Flash.gotoAndStop(2020)

As I write, Flash plugin is about be wiped off millions of computers around the world, and the web will become a safer place. I’m not sad about this this closing of a chapter in the web’s history, although I do want to remember Flash for some of the bad and a lot of the good.

It’s the early 2000s in Hammersmith, London. The banquet hall of the Hilton Hotel has hundreds, possibly thousands of seats facing a brightly lit stage. We walk in to Rick Wakeman-esque organ music, and are treated by Macromedia to the state of the art in Flash including a hotel booking tool that updates on the fly.

“That’s it,” I think, “they’ve won the web.” I wouldn’t need to continue to battle to get site designs to look perfect on every browser, it could just work in Flash. We could have real-time interactions and get away from page-by-page transactions for even minor changes. Of course, that’s not what happened.

Screenshot of iHotellier application in Flash. Three panels across the width of the display contain in turn: date selection, room selection, and payment details.
Screenshot of the iHotelier interface for the Broadmoor Hotel – from https://articles.uie.com/potential_of_flash/

I’d been tinkering with Flash since 2000 when it started emerging as a more practical alternative to Macromedia’s own Shockwave. Like many, I played around with transitions, and then tried out encoding simple physics, and various elements built to operate in image-sized windows on HTML pages. Then came the era of full page websites in Flash, a strategy I fought but I was unable to reject. Ultimately, we built a very attractive website for my employer at the time.

BDP website from around 2004. Large format image of the Glasgow Science Centre with introductory text plus three news items, and a navigation menu.
The BDP website from around 2004

What’s funniest looking back at this design, is the tiny size of the overall Flash movie at 760×468 pixels. The download size was small too, at around 64kb, to minimize any need for a tedious loading animation, and nearly all content was loaded on demand. Background image loading first used a tiny 1-3kb image, and cross-faded in the higher resolution 50-80kb image once it had loaded. You might note the use of the Frutiger font too. I’d later run project pages on this Flash site plus a number of HTML sites from a single database.

So, with a relatively small plug-in, we could have pixel-perfect cross-browser design, exciting animation, AJAX before it became a thing, progressive loading and even low-bandwidth alternatives, all in a single package and years ahead of HTML at a substantially lower level of complexity.

Yet, I found I was more than happy to take a step backwards and return to building websites in HTML. I’d learned a lot about JavaScript through Flash’s equivalent ActionScript, and the Prototype and jQuery libraries took a lot of the pain out of developing. Meanwhile, CSS had reached the point of being robust and consistent enough, and sites like CSS Zen Garden changed the way we looked at it. Furthermore, we could manage content in far better ways than we could in Flash.

To me, Flash would be best for games (the Grow series, Flight, Hedgehog Launch were a few favourites), and would find a life of its own as the only practical tool for video. It would also become synonymous with intrusive and ghastly adverts, and enjoy more than a decade of high-profile vulnerabilities.

I wouldn’t work with it much more. I’d build a graphing tool, and a few interactive apps and newsletter tools for intranets, but it wasn’t what was needed most of the time. It’s now eight years since I had to do anything in a Flash timeline, and I haven’t missed using it.

It saddens me that Macromedia, and then Adobe didn’t push Flash towards its potential. It was always going to struggle without a free creation environment, and later versions seemed to become more complicated for fewer benefits.

While I’d been arguing for standards-based HTML, it really took the 2007 announcement that the iPhone would not support Flash to get the attention of my directors.

The Apple announcement alone would not be enough as it would take years to build up a significant base of users, and I suspect the arrival of Google Chrome and an ecosystem of powerful javascript engines brought usable web technologies at a far lower cost. Ultimately, Adobe was probably not the custodian that Flash needed.

Spending half a decade working in Flash made me a better user-centred designer, and a better programmer too. I came to better appreciate working with content in limited space, and the timeline helped me understand designing with time as one of the dimensions. Some of that, I’ll even say was fun.

I won’t miss Flash, but it showed us the heights and depths of what the web could achieve. I’ll remember that fondly, and I’m glad it existed.

Footnote: other people’s reactions

I knew I wouldn’t be alone in wanting to bid farewell to Flash, and it is fun to see some very different opinions. Flash, for me, was a tool for building on the web, but for others it was an animation tool or something else.

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