How Flash Brought The Internet To Life

These days, the Internet has become a theme park of fully interactive Web sites, videos and games that play right in your browser.

Much of that is thanks to Flash, the animation software that made the 2004 cartoon of George W. Bush and John Kerry from JibJab possible. The Flash Player is what lets you watch videos on YouTube and Hulu. Flash is integrated into a bunch of Web applications like TurboTax, and it powers many of the games we use to waste time at work.

Tom Fulp is one of the early adopters of Flash. He founded Newgrounds, home of one of the largest Flash development communities on the Internet.

"It definitely made the Internet more fun and more lively. It would have been a much more static and quiet place if not for Flash," he says.

Fulp says what made Flash catch on was ease of use — it allowed artists to easily draw, animate and program content all in one place.

"Flash basically lets you take any talent you have — whether you're good at drawing or good at programming or good at music — you can inject that talent into Flash in some form to create something."

Jonathan Gay is the man who dreamed up Flash. Seventeen years ago, he designed a drawing program for what was the latest technology back then — the tablet computer.

Tablets may do better this year, but two decades ago they bombed — and Gay had to go back to the drawing board.

"We were at a trade show, SIGGRAPH, where all the 3-D guys making 3-D animations for movies go every year. And a lot of people told us our drawing program would make a great animation program. We thought, 'That's kind of a good idea. It'd be fun to do, but there's only so many people wanting to make videotapes,' " he says.

Then, he thought about this new thing that looked like it could catch on: the World Wide Web.

"We became aware of it and said, 'Hey, maybe we could put it over the Internet,' " Gay says.

The program was originally called FutureSplash. It was later shortened to just Flash.

It was an immediate success. Microsoft and Disney both used it to launch new Web sites. And over the years, Flash became more sophisticated — in 2002, it began to support video. The folks behind YouTube took notice and decided to use the technology to launch their Web site three years later.

"One of the key differentiators with Flash that really made it one of the standards for video on the Internet is the fact that the video plays right in the Web browser," Gay says. The other video technologies were really separate players you had to download and activate separately."

Flash isn't without its critics. It's controlled by one company, Adobe, the same people who make Photoshop — and that troubles people who advocate for open standards on the Web.

Others complain that there's such a thing as too much Flash. Ever get distracted by one of those annoying video ads? That's led some people to install browser plugins meant to block Flash content.

Gay left the Flash team in 2005 to pursue other projects, but it would be hard to argue that his stated mission wasn't a success.

"We really just wanted to bring the Internet to life," he says.

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