So, I’m just gonna come out and say it: I freaking love Flash.
Flash – for the uninitiated, is a software platform used to create animation and rich media ads, among other things – has been dragged through the mud so much over the past decade. But I am proud to say I miss it. Often the butt of web developer jokes and the reason why advertising is so hated, Flash was an incredible tool for making animated and interactive content, and I for one mourn it’s passing. Ten years ago, the iPhone was the real beginning of the end for Flash. Refusing to allow Flash Player within the iPhone’s browser, Flash’s future was set. Fast forward to June 2017 when Google stopped serving Flash ads entirely, and just last week Adobe announced it would “stop updating and distributing the Flash Player,” marking the definitive end to the decade-long decline of Flash.
My love affair with Flash goes back. As a teen, I used to make stop-motion animations in my room, starting with a Super 8 camera (I’m not that old, but love old school toys) and then with a video camera plugged into my computer. That’s when I started to play with Flash. This was back when it was owned by Macromedia before Adobe bought it. I admit it took my simple brain some time to get used to movie clips, symbols and instances, but I knew this was something I had to learn.
As a 2D animation tool for making fun web cartoons it was amazing. I was a huge fan of old sites like Weebl & Bob, Bitey Castle and Homestar Runner. I toyed around making animations but it was when I started to learn Action Script that the real infatuation with Flash began. Being able to make cartoons interactive was a mind-blowing experience for me. After graduating, I started working at a small agency making animated banner ads in 2004. I convinced myself it was not selling out and I was actually working as an animator, but I really was just making obnoxious banners! There was no ad server or tracking pixels or anything like that. These ads were so basic that the click through URL was actually baked into the Flash unit. We did start using ClickTAGs soon after and then got a proper ad server set up and so on, but the very first few, looking back were the equivalent of a Flintstones car pulling up a long side a Tesla Model S.
For years, Flash was a cornerstone of online advertising. It allowed you to make animations, but also embed video and layer in interactivity. But even back then Flash had a reputation for being the scourge of the Internet. This was a time where sometimes entire websites were built in flash and they were insane. It was such an exciting time as pretty much every website was different and some were just crazy. It was awesome. But because of Flash’s relatively easy interface, there were a lot of people using it to make websites that really didn’t know what they were doing and thus, Flash got a bad rap.
Then came the iPhone. Apple’s decision to not allow Flash was based on security and battery life concerns (to run Flash you had to have a SWF player embedded on the page that used a lot of the phones power). There were also many reports that Apple didn’t want Flash on the phone to protect the new Apple App Store. Flash game sites like Newgrounds.com were huge online and Apple didn’t want to risk having developers produce games in Flash or other free content that would work on the phone rather than using an app or iTunes. That really knocked over the first domino. Over the years more dominos fell with the explosion of smartphones, tablets and Google’s Chrome browser at first making you activate flash each time it was displayed, to then killing it off entirely.
HTML5 will certainly catch up and surpass what Flash could do. But right now it does feel like, in moving to a new technology, the sophistication of the ads being produced has taken a step back. In a future post, I am going to review a few of the most popular methods for creating HTML5 ad units, including Adobe’s rebranded version of Flash, Adobe Animate. There are many visual tools like this that streamline the process of making ads, and HTML5 is vastly superior in many, many, ways than Flash ever was. I will detail these benefits then, but for now pour one out for Flash and all the insanity it enabled.