A brief history of web animation and its place in 2017

Websites have gone through a funny evolution when it comes to interactivity and animation, think of the big dips on a roller coaster ride or just the usual stock market graphs you see. Back in the early days of the web, things were static, dead static. No animation, no nothing, just boring old digital pieces of paper that linked to other pieces of paper shown on a screen pretty much.

This first changed when GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format, a digital file format) came on the scene. These were introduced by some horrible person (joke, sorry to the inventor Mr. Wilhite) who gave the world the amazing opportunity to spin your company logo in 360 degrees while being in 3D, or flash text obnoxiously at you in bright colours (I’ll spare you an example of the latter).

Basically the web in the early 2000s

This phase of the web thankfully died out soon enough in the next web cycle and along came Macromedia’s Flash (or Adobe’s Flash for you modern folk). Flash was awesome! I know it cops a bad name today, but back in the days before mass mobile use, Flash did exactly what it set out to do, animate anything and everything. All of a sudden you could literally animate any element in any matter, whether that be vectorised cartoon graphics or moving and fading of rasterised objects, and of course playing of video on an actual website.

Stop watching, keep reading…

I spent around a good 7 years or so being a Flash specialist, not only was it fun to work with, but at the time it was also the technology of choice for creating the most engaging and interactive websites.

When mobile came onto the scene, Flash started to die as it began its supreme battle, one to the death with a little known company called Apple. Apple with its dictatorship and authoritative market position, designated to block any use of Flash on all of its mobile/battery powered devices. This was more than just being a power play versus Adobe for corporate reasons, it actually had fair merit and it changed a part of the web industry right up to today in 2017.

Flash was banned by Apple to run in any of its browsers for mobile powered devices due to how CPU intensive the Flash player software was when running basically any SWFs (Shockwave Flash Files, i.e. exported Flash files for the web). I remember the days of being on my laptop and within seconds of running a Flash based website, my laptop CPU fan started ramping up into overdrive as I also check my PC task monitor and see my CPU usage hovering between 70–100% usage. To those who don’t understand why this is an issue, intensive CPU usage draws more electric power, which in turn runs out the battery significantly faster.

Apple took a high moral ground on what web technology should be in the new consumer era of mobile computing, and in turn had a massive battle with Adobe with advertising sledge matches as so much money was at play for each company.

Image credit: Russdesigns

Ultimately, Apple was the victor and in fairness it was the best outcome for the average consumer. So with the battle ended, so did animation on the web. GIFs with their funky (did I say funky? I meant cancerous) spinning and flashing texts had already long gone out of style and although Flash was still supported on PC, developers spoke with their code and started removing Flash from the web on any platform, for good.

After Flash’s death, the internet became once again static, non-animated… Until… CSS (Cascading Style Sheets, the current web standard), specifically CSS version 3. If Flash was the web’s animation V2, then CSS3 is the web’s animation V3, and unlike Flash, CSS3 is not a ridiculous hardware hog of CPU usage like Flash was. If you see an animated website or advertisements online today, it’s most likely CSS3 based.

So with that, we’ve now come full circle, and the animation of the web is once again in a growth period. Funny how history repeats itself in so many aspects of life, even technology.

Image credit: Minah Kim

My name is James Hazelton and I’m a web specialist. I’ve been designing, coding and producing websites since the year 2000. I am an owner and operator of Actualise Design. I also take photos on occasion.