Flash: an Unintended Eulogy

On July 25, 2017 Adobe announced they were ending development for the Flash platform in 2020. Three years earlier when Anastasia Salter and John Murray wrote Flash: Building the Interactive Web, they concluded that while the Flash platform was seeing a descent, the journalistic eulogizing of the platform was undeserved as while “Flash may die someday...the web will be resplendent in its progeny.”

Despite their conclusion, I think Flash deserves a proper eulogy, and this book is it.

As another excellent edition from MIT Press’ Platform Series, throughout Salter and Murray have to contend with what a lot of people’s last memory of Flash has been - the divisive fight, picked by Apple, led by Steve Jobs, who described Flash as a platform that “falls short” in the mobile era. Comments like this from Jobs will most likely be considered the most historically damning and the source of many of the immediate eulogies that circulated on the web in 2010. However, Apple’s damnation, Salter and Murray point out, also drew out the problems with Apple’s advocacy for its own app model and the difficulties facing open web standards.

“While Flash’s marketplace was completely free, without any intervention by Adobe...Apple had a different version for the web,” they write with a small feeling of the annoyance that plenty of app developers have felt since the opening of the App store with its myriad of rules and regulations, that are often more about content management than any technical necessity, most notably with the banned app Phone Story, a casual game that had players saving suicide victims at Apple factories and brutalizing children to dig for minerals that are used in chip manufacturing.

Even in regards to open web standards, anyone over thirty most likely remembers “the browser wars”, wherein the compatibility of web standards was sent off the rails as Mozilla, WC3, and Microsoft viad for being the standard's leader, a battle that has left scars in the landscape web developers still feel today.

The authors argue that in the midst of the wars and the development of the app marketplaces, the centralized nature of Flash allowed it to have consistent compatibility (even today Flash has backwards compatibility into to the 90s) and the platform’s open distribution model was “essential to free expression.”

While a nice snub on Flash’s critics, throughout the chapters it's clear that Flash has had a scattered nature - from its development history to the quality of content put out by its users - which ultimately made it brilliant as a creative platform. Scattered may sound disparaging, but I don’t mean it to sound so.

With Flash you could publish anything, amateurish or professional, and it was accessible on the majority of browsers. In this way, artists and developers were able to experiment with short films, design, video games, narration, UI and any other interactive environment they could dream up. NewGrounds is repeatedly pointed to as a hub of experimentation. In these spaces, people could do what often was missing in media production - doing sketches and traces. This is how people get good at things, and for visual / interactive media practicing these skills were most often contained in large production houses, television, and AAA game studios.

Sure, you could make a game and put it on a floppy / CD and pass it around to your friends, but your distribution, and hence your feedback was extremely limited. We’ve seen similar sketching in social media, on YouTube where entire shows are done with a laptop webcam, and of course, blogging. This review doesn’t have have to meet the editorial standards of a print publication dependent on advertisers. I’m just writing for fun about something I liked. Flash allowed its users the same opportunity - a (mostly) low barrier of entry with immediate distribution.

But, unfortunately, Flash was also scattered as a technical platform. In Flash, the final section is an interview with Jonathan Gay, the lead programmer for the Flash platform. Gay clearly outlines how many technical decisions were, for lack of a better term, just throwing out ideas. In the final chapter, “Flash and the Future,” as Flash’s popularity waned, the stewards of the platform were not exactly sure how to modify their powerful platform’s direction to make it sustainable for the mobile and application market. They ultimately failed.

The final portions of the book are disappointing to read - you learn how directionless and patched together the aspects of the platform were, which were oddly matched with a strong commitment to long-term sustainability to SWF objects. However, the earlier chapters, wonderfully detail how enriching the timeline was as a conceptual tool more than a technical one. It simply made sense to design and animation people, even as Flash’s complexity grew with the introduction of ActionScript.

This is the only level

As I finished the book, I found my emotions about Flash were scattered as well. I bought Adobe Flash for $700 when I was first starting out as a developer and read a primer in a weekend. I was impressed with the possibilities and I did so with the intention of doing app development, which was very quickly shut down by Apple. At the same time, I had bought a book on HTML5 games, and the JS / CSS combination was more intuitive to me than Flash’s system. Bottom line: I didn’t know what I had really paid for. The platform was interesting, expensive, and ultimately useless. Overall, it was an exploration more than a game changer.

Still I’m reminded that five years before that experimentation, I wasted countless hours in my dorm room on Flash games like Defend the Castle, repeatedly watched Homestar Runner cartoons, and was wowed by websites that had any degree of animation. By no means was Flash as a platform useless.

Flash deserves a eulogy, but as an audience and developers we shouldn’t feel any sadness. It was wonderful for a time, and like almost all software, it may still work, but it has served its usefulness and should be studied for lessons going forward, so that we can look for the next scattered platform that encourages us to just throw out ideas again.