Adobe Flash – pros and cons

It seems to be a constant fight whether to use Adobe Flash in web pages, so I thought I’d share my views on it.

The good parts

Flash can offer a richer experience in regards to animations, transitions and music handling. It has been there from day one to complement HTML where that isn’t sufficient in offering a more full-fledged media experience.

Being a controlled runtime, it can offer exactly the same content through web browsers and platforms, without any additional code. It is probably the most spread web browser plug-in in the world.

Especially as of the latest years, it has also become the de facto way of showing videos in web sites (YouTube, Vimeo etc) because of its compressing and packaging abilities, and is a great way around common video codec issues, showing something completely full-screen and other features.

When it comes to other presentational means, Flash can help you use any font you want, and is naturally a nice way to offer games.

The bad parts

What seems to be the biggest annoyance for people is poor performance and lots of unwanted animations and such. When it comes to performance, while it can be controlled by Flash developers, they seldom seem to do it and/or they can’t control the total number of Flash movies in the same page.

For instance, go to most major newspaper web sites and no matter how good a computer you have, it will be brought down on its knees. I’ve spoken to Adobe representatives about this, but they claim there’s no performance problem whatsoever in Flash and that it’s all the developers’ doings.

One factor which worries web site owners who are focused on SEO is about lost search engine ranking placement for content within the Flash movie. The correct way to use a Flash movie in a web page is to have an alternate HTML fallback in the HTML code, both for SEO and accessibility reasons, and to use JavaScript to dynamically insert your Flash movie.

Sadly, most developers seem to disregard accessibility, and when it comes to SEO the answer is usually: “Google are working on indexing Flash movies, so the problem will soon be gone”. What they don’t seem to realize, however, is that no matter if Google and and other search engines manage to index the content, if it isn’t built up with proper code and in a good semantic manner, it’s impossible to index it properly, give the correct weight to certain terms etc.

Another of the problems with Flash is that it is included in the web browser as a complete stand-alone runtime, meaning it would work just the same in a stand-alone Flash player. The effect of this is that if you focus the Flash movie, all web browser keyboard shortcuts and focus is lost, and you need to click outside of the Flash area to re-focus.

Additionally, I’m not sure people do their homework, but since Flash seem to be widely disliked (most likely to a complete and obtrusive overusage in advertisement context), people do turn it off, refuse to update their Flash player or install extensions such as Flashblock (almost 6 million downloads, 51 000 a week – definitely not something to sneer at).

Should you use Flash?

Sure, if you think it can bring extra value to your end users. But unless you’re building some artist/band web site, then (and maybe not even then) is it an option to build a web site only with Flash. I would rather recommend to use it for something more like a feature in a web site’s start page, to heighten the experience, but at the same time make sure that it has a proper fallback, especially if if contains any important information.

Take the above shortcomings into consideration, and if you use it, use it sparingly and above all, respect your visitors.

13 Comments

  • RobertDM says:

    I try to limit the use of flash to parts where it can offer extra value, but one area I find it still hard to convince clients it's better not to use flash is flashintro's. I've had to make a few lately for clients who really didn't want to see the light… I console myself with the knowledge that gave them the pro's and con's, so it's their own choice for still going ahead with the flashintro.

  • Jenny says:

    I recently had a client want to have some flash content… Luckily

    a) I didn't have to do it :p

    b) I had the time/resources to make sure that the website worked perfectly without it first, so it degrades gracefully πŸ™‚

    I'm not much of a fan of full-flash websites as often I cannot index pages/sections of such sites. Also the "right-button click" menu functionality (for copying links, opening in new pages etc) is lost, which I find irritating. I don't like flash intros as a general rule, and skip them whenever possible.

  • Jason says:

    The biggest problem with Flash is that the UI is not standard. People are used to the browser controls, site architecture, browser history, and link structure of HTML sites.

    In most cases it goes like this: The users are presented with a cool flash application; they have to learn a whole new UI which involves clicking on lots of things. It turns into a big Easter Egg hunt. Eventually they click something and get lost or confused. Then they hit the back button! The End.

    You can say that's not Flash's fault. It's the developer's. So show me a truly useful flash site or application that is more than just a design accent or an ego stroke.

  • ERT says:

    Flash no, we can add video to site asi h264 mp4 and works good or similar streaming alternatives.

    Apps? Google or Apple can use only JS. Why others cant?

  • Aldrik says:

    Robert,

    Why do you still feel Flash should be included via JavaScript? I thought the only reason for that was the "click to activate" behavior IE had.

    Jason,

    Flash does has the ability to play nice with the browsers history.

    For media I prefer the open standard container OGG, that will soon be natively supported by Firefox and Opera. In the meantime you can use the Cortado Java applet and the VLC and Mplayer plug-ins. It's a bit more complicated but I think it's worth it to keep everything open.

    The only thing I would recommend Flash for is vector animations.

  • mdmadph says:

    All this and you didn't even mention Flex. πŸ˜›

    I hate having to depend on proprietary code, but Flex is almost making me want to go over to the dark side.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Thanks for your comments!

    Aldrik,

    Actually, there are a number of reasons why you want to include Flash via JavaScript:

    – The problem with Click to activate in IE (like you mention).

    – Checking for Flash player support (and version) to avoid serving something which won't work.

    – Always offer a proper HTML fallback which will be replaced by the Flash movie (good for SEO and accessibility), as opposed to only having fallback within <code>object</code>/<code>embed</code> elements.

    mdmadph,

    Well, Flex does have its upsides, but in the end, if the resulting presentation is Flash, we still have the same pros and cons.

  • BARTdG says:

    One morning I had to start working really early. After starting up my computer, I checked some web site (can't remember which) and almost got a heart attack because there was this Flash ad playing loud music and moving in front of the text of the web page. Since that morning I officially hate Flash very very much. Especially when I found out that I didn't have the option in the Flash plugin settings to turn off sound by default.

    Today I use Flashblock and have allowed only Youtube and a few similar web sites to play Flash. On my old Windows XP/IE6 test machine, I have uninstalled Flash altogether.

    The people at Adobe should realise that many computer users hate some of the abilities of Flash that are being misused by advertising companies. If they added more control over the things Flash may and may not do (like browsers do for Javascript), they 'd solve a big problem.

  • Lars B says:

    @Jason: “So show me a truly useful flash site or application that is more than just a design accent or an ego stroke.â€Β

    OK, here are a few examples:

    http://pixlr.com http://www.gapminder.org/ http://listen.grooveshark.com/ http://www.google.com/analytics/

    @ERT: “Apps? Google or Apple can use only JS. Why others cant?â€Β

    Google has the right approach to app development and to Flash, as I see it. They use the right technology for the job, including Flash when appropriate, like in Google Analytics and the street view in Google Maps (http://tinyurl.com/buwke7). And when neither JS nor Flash is sufficient, they develop their own plug-ins to enable the functionality and the service they want to develop. That kind of approach to app development seems more productive to me than letting religious views or personal taste in technology decide what you do and don’t do.

    I totally agree that building regular web sites entirely in Flash is bad practice. Flash should be used for stuff like the examples above, and for progressive enhancement of web sites, when suitable.

  • With respect I totally disagree. True it's banners that have made flash a bad name but to recommend usage of flash for splash content is just dumb. This is the moment when you want your site to act as fast as possible to get a good first experience .. rule of thumb keep first page of any site clean FAST and CLEAR to its agenda.. Both for the visitors and for SEO.

    Use flash for tools and games .. like what Lars B said .. google is as always a good example ..

    Oh and flash suck when it comes to performance and good coding .. it must be the worst compiler ever when breaking out code to functions and objects makes a such an drop on fps ..

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Ola,

    If you include Flash through JavaScript, it will never be an issue for SEO, since Google et al will only see your HTML fallback. When it comes to a first page and being fast, I do agree.

    But, it's not only about development factors, it's also about marketing and end user experience, where it could be heightened with nice Flash usage.

    So, generally, I agree, but it's a delicate balance between different interests.

  • FlashLab says:

    I think that if designers are using Flash just to make a site "pretty" they are missing the point. If you check thefwa.com there are many examples where the use of advanced animation is central to the idea that is presented. HTML and/or javascript will not do the job.

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