Flash: What Happened?

The first time I saw Flash, I was a freelancer writer getting a demo from its creators on my dining room table. I was immediately impressed. But it wasn’t yet a Web animation/video/interactivity plug-in from Adobe. The year was 1994, and the software that knocked my socks off was a Windows drawing app called FutureSplash SmartSketch. The Web, animation, video, interactivity, and ownership by large companies (Macromedia, and then Adobe) all came later.

SmartSketch was cool because it was simple, fast, and hassle-free–and as much as as the software changed once it morphed into a Web tool, it maintained those virtues for a long time. Back in the dial-up era, it was a joy; years later, it was the first technology that made Web video make sense.

As the Apple-Adobe wars have raged, I’ve been thinking about Flash’s origins and current condition. Flash is still important and useful, but it long ago stopped being the almost endearing technology it once was. I think that helps explain why there hasn’t been more of a groundswell of support for Adobe–people who care about Flash at all have mixed feelings about it. (Back in October, almost half of Technologizer readers who participated in my wholly unscientific poll thought Flash on smartphones sounded “downright irritating”–and only eight percent were excited by the prospect.)

Here’s what happened over the past few years:

Flash got unreliable. On some of my computers, in some some browsers, it works fine. But while I was writing this post in Google Chrome, I got a message saying Flash had crashed–and the whole browser was rendered unusable. (Hey, I thought Chrome was designed to make that impossible…)

Flash got cumbersome. I went through a bout of it constantly telling me I needed to allocate more memory–which was a problem in itself. Even worse: The interface it provided for doing so was hopelessly confusing.

Flash got abused. Starting early on. Especially by misguided Web designers who built pointless intro screens that did absolutely nothing for consumers except make it harder to get anything done on the site in question. (If I were Adobe, I’d bribe sites if necessary to dump Flash intros–they’ve been enormously damaging to the software’s reputation)

Flash didn’t evolve fast enough in the right direction. The last gigantic tangible improvement–and the one that kept Flash as important as it is–was video support. But for eons, Macromedia and Adobe have failed to seize the opportunity to make Flash as important in the mobile world as it has been on the desktop. (Here’s a press release from early 2000–!–about Flash on phones; ten years later, you still can’t get real Flash on a smartphone.)

Some of the current Flash-bashing is a little overwrought–and with HTML5 and other truly open standards starting to encroach on Flash’s territory, I think we’d be at the beginning of the end of Flash in its historic form no matter what.

But I can’t help but think there’s some alternate universe in which Adobe made different decisions about Flash over the past few years and Apple pretty much had no choice but to let it onto the iPhone. Wouldn’t it all be very different if Flash was generally regarded as a lovable good citizen rather than a necessary evil?


9 comments

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  1. John Baxter May 13, 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    Even more annoying that Flash intro screens are sites whose entire navigation is done in Flash. Fortunately I no longer see many, but that could just be because I travel in parts of the web which don’t have them.

  2. Patrick Jones May 14, 2010 at 5:16 am #

    I agree that most web flash content is an annoyance, and I totally agree with John Baxter. But there are actually some pretty impressive and useful applications that have been built with flash. I enjoy and regularly use Balsamiq, Sumo Paint, Gliffy, and the Aviary apps. I haven’t seen these sorts of applications mentioned anywhere in this debate.

  3. Ediedi May 14, 2010 at 12:39 pm #

    The iphone happened. Before it, the flash ‘issue’ didn’t exist. Now, it is only criticised by apple evangelists.

  4. Jim W. May 14, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    Ediedi, nothing could be further from the truth. Flash has always had issues and it’s being criticized (IMO, rightfully) by everyone, not just Apple people. Unfortunately it takes a corporate giant to take on a corporate giant and that’s what we’re seeing now with the emergence of Apple’s mobile devices.

  5. sfmitch May 15, 2010 at 1:01 pm #

    Your third point – Flash got Abused is the most important one.

    I use ClicktoFlash because there is a ton of Flash / garbage on the web that I want nothing to do with.

    If Flash were relegated to the places where it shined (games, web apps like Patrick Jones mentioned) then Flash would not be disliked / blocked by so many. People will put up with a lot (security risks, CPU hog, etc.) to get at the content they want, people get real annoyed to put with the bad when there is no good (stupid flash sites and stupid flash ads).

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