GUY RAZ, host:

If this was the Internet 15 years ago...

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: ...then this is the Internet today.

(Soundbite of videogame)

RAZ: What was once a collection of static pages has become a kind of theme park of fully interactive Web sites, videos and games that play right in your browser, and much of that is thanks to a program called Flash. It's the subject of today's installment of The Net at 40, our occasional series about the history and culture of the Internet.

Now, the Flash Player is what allows you to watch videos on things like YouTube and Hulu and to see things like this.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) This land is your land, this land is my land. I'm a Texas tiger, you're a liberal wiener.

RAZ: This was the famous JibJab cartoon from the 2004 election, and it was made with Flash. The program is integrated into a bunch of Web applications like TurboTax, not to mention many of those online games that make the workplace a little less productive.

(Soundbite of videogame)

Mr. TOM FULP (Founder, Newgrounds): 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.

RAZ: That's Tom Fulp. He founded the online Flash community called Newgrounds.

Mr. FULP: 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.

RAZ: And the man who dreamed up Flash? His name is Jonathan Gay. Seventeen years ago, he had a tiny start-up software company, and he was designing a drawing program for what was the latest technology back then: the tablet computer.

Mr. JONATHAN GAY (Co-Creator, Flash): A lot of architects actually liked the software. But the tablet computers didn't take off, so we had to try a different approach.

RAZ: So how did the idea come about to develop Flash?

Mr. GAY: One of the key inspirations is 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. And we thought, that's kind of a good idea. It'd be fun to do, but, you know, there's only so many people wanting to make videotapes.

RAZ: But then he thought about this new thing that looked like it might catch on: the World Wide Web.

Mr. GAY: We became aware of it and said, hey, maybe we could put it over the Internet.

RAZ: The program was originally called FutureSplash. Later, its name was shortened to Flash. And it became an immediate success. Microsoft and Disney both used it to redesign their Web sites. And by 2002, Flash began to support video. And it was what the folks behind YouTube decided to use when they launched their Web site three years later.

Again, here's Jonathan Gay.

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

RAZ: Now, Flash isn't without its critics or its minor annoyances. For example, have you ever tried to open a Web page and had one of these pop up on you?

Unidentified Man #2: Congratulations, you've been selected to receive two iPod Nanos.

RAZ: You can thank Flash for that as well.

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