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Internet History: Flash

Here’s a somewhat anecdotal history of Flash (the program and the player) and the technological and cultural forces surrounding it. I think Flash is a really interesting case because at one point, it was animation program, with a powerful scripting language stuck inside it, while simultaneously being the substrate for websites like YouTube. It’s carried a lot of the baggage of internet history. There’s so much interesting content associated with it as well, that’s getting difficult to archive, which is maybe the biggest bummer of the whole situation. However, more oral histories of websites like Newgrounds are starting to spring up.

The main reason for chronicling this is to underscore how fickle the internet can be; Flash was no joke one of the coolest, “hottest” technologies that companies were built around and almost in an instant, it went away. This is not to say that any technology that we learn about will be meaningless, but that we should make sure to keep the underlying and more perennial principles in mind and not get (too) lost in the minutiae.


Flash was built from the ashes of a program called SmartSketch. It was designed to be an animation program for a pen based operating system called PenPoint. AT&T decided to stop supporting it and SmartSketch was eventually reworked into a tool for web publishing called FutureSplash, released in 1995. FutureWave (who made FutureSplash) were eventually purchased by Macromedia and became Flash. Around 2000, Flash added the ability to add something called Actionscript to your Flash animations; effectively making it a gaming/interactive platform for the internet. Because the drawing system of Flash is vector-based it allowed pretty dynamic content to be created for relatively small sizes. Probably, the most famous community associated with Flash is Newgrounds, known for its games and animation offerings.

It was also one avenue where early examples of what came to be called “creative coding”or netart began to flourish.

Advances in video compression technology eventually led to Flash adding the ability to import video. YouTube and Google were built using Flash.

Thoughts on Flash, Steve Jobs’ Open Letter (2010)︎ 

To my mind, and I imagine many others, this singlehandedly killed Flash. Although he outlines legitimate technological reasons why Flash won’t be supported on iOS, it’s clear that the power of Flash and the games that could be presented on it threatened the eventual hegemony of iOS’s App Store. Although, I’m sure many a young programmer made quite a bit of money via the App Store, there is a lot of the internet that is simply blue question marks. 

Everything is better now

Most browsers now support WebGL, which is GPU accelerated, allowing you to do much more dynamic things via JavaScript without having to download plugins (tools we’ve mentioned like three.js wouldn’t have had a reason to exist during the reign of Flash). Additionally with HTML 5, there is increased browser support for video file types and video playback obviating the need for what Flash was able to do with video. 

Further Reading/Sources

The History of Flash (by Jonathan Gay, the programmer who worked on Flash)︎

Flash and its History on the Web by Jay Hoffman︎

How Adobe Flash, once the face of the web, fell to the brink of obscurity—and why it’s worth saving by Keith Collins︎

The Life, Death and Rebirth of Adobe Flash by Christina Warren︎

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