What is SWF?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

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.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

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.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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