Podcast 29: The great flash debate

Paul Boag

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 ;)