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The Flash history

November 20th 2000 | Rick Waldron



The Flash history

How it all began
Flash has made it's powerful mark on the web and on standards of design in only a few short years; but powerful entities like this don't appear over night - so where did it come from? Venture forth now, and get spiritually educated.

By Rick Waldron How it began

Flash began as Jonathan Gay's dream of being an architect. While designing sketches of houses, Gay came to the sad realization that there was not a lot of opportunity for him to actually see his designs in final form. It was when an Apple II entered his life that Gay began to program, and soon discovered that with writing programs, you can design something, build it and then see it work and respond to the user. His designs would now reach final form - however, his bits of Apple II Basic were not as impressive as building houses.

His first full program was a game, written in Basic, that was a copy of Space Invaders. From Basic he graduated to writing in Pascal; the language used to write his first graphics editor (SuperPaint) which he won an award for at his high school's science fair.

"If you ever think Flash is difficult to use, you should try drawing with a joystick on an Apple II before the concept of undo was invented. That will test your patience." Jonathan Gay, Creator of Flash

Jonathan Gay got his break in professional programming while still in high school. When his Apple II was replaced with a Macintosh, Gay and his father began attending early Macintosh Users Group meetings, where his father bragged to the organizer of the group about his science fair project. As it turned out, the organizer was Charlie Jackson who was planning to launch a Macintosh software company under the name Silicon Beach Software.

Although at the time Charlie did not have a lot of funding for the project, he purchased a $10,000 Lisa for Gay to program on. It was on this computer that Gay wrote Airborne!, the first Macintosh game that used digital sound and smooth (for its era) animation. For a time, it was a big seller.

From games to drawing

When work began on a second game, a professional artist was hired and Dark Castle was born. Dark Castle was a big hit and paid Gay's way through college. After Dark Castle, came Beyond Dark Castle. Writing games became an important part of Gay's programming education by challenging him to combine animation with digital sound and synchronize the two elements. Most importantly, the concept of fast and responsive software became Gay's first priority.


After Beyond Dark Castle, Gay began working on SuperPaint II (the follow up to his science fair project) in which he implemented PostScript style drawing. After SuperPaint II and graduating from college, Gay went to work for Silicon Beach Software full time and began to develop technology for creating a new generation of graphics software. It would be written in C++, and would use an object-oriented framework to make development easy and to enable it to run on the Macintosh and Windows.

This technology became a drawing program called Intellidraw that would enable Silicon Beach to compete with Adobe Illustrator and Aldus Freehand (Freehand was later acquired by Macromedia) in the Postscript drawing market. The unique aspect of Intellidraw was that not only did it draw pictures, it allowed you to add behavior to your drawings so you could create lines that stayed connected to objects and you could draw a bar chart that would change as the user entered numbers into a text object. As it turned out the first computer drawing product, called SketchPad, had this ability but people had forgotten about it. A company called Visio was able to take this idea and create a very successful product from it, while that feature of Intellidraw never drew a substantial market. When it was realized that Intellidraw was destined to be a modest success, Gay decided it was time to find a new challenge. He had made as much money working part time as he had working full time on Intellidraw so it was decided that he would try and place himself in a position where he could create a successful product and benefit from it's success - so he started his own company.

At this time in personal computing technology, pen computers (a screen you could write on with an electronic pen) were the latest 'new thing'. A company called GO was building an operating system for a new generation of portable computers that would utilize this technology. The computers would be smaller and the user could take them virtually anywhere. It was a very appealing idea and with Silicon Beach Software, it was seen how a new operating system created the opportunity to build new software companies.

With the investment help of Charlie Jackson, FutureWave Software was launched in January of 1993, to dominate the market for graphics software on pen computers.

Jonathan Gay

At this point, it was widely understood that it was hard for users to learn complex features in a program and that the real challenge was creating sophisticated software that is easy to use. Computer drawing was obviously slower and more awkward than drawing with a pencil on paper. Although Apple's mouse had been an improvement over the joystick, drawing with an electronic pen directly on a computer screen would be even easier. With the help of Robert Tatsumi, Jonathan set out to build software that would make drawing on the computer as easy drawing on paper.

A change in plans

GO, as it turned out was better at spending money than then it was making money and were acquired by AT&T. Shortly after, in January of 1994, AT&T pulled the plug on GO and left FutureWave's software without a market. The only opportunity for survival was to take the software and rebuild it for Windows and Macintosh. From there SmartSketch was marketed as a better way to draw on the computer and had little success in an established market domineered by Illustrator and Freehand.

In mid-summer of 1995, FutureWave received a lot of feedback from people saying that they should convert SmartSketch into an animation product. FutureWave became highly interested in creating animation software, but at the time the only way at distribute animation was on VHS or CD ROM, and the market for animation tools was very small.

About this time, a new concept called the Internet (as well as the World Wide Web) was making its debut into the public eye. In theory, it seemed possible that the web would become popular enough that user would want to send and display graphics or animation thus creating a market for FutureWave to create a profitable two dimensional computer animation product.

With this in mind, work began on SmartSketch to add animation and use Java to render a web player, which in the beginning was frightfully slow. FutureWave continued developing and in the fall, Netscape came out with their plug-in API, which now provided a way to extend from the web browser with decent performance.

Talks about shipping SmartSketch Animator began until it was realized that SmartSketch didn't have much brand recognition and should focus less on drawing and more on animation, so the program was renamed CelAnimator. For fear of being labeled cartoon creation software, the name was changed again to FutureSplash Animator.

Almost married to Adobe

Work on the FutureSplash Animator continued, the company became restless with the idea that they were too small to generate the popularity they were looking for, so in October of 1995 they tried selling the software technology to John Warnock at Adobe.

Although he was interested in the SmartSketch drawing software the slow demo of the FutureSplash animation in Java was not impressive enough, causing Adobe to decline. (Ed: Remember Bryan Williams and The Beatles?) In December of 1995, the company was almost sold to Fractal Design but they too were mostly interested in SmartSketch, and declined on FutureSplash.

In the summer of 1996, the FutureSplash Animator software was shipped and began to gain public interest. FutureWave's biggest success was in August of 1996, when Microsoft was working on their web version of MSN and they wanted to create the most television like experience possible on the Internet, FutureSplash was their solution. FutureWave's other high profile client besides Microsoft was Disney Online. Disney was using FutureSplash to create animation and interface for their subscription based online service Disney's Daily Blast.

In November of 1996, Macromedia approached FutureWave about working together. Since FutureWave had been running for 4 years with a total investment of $500,000 they took the offer and in December of 1996, Macromedia acquired the company and Future Splash Animator became Macromedia Flash 1.0.

Flash is now in its 5th version at Macromedia and has retained a good amount of code that was written for the GO pen computers. It's now used by over 500,000 developers and the player is resident on more than 250 million computers.

imageWhere's Jonathan Gay's today? He's Technology Vice President for Flash and Generator at Macromedia...



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Posted by websight on 12/08 at 03:19 PM

Hey thanks for this article! It reminds me the first days working with Flash and spending my nights with doing animated cartoons! Great!

Posted by rwldrn on 07/17 at 04:08 PM


I haven’t read this since… well… I wrote it.

“Work on the FutureSplash Animator continued, the company became restless with the idea that they were too small to generate the popularity they were looking for, so in October of 1995 they tried selling the software technology to John Warnock at Adobe.

Although he was interested in the SmartSketch drawing software the slow demo of the FutureSplash animation in Java was not impressive enough, causing Adobe to decline.”

That’s just plain amusing now!

Posted by yoppy on 01/16 at 05:15 AM

Jonathan Gay’s was inspiring me, he’s great people kursus webthanks for this article, i loved very much flash, i’ve been using flash for a long time

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