Did Apple kill Flash? A brief history of Macromedia

Bernardo Montes de Oca

Flash was a beautiful world. The games were alluring, the websites inviting and interactive. It was so successful that everyone wanted to be a part of it at one point during the history of the internet.

But, in 2020, Flash reached its End of Life. So, what happened? The story behind this crucial moment in technological history is complex and fascinating. And, yes, Steve Jobs had a lot to do with it. In this article, we'll talk about the history and decisions that led many to ask whether Apple killed Flash.

Flash's history in a flash

Back in the '90s, multimedia came in diskettes and CDs. Games, interactive encyclopedias, and videos were clunky and slow.

The software was rigid, and it lacked compatibility. So, as the internet grew in popularity, it was clear the world needed another solution.

The internet called for alluring visuals. But they had to be quick to deal with slow connections. The platform needed to be light, fast, and easy to use. And that's where Jonathan Gay and Charlie Jackson come in.

Both met at a MacIntosh Users Group and clicked immediately. Gay was a game developer, and Jackson wanted to get into the world of MacIntosh software. So, it was a perfect match.

With the help of Michelle Welsh, they formed FutureWave Software in 1993 to focus on animation. Though it seemed like a gamble, Jonathan Gay was convinced that pen drawing was the future.

The team was obsessed with flexibility and ease of use for digital artists. And, while their first try didn't sell well, it taught them valuable lessons.

In 1996, their software, FutureSplash, included animation and the use of a pen to draw. And it made perfect sense.

With a growing internet, they quickly secured some big clients, like the Simpsons website, Disney.com, and MSN.com. Yes, MSN was big back then.

But, how did they get big clients so quickly? In short, FutureSplash allowed users to create animations and then play them on the web. Think of it as two programs in one.

The FutureSplash Viewer had two main advantages: it worked on any browser and ran the animations quickly with small file sizes.

The product was so versatile that Netscape included it as a featured extension. Then, in August of 1996, Microsoft embedded the product as a media player for MSN.com. So, FutureSplash gained massive exposure by being a part of the two most popular browsers of the time.

Then, according to Gay, a journalist suggested that the software have buttons, like play, stop, seek, and go-to-frame. And, that was a great idea!

So, Flash was ideal for websites, online games, and videos. And that's when Macromedia grew interested. But, they needed something to improve on their own player, Shockwave. So, they bought the company.

Though Gay and Jackson remained, changes followed as soon as the acquisition was complete. Future and Splash became Flash, and they didn't stop there.

Macromedia worked hard on improvements. With Flash 5.0, in 2000, they combined animation, scripting, and programming. So, now, you could create web-based games and applications with audio, video, interactive menus, and rich complexity.

This happened right at a time in which the internet screamed for creativity. So, it was a hit. More and more people got into websites, games, and apps. But, one idea would change it all.

The Startup that changed it all

Macromedia Flash was easy to use, easy to learn, and powerful enough to create immersive content across many platforms. But, consumers wanted more of one thing in specific: video.

Three former PayPal employees saw the potential in a video player. But, let's remember that the internet was monumentally slow back then. So, they needed something fast and light. And Flash was right for the job.

First, it was easy to embed. Second, you needed only one plugin at a time when people were still fine-tuning video encoding. Finally, the competition wasn't up to standards as HTML didn't have direct video support at the time.

Having chosen Flash, these three launched their Startup in 2005. The name was, of course, YouTube. And, you know what happened with YouTube.

So, now, the software was across all forms of entertainment: videos, games, and websites. As a consequence, the demand for experienced developers grew exponentially.

In 2005, for example, top Flash game developers could earn five or six-figure deals per game. So it was the place to be. And a big name in the market wanted it: Adobe. They felt it was ideal for their catalog and were willing to pay for it.

The software giant dished out $3.6 BN for Flash. That's how much they believed in it. And, why not? YouTube was becoming a game-changer, and the internet just kept growing. But it wouldn't be smooth sailing.

A shift in the balance

So, did Steve Jobs kill Flash? Well, it's more complicated than that. But, yes?

First of all, Flash wasn't perfect. Plus, competition like HTML, CSS, SVG, and JavaScript had improved considerably. So, it had lost some of its competitive advantages in computer web browsing. But, the big hurdle was the smartphone. And that's where Apple comes in.

The iPhone took the world by storm, and Google's Android gained strength. It was evident that the future was mobile. So, if it played its cards, Flash could reach mobility greatness.

Now, most people recall that Steve Jobs rejected Flash due to security issues. But that wasn't the only reason. Jobs said that Flash wasn't an open platform and didn't allow mobile access to videos.

By the way, he did criticize security. And, boy, he let them have it. As a result, according to Jobs, Flash had one of the worst security records in 2009.

He even said that Flash was the number one reason Mac computers crashed. But he also attacked the company, saying they had worked for years but couldn't fix the problems.

Jobs said that working with Flash delayed progress. To him, the relationship wasn't working.

According to Apple's former iOs development director, Scott Forstall, the dynamic was tiresome. Integrating Flash was difficult. Plus, the software was a virus nightmare. Then, when they got it working, it had a terrible performance.

So, in 2010, Apple rejected Flash from its new iPad, the iPhone, and other mobile devices. But, the gossip kept coming.

Bob Burrough, a software development manager at Apple, tweeted a candid inside look into the Apple-Adobe dilemma. For example, Adobe's CEO didn't take Steve Jobs' calls. And, Jobs didn't like that.

"As a result, Jobs had zero faith that Adobe would be able to address what Jobs reportedly categorized as mere engineering problems."

Burroughs is pretty clear about his feelings towards Adobe:

"Adobe was a shitty partner. Almost a decade later, it turns out that Steve Jobs was right. Flash is dead, and Adobe is still a shitty partner."

But, it wasn't the only reason for rejection.

Flash loses ground

Apple doesn't rule the world, right? I mean, Youtube was an essential piece of the Flash puzzle.

Well, it turns out that YouTube really liked the iPhone. So, in 2007, the company decided to offer its videos in a mobile format that wasn't Flash. This was to ensure that the iPhone could come with a YouTube app as soon as it launched.

This was the critical moment when Flash lost power on the mobile segment. And YouTube didn't stop there.

In 2010, it started providing support for HTML, which had improved over the years. And with HTML5, everything changed. This version included versatile extensions, plenty of codecs, and excellent support.

With this blow, Adobe had minimal traction in the mobile video market. So, in 2011, the company announced that it would drop the development of a Flash player for mobile platforms and the web. From then on, it would focus on games and premium video.

Yes, Jobs drew first blood. YouTube followed, and, in the end, HTML delivered some blows. But, it doesn't stop there. Video is essential. And, whoever can reproduce video across many platforms has people's attention. That's where formats come in, specifically the H.264 codec.

H.264 is like water: it's everywhere. For example, it's in cameras as the default codec for raw video, so you can upload the content without slow conversion. In addition, it works with live streaming and social networks.

And, Flash did support H.264. But it didn't do a good job. Meanwhile, HTML5 did a great job.

So, the main competitor was better at playing the most essential video codec. But that's not the final nail in the coffin.

It's time to talk about security. Flash was a hacker's dream. But, in 2015, Mozilla had so many issues with it, it quarantined Firefox from Flash.

Do you remember those frequent and annoying Flash updates? Well, that was Adobe working desperately to fix security issues.

Flash had a bug that was so troublesome that a security firm called it the most beautiful Flash bug for the last four years. And, to top it all off, that Flash bug affected all versions from 9 to 18.

Microsoft and Mozilla upped their safety, and it meant breaking away from Flash. Even YouTube decided to part ways with them.

Then, in December of 2015, Facebook announced that it would stop using Flash for its web videos on the newsfeed, pages, and the video player. They, too, migrated to HTML5.

So, the biggest video platform, social network, and some of the most popular browsers all rejected Flash. And, Adobe had to come to grips with reality.

End of Life, in 2020

In 2017, Adobe finally announced the inevitable. They would end support for Flash, but it would be a long, slow death. The End of Life would come in 2020 to add to the dark side of this story. After that, it would stop support, distribution, and security updates.

You remember when the warnings began, right? Then, finally, browsers warned about the risks associated with Flash and eventually blocked all content.

And, by January 2021, only a minimal number of browsers used it. By the end of this year, updates in most operating systems, browsers, and devices will kill off Flash.

Is this all Steve Jobs' fault? It seems like it. But, if you look further into it, he pointed out the flaws of a company he hated working with. Then Adobe just dug its own grave.

Meanwhile, some diehard fans are working hard to keep it alive. Yet, they are small conservation efforts.

But one can't help but be in awe of how big Flash used to be. So, in these times of uncertainty, a bit of nostalgia wouldn't do any harm.

Read more stories here

Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable.
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