Great news for everyone concerned about the Flash end of life planned for end of 2020: The Internet Archive is now emulating Flash animations, games and toys in our software collection.
Utilizing an in-development Flash emulator called Ruffle, we have added Flash support to the Internet Archive’s Emularity system, letting a subset of Flash items play in the browser as if you had a Flash plugin installed. While Ruffle’s compatibility with Flash is less than 100%, it will play a very large portion of historical Flash animation in the browser, at both a smooth and accurate rate.
We have a showcase of the hand-picked best or representative Flash items in this collection. If you want to try your best at combing through a collection of over 1,000 flash items uploaded so far, here is the link.
You will not need to have a flash plugin installed, and the system works in all browsers that support Webassembly.
For many people: See you later! Enjoy the Flash stuff!
Others might get this far down and ask “And what exactly is Flash?” or even “I haven’t thought about Flash in a very long time.” For both of these groups, let’s talk about Flash and what it represented in the 1990s and 2000s.
A Short History of of the Rise of Flash
In the early 1990s, web browsers were incredibly powerful compared to what came before – with simple files written in HTML that could generate documents that were mixing images and text, as well as providing links to other websites, it felt like nothing for computers had ever had this level of ease and flexibility. It really did change everything.
But people didn’t stay in a state of wonder.
It quickly became a request, then a demand, then a mission to allow animation, sound, and greater audio/video flexibility into webpages. A huge range of companies were on a mission to make this happen. While looking back it might seem like one or two tried, it was actually a bunch of companies, but out of the wreckage of experimentation and effort came a couple big winners: Shockwave and Flash.
Flash had once been called SmartSketch in 1993, which was rewritten as FutureWave, and was actually a challenger to Shockwave until purchased by Macromedia, who handled creation software and playback software for both products.
Flash had many things going for it – the ability to compress down significantly made it a big advantage in the dial-up web era. It could also shift playback quality to adjust to a wide variety of machines. Finally, it was incredibly easy to use – creation software allowed a beginner or novice to make surprisingly complicated and flexible graphic and sound shows that ran beautifully on web browsers without requiring deep knowledge of individual operating systems and programming languages.
From roughly 2000 to 2005, Flash was the top of the heap for a generation of creative artists, animators and small studios. Literally thousands and thousands of individual works were released on the web. Flash could also be used to make engaging menu and navigation systems for webpages, and this was used by many major and minor players on the Web to bring another layer of experience to their users. (There were, of course, detractors and critics of use of Flash this way – accessibility was a major issue and the locked-in nature of Flash as a menu system meant it was extremely brittle and prone to errors on systems as time went on.)
This period was the height of Flash. Nearly every browser could be expected to have a “Flash Plugin” to make it work, thousands of people were experimenting with Flash to make art and entertainment, and an audience of millions, especially young ones, looked forward to each new release.
However, cracks appeared on the horizon.
The Downfall of Flash
Macromedia was acquired by Adobe in 2005, who renamed Flash to Adobe Flash and began extensive upgrades and changes to the Flash environment. Flash became a near operating system in itself. But these upgrades brought significant headaches and security problems. Backwards compatibility became an issue, as well as losing interest by novice creators. Social networks and platforms became notably hostile to user-created artworks being loaded in their walled gardens.
It all came to a head in 2010, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs released an open letter called “Thoughts on Flash”. The letter was criticized and received strong condemnation from Adobe, and Apple ultimately backed off their plan (although work was done to support alternate tools).
The call-out, even if not initially successful, ended the party.
In November of 2011, Adobe announced it was ending support of Flash for mobile web browsers, and in 2017, announced it was discontinuing Flash altogether for 2020.
Flash’s final death-blow was the introduction of HTML 5 in 2014. With its ground-up acknowledgement of audio and video items being as important as text and images, HTML 5 had significant support for animation, sound and video at the browser level. This mean increased speed, compatibility, and less concern about a specific plugin being installed and from what source – audio/video items just worked and Flash, while still used in some quarters and certainly needed to view older works, stopped being the go-to approach for web designers.
What Are We Losing When We Lose Flash?
Like any container, Flash itself is not as much of a loss as all the art and creativity it held. Without a Flash player, flash animations don’t work. It’s not like an image or sound file where a more modern player could still make the content accessible in the modern era. If there’s no Flash Player, there’s nothing like Flash, which is a tragedy.
As you’ll see in the collection at the Archive, Flash provided a gateway for many young creators to fashion near-professional-level games and animation, giving them the first steps to a later career. Companies created all sorts of unique works that became catchphrases and memes for many, and memories they can still recall. Flash also led to unusual side-paths like “advergames”, banners that played full games to entice you to buy a product. Clones of classic arcade games abounded, as well as truly twisted and unique experiences unfettered by needing a budget or committee to come to reality. A single person working in their home could hack together a convincing program, upload it to a huge clearinghouse like Newgrounds, and get feedback on their work. Some creators even made entire series of games, each improving on the last, until they became full professional releases on consoles and PCs.
Why We Emulate Flash
The Internet Archive has moved aggressively in making a whole range of older software run in the browser over the past decade. We’ve done this project, The Emularity, because one of our fundamental tenets is Access Drives Preservation; being able to immediately experience a version of the software in your browser, while not perfect or universal, makes it many times more likely that support will arrive to preserve these items.
Flash is in true danger of sinking beneath the sea, because of its depending on a specific, proprietary player to be available. As Adobe Flash is discontinued, many operating systems will automatically strip the player out of the browser and system. (As of this writing, it is already coming to fruition a month before the end-of-life deadline.) More than just dropping support, the loss of the player means the ability of anyone to experience Flash is dropping as well. Supporting Ruffle is our line in the sand from oblivion’s gaze.
Credit Where Due
This project is by no means an Internet Archive-only production, although assistance from Dan Brooks, James Baicoianu, Tracey Jacquith, Samuel Stoller and Hank Bromley played a huge part.
The Ruffle Team has been working on their emulator for months and improving it daily. (Ruffle welcomes new contributors for the project at ruffle.rs.)
The BlueMaxima Flashpoint Project has been working for years to provide a desktop solution to playable web animation and multimedia, including Flash. Clocking in at nearly 500 gigabytes of data and growing, the project is located here: https://bluemaxima.org/flashpoint/
A shout-out to Guy Sowden, who first drafted the inclusion of Ruffle in the Emularity before it was refined elsewhere; your efforts set the ball rolling.
And finally, a huge thanks to the community of Flash creators whose creative and wonderful projects over the years led to inspiration in its preservation. We hope you’ll like your new, permanent home.
Bonus Section: Adding Your Own Flash Animations to the Archive!
For the creators, artists and collectors who have .swf files from the era of Flash and would like to see them uploaded to the Archive and working like our collection, here’s some simple instructions to do so.
Please note: Ruffle is a developing emulator, and compatibility with SWF files is continually improving but is not perfect. They have provided a test environment here to see if your SWF file will work. Please take the time to test before uploading to the Archive.
The Archive looks for one mediatype setting (software) and two metadata pairs set (emulator and emulator_ext) to know whether an item can be run in the Ruffle emulator. Here are those two settings:
emulator set to ruffle-swf
emulator_ext set to swf
The emulator only works with a single SWF file at the moment, which should have no spaces in it. With all these conditions in place, the swf item should be offered up to play and the emulator should work.
When uploading to the Archive, accurate or complete descriptions, title, creation date, are all optional but strongly encouraged to provide context for users. Additionally, if you create an image file (jpg, png or gif) and name it itemname_screenshot.ext,, like itemname_screenshot.png, it will become the official screenshot and thumbnail for the item. Notice how we named things here:
We’re here to help you if you run into any snags or issues. There’s no other location on the internet that does things quite this way, so if you do run into problems, feel free to mail Jason Scott about tech support and whatever assistance can be given will be provided.