Remembering The Rabbits: A Fond Farewell to Flash

Next month, Chrome will no longer support the Adobe Flash player. They’ll join Firefox and Safari in the long-drawn-out death of a technology that was once a centerpiece of the World Wide Web.

For many, the end of Flash fosters the same sense of relief that the end of, say, IE6 does. There is much rejoicing for a technology most remembered for annoying pop-up ads, self-congratulatory intro sequences, and security flaws. I, however, will remember things quite differently.

Flash blossomed in a time when rich, interactive experiences were not yet imaginable on the web. It helped accelerate the potential of the internet as a full-fledged, visual medium faster than any other technology I can think of. Like many first-movers in the industry, though, it didn’t remain the leader for long. Just like how Yahoo! lost out to Google. Or, how Friendster bowed to Myspace. Or, how Myspace bowed to Facebook. But, that shouldn’t mitigate the impact the technology had on our industry.

Flash was about experimentation, not standards. It needed to be. The push for standards gained momentum later, as it needed to be. Flash was an island that designers could flock to in an era of limitations. Twenty years ago, HTML, CSS, and some basic JavaScript could get you some clever looking rollovers at best. Meanwhile, companies like 2Advanced Studios were building web experiences. In retrospect, was it gratuitous design? Did it over-emphasize image and under-emphasize substance? Probably. But, the web design industry needed to stretch its legs as far as it could to find where the walls ought to be.

2Advanced Studios was the poster child for the futuristic design vision of the web
2Advanced Studios was the poster child for the futuristic design vision of the web

Flash applications weren’t always about visual excess. By the early 2000s, designers were using Flash as a medium for data and information display. Here’s Marcos Weskamp’s Newsmap (link may not work in September), a news aggregator that was several years ahead of its time. It has, after all, a very Microsoft Metro-y design feel to it:

Marcos Weskamp’s Newsmap was, at the time, an innovation in web information design

Beyond design, I can thank Flash and its supporting language, ActionScript, for keeping me interested in programming.

I began using Macromedia Flash 3 building my own fair share of “skip intro” intros and microsites in my college dorm room in the late 1990s. I was playing around with this new software while taking introductory courses in C++ and Lisp. While I could wrap my brain around the syntax of Lisp, I struggled on some of the finer details of C++ and object-oriented programming.

The development environment for Flash consisted of the canvas—where you did your work—and the timeline—where you placed and managed the interactions of elements on your canvas). The timeline was the visual aid I needed to begin to understand how objects worked together.

The Flash timeline showed me a different way to think about programming
The Flash timeline showed me a different way to think about programming

You could move MovieClips on and off of your canvas. You could stuff some rudimentary Actionscript inside of these MovieClips as well. The combination of the timeline, canvas, and Actionscript code introduced me to a hybrid functional/object-oriented kind of programming. Strangely, it felt right.

Later versions of Flash (and the introduction of Flex) let you move all the timeline-driven stuff into code. Object constructors, event listeners, and the MVC pattern all made more sense to me in the context of a Flash-based application.

I wrote my first blog post for We Are Mammoth almost ten years ago today. It was about starting our two-man shop around the love of a technology.

This blog will be a place where we can ramble on about our own overzealous ideas on taking Flash from that coy little animation tool it once was to a real application development environment.

Well, like most plans, we didn’t follow them to a tee. We got somewhere far different (and likely far better) instead.

In some long-distance races, a runner called the rabbit sets an early and honest pace for the other runners to follow. Eventually, the rabbit peels away from the track and the other runners continue. Flash was our rabbit in the race. It took more than its fair share of potshots. But, its presence led the way to a healthy balance between interactivity, standardization, and usability. And, personally, it kept me interested in staying in the race.

Flash, I bid you a fond farewell.