What is SWF?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2016
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SWF is a file format extension. It was originally developed in 1995 for the Netscape® plug-in API (Application Programming Interface) to allow web browsers to play back animation without using Java®. The plug-in, designed for simple drawing and animation on the web, was originally called FutureSplash Animator™ and the developing company was called FutureWave®. The developers tried unsuccessfully to sell the software to Adobe® and turned down Fractal Design®, shipping the software in 1996.

In the summer of 1996, Microsoft® used FutureSplash® in its MSN® (MicroSoft Network) launch and Disney® Online, which was working with Macromedia® Shockwave® in other capacities, used FutureSplash® for their Disney® Daily Blast. This was how Macromedia® came to hear of the product, and later in 1996, Macromedia® purchased it, renamed the product Flash®, and developed it into a full multimedia development environment.


Because Macromedia® used the web plug-in called ShockWave® for several multimedia products, including Flash®, the MIME type of Flash is application/x-shockwave-flash. The file designation was made to be SWF, as an acronym for “ShockWave Flash.” Shockwave®, however, is a separate authoring package, and because of confusion, and along with a purchase of Macromedia® by Adobe® in 2005, SWF was reconceived as standing for “Small Web Format.” The SWF format can deliver vector graphics, video, text, and sound on the Internet with support from Adobe® Flash® Player and Adobe AIR™ software. Estimates in early 2010 claimed that 70–80% of the video material on the Internet were in Flash® format, i.e., SWF files, and that more than 98% of desktop computers that were Internet-enabled had Flash® Player.

SWF is the native export format for Adobe® Flash®, the multimedia authoring software, but other files can be converted to SWF format using converters or converted from SWF format to other formats. A controversy around the SWF file format arose in spring of 2010, when Apple® changed the iPhone® developer license agreement to specify that apps for the iPhone® need to be originally written in a programming language approved by Apple®. This rules out development in the Flash® CS5 release for 2010, which was specifically designed to allow developers to build apps in Flash® and them port them to other platforms.


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