The History & Application of Adobe Flash

Adobe Flash is at the centre of a number of recent technology news stories and debates, and has been one of the major software packages that has succeeded in the Internet era. Flash has its beginnings in a drawing application for pen computers, which later adapted into Future Splash, a web animation program designed to compete with Macromedia’s Shockwave technology. Finally, after multiple modifications, updates and corporate activity, Adobe Flash CS3 was released as the successor to Macromedia Flash 8. The current edition is Creative Suite 5, or Adobe Flash CS5.


At its most basic level, Flash is a frame by frame animation tool, that now also incorporates a plethora of other devices and functions. It manipulates vectors and raster graphics, and can animate text, images and drawings. The program can capture input from the user in a variety of formats, possessing the range to receive input from keyboards, microphones/audio input devices, cameras/visual input devices and controllers like mice or tablets. In addition to performing as solely an animator, Flash also utilises an object-orientated language called Actionscript, currently in its third stable edition: Actionscript 3.0.

Here you can see the general Flash client layout. Assets are stored and grouped in the bottom right toolbar, the timeline runs along the top, properties lining the bottom and the content of each frame filling the centre of the screen. The layout can be customised and there are almost an unlimited number of ways of displaying, tweaking and modifying projects.

Actionscript and other elements allow Flash movies (or ShockWave Flash files [.swf]) to have interactive parts, meaning the technology can be used for other uses, such as in games. The relative simplicity of Actionscript, coupled with the familiarity, ubiquity and open-source nature of the software have given Adobe a huge market share in the web-based game and video sectors. Another contributing factor into the widespread adoption of the technology is Flash’s reliance on vectors. This approach to displaying the content (movies etc.) has meant that Flash was/is many Internet users’ choice of client to hosting and viewing files due to the small bandwidth and resource load that Flash requires.

Flash is so versatile that even websites are frequently created in Adobe’s creative software. Although slower to load than HTML or other format websites, Flash affords the creator a set of powerful visual and design tools that are simply unavailable when making sites in Dreamweaver or with other markup languages for example.

The famous Newgrounds logo, seen at the pre-loading and intro scenes of countless movies and games, many of which have gone on to enjoy overwhelming Internet success, such as the ludicrously popular ‘Numa Numa Guy’, which originally featured on the company’s homepage.

Newgrounds, a website founded by Tom Fulp that serves as a portal for Flash-created content. It is a very old site, originally started in 1995 and thusly has its roots in web 1.0 technology. Today it is one of the largest archives of Flash movies and games, as well as artwork and audio files. Some of the best and most viewed animations ever seen have been hosted on Newgrounds, and Flash is key to that success. The aforementioned low bandwidth and other perks that Flash provided relatively early in web history (at least compared to alternative technologies) meant that sites like Newgrounds cemented the technology as an industry standard. A vast amount of user-generated content is showcased on Newgrounds, with massively popular and well received games like Super Mario Crossover, Sydney Shark, I Dream in Retro and Tarboy all first published on the portal. Fulp’s own Flash game Alien Hominid was so successful it went into full game development, releasing on major platforms PS2, GameCube and Xbox in 2004. Newgrounds and Flash games had become such a sensation that ‘The Behemoth’ was founded, the game developer responsible for one of the highest acclaimed and best-selling games on Xbox Live, Castle Crashers. Although Castle Crashers was programmed in C++, such was the influence from Flash technology that The Behemoth heavily stylised the game to appear as if it had been created in Flash, complete with vector-style graphics.

Castle Crashers features a heavily styled aesthetic that nods to the Flash roots of the developer. Note the pseudo-compressed text and vector-like character models and effects.

Testament to the success and omnipresence of Flash technology on the web is the recent war of words between Adobe and Apple. This is backed up by multiple claims of a 95%+ installation rate of Flash software on PCs worldwide from first and third-party verifiers alike. Although the Flash creation software (Adobe Flash CS) is a commercial product, the Flash Player and other programs required to view (and sometimes manipulate) Flash content is free, and is also essential in reading/viewing many website features online, hence the high adoption rate.

The above reference to Apple and Adobe alludes to the criticism targeted towards Apple when they released the now-famous iPhone for their apparent refusal to support Flash on the device. This initially meant that some of the world’s biggest websites were unusable on the iPhone, and Apple had to create workarounds so that people could access pages like YouTube, which heavily relies upon Flash technology to display its videos. There are many posited reasons as to why Apple would choose not to support an open-source, free, ubiquitous and almost vital internet technology, none more prominent than the idea that Apple wanted to oust one of its competitors, Adobe, and thus gain complete control of all video and game content through its App store, gaining revenue and control.

The web is so full of Flash-reliant functions that only with the advent of the iPhone have other technologies emerged. Alternatives such as Java and HTML5 have gained a foothold in Flash’s monopoly and the future of Flash remains to be seen. Criticisms aimed at the technology include its poor audio editing options, lack of any quality control in terms of content and other technological limitations, though most of these come from Adobe’s competitors. Additionally, although it does offer far more scope for functionality in website creation, load times and sluggish performance

Websites like AgencyNet and MonoFace both utilise Flash technology to create experiences and features that would be unable to be made in other software, though they are both typically resource-hungry on standard computers. Another flaw inherent in Flash-based website is that search engines like Google cannot read elements of the sites, in many cases even the text and context of the pages. This means that even if Flash sites are indexed in search engines, the content will not show up in the search results; sometimes the Flash files cannot even be read or located at all.

Despite these and many other faults with Flash technology, particularly with website design, coupled with the rise of viable and potent alternatives, Flash technology has and will continue to provide a framework for a wide variety of static and interactive media works.

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