September 14, 2006

Flashback and Flashforward: A look at Adobe's Flash Technology

This fall, Adobe is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Flash, a technology the company recently acquired when it bought Macromedia. In the decade since Flash was introduced, it has grown from a little-known vector program to a rich media application used by millions. Mike Downey, senior product manager for Flash, provides a look at the past, present, and future of this technology in a Q&A with Computer Graphics World chief editor Karen Moltenbrey. 

When was Flash first introduced, and by whom? 

FutureSplash Animator was introduced by Jon Gay and Robert Tatsumi of FutureWave Technologies in August 1996, and was acquired by Macromedia in December of that same year. Early in 1997, Macromedia re-branded the product to Macromedia Flash 1.0. 

What was Flash used for originally?

It was originally designed for vector illustration and animation. Vectors are lightweight graphics that can be easily changed over time. They also scale automatically, maintaining the highest possible quality regardless of resolution (as opposed to a bitmap, which gets pixelated as you zoom in on it). Today, Flash is used for delivering rich, interactive content and applications that include audio, video, images, animation, data connectivity, and interactivity.

What were Flash’s limitations initially?  

Flash did not initially include a scripting model to allow development of dynamic, interactive content. This was added in Version 4 and has become one of the most important aspects of the technology today. Flash also initially suffered from a lack of distribution in browsers and on operating systems. However, this was remedied early on when Macromedia made a deal with Netscape to bundle the Flash Player with every copy of Netscape Navigator. Shortly after, we made a similar agreement with Microsoft to include the Flash Player with Internet Explorer and Windows.

Over the years, how did the technology expand? 

Flash evolved from a simple Web animation tool to a broad and robust platform for delivering rich media content and applications. Early on we saw an opportunity to integrate a scripting engine into our Flash Player run-time, which led to a revolution in interactive content being produced with Flash. Over time we continued to evolve the interactivity model, getting us to a point currently where we are a leading member of the ECMAScript standards body (which is the same standard that JavaScript is based on).

Another key area of growth was the incorporation of video and audio into our Player. With support for video in the Flash Player, we very quickly found ourselves in a position where we had the most widely deployed video playback technology on the Web. This, of course, led to companies like Google, ABC/Disney, YouTube, MySpace, Ford Motor Company, and others to adopt Flash as their standard for video playback.

The third key development in the technology was the emergence of a new class of application on the Web, something that we coined “rich Internet applications.” These applications focused on delivering rich, desktop-like application functionality to the browser. It became apparent that only Flash could allow for a truly deep level of functionality for this class of application, so we developed a whole product line called Flex to make it easier for traditional application developers to leverage the strengths of the Flash run-time.

What industry factors, if any, led to this expansion?  

I think it’s safe to assume that the proliferation of broadband connection speeds and the relative growth of the Internet drove a demand for higher-quality, interactive content and a larger volume of higher quality video and audio. We were able to quickly adapt to the demands of our customers and trends in the online world to make sure that we provided a platform that would enable great online experiences.

Who is the current Flash user?  

The Flash authoring tool has a broad installed base of over 1.5 million designers and developers. The Flash Player is installed on over 600 million desktops (98 percent of PCs). According to Forrester, nearly 92 percent of online users will be engaging in some form of personal rich media every month.

Can you provide a range of uses and applications where Flash is making its mark?

These would include media and entertainment, mobile, rich Internet applications, instructional media and e-learning, and rich media advertising.

Has there been one industry leap that has added to Flash’s success? 

The popularity of online video has grown substantially in the past few years in large part due to faster connection speeds. Now there are many sites that use Flash video, including YouTube, MySpace, Google, Yahoo,,,,, and

We think there are three primary reasons why Flash video has become the de facto standard for delivering video on the Web:

Widest reach: As I mentioned earlier, the Flash Player is installed on over 600 million desktops (98 percent of PCs). This means that content providers can be assured that their audiences will be able to click a Play button and videos will actually play, instead of clicking Play and getting a, "Please pick your media player and your connection speed" pop-up. This is likely the main attraction for companies like YouTube and Google video.

Full creative control: Flash allows creative professionals to tightly and flexibly integrate video into their content. This allows for highly customized and contextual integration of video content that is consistent with the brand and the rest of the Web site.

Rich and interactive: Video can be used in a variety of unique ways within Flash. This allows creative professionals the ability to create highly interactive content that transforms the traditional "lean-back" experience of broadcast video into a more Web-centric "lean-forward" experience. This could mean giving users control over video feeds, camera angles, audio tracks, as well as the ability to cut and mix video clips, as demonstrated by sites like and 

What is the next step for Flash? 

One area Adobe is focusing on now is a product code-named Apollo, a new, cross-browser, cross-platform, cross-device client. Using Flash and other Adobe technologies, Apollo will provide an identical experience across browsers, desktops, and devices online or offline, in or out of the browser. An example of Apollo would be clicking on an online travel brochure that takes you to a video of the destination, and from there, having the ability to book the travel while at the same time collaborating with others on the details, connecting on schedules, purchasing tickets, and printing boarding passes offline--all within a single interface. Also, Adobe recently announced betas of the Flex 2.0 product line and Flash Player 8.5, key application development solutions for delivering rich Internet applications.

Is Flash becoming an industry staple? How so? 

The Flash Player is the most widely distributed client on the Internet. With over two million developers and a countless number of sites employing Flash, it’s difficult to argue that Flash isn’t an industry stable already. For example, Flash has become the standard for delivering video on the Web, for rich media advertising, for browser-based games, and for general high-impact, emotional user experiences on sites like Moreover, people choose Flash technology to power their online experiences because of its wide distribution, approachable design and development tools, large developer base, and it’s ability to allow companies to deliver high-impact content at extremely small file sizes.

Who will comprise the next Flash user base?

It’s difficult to speculate on what will happen next, but we would like to see continued growth in high-quality, interactive, online video content and the resulting interest in the technology within the pro video market. We expect to see a massive boom in content developers once our technology reaches critical mass in the mobile market, which we expect to happen soon. We expect to grow significantly in the developer space with our continued innovation in providing powerful development tools and frameworks to application developers looking to deliver their feature-rich applications to end users via the Web. There’s a lot of exciting opportunity for us to continue our tremendous growth rate.

Any parting thoughts about the past, present, or future of Flash?  

We’re a passionate group of people driven by our even more passionate user community to continue to innovate and drive great experiences on the Web. We’re very excited to combine the strengths of Flash with the powerful tools in the Adobe Creative Suite, to provide even more value and capabilities for our customers in the future. Experience matters, and we aim to provide creative professionals with the tools, services, and frameworks they need in order to make that a reality.

Big Spaceship created the online experience for The Da Vinci Code using Flash.