What the Web Owes Flash

Flash helped make the web what it is today.

The tech world seemed caught by surprise by Adobe’s announcement that, as of 2020, they will no longer support Flash in any capacity. You’d be forgiven if you were mostly surprised that Flash was still alive.

The truth is, we all knew Flash had issues, even before the infamous (or just famous depending on your perspective) Thoughts on Flash letter in April 2010. (I have more thoughts on our collective misremembrance of that letter later.) Immediately following what could be viewed as a terminal diagnosis, Flash fought hard for its existence. It added impressive new features like Stage3D for hardware accelerated 3D rendering - which was far and above anything the browser could do at the time. Flex seemed to be becoming a legitimate cross-platform mobile app platform. Despite the diagnosis, Flash seemed healthy, arguably resurgent, for a little while.

The “death” (I’m sorry…open sourcing) of Flex was one of the signs that all was not well in the Flash development community. Flash continued, with a far diminished commitment from Adobe but still effectively alive, but the announcement in December 2016 that Chrome would effectively disable Flash Player was the equivalent of putting Flash in hospice.

For most people, none of this mattered all that much. Between the lack of Flash on their phone and the decreasing usage on web sites, people were becoming used to a world without Flash. But this relatively quick death has masked some of the innovation that the web owes to Flash - innovation that came not just from the software itself, but from the developer community that used it.

My History with Flash

My career in web development more or less started with Flash. I was a total noob back in 2007/2008 when I finally picked up a computer and started messing around with web development. I had no CS degree and no formal background in programming - I hadn’t even owned a computer in college and my minimal experience on the “web” was via the text-based terminal they had in the college lab. Yes, I am that old.

For reasons that I no longer recall, I picked up a copy of Dreamweaver Ultradev and Flash - after messing around with Front Page for a while, I was ready to get serious. Flash was a ton of fun and had so much potential but it also had serious limitations. For example, there were no variables back then. If you wanted to do something like, say, keep score, you had to create a timeline with numbers and forward to the correct spot in the timeline. In the end, a buddy of mine convinced me to take a ColdFusion training course, which led to a job in web development and thus Flash was left behind for a time.

My return to Flash was via Flex when I worked at Sun Life Financial. I was excited to learn Flex and, at the time, these “rich internet applications” seemed like the real future of the web. CSS was still in its infancy and, honestly, most web UIs were either all images or just plain sucked (or both).

Before long, I’d organized the Flex Camp Boston conference, which quickly sold out. This became RIA Unleashed which expanded to multiple tracks and covered both Flex and Flash (and other related topics). (This conference technically still exists now as Web Unleashed in Toronto run by FITC.) This led to a job at Adobe as the Flash and Flex Community Manager. My timing could have been better though - this was immediately post-Thoughts-on-Flash.

Less than a year after joining Adobe, I was reorged out of Flash and Flex entirely and moved to focusing on web standards and web development (running what was at the time called the Adobe Developer Connection).

Suffice it to say, my own career owes a ton to Flash, both from its beginning and in the way it helped me expand beyond my purely coder roots into more community management and developer relations. Sure, the software had nothing to do with that specifically, but Flash somehow channeled areas of my creativity that helped me develop in my own career.

Where Flash Pushed the Web

Adobe touches on the ways in which Flash pushed the web a bit in their own post.

Where a format didn’t exist, we invented one – such as with Flash and Shockwave. And over time, as the web evolved, these new formats were adopted by the community, in some cases formed the basis for open standards, and became an essential part of the web.

However, it can be tough for many of us to remember much beyond the useless Flash intros or annoying Flash advertisements. But the truth is, the web before Flash was a bore.

In middle school and high school, I fell in love with programming until one day in 9th grade my teacher shot down my dreams. I was a boy in love with Sierra games and dreaming of being a game developer when he told me that computers were not for games - they were for business applications (I quit programming, not to return until after college). At the time, he was right, though.

Back in the days before Flash, the web was just for text and information - and perhaps some static images. The web was not for games. The web was not for video. The web was not for interactive applications - even for business. If you wanted a rich, interactive application for business, you used Powerbuilder to build for the desktop.

Flash changed that. Animation became so ubiquitous that it became obnoxious (i.e. the Flash intro). Video and streaming was in Flash - would YouTube have existed at the time without it? (for better or worse 😉) 2D and later 3D gaming on the web grew largely on the back of Flash. Back in about 2003, Flash introduced the idea of “Flash Remoting” and thus pushed the concept of rich applications on the web, that loaded data and content asynchronously.

Sure, pretty much all of this is now in the browser, and it may seem like, “what’s the big deal?” The big deal, to me, is that Flash helped redefine what the web was about. It was like the 9th grade me telling my computer teacher, “Screw you, computers are for gaming!” instead of giving up on programming. Even where web standards didn’t end up replicating Flash, it forged a path that opened up our ideas about what the web could be.

Flash Developers and the Early Post-Flash Era

I want to take things a step further though and argue for the incredible influence Flash developers had on the web. The Flash and Flex developer community was always amazing. Every year I’d go to events like 360Flex and leave feeling empowered - both amazed at what some people were able to create but also by the close knit group of developers.

However, what I want to focus on is the immediate years in the early post-Flash era starting in about 2011/2012. During these years, so many ActionScript developers jumped headlong into JavaScript. In trying to find paths into what they had become accustomed to, they began testing the limits of the language and the web platform. Many of them created frameworks and libraries that played a big role in how JavaScript development evolved.

I recall in those days while following the JavaScript and web development community as part of my role at Adobe, when I came across a new library that did some crazy interactivity with video or audio or gaming or even pushed the language away from the jQuery-style DOM scripting towards a more traditional coding style, it was very often a former Flash developer behind it.

That influx of talent from the Flash community in 2011-2014 changed the web and pushed it forward. It was the often silent continuing influence of Flash that generally went unacknowledged. (At the time, Flash-bashing was so strong that many Flash developers rarely talked about their background.) Flash grew a strong community of developers whose influence still continues today.

Conclusion

Many of the Flash post-mortems I’ve read in the past day have focused on Steve Jobs and his Thoughts on Flash as a turning point that was designed to push the web platform forward into the future. This is false. I discussed it a little in this thread on Twitter:

Suffice it to say, Thoughts on Flash was a self-serving defense of the App Store ecosystem - the very ecosystem the web is often pushing back against to this day. It was not a push for a more open and interactive web.

Nonetheless, it was a turning point. It was the moment we began to realize that Flash’s days were numbered and we were either going to have a web that incorporated many of its features or we were going to live entirely within a closed app ecosystem.

Our misremembrance of Thoughts on Flash is important though. It focuses our mental energy on how Flash was eventually torn down rather than how it was built and what it created. Despite it’s ultimate, eventual failure, it was Flash along with the developer community it fostered that helped define what the web could be and pushed the web to where it is today.