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Flash: Looking Back, Looking Forward

In August of this year, Flash celebrates its tenth anniversary. It has come a very long way from its beginnings as a natural sketching program. This article takes a look at some of the major milestones, considers the current challenges to the product, and discusses Adobe's future plans for Flash.

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By: Terri Wells
Rating: 4 stars4 stars4 stars4 stars4 stars / 13
August 22, 2006
  1. · Flash: Looking Back, Looking Forward
  2. · Flash's Major Milestones
  3. · New Directions
  4. · Challenges

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Flash: Looking Back, Looking Forward
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The product that became known as Flash began its life as an idea in the minds of John Gay and Robert Tatsumi. It was called SmartSketch, and it allowed users to sketch illustrations on a tablet PC with a stylus, in a very natural-feeling way. When the two creators showed the product around, they found a lot of interest in being able to do animation and to take these illustrations online -- remember, this was the mid-90s, and the first dot-com boom was in full swing.

The next iteration of the product came out in 1996. It was called FutureSplash Animator, and supported animation. It also came with a small browser plug-in that allowed users to view animations embedded in web pages. The plug-in handled vector graphics. This turned out to be important later in its history for a couple of reasons, as you'll see.

At this point, the product worked so well at what it did that media companies such as Disney and MSN used it on their home pages in late 1996. By this time Macromedia, a maker of tools for web designers and web content creators, realized what a valuable addition this product would be to its line-up. In December 1996, Macromedia acquired Gay and Tatsumi's company (Future Wave Software) and renamed the product Flash.

The very first pivotal point in Flash's history came the following year, in 1997. The browser wars between Netscape and Microsoft were going hot and heavy, and Macromedia was faced with a chicken-and-egg quandary. In order to get lots of developers to use their product, there had to be lots of people using the browser plug-in so they could see the content. But there were hundreds of browser plug-ins at the time, and users would not be interested in downloading a separate plug-in unless there was a lot of content to see with it. What could Macromedia do?

The company hit on a solution. Netscape was leading the browser war at this time, so Macromedia paid Netscape "a considerable amount of money" to distribute the Flash plug-in, according to Kevin Lynch, chief software architect and senior vice president of Adobe's platform business unit (Adobe acquired Macromedia in 2005). Part of the deal involved keeping the browser plug-in below a certain size, which was easy with vector graphics. Microsoft, not to be outdone by its rival, agreed to distribute the plug-in without charging Macromedia anything.

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