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Monday, May 05, 2008, 05:00 am PT (08:00 am ET)

Flash Wars: Adobe in the History and Future of Flash [Part 1 of 3]

Pitted against Microsoft's efforts to crush Flash using its own copycat Silverlight platform, open source projects seeking to duplicate Flash for free, and Apple's efforts to create a mobile platform wholly free of any trace of Flash, Adobe has scrambled to announce efforts to make Flash a public specification in the Open Screen Project.

Will it help get Flash on the iPhone? Here's the first segment of a three part series with a historical overview of the wars between Flash and Adobe, Microsoft, Sun, Apple, Google, and the open source community, the problems Flash faces today, and what future Flash can hope for as an open specification.

A Brief History of Flash

Flash originated at FutureWave Software as SmartSketch, an innovative drawing tool. In 1995, the software was repositioned as FutureSplash Animator, with support for cell based animation. It was pitched as a way to quickly draw and animate vector-based graphics for efficient delivery over the web, as a direct challenge to Macromedia's heavier and more complex Authorware and its Director-created Shockwave content.

FutureWave pitched the product to Adobe, but it was Macromedia that bought it in 1996, hoping to integrate it as an approachable, entry level member of its content production tools as the company's business was rapidly pushed from CD-ROM oriented products to the web. Macromedia abbreviated the name from FutureSplash to Flash.

It turned out that the easy to use Flash rapidly sidelined Macromedia's existing Authorware and Shockwave. Flash made it easy for designers to create interactive content with only minimal development knowledge. The real break for Flash came when Macromedia lined up a bundling agreement with Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5, which resulted in the Flash player software being widely distributed.

While Microsoft embraced Flash, it actively worked in parallel to stop Sun's Java and Netscape's web browser as threats to Windows. Microsoft's efforts to sideline Java into a Windows programming language and its strategy to embrace and extend standards-based, platform agnostic HTML into web pages that only worked in Internet Explorer gave Macromedia's Flash fertile ground to grow as a quick and simple alternative to the more complex and resource intensive Java as a way to create simple, interactive applets on the web.

Adobe Hates, Then Buys Flash

Adobe purchased Macromedia in 2005 largely to obtain Flash, the crown jewel of Macromedia's web development tool assets. Prior to owning it, Adobe unsuccessfully worked hard to kill it as a competing product.

In 1998, when Macromedia and Microsoft submitted VML to the W3C as a potential web standard for vector graphics (based on Microsoft's RTF), Adobe teamed up with Sun to push the rival PGML specification (based on Adobe's PostScript). The W3C developed a new standard that drew from both, called SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics).

Adobe pushed SVG as a competitor to Flash right up until it bought Flash, distributing the Adobe SVG Player as a free web plugin. Microsoft continued to push its own VML, which it built into Internet Explorer. This prevented either VML or SVG from making much progress, as other browsers didn't support VML, while the SVG open standard saw little adoption given Adobe's weak presence in web development tools. That let Flash easily win out over both as the way to develop and present animated vector graphics on the web.

Flash continued to develop at Macromedia, gaining a scripting language based on JavaScript and other features that turned it into a full presentation development tool rather than just a way to distribute small interactive graphics. Macromedia even took swipes back at Adobe, introducing FlashPaper as an alternative to Adobe's PDF as a way to distribute electronic documents in the Flash format.

After buying Flash, Adobe gave up support for its own weak SVG Player rival and has apparently discarded FlashPaper as a PDF competitor. However, the rest of the industry has plenty of reasons to still hate Flash, as will be presented in part two: The Many Enemies and Obstacles of Flash.