Adobe Flash powered most interactive content on the web throughout the 2000’s, but the introduction of the iPhone — and a directive from Apple CEO Steve Jobs — changed everything. Here’s how it happened.
The Rise of Flash
What eventually became Adobe Flash started out as an application called ‘SmartSketch,’ developed by FutureWave Software. SmartSketch was just a vector drawing application for pen computers, released in 1993. Frame-by-frame animation abilities were eventually added, and the app became FutureSplash Animator for Mac and PC.
Macromedia acquired FutureSplash in 1996, and the application was split into two products. Macromedia Flash would be used for creating animations, while Flash Player would allow anyone to play those animations without paying for any software. Importantly, Macromedia created a web browser plugin version of Flash Player, which allowed animations to run inside web pages.
The final piece of the puzzle for Flash’s world domination arrived in 2000, with the release of Flash 5.0. That update added the first version of the ActionScript programming language, which allowed Flash content to be interactive. Now Flash could be used for more than simple animations — it could handle everything from clickable menus to video players and complex web applications.
According to Macromedia, more than 98% of computers connected to the web in 2005 had Flash Player installed, and more than 100 manufacturers were building products with Flash built-in. That same year, Adobe purchased Macromedia for $3.4 billion in stock, officially turning Flash into an Adobe product.
Apple introduced the first iPhone in 2007, and even though the iPhone would go on to become one of the most important tech products ever, the original model was fairly limited. There was no App Store yet (that would have to wait until iOS 2.0 in 2008), it was only available on AT&T, 3G support was missing, it couldn’t sync with Microsoft Exchange accounts, and so on.
What the iPhone did have was a full-blown Safari web browser, complete with support for then-new web technologies like HTML5 video. However, there was no compatibility with web plugins, even ones that were present on other phones and PDAs at the time — including Adobe Flash. Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in March 2008 that the mobile version of Flash was “not capable of being used with the web, and said there needed to be a “middle ground” for the iPhone to add Flash support.
What Apple and Steve Jobs didn’t tell anyone, at least at the time, was that Apple and Adobe had already attempted to bring Flash to the iPhone. Scott Forstall, head of engineering at Apple at the time, revealed in a deposition from last year’s Epic Games v. Apple lawsuit that early efforts were not promising. “We tried to make Flash work. We helped Adobe. We definitely were interested,” Forstall said, “when we got it running on iOS, the performance was just abysmal and embarrassing and it could never get to something which would be consumer value add.”
Apple released the first iPhone SDK in March 2008, alongside the introduction of the App Store, allowing developers to (officially) create and distribute native iPhone apps for the first time. Adobe said later that year it was working on a version of Flash Player for iPhone using the SDK, but it was unclear at the time if Apple would ever allow it into the App Store. Even from the first days of the App Store, Apple blocked developers from creating apps that could download and run other executable code — which is why third-party web browser engines have never been available on iPhone and iPad. That automatically ruled out a typical Flash Player, but there were other options.
Adobe couldn’t make a Flash plugin for Safari on iPhone without Apple, but it could go in a different direction: allow developers to wrap their Flash content with a built-in runtime, and submit it to the App Store. By June 2008, Adobe had Flash running in Apple’s iPhone emulator. At the following year’s Adobe MAX event, the company showed a video featuring Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch (who ironically now works at Apple) and Creative Solutions SVP Johnny Loiacono in a parody of Mythbusters.
The video places both executives in the role of “hacking” a myth presented by “Steve from Cupertino” (Steve Jobs), who sent in a letter saying “it’s not possible to run Flash on the iPhone.” After a few gags, they call someone from Adobe, who says they just got Flash running on the iPhone.
Adobe complained to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission about Apple’s new rules, which started to investigate Apple for possible anti-trust violations. By August 2010, the FTC had nearly 200 pages of records related to the complaint, and refused Wired‘s FOIA request because “disclosure of that material could reasonably be expected to interfere with the conduct of the Commission’s law enforcement activities.” In other words, the FTC was gearing up for legal action.
Thoughts on Flash
The fights between Adobe and Apple culminated on April 29, 2010, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs published an open letter titled “Thoughts on Flash.” Jobs said in the letter, “Adobe has characterized our decision as being primarily business driven — they say we want to protect our App Store — but in reality it is based on technology issues. Adobe claims that we are a closed system, and that Flash is open, but in fact the opposite is true.”
The letter goes on to explain Apple’s (and Job’s) reasoning for blocking Flash on the iPhone. Most of the points focus on Flash being a “closed system” with poor battery life, touch screen support, performance, hardware decoding for video, and security. Jobs also highlighted that many of Flash’s capabilities could be handled with HTML5 video and other features the iPhone supported, and if Flash developers have to update their code to support touch screens and iPhones anyway, they should just go all the way and rewrite their apps in native or web code.
Jobs’ letter was definitely hypocritical in some areas — some of his points about Flash being a closed system could also be applied to Apple’s App Store — but most of his points were still valid. He ended with, “perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.”
Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen was interviewed shortly afterward. He called the letter an “extraordinary attack,” and denied claims about excessive battery drain. “We have different views of the world,” he said, “our view of the world is multi-platform.”
A Victory Too Late
Perhaps due to likely legal action from the FTC, Apple changed its developer agreements again in September 2010. The company now allowed app developers to use whatever tools they wanted, including Adobe Flash, “as long as the resulting apps do not download any code.” Shortly afterward, Adobe resumed development on its Flash-to-iPhone compiler.
Unfortunately for Adobe, the world had already started to move on from Flash. More sites were being updated to support HTML5 video, or offered native apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, and other mobile platforms. Adobe discontinued Flash Player for all mobile devices in 2011, leaving packaging tools (like the one now permitted by Apple) as the only way to run Flash software on Android and other mobile platforms.
Flash was also slowly falling out of favor on desktop platforms, mostly due to its long-running security problems. Apple used its malware protection system to block Flash Player from running on Mac nearly every time a security vulnerability was discovered, for example.
Adobe Flash was officially discontinued on all platforms on December 31, 2020. Most web browsers had already dropped support for the Flash plugin at that point, and Microsoft pushed out updates for Windows that removed Flash if it was installed.
Flash had an incredible effect on computers, and it paved the way for modern web applications. However, by 2010, it was definitely time to move on — and Steve Jobs arguably gave the industry a little push.
This story was originally an episode of Tech Tales, a podcast that covers technology history.