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Why Flash is Still Oh, So Wrong for So Many

Posted: December 31st, 1969 | Author: | Filed under: JavaScript, Programming, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | No Comments »

Why Flash is Still Oh, So Wrong for So Many

Picture of Irv Owens Web DeveloperI have recently come under some minor pressure from various factions about why, while knowing Flash fairly well, I am always reluctant to design and build a flash site featuring the technology. My history with Flash is pretty much the same as most other developers. My first versions of this very site three or four years ago were made entirely in Flash, as were many of my customers sites. Flash seemed like the way to go. It rendered the same in every browser, fonts weren't an issue, and it allowed an incredible amount of freedom to create.

So why then were my sites so problematic. The first issue was one of bandwidth. I had music and lots of motion on these sites. They were extremely interactive and eye catching. The problems came up when users had to come to my site using dial-up. When they hit the site and saw the loading bar, the first thing they did was to click back and go on to another site. My webtrends illuminated this for me. My next step was to go more minimal, which is my favorite thing to do, but then I wondered why I was using Flash at all, because now the motion was mostly gone, and so was the majority of the interactivity. I was using flash simply for the z-index, and I was finding that I could do this with CSS. So, not to be deterred, I did another redesign that kept the motion and interactivity, but minimized the huge bitmap graphics that were giving me the long download times. Instead, I used vector graphics. These were much smaller, but now I had a new problem. If my clients didn't have at least a Pentium 4 running at greater than 2 GHz, my site ran slowly, so slowly that it was almost unusable.

The next issue was that in all the time I had my site, I could never find it using search engines. I discovered that search engines couldn't index my site because they couldn't see through the Flash. To the spider, my site looked like a huge gif in a HTML file with some meta-tags. In other words, it looked like nothing. I tried alt tags, no script tags, etc… but nothing helped. Finally, I decided to design an alternate site for dial-up users using good ol' XHTML and CSS. I found that as soon as I uploaded the file, the search engines had me, and no one ever visited my Flash site anymore.

Suffice it to say that I took my Flash site down. Later, I would redisign my site again so that it would adhere to web standards and could render even faster for all users. That site is this one, and it is the first that I am happy with. I am enjoying some minor success with getting listed on search engines and blog aggregators, and life is good.

I don't hate Flash any more than I hate Allen wrenches or crowbars. It is a tool, and typically you try to use the right tool for the job. It seems to me that many web developers, however are trying to use a sledgehammer to staple two pages together. It just doesn't work. In some cases Flash is OK. In corporate settings, Flash is an excellent tool for presentations, product demonstrations, promotional materials delivered through the company intranet, or from the presenter's local hard drive, as long as it doesn't have to be delivered over the web.

There are a few cases where it is perfectly reasonable for designer / developers to build flash-only web sites for people. Art sites, such as photography showcases can benefit from Flash and its fantastic bitmap compression. Flash photography sites can often download faster than their HTML / CSS counterparts due to smaller image sizes. Some product demonstrations can benefit from Flash and its interactivity. Many cellular phone providers have used Flash to great effect in this regard. Simple branding banners contained within standard HTML / CSS pages with limited motion and interactivity can be excellent, as long as the text of the page is available for the user to read while the Flash is loading.

Still, designers and developers need to ask themselves, what exactly am I trying to do, and who is my target customer? I have had a very hard time making a solid business case for Flash on most of my ecommerce and business sites. Flash, like ColdFusion and Chess, takes only a minute to learn, and can take a lifetime to master. There is a lot to Flash, and a good designer knows how and when to use it to make a site look more professional, or to enhance content that may otherwise appear to be bland. However, beginners seem to tend to develop only in Flash because it addresses many of the apparent problems with XHTML / CSS. Those of browser incompatability, having to learn JavaScript, etc. Someone with limited knowledge of ActionScript and no knowledge of HTML is able to open Flash MX 2004 and create a website. Many designers use Flash exclusively, for this reason.

It seems that XHTML / CSS / JavaScript is having a renaissance. With the proliferation of blog sites, and better browser support of web standards many Flash sites are starting to look tired, and compared with the relative quick response of the HTML sites, many users are deciding to click away from the loading screens in favor of a site with similar content, or products, that is designed in standards compliant XHTML. Not because they love web standards, but because to the user the XHTML site works better and they don't have to wait. I have actually heard designers say that they don't care if dial-up users can't access the site, it has to be beautiful. This thinking is bankrupt, probably 80% of the country is still using dial-up. BroadBand is still frequently ridiculously expensive, and until this changes Flash will be limited to design and car sites mostly, while the bulk of the web is built using XHTML.

I'd actually like to see that change. I'd like to see 3 Mbps synchronous connections standard in every home across the country, and Flash sites loading instantly, but the reality is that it won't happen within the next 5 to 10 years. At least not until garbage cable company decides to charge reasonable rates, and build better fiber backbones, and adequate DNS resources.

In the meantime, I'm quite happy with CSS / XHTML. It does everything I used to do with Flash, but it does it faster and is more accessible. Hopefully more designers will build standards compliant sites, and will realize they can be every bit as beautiful as Flash sites. Check out csszengarden.com to see other great CSS designs.