more time for big ideas than slapping down complex code.

After all, they’re the ones who push us forward.

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