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.