What drove Flash?

Michael Calore, at WIRED Webmonkey, has some current estimates of possible adoption dates for different features within “HTML5”. A useful read.

I’m more interested in a minor quote in there: “What’s driving the most successful [browser] plug-in, which is [Adobe Flash Player], is video support.”

I suspect that might be the other way ’round… Macromedia Flash Player had been solidly above 90% consumer support for many years before video was introduced in 2002. Early adopters started using video via Flash in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2004 that we started seeing businesses built atop it, and by 2006 there was widespread awareness.

Why? Video took off only after the production costs were lowered: once producers did not have to multiply-encode video for different audiences, and once support costs for consumer installations were removed. Adobe Flash Player added video in early 2002, then became a practical choice towards late 2004, after consumer support levels rose above 90%.

The same kind of dynamic occured with “Ajax” a few years back… consumer support was already high for Microsoft browsers, and as soon as browsers from Mozilla and Apple added support for live XML requests, developers could immediately build websites which large audiences could immediately view. When Jesse James Garrett coined the name on Feb 18 2005, those startling new “Ajax” projects would magically “just work” for their audiences.

Both Ajax and Flash video were considered “overnight sensations”, even though the groundwork had actually taken many years. The hype started only after the capability was already there.

Anyway, linear video playback on a notebook is certainly a lucrative area right now… lots of firms are making lots of money from massive audiences via their video content — popular video is certainly “a shiny object” these days — so I can understand the mental shortcut of thinking that video drove Flash.

But history shows that it was Flash’s total ecology of creators and audiences — all the exceptionally diverse people who found value in using Flash — which successfully drove the later practicality of in-browser video. In a sense, sites like JibJab and NewGrounds made sites like YouTube possible.

Adobe today? The company still establishes publishing technologies, then profits within these new, wider ecologies. That pattern is embedded deep within its corporate culture. Yesterday’s view of video will not be tomorrow’s view of video, and Adobe is trying to solve newer, harder problems.

6 Responses to What drove Flash?

  1. I’d imagine one of those “new harder problems” is “how to reverse the tide of people using Flash Blockers”. [jd sez: No.]
    The new featureset in any upcoming version of Flash is going to be offset by the constant instability that Flash creates in browsers, and yet, that’s something that Adobe doesn’t seem to put any resources behind.
    A new feature that you can’t use because your browser is locked up due to Flash isn’t terribly useful.

  2. “No”? So are you saying Adobe is fine that ClickToFlash is considered an indispensible part of the browser experience on the Mac?
    [jd sez: I’m deleting the rest of Welch’s comment. He is taking a discussion on one subject, and trying to do attacks on other subjects. I have closed off comments on this tactic before, after seeing my words distorted by such a process. I’m not buying in again.]

  3. Matthew Fabb says:

    John, is the percentage of internet users who use Flash blocker increasing? I certainly haven’t seen any stats showing that this is a rising demographic. There’s always been a small percentage of users who don’t use Flash as well as those who have their JavaScript turned off. From my experience the numbers between these two groups are generally close, although those who block Flash are almost always in the lead.
    Meanwhile, the new Flash 10.1 which is in beta actually addresses the concerns you bring up. It uses less memory than before and when it crashes Flash now closes specific SWF instances rather affect the browser. There are some who have had privacy concerns with Flash and there’s now a privacy mode that integrates with the browser’s privacy mode to limit local shared objects (aka Flash cookies).
    Meanwhile addressing main topic of the post, it’s a combination of Adobe and the community driving new features each version. Developers and designers all have their own laundry list of features that they want and through the Adobe bugs & feature list or even campaigns, some of these get added along with always some surprises from Adobe. Outside of new development features (features that the user’s sees, not changes to the language that help developers), I think both sides look at what is capable on the desktop and wanting to bring more of that experience to the web. Compared to HTML5 which seems to be more about looking at what’s capable in plugins and wanting to bring that experience to browsers. Silverlight 4 was announced today with a brand new beta and I was looking over the set of new features earlier today and once again Microsoft seems to be mainly playing catch with Flash. One of the few areas in the past that Microsoft had innovated in Silverlight was in pushing the envelop in what is capable in video, but this round all they seemed to have done is extend their DRM.

  4. Mark Grant says:

    John there is no ‘tide of flashblocking’ it’s a fantasy of ant-flash cultists and trolls that is easily refuted by stats freely available around the web. e.g:
    Adblock plugin: 52million out of 1 billion firefox installs, firefox is 20% of browser market.5% of 20% = about 1% overall.
    Alternatively, 33million flash player downloads per day versus 120,000 adblock download per day gives an even lower percentage (less than half of 1%).
    [jd sez: Interesting metrics, thanks, on that digression which was introduced via comment…. 😉 ]

  5. Matthew Fabb says:

    D’oh! I should always reread what I’ve written before I click post. When I was was talking about ignoring development features, I meant ignoring features that does not change the user experience and unfortunately in editing my post it sounds the other way around.
    So it would be great if say Adobe added abstract classes and functions to ActionScript, but that’s something that only a developer would notice. So those features aside, I think a lot of inspiration on what drives Flash is bringing more of the desktop to the web. If you look at AIR, it’s the result jumping over the browsers for even more desktop features that browsers would not allow in a plugin.

  6. I’d like to see how you geniuses come up with stats for something that suppresses your plugin on the client side. [jd sez: Another digression on Welch’s attempt to hijack the main idea of this essay… an ad-hominem sarcastic “geniuses”, then a presupposition that this blogpost is about measuring Flashblockers, rather than countering the belief that video drove Flash.]
    With no user agent or string passed to the server that a ‘blocker’ is in effect. How can you do analytics then?
    What really goes on is that your ‘adoption’ either flattens or trends less than it would if there was no blocker in place.
    But hey, drink your own Kool-Aid. [jd sez At first I thought he was wondering about Player census methodology, but then realized Welch’s friend here just wanted to rant about… something. You’ve had your initial free pass here.]