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Flash Celebrates Tenth Anniversary
A discussion with Adobe about the history of Flash and Flash Video, and more importantly, a few hints about Apollo, which frees them both from the browser.
Tues., Aug. 15, by Geoff Daily

With the internet recently celebrating more than 20 years of existence, it’s not surprising that the providers of some of its enabling technologies are now reaching their own milestones and taking time to reflect on their development. That’s just what Adobe is doing with regards to the Flash platform, which was introduced ten years ago last week.

"We’re trying to focus on telling the story of how some of these things came to be, celebrate where we’ve been, and focus on the future," says Mike Downey, senior product manager for Adobe Flash.

This celebration extends primarily out of a special set of web pages that can be found on Adobe’s site. These pages include discussions by designers and developers on the impact of Flash, the ability to vote for the most influential Flash website, and a list of Flash user group events being held around the world.

And what better opportunity that this celebration to take a quick look at where Flash has come from, provide an overview of where it’s going on, and examine impact that the Adobe deal is already having on the development and extensions of the Flash platform?

Big Moments in History
Flash’s roots date back to August 1996 and a small software company started John Gay and Robert Tatsumi called FutureWave Technologies. They created a product called Future Splash Animator, which was a vector graphics animation program. "People started suggesting they make it into a browser plug-in, since browsers then didn’t natively support vector graphics. The nice thing about vector graphics is that they’re very lightweight," says Downey. "And everything that is Flash today started there."

There have essentially been three major milestones since then that have truly defined what Flash is today. The first of those came very early on when Flash’s predecessor entered a market where hundreds of companies had plug-ins for browsers. The Catch-22 was that in order for people to start building content there had to be a player distributed, but you needed content to get distribution. "We went to Netscape around ’97-’98 and actually paid them to include the Flash player with Netscape Navigator," says Downey. Doing so enabled the Flash player to realize that first step towards much-needed distribution.

"The second key moment for Flash came in version 4," says Downey. "That’s where we decided to add this whole interactivity component. We added a whole scripting engine inside the player so people could create much richer content, and that’s when the market for the Flash tool exploded."

Today, Flash development is focused in large part around its third major milestone, the introduction of Flash Video. "It’s easy for someone to think that this was a big strategic plan for Macromedia. The reality is it was really more of an R&D project," says Downey. A small team of developers with Macromedia went off on their own and started playing with the idea of creating a streaming communications server. "It was more about having a webcam be able to interact with a piece of Flash content to communicate with each other. Video was just one of the things we needed to realize this vision," says Downey. "Since then we’ve realized that we’re really onto something here."

Big Moments to Come
Moving forward, continuing development of the Flash platform will focus on three main areas. "One is from the tools perspective. We want to make our Flash design tools integrate really well with the rest of the Adobe creative suite," says Downey. Another primary area of interest is the mobile space. "Mobile in general, including video, is about to hit a tipping point. We’re having that feel we had right before Flash tipped on the internet," Downey continues.

"And then the third, of course, is video," Downey says. "We have a ton of projects internally that are going on right now that haven’t been released yet based around the video platform. New tools, services, and more."

The biggest project still under wraps involving Flash has been code-named Apollo. What’s known of Apollo so far is that it will serve as a platform, much like Microsoft’s .Net framework, that will combine the Flash player with a browser engine and the ability to use JavaScript, HTML, XML, and AJAX and mix them all seamlessly at the application level. "With Apollo, I’ll be able to create HTML applications, Flash, or a mixture of those and go outside of the browser for a much more feature-rich kind of application with native access to the file system," says Downey. "It will also have some unique video capabilities in it that we haven’t provided details for yet."

Adobe’s plans are to have a public beta of Apollo available by the end of the year on the Adobe Labs site.

More Muscle Pushing the Cart
Since Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia was first announced in April 2005, speculation has been rampant as to the impact of this deal on the future of the Flash platform. So far, while no earth-shattering new products have hit the market, all signs point towards a bright future. "Now we’re part of the giant Adobe engine. We’ve doubled in size pretty much instantly," says Downey about his authoring tools team. "We’ve also got a lot of different teams looking to contribute, including our video tools group, who are very interested in working with us."

Amidst all this activity, Flash Video continues to hold a seat near the head of the table. "At the highest levels of Adobe’s corporate agenda is the Flash Video platform," says Downey. "It was officially called out by our CEO that it was one of the main reasons Adobe wanted to acquire Macromedia."

"We have many projects going on internally that will leverage the strength we have with the Flash video platform," says Downey. "I hate to create this anticipation without giving more specific details, but within the next two years it’s going to be huge. I’ve been here a long time and never been as excited as I am about what we’re working on right now."