The Evolution of Flash

Introduced back in 1996 as a tool for adding vector-based animation and simple interactivity to web pages, Macromedia Flash content began appearing online as a fresh and dynamic alternative to the static, predominantly text-based html content of the day. During this time, the only alternative for presenting any form of motion-graphic content online was through crude animated .GIF images.
Gradually over the past decade, Flash grew in popularity, driven largely by the ubiquitousness of the Flash player across Web browsers, operating systems, and mobile devices. Part of this success can arguably be be attributed to the wonderfully small published .SWF (ShockWave Flash or Small Web Format) file sizes that could be achieved back when most Internet users were viewing Web sites at a connection speed of 56 kbps via dialup. The Flash Player plugin itself was unobtrusively small and easy to install which certainly fostered adoption rates; Flash Player 4 (circa 1999) plug-in was for instance, a mere 264 kb download. Moreover, with the slow demise of antiquated multimedia development tools such as Director, LiveMotion, and Atmosphere, Flash emerged the definitive tool for creating and delivering modern Web-based interactive content.

Flash has since matured into a sophisticated application development tool supported by an expansive choice of internal UI components, 2D/3D animation capabilities, visual runtime effects palettes, underscored by a powerful class-based, object-oriented scripting language: Actionscript 3.0 which, syntactically and conceptually resembles Java and C++. Add to this a vibrant online community sustained by innumerable open-source initiatives and a comprehensive network of designer/developer resources, it becomes evident Flash has evolved into a modular platform for current and next-generation interactive systems.
In terms of defining the Flash platform, one could say it loosely consists of a growing set of tools (e.g. Flex), standards, and IDEs for building applications which leverage the broad reach of the Flash file format (SWF). This growing digital infrastructure in essence, reflects both the pervasiveness and popularity of Flash-driven content throughout our information connected culture.

Consider the following facts which serve to illustrate the effectiveness of Flash as a platform:

  • The Flash player is installed on over 850 million Internet-connected desktops and mobile devices (approximately 98% of all internet-connected devices) and is installed 8 million times each day. (Source: Adobe)
  • a study by online traffic analyst Hitwise reported on ReadWriteWeb (article here) states that 73.18% of online video traffic is delivered via the Flash video format. This percentage is based on YouTube’s market share in the video sector of 73.18%.
  • [this same study reports] the top 5 online video sites (YouTube – 73.18%, MySpaceTV – 9.21%, Google Video – 4.06%, Yahoo! Video – 2.16%, and – 1.82%) representing 90.43% of all online video traffic, use Flash.
  • Flash Player (version 9.3) with Flash Media Server 3 enables delivery of HD quality video online including H.264 standard video support, the same standard deployed in Blu-Ray high definition video players.
  • Flash players exist for a wide variety of different operating systems and devices including (but not limited to) Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux Ubuntu, Solaris, HP-UX, Pocket PC, OS/2, QNX, Symbian, Palm OS, BeOS, and IRIX.

Other modern Web development techniques like Ajax and technologies such as Silverlight (Microsoft’s supposed answer to Flash) attempt to emulate the look and feel of Flash content, but unfortunately fail valiantly for a number of reasons. Ajax is heavily constrained by cross-browser inconsistency with lack of a reliable IDE for developers while Silverlight has apparently no IDE for Mac users and therefore absolutely no chance of catching on with creatives and designers as is already becoming evident (read: Where are the dope Silverlight demos?) online.


Rich Internet applications (RIAs) and mobile device applications represent an exciting and lucrative future for Flash-driven content where people will increasingly expect more engaging, intuitive, and aesthetically pleasing user interfaces. Great interactive experiences built with versatile tools like Flash and Flex will not only improve customer interactions; they will improve sales, productivity, and brand identity while fostering a financial return on investment through increased use, brand loyalty, and customer satisfaction.

[And] with the recent announcement of Adobe’s Open Screen initiative, the ubiquitousness of Flash-enabled content is poised to extend even further as licensing fees and restrictions required to distribute the Flash player are eliminated in favor of open source development. The future certainly looks bright for Flash.

One thought on “The Evolution of Flash

  1. “Silverlight … attempt to emulate the look and feel of Flash content, but unfortunately fail valiantly for a number of reasons.”

    LOL. Good luck w/ that, Flash lovers. I notice NBC will be broadcasting Olympics in SilverLight INSTEAD OF Flash. Perhaps you could share your insight w/ them on how SilverLight fails.

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