The rise and fall of Macromedia Flash

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written by owen on 2019-Sep-20.

flash 5 app splash screen

flash 5 app splash screen

Over the years I have noticed that many people attribute the death of Macromedia Flash to Apple's reluctance to include the plugin on its then "new" smartphone. And that is ok because it is the easy route to take since the iphone made such a splash. If I check the timeline carefully; the iphone was launched in 2007, Steve Jobs' Thoughts on Flash letter was published in 2010. But I argue that flash died long before the iphone. Flash died when Actionshit 3.0 (AS3) was added in June 2006. The advent of ActionScript3 into FlashPlayer 8.5/9 alienated the entire designer/non-coder community by adding a complicated language into a browser plugin that grew out of simple roots. AS3 also brought along security issues and toxic script kiddies. This move divided the Flash community, drew the hate from industry leaders and lead to the Flash plugin's ultimate demise. At least in my opinion but lets delve deeper into the back history from my point of view.

The Rise of Flash

I got into Flash from as early as 1999 in my early programming years when personal websites were all the rage. A 30day trail version was very helpful. I stopped using flash around 2003 when I transitioned from desktop application development to full on client-server web development. Mostly because web dev was in high demand and it was super-super easy with no compile times.

Web/intranets were taking over. Flash was on the rise in the low-fi web niche of interactive-motion-graphics market. Flash at the time was the easiest way to create dynamic/interactive content, import graphics and tween animations on multiple layers that you could show to anyone, on any computer anywhere in the world as long as they had the plugin installed. You could impress anyone with a simple set of tweens and spinning fonts. If push came to shovel you could even compile a EXE and burn it to disc for a movie like offline experience.

Flash gave rise to video streaming animation websites like YoureTheManNowDog and Youtube which got big because of its cross platform support, low bandwidth requirements, and video streaming capabilities. In its heyday, full Flash websites were an experience that was similar to a new music video being launched. I remember when MTV made a full flash website and later had to take it down because the internet was too slow for that kinda jazz - but MTV proved it could be done.

Designers would gasp in awe at the launch of new 2advanced or constantly browse DesignIsKinky for links on the latest designs. Were-here, waferbaby, K10k, Computervove, the era of ezines, spacer.gifs, photoshop contests and design forums. Pre-Facebook.

Everyone for a couple of years would follow the lead set by Eric Jordan and his team: audio player, little looped bg animations, intros that build the UI, 45 degree angles, small unreadable text, shadows shadows shadows! etc. - DavidT_design

Flash was easy to use once you got into it. The context based and simple programming language in ActionScript 2 made it easy for beginners, designers, non-coders and full fledged programmers alike. This was key to the rise of Flash as a platform and its world wide adoption. Code and art came together in a way that had never happened before.

In my view the pinnacle of Flash and Flash development was Macromedia Flash 5 and MX versions in 2005-ish. By the end of 2005 Macromedia was purchased by Adobe systems who then proceeded to make/implement significant changes to the ecosystem which led to the eventual fall of Flash as a major player in the interactive web space.

The Fall of Flash

According to wikipedia the iphone was launched in 2007. Many people attribute the death of Flash to Apple's reluctance to include the plugin on its new smartphone. Though Apple's reluctance was justified. I argue that Flash died when Actionshit 3.0 (AS3) was added a year earlier in June 2006. The advent of AS3 in FlashPlayer 9 brought along a fundamental restructuring of the language, so much so that it uses an entirely different virtual machine bolted into an already mature plugin. This virtual machine added a free-for-all language that was out of their control. A basic swiss-army-knife virus that was memory hungry and full of holes. This made the surface area of the plugin bigger. The bigger your codebase the easier it is to attack and the harder it is optimize. All this was pre-V8 engine.

Speaking of V8: the first version of the V8 engine was released at the same time as the first version of Chrome: September 2, 2008. IMHO Javascript only got good when v8 hit main stream.
Flash brought the web out of the brochure culture in 2000 but lost it way due to suttle changes. Adobe turned its back on the designers by implementing a convoluted programming language so they could sell plugins and promote adobe AIR apps.

Adobe did not understand the culture that Macromedia had built and wanted to expand Flash in all directions. You can see it in the beginning of the article from 2008;

However, there is also a large group of interactive designers who have not made the switch to the new language. There are many myths floating around that ActionScript 3.0 is a lot more complicated and that it requires much more code to accomplish the same tasks. In this article, I hope to dispel some of those myths and discuss why you should use ActionScript 3.0 exclusively in your Flash projects.

There is a marked disparity in the article between "majority" and "large group" while mentioning 2 separate parts of the flash community. What resulted from the implementation of AS3 is that it upset the designer/programmer power balance of the platform. Giving more flexibility to programmers causing designers to require programmer knowledge/help to do even basic takes. Documentation explosion mostly benefits bootcamps, books, and people who make tutorials.
Moving from a simple, structured, focused language such as Actionscript 2.0 to AS3 was a clusterfuck. AS3 changed many aspects of the Flash player runtime including making it require more memory and a higher learning curve to get into. Totally alienating designers who had been using the Flash platform for years. They might as well had implemented the Java runtime.

Eitherway by the time the first version of the Javascript V8 engine had been released in September 2008 it was too late - flash had already gone down a rabbit hole of security and performance issues that it could not escape. Thousands of script kiddies had always started using AS3 - I vaguly remember a full AS3 flash version of that was bueatiful but quickly scrapped - but I might have been dreaming.

The fundamental change in coding in AS3 really threw designers a curve ball that hit them directly in the face. Designers were literally directed to be happy for the devs on their team;

Flash Designers
Buy Flash 9 when it comes out. Be happy the developers on your team now have some real tools to work with. Once you've got Flash 9 and they're using ActionScript 3.0 and Flex Builder 2, you'll probably have an easier time working with them. If the developers on your team want to move to ActionScript 3.0 before Flash 9 ships, you should install the Flash Professional 9 ActionScript 3.0 Preview so your content is 100% compatible with your developers' code. - ACTIONSCRIPT 3.0: A SURVEY OF THE NEW LANDSCAPE (July 2006)

The switch from a managed/context based, visual language, keyframe based scripting to OOP Javascript literally sank the entire designer community. Any hope of a smooth transition were lost because as flash gained a larger
programmer community, the voices of the designers became drowned out by claims of 10x performance and mystical future potential. This is all happening in 2006-2009.

Here is a rant from 2007;

Adobe has sold Flash to programmers since ActionScript 3, sorry guys (and girls), now we can only do Photoshop. Programmers on one side, artist on the other side, no more in middle multimedia creators. All this because, one day, Adobe gave the reponsability of ergonomics, pedagogical aspects and ease of use to...a gang of programmers, with the total pedagogical disaster we face with Flex and actionScript 3. Thanks Adobe, you just killed all the fun. Let's talk classes now, and forget about cool texts effect.

The change came suddenly. The designers that built Macromedia flash no longer cared about the flash platform because it was no longer usable by them - it was no longer fun.

By blurring the "design" vs "programming" balance of flash and including both as2 and as3, the community narrative became: "ActionSript2 was the old way and ActionScript3 is the new way". Changing the entire community dynamic;

"Honestly I bet that if you stoped focusing on how things have changed, and asked some questions in the AS3 forums about how in the simplest form you can do the things you previously could do in the old system, you would be able to learn all of the stuff you could previously do in no time at all. After which, if you look back on any old projects you did that took more depth than a single click of a button you'd probably notice the benefits of these changes."

What was once a design tool with a simple, context based programming language became a full fledged programming language lacking context. And the entire space was taken over by the programmers who where unsympathetic to their fellow designers;

ActionScript 3.0 is a powerful, object-oriented programming language that signifies an important step in the evolution of the capabilities of the Flash Player runtime. The motivation driving ActionScript 3.0 is to create a language ideally suited for rapidly building rich Internet applications, which have become an essential part of the web experience. Earlier versions of ActionScript offered the power and flexibility required for creating truly engaging online experiences. ActionScript 3.0 now further advances the language, providing superb performance and ease of development to facilitate highly complex applications, large datasets, and object-oriented, reusable code bases. With ActionScript 3.0, developers can achieve excellent productivity and performance with content and applications that target Flash Player. - Actionscript 3 over view

By 2008-2009 the walls were coming down but so many things were happening in tech that not even Adobe itself could predict how it would turn out. But they kept on pushing AS3 because they were too far down the rabbit hole to come back out;

"It's been quite a while since ActionScript 3.0 hit the scene with Adobe Flash Player 9. User feedback tells us that the majority of the Flash community has already made the transition from ActionScript 2.0 and developers are extremely happy with the new language. However, there is also a large group of interactive designers who have not made the switch to the new language." - Six Reasons to use As3

These reasons outlined are typical on-boarding bullet points. While in reality the complaints from non-programmers and designers are all over the internet and the hordes of OOP junkies and API junkies simply laughed at them constantly, doing it wrong or claimed magical benefits of AS3 like "10x faster that AS2". The designers did not matter but what Adobe did not know is that the world was changing under its feet. Sometimes less is more.


There is advantage in having a platform that is multi-disciplinary, constrained and dedicated. However, Adobe wanted more - cake and eat it too kinda more - Adobe wanted to Flash to compete with Java, C++, developer suite, conferences, training, books, media streaming - not realizing that doing this would fracture the culture of the community. Flash was a true cross-platform solution, something that Java was pushing years earlier.

The iphone was launched in 2007. ActionScript 3.0 In June 2006, ActionScript 3.0 debuted with Adobe Flex 2.0 and its corresponding player, Flash Player 9. The performance and security issues had to have started in 2006 when all the script kiddies got their hands on the AS3 embed javascript. All this without the awesome speed of the V8 engine - released with Chrome in September 2008. V8 might have saved flash but Google owns it and Adobe was still riding the a dead-end version of EMCAScript4 (1999-2008).

Flash could have been like any other HTML5 video tag or audio tag but with no one cared enough to make it so. Adobe attempted a mobile version of flash but ended up killing it for reasons in 2011. Eitherway the plugin was over engineered too soon, too fast and there was no way to shrink it so it could run slower mobile platforms.

Flash brought the web out of the "brochure" culture in 2000 but lost its way after it was acquired by Adobe/Stephen_Elop (Flash, Nokia, WindowsPhone). Adobe turned its back on the designers by implementing a convoluted programming language so they could take over the world with AIR apps. Adobe ignored a big part of its community because of blind innovation, standing alone in a corner with skiddish new age programmers.

New players were popping up everywhere; Google Chrome, Apple iphone, Facebook, Flash getting tonnes of bad press, stability issues and security patchs. By 2011 Flash had begun its downward slide and no one cared anymore. Adobe could not save it, there was no going back. Flash was seen as the thing that was preventing the web from being truly open and free.

Apple in particular wanted to control all app development on the iOS platform which ment eliminating all competing sub languages, programming platforms and payment systems that could sub-plant ObjectiveC and its software monopoly.

Nowadays in 2019, Flash only exists in the memories of nerds who rode the high seas of the world wide web back in 2004. In 2019 hero-banners and "mobile websites" rule the web, except on social networks (which can do whatever they desire to grow their user base). HTML5 websites are heavy trash on everything except the fastest new computers and latest browser versions. Support and efficiency is given a back seat as web browsers update themselves constantly to push the web forward over a cliff. The update cycle has been tied to personal security and a constantly moving goal post.

Based on my experience there has not been a replacement for Flash. Even Adobe themselves have tried to rebrand with little success. The landscape of the web has gone back to sterile brochure one-size-fits-all websites. There is the sprinkling of JavaScript showcases / demos / css hacks created by programmers - useless by themselves - but nothing wide spread, nothing "designed". The Flash masters have moved on to video or some other medium. RIP Flash.

Footnotes / References

"The fact that there is resistance a year+ after the launch of AS3 should worry everyone. Because without the funds non-programmers bring in, programmers will eventually lose the Flash platform." - Charlie July2008

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