Were you not aware of the death of Flash? If so, this handy release notes page from Adobe explains what I’m talking about. Not only is development on Flash technologies over (at least outside mainland China; a curious note but one I don’t know much about), but Adobe will also block the Flash player from running content from January 12, 2021, onward. Harsh, but probably a necessary evil.
Oh boy, that’s a lot to consider, so allow me to wax nostalgic and offer Adobe, nay, Macromedia Flash, a love letter that I feel it deserves. I owe it that much at the very least.
Adobe Flash actually started life as something far simpler than the current software is. A company called FutureWave, way back in the ancient period of 1996, created a vector animation suite that could play with an embedded plugin within a web browser. This was back in the Cretaceous period of anything-goes-web-content in which every application had its own plugin to run. Future Splash animator was actually fairly simple from what I’ve read and only supported basic commands to control the animation’s timeline from my understanding. I never used this version of the software, but it seems to have garnered enough attention for it to be bought by a company that was actually fairly well-respected within the design community at the time: Macromedia. Macromedia is a company that is very dear to me and that eventually got bought out by its biggest competitor, Adobe, but that is a subject for another post.
It wasn’t until version 4.0 that I got interested in using the toolset, thanks in no more small part to a little Internet sensation of the time called Pulp Phantom. Essentially a parody animation melding Star Wars and Quentin Tarantino storytelling concepts (mostly Pulp Fiction as the name suggests, but it has some Reservoir Dogs in there too), it really opened my eyes as to what could be done with Flash. Now, I don’t really know if Pulp Phantom was built with Flash 4.0; it’s just that at the time that was the version available in the PC’s in my college’s library. It didn’t have the most sophisticated programming language, but it allowed some simple interactions and even the original Flash Pulp Phantom episodes used those interactions to offer a choice or two on a few of the episodes. Thus, I started playing around with Flash on my free time, but mostly just the drawing and timeline tools. I wasn’t big on the coding aspect because there wasn’t much to code in version 4.0 anyway.
That changed in version 5.0 though. It changed, big time!
Powerful All-Encompassing Tool
At some point by the early aughties, companies decided that version numbers were a thing of the past and they all started using weird names or letters to name their products. Windows XP, Adobe CS (Creative Suite), etc. Well, Macromedia wanted some of that action, so here comes Flash MX! I didn’t use the original MX, but I had a decent job by the time that MX 2004 was released and I saved up some money to purchase my own copy of Flash MX 2004! I also bought a bunch of Flash development books at the local Borders (oh how I miss them). See, the big feature for MX2004 was a new version of ActionScript: 2.0! And the big thing about it? Mostly that you had to follow stricter rules to use it. It wasn’t a true strongly typed language, but it made important headway into becoming that. I had to become familiar with a lot of object-oriented programming terms that didn’t really matter with the original version of ActionScript, even though if the implementation was sort of superficial. The code would still get turned into ActionScript 1.0 before the Flash virtual machine would interpret it, but it started to create better development habits. That is when my life changed.
I had lost my job at the advertising agency and was having a difficult time. That’s when I noticed a newspaper job ad for a developer with Flash MX and Macromedia Director experience. I had never used Director, but I figured that it couldn’t be that different from Flash, so I applied. My first interview was over the phone, and I behaved like an overexcited kid gushing about video games to his interviewer over the phone. I went over all the kinds of things that I had built on Flash and what I was hoping to do. Apparently this worked, because I was hired and what a job it was! I was suddenly a contractor for the pharmaceutical industry creating interactive e-learning software to train new hires and to document Standard Operating Procedures.
The main software we were using was Macromedia Director, but the company’s chief engineer (and owner) was aware that you could drop SWF’s (the files that Flash creates when deployed) into Director programs (called “Projectors”), so he took the chance on me. My first application was a SCADA (stands for “ supervisory control and data acquisition;” it’s a piece of software used to monitor and control plant equipment, in this case an Uhlmann blister packaging machine) simulator meant to be used within a teaching tool developed by my engineer boss. It was a big hit, and the simulators kept coming. More Uhlmann SCADA simulators, NIRO fluid bed control panels, and my masterpiece at the time: a simulator of a “Swaging” machine cross-referenced against a product database to teach the employees of a suture manufacturing plant how each product needed to be manufactured. It was a combination of Flash SWF’s and Director sections controlled with a USB Xbox 360 controller to simulate the action of the operator’s individual hands. All of this could have been built by a team of software developers and graphic designers (for all the graphical assets) using more complex languages such as C, but the simple development power of ActionScript 2.0, Director (actually using Lingo, which is quite different from ActionScript), and their visual palettes actually allowed me to single-handedly handle the development within a few months. It was really challenging but enjoyable.
What made Flash so convenient anyway? Why was it such a powerful tool (IMO)? Unlike most other development tools, Flash is mainly a graphical tool. Oh sure, with Flash 8.0 Adobe tried to move towards a more common development environment by suggesting the use of .as files to be opened apart from the graphical assets and the application treating it more like a standard IDE (Integrated Development Environment) when in scripting mode, but it is possible to start a project with a completely blank canvas and start drawing with tools that will be familiar to any graphic designer that’s ever drawn a vector. From that humble start, Flash allows interaction to be added. From simple timeline manipulation to control where in the timeline to navigate to, to much more dynamic situations such as loading external content from an XML file (or database connections), managing user login screens, and possibly some of the easiest ways to add a movie player to a web site. Once past the initial shock of seeing a blank screen that expects code and doing some experimenting, the average graphic designer will feel very comfortable doing Flash code. And the best part of it is that the last version of ActionScript developed, 3.x, is actually a very well-structured development language that can serve as a wonderful bridge to learning other, much more common languages. Yes, I confess that ActionScript 3.0 gave me a very big headache at first, but I eventually caught on and was able to use it to build the same things I was building with ActionScript 2.0, and much more complex ones.
Farewell My Friend
So at this point, I will say my goodbyes Flash. Currently, as a Systems Integration Engineer performing data transformation and backend server management, I don’t think I would have found myself on this career path if I hadn’t met the wonderfully quirky piece of software that started out as a simple vector animation program. I really wish that Adobe had spent more resources on the Flash Virtual Machine to plug all those security holes that plague it, but it was a losing fight from the moment that Apple decided that the iPhone would never host Flash content. At that point, with one of the most impactful technology revolutions unfolding before our eyes and in the palms of our hands, keeping Flash from ever penetrating it turned the Flash technology into much more of a liability than an asset for Adobe. Efforts were made to integrate it into other mobile OS’s such as WebOS and Android, but they were met with mixed results. They just didn’t have the oomph to run the Flash Virtual Machine in a satisfactory capacity, and Adobe didn’t have the motivation to improve the performance while also plugging all the security vulnerabilities.
Now, there are several projects to create Flash Virtual Machine emulators so old SWF content can continue to exist and be appreciated (particularly games). Adobe Animate is positioned to be a successor to Flash, though I haven’t had a chance to use it so I am not aware of how it compares. I do notice it mentions the capability to publish to HTML5 and other platforms such as WebGL so maybe we haven’t completely lost Flash after all. In any event, I am really fond of Flash because of its power as a tool that can slowly turn graphic designers into software developers.
So farewell Flash! A tool that started me down a very interesting journey just because I wanted to animate some simple boxes on a screen.