Podcast 29: The great flash debate

Flash is one of those web technologies that always generate a lot of debate. In this episode of boagworld.com Marcus and Paul go head to head arguing the pros and cons of this controversial plug-in.

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Marcus and I have never really agreed when it comes to flash. Marcus is easily seduced by anything that animates or "shows off" in someway. I on the other hand take a much more balanced view, believing that flash is the spawn of the devil adding nothing to the web but accessibility and usability problems (hell its my blog, I can be completely bias if I want!). So with that in mind we decide to fight it out in the great flash debate:

The case in favour of flash

To be frank Marcus’ argument was appallingly weak and I can barely bring myself to repeat it in these notes. However, in the interests of fairness here is the crux of his argument.

  • Macromedia claim that Flash is available on well over 90% of the world’s computers.
  • That unlike HTML, CSS and even to some degree JavaScript, Flash renders fairly consistently across all browsers. This makes it a dependable and consistent development environment.
  • There are something’s that Flash just does better or that are simply impossible using other technologies.
  • That flash is the ultimate attention grabber with flash sites being far more visually engaging than HTML sites.
  • Flash advertising has a 5 times higher click through rate than HTML adverts. This demonstrates that people respond to it better.
  • With the number of people on broadband continuing to rise there is an ever greater demand for rich media content which utilises the increased bandwidth.

The case against flash

Although I was forced to grudgingly agree with some of Marcus’ points I wasn’t willing to give up without a fight. My valiant response went something like this:

  • Despite Macromedia’s outrageous claims about availability, ultimately Flash is a plug-in and so not everybody has it.
  • Search engines find it hard to spider flash files and so can have an adverse effect on your sites ranking.
  • Flash encourages poor practices including (but not limited to):
    • Mystery meat navigation
    • Annoying animation and sound
    • The "its art damn it" argument against making the things usable
    • A failure to test across different operating systems and browsers
    • As well as being hard to spider for search engines, flash also creates all kinds of accessibility problems for speech browsers.
    • By default flash breaks the back button in your browser
    • By default flash breaks bookmarking of specific parts of your flash application.
    • It is a closed format (no view source) preventing the cross fertilisation of techniques and ideas.
    • It doesn’t print well using the default browser print functionality.
    • Flash is often bandwidth intensive so penalising dial up users.
    • A lot of corporate environments actively block flash.
    • Flash is also often reliant on JavaScript creating even more accessibility problems.

I could have gone on. For example I could have mentioned IE’s latest problems supporting flash. But I guess I had made my point :)

The happy middle ground

Although we had a lot of fun arguing our corners, the reality is far less black and white. Like all technologies Flash can be used for good or evil. It is how you use it that matters not the technology itself. Flash is great for complex applications like mapping or horrendously long forms. It’s incredible at communicating complex ideas through audio, video or animation but even in these situations it can be used badly. Unless you know exactly the audience and user platform (like for some corporate intranets) you should always offer a more accessible alternative. You should avoid making entire sites in flash and using it too heavily for navigation which can not only cause accessibility problems but also search engine ranking issues.

Have your say

So what do you think? If you had your way would you ban flash from the web. Or do you believe that flash is the next natural evolution and we can all throw our HTML books away. Let’s see if we can’t start a flame war in the comments ;)

  • Great podcast! I really enjoyed it.
    I agree greatly with the final conclusion of the debate, which is a happy medium and “proper use” of flash.
    Alot of debate seemed like it addressed worst case flash usage (whole site done in flash) vs using it to enhance a site.

  • Mikael Piotrowski

    I heard your bashing against Marcus in the beginning of the podcast and I have to correct you. You can actually use WinXP on an intel based Mac and you don’t have to hack. However the facility for this, Boot Camp, is still in beta… but it is definately “official” as Marcus said it. :)
    Anyhow, great podcast and I love to hear more. Keep up the good work.

  • John

    I agree flash is one of those programs that make it difficult to decide to use in a website or not.
    true flash has some amazing navigational applications like at http://www.neostream.com
    enter version 8 itmay seem like nothing is happening at first but once the loading sreen is done they have a rather ingenius and inspiring menu for people who want to see the potential of flash. They could do with a html menu for accessibility but it is a great site to have a look at they intergrate 3D with flash in an interactive menu based around a character.
    Flash can be used for some amazing applications if you no what you are doing but you can get similar results from director mx and image ready. Although longer to produce then flash.
    I agree a whole site in flash isnt the best way n doesnt appeal to me but the benifits of careful chosen elemnets done in flash can make a difference in how your site ranks with users – If used wisely

  • Carl Wells

    Nice to hear an intelligent ;-) discussion on the use of Flash vs HTML.
    I am in the “I Love Flash’ camp yet I would shy away from using Flash in all sites. I am currently designing a site where it would be inappropriate to use Flash other than to add subtle animation or to present movies. It’s important that the site is accessible and the users are not all that web savvy.
    Yet Flash is fantastic for experimental work, art, animation, applications, games etc.
    At the moment Flash cannot compete with HTML for accessibility but it is getting better. (see http://www.macromedia.com/resources/accessibility/flash8/author.html
    I would say that it all comes down to using the technology appropriately.

  • In the show you mentioned that there wasn’t official support for running XP an a mac.
    It’s official now!

  • Hi Mick,
    yeah I know. Cool isnt it. Unfortunately this podcast was recorded a week ago so it is out of date already. Amazing how fast things move isnt it!

  • I liked the flash debate between yourself and Marcus. I myself use flash, but only in a limited way now. I used to have flash on every page, especially flash navigation, but after listening to one of your previous podcasts I decided that wasn’t the way to go. So now I have only one page, the intro page, with flash. I have some questions to ask you so I will drop you an email
    Hilo, Hawaii

  • Dave Scott

    Great podcast. I always enjoy listening to you guys, both as a developer, and as owner and manger of several sites.
    As to the “Great Flash Debate,” I’ve muddled around with Flash over the years, and have developed the opinion of hating it with a passion. This is mostly due to advertisers, but is also influenced by the rampant use of pointless and annoying sounds that I don’t want to hear.
    As my abilities as a developer have grown, and as I have delved deeper into the semantic/valid/accessible camp, my dislike of Flash has also grown. As you discussed in the podcast, Flash breaks the user interface and is reliant on scripting languages for communication outside of itself, both of which are recipes for disaster in a site that needs to be accessible.
    Granted, I have seen some incredible Flash web sites ( http://www.2advanced.com anyone?), but for the majority of web sites, Flash is something that should never be considered. I’m slowly turning my opinion around to your conclusion – the proper application of Flash can enhance a site, but the developer/designer should always check themselves to ensure that they aren’t crossing the “Flash for the sake of Flash” line. We need to ensure that whatever we add to a site, be it Flash, Ajax, animations, etc. should add value to the user experience, not just be there for the sake of “cool.”

  • here’s a link regarding flash nd the back button, first posted in 2001 aparently.

  • Thats pretty impressive Mick, I must say. Is it a lot of work to implement? Of course it doesnt work with Javascript disabled but it is still significant progress.

  • Fun debate, guys!
    A lot of Flash’s “problems” are similar to those that (ab)using AJAX can cause, e.g. difficulty bookmarking current state, broken back button, mismatch with user’s expectations/usability, problems with accessibility.
    However an advantage AJAX has over Flash is that AJAX’s reliance on “open” source code & components means people are capable of working-out solutions much more quickly than Adobe/Macromedia can implement them.

  • Hi Paul,
    Usually I love the show although I have a couple of issues with this last episode.
    Full disclosure, I am a flash/actionscript developer. Also I’ve been a traditional HTML/CSS/JS developer for a while as well.
    I’m not going to go point-by-point on each of your arguments because I think my main issue was with your repeated use of the “by default” arguments and the “promotes” arguments. Flash can be used badly. Very badly. However, it’s up to the developer to do their job. Granted, it’s a pain to make the browser do what you want sometimes, and you’re absolutely right, it’s not as accessible as a pure HTML/CSS page.
    But there are times when it does the best job. The most important point, however, is that it comes down to the developer to test on every available platform and installation situation, it’s up to the developer to create usable designs and navigation, it’s up to the developer to choose sound and animation well. “It’s art damn it” is never a good argument no matter who the developer is. I’m sure you get my point.
    Lastly, no offense to Marcus intended, but he’s not the right guy to have on in a debate about flash. He’s just not. I really appreciate what Marcus brings to the show in a big way. It’s great to hear the non-techie side of things. But it’s unfair to have a debate in which the opposing side doesn’t have a comparable amount of knowledge and experience with actually developing flash.
    So there’s my rant. I love the show otherwise, keep up the good work.

  • Hi Kevin,
    I dont think you have much to rant about really mate. We addresses each and every one of the points you list above in the show as well as in the notes above. I think you will find we are agreeing :)
    I would totally agree that flash just simply does some stuff better and I would agree it is a tool that can be used for good or evil. All of this we covered in the show.
    I dont think we said anything inaccurate, but correct me if I am wrong.
    I think you are worrying unneccessarily. The trouble is whenever you are passionate about something you only hear in the criticisms. Its like when I hear podcasts or read blogs about web standards I only ever take in the bad things they say because the good stuff I take for granted. If you listen to the podcast back we say a lot of good stuff about flash and agree it is a tool that can do great things in the right hands.

  • Most of the comments you made were based on a Flash sites or the horrible Flash banners and intros that were the blight of the web a few years ago. Good use of flash is not this! I could point you to all sorts of bad HTML sites but you wouldn’t say that it was a reason not to use HTML!
    We had a flash application developed, and to be honest it was the only way to achieve what we wanted. This was a visual design system, using a drag and drop approach to configure server racks. You may say that we could have done this with AJAX, but this would not have given us the advantage of vector based drawings, zooming in on areas, and the potential to export to CAD in the future.
    At the same time we have an HTML way to achieve the same result in much the same way as you would with different versions of browsers. This is just good web design and really relates to both flash or HTML.
    I also take exception to your comments about laziness. In fact we had quite a few font issues on different machines and ended up testing across multi platforms, browsers etc. Yes we could have just left it to render as it wanted to, but good designers will not do that whether they are flash or HTML.
    You mention breaking the back button as an issue, but in the right application you don’t use the back button. In our app for example it is designed so that to be honest you never really think of the back button.
    The print problem you mention is also not just a flash problem. As I am sure you are aware many CSS designs print terribly, to the extent that a printable version is offered. The same applies to flash!
    The closed format in our case was also an advantage. As we had this developed we hardly want our competitors ripping of our code and dumping it on their site with a few minor modifications.
    I really don’t follow your comments on bandwidth. Our whole web app is a few hundred kB. I have tried it on dial up and it works fine on that too, as once it is loaded….
    Like all technologies Flash has its killer apps and limitations. Good designers know when they can use flash to help emphasis a point, or make something easier than it otherwise would be. The same goes with AJAX, java and many of the other web technologies.
    Paul, open your mind to the possibilities and use Flash to your advantage.

  • Wow Simon. You sound very passionate. Good for you. I dont agree with some of what you have outlined above but most I do and in fact we did say that there are situations where flash is the right choice :) I suggest you listen to the podcast again. You might feel differently about what I said. The podcast wasnt a personal attack on you or what you are doing on your site, so I suggest that you dont take it as such :)

  • I think everyone is taking the podcast the wrong way.
    My interperetation was not that Paul was saying “Flash is the worst thing that happened to the web, no one should use it.” more than he prefers to resort to flash when you can’t get the job done by more accessible means (CSS/HTML/AJAX/etc)
    Marcus’ side was more that you shouldn’t be so stingy in using flash, because it does have a lot of benifits and places.
    Thats my two cents :)

  • Ruth

    I can’t get this one to download. Been trying for days and it just doesn’t want to play :o(
    Ah well, hardly likely to use Flash anyway.

  • Paul,
    Didn’t ever take it as an attack mate, but you seem to be confusing problems with flash with problems with bad design. As a designer I thought that you would have spotted this.
    Read through my post again and you will see that I have just gone through your points and tried to answer them. I have just done it in my typical short manner! Sorry if you took this the wrong way. I usually don’t have that much time so I can be a bit blunt!
    I guess the real problem with flash is that its roots are probably not those that encouraged its use by graphic designers. However this has changed. There are still a high proportion of dodgy flash developers out there who are probably only to keen to flog someone a flash intro that is just going to annoy everyone that sees it, however there are others who do really good innovative work. Flex will further improve this, and potentially allow some linkage between flash and AJAX, which could be very interesting.
    Have you had a look at Goowy (www.goowy.com) and Pandora (www.pandora.com) as great examples of sites done in flash. I have to say that I would not go all flash myself, but these are great and very useful sites demonstrating what can be done and how unintrusive it can be.
    You may not like the Goowy interface as it has been modelled on MacOSX ,a proper operating system, not like that Windows stuff that you guys are stuck in;-). Get Marcus a Mac, as with Bootcamp he can run those dodgy Windows things you like, but will probably find when he gets into a real operating system he won’t bother!

  • Flash is all too often badly designed, You should look at all of the technologies and consider them equally, taking in consideration the accessibility and other issues, and utilising them in the right situation.
    Ah, as for Mac and Windows, Windows has some nice open-source and cheap apps that can be run on it, however for most creative work use CS on Mac OSX, you cant beat an Intel Mac now :p

  • I forgot to say, I dont think uninformed clients should ask for a flash site for the sake of it… Use the best tool for the job…

  • You seem to be confusing problems with flash with problems with bad design. As a designer I thought that you would have spotted this.
    Some of the points Paul raised were:
    It’s got serious accessibility problems
    Search engines find Flash sites hard to index
    Flash navigation sucks
    None of those points are to do with bad design, they’re problems with Flash itself.
    That’s not to say there’s no place for Flash, but that it’s not an alternative to HTML web pages.

  • I agree that flash has some accessibility issues, and that there should always be an accessable HTML alternative for something that is a functional part of your site. That is the approach that we took, and I would hope most other people would too.
    However…and Paul isn’t going to like this, but for arguements sake…say you have a client that definately wants some flash eye candy on their site, and you can find a way that it actually fits the design of the site, without effecting usability. Lets say for example that it is a flash animated graphic. If this is not a functional part of your site is accessibility such a huge issue? This would be pretty much akin to missing off an alt tag.
    I know that you will say that this would be against all accessibility rules, as would be missing off an alt tag, but if you have ever used a screen reader, will this really effect your usage of the site so much?
    Say you put in an alternative gif. How does that effect things?
    The point I am trying to make here is yes there are flash accessibility issues, which are being improved, but used sensibly flash does not have to be excluded from a site based on these concerns. If flash offers you an advantage in something then use it.

  • I dont disagree with you hugely. The only thing I would say is how does a blind user (or user without flash) know that this isnt actually important content. It should still have a title tag or alternative text saying what it is. To be honest its easy enough in the example you gave just to drop in a gid alternative. Whats the big deal?

  • Lets say for example that it is a flash animated graphic. If this is not a functional part of your site is accessibility such a huge issue?
    It’s NOT an accessibility issue. Period.
    Accessibility (in the narrower sense of making sites usable to disabled people) requires you to ensure that a disabled person can access all content and undertake any task that your website provides.
    If you’ve got a purely decorative flash animation (say a spinning 3D logo) and your site’s otherwise accessible then a blind person will be able to:
    a) Access all the content of your site that a sighted person can
    b) Perform any task that a sighted person can
    So provided you embeded the swf file correctly in the page (with a title attribute as Paul suggested) your site’s accessible.
    However, if you use Flash to do anything non-decorative, such as having a Flash form or using Flash for navigation then Flash is less accessible than well-coded HTML.
    Of course, you could double your workload and provide an HTML-only version of the site. But why bother? Why not just do anything functional in HTML?

  • Great Debate. However as you might have heard last week Microsoft added another obstacle to Flash / and other ActiveX driven apps with their glorious update.
    Or, in MS own words:”After you install this update, you cannot interact with ActiveX controls from certain Web pages until these controls are enabled. To enable an ActiveX control, manually click the control.”
    As most users have automatic updates selected they are suddenly confronted with a non usuable interface which they now have to activate. One of our clients notified us on this matter and asked why we are putting nitty frames around their neat flash content…

  • Hi Andreas,
    we cover this in epiosde 30.

  • Graeme

    Why is it, that people say “oh I think that Macs are a better product, and good and more efficient,” etc etc. and then turn round and say “but I won’t buy one because they’re not the lowest common denominator” or words to that effect.
    The reason they’re not more common is because people like you ( influential people) say they’re not common.
    Now before you dismiss me as another Mac crank, think about this:
    Professional tradesman buy and use professional tools. Why on earth would you want to use an inferior tool?
    You already don’t use IE as standard ( why would you?)
    why would you put up with Windows as your base OS?
    Buy a Mac, you know you want to, and with boot camp, and Parallels now coming available, you can test in those other OS’s
    ( most software can be cross-graded too although a lot of good software comes with OSX standard anyway)
    Along the same lines
    if Flash files are created properly, with vector graphics, they are much more accessible than many websites which use Windows specific code ( and there are quire a few) because there are more computers with Flash than there are Windows PCs on the Web. Being created with vector graphics , the downloads are very small, and can include non text based information that is accessible to those with literacy issues, and can even be accompanied with audio, to help, which is compressed better and is more accessible ( via Flash) than any other sound file type.
    Video can also be included when necessary at much smaller downloads and much more accessible than any other format.
    When integrated into a standards based web site I think you have a good balance of functionality and accessibility.
    Some large corporate environments allow Flash while blocking other technologies because of the better security offered by Flash. I think this will increase.
    Just my 2c worth

  • Professional tradesman buy and use professional tools. Why on earth would you want to use an inferior tool?
    That’s not a fair comparison.
    If you’re a plumber then the little old lady whose boiler you’ve just fixed doesn’t need to use the same tools as you.
    If you’re a web designer you need to make sure your sites work for people with PCs which is the vast majority.
    Personally, I use a mac to design my sites BUT I have a Windoze laptop by my side to test my designs in IE and Firefox.
    But if your budget is tight then having a PC but not a Mac is a better option than the other way round.
    If Flash files are created properly, with vector graphics, they are much more accessible than many websites which use Windows specific code ( and there are quire a few) because there are more computers with Flash than there are Windows PCs on the Web.
    You seem to be misunderstanding what “accessibility” is generally taken to mean.
    It’s not about how many people can see your site correctly based on the system they’ve got (although that’s important – and the answer should alway be 100% – there’s no excuse not to) it’s about whether disabled people can use your site.
    If your site uses Windows-specific code (and it’s really NOT that many – if a site works on Firefox on Windows it’ll work on Safari almost always) then it makes very little difference to the accessibility of the site as 99.9999999% of people who are blind, partially sighted or can’t use a mouse don’t use Windows over OS X as, despite it’s many other flaws, it is much more accessible.

  • Now that is a can of worms if ever I heard one, Windows is more accessible than OSX!!!???
    Have you had a look at OSX recently? Seen, or should I say heard Voiceover, which is supplied as standard on the Mac, and has no Windows equivalent.
    BTW – What I don’t understand in MS latest update to put barriers in front of Flash. My view was that it was for a security issue, but we just put a work around on our app and ‘Bob;s your uncle’ as they say. No click through. Seems poor security to me!

  • hi there im not sure if you will be interested or not but i recently had a meeting with one of the lightmaker.com directors. sorry not name dropping :P
    however on his visit he was a little uptight about details but aparently his code wizzards have found a realistic meathod for indexuing pure flash websites in search engines. i thought you might want to know, its not really insider info but again it could be usful to someone like you.
    thought i would let you know so it might help change your mind on flash :)

  • Ed

    You really have to be careful with what you make in Flash.

  • One of the biggest issues I have working with Flash in a large team of developers is it’s binary format*.
    Flash, by it’s nature, makes you combine many, otherwise unique files into one file. So I Fred needs to change some text on pg. 3; he has to wait for Jane to finish with the button design, save it, transfer the file, Fred makes the change, and gives it back. Do this a few times and you’ll be asking who has the latest version.
    Arguable the same could happen with a text file, so enter a version control system (CVS, SVN, etc). While text files are nice and small updates are a quick (re- network transfers), Flash source files (.fla) however are much larger. Along with this you loose the gift of ‘diff’ (to view differences in versions) and goo luck doing a merge if a few people make changes to the same file at once. You’ll also probably find that your version control system makes an entirely new copy of each binary file for each revision, where text file changes are tracked to save on disc space.
    Another big pitfall for using Flash is you need the expensive OS restrictive tools to make changes. In the podcast Paul said that a contact had made a massive form using Flash on an Intranet and was all for it. Now imagine that a single field needed to be added to that form. In most big businesses the back-end developer on his Linux box could update the database thn easily and quickly edit the HTML (copy and paste and update an existing field) and the changes would be ready instantly.
    With Flash, not only can the .swf not be updated, but even if the .fla was sourced, he’d still be out of luck as the Flash IDE does not run on Linux. And even if he was on Windows, he’d still require a licensed copy to be installed and then know how to use the interface and where to look for the fields. This is not something you could expect a back-end programmer to do, while a simple HTML change would not be something new to most programmers.
    Above all this I think Adobemedia showed it themselves why Flash is not the best tool to use in a team environment with their switch of their newsletter from Flash to HTML. See http://mountainash8.blogspot.com/2006/08/adobe-staff-dump-on-flash.html
    * I know you can pull out most scripting and bitmaps and include them at compile or run time – but you’ve just made more work for yourself and you’ll still be stuck with at least one .fla that needs compiling for each change.

  • Blue Edge are a Multimedia Company Based in Brighton. We specialise in flash development for the web and make a lot of sites using flash, some full flash sites and some with disparate parts. I agree that using flash properly in the right context is very important, some good advice in this article especially about accessability.
    If your building a full flash site there should alwaysan HTML alternative for something that is a functional part of your site. If you combine this with a php database system it can be painless once the site is running to make sure content is avaialable in both sites

  • @ Jim: A very good point and it’s good to see you practise what you preach with your own site. However your site is a pefect example of what is becoming a sterotype of most web design business’s that use Flash heavily; there knowlegde of the fundamental HTML is lacking (your site is in serious need of a CSS file to minimise the repetition of inline style attributes on all your elements).
    Also I think it’s probably a good practise to put your HTML alternative on a unique URL. Having the same content on the same page twice (in Flash and HTML) makes for a very heavy page. The browser, if it supports Flash, will still download the HTML even if it’s not displayed to the user.

  • Thats true you will get very heavy pages if you combine everything all into one. I have been using a javascirpt ro detect flash version and then automatically pushing people to either a html or full flash site depending if they can see it. Im not sure how this may work with search engines, but it seems ok so far, all our content is being fully indexed as engines find the html site, but users see the flash version

  • Flash websites certainly seem to provide a much richer user experience in many cases, especially when combined with php or other scripting langauges to allow the content to be more dynamic.
    The whole search engine thing is the biggest problem though, surely there must be some way to develop text data in a way that can be spidered

  • Sarah

    Just looking over the oldest notes on podcasts and decided now to make a html friendly site for other users to read.
    Thanks for the great podcasts, and keep it up!

  • He he, great argument.
    Whether flash is controversial or not, the truth is it is some form of standard. I don’t really know one person who doesn’t have it installed, to be honest. As far as design goes, Flash is not THE standard, but it is definitely a type of standard. Whether you like it or not, it’s here to stay, and it HAS made quite a difference to the way the web works.
    In fact, I think the arguments FOR it were actually pretty strong :) But then again, it’s all about the middle ground, eh?

  • I can still remember my days with the Affiliate Marketing people. When working with affiliate applications, we would immediately decline any site that has flash. But now, everything changed and rules have become lenient. Even sites with sound or music along with flash were already accepted.