27 October 2009 | Team Tamar

A question of Flash

Adobe Flash (formally Macromedia Flash) first hit our screens in 1996 quickly reaching the cutting edge of web design technology. From banners to full GUI design solutions, Flash offers designers and developer’s powerful animation, audio/video streaming and Rich Internet applications (RIAs) development capabilities.

This powerful tool is something that I have used for many years. Once using HTML Tables and Frames became ‘old hat’ I started to use Flash for all my website front end design. This was short lived as I realised the power of HTML, CSS and JavaScript and the importance of usability, accessibility and SEO. This has meant that I hardly use Flash anymore, so as I start to reflect on its pros and cons I want to explore its past, present and potential future uses.

Flash pitfalls

From the dreaded Flash intro to sites running multi-versions of the same site there is a question why Flash is used. There are many issues with Flash that make designers shy away from using it particularly as a website fully implemented within the flash plug-in (.swf) as a single file. For example, toyny.com has interesting animation but confusing navigation, or sagmeister.com do these sites really need to be built in Flash?

Other problems:

  • Needs a plug-in (.swf) to run so restricts the user base especially bad for online retail stores
  • Goes against usability standards which usability guru Jacob Nielson outlines in Flash: 99% Bad
    • Sites fully contained within the .swf plug-in go against web browser accepted UI metaphors like scrollbars, input boxes and buttons. Flash is in effect becomes browser sitting within the hosting browser
    • The established browser forward/back button functions are lost
  • Visually-impaired users who rely on larger text sizes or screen readers are at a disadvantage and may not be able to use the site at all
  • Very poor from an SEO perspective:
    • not easilly indexed as Flash files are binary data
    • search engines struggle with content if embedded within the .swf plugin
  • Flash sites cannot be saved – screenshots have to be used
  • With large amounts of graphics, sound and video it can be very slow to download especially with dial-up, again restricting user base
  • Flash text rendering/displaying is much slower than HTML and noticeably less clear
  • Being mainly optimised for the 32-bit windows platform on other operating systems it has lower performance and sometimes not working properly
  • Richard Stallman, who co-founded the League for Programming Freedom, calls it a violation of the open nature of the World Wide Web as it is not open source or free software
  • Doesn’t work with Apple’s iPhone

Flash plus points

So with all these negative issues why do large retailers like Nike and Adidas still use Flash heavily across all their sites using it to its full potential with full video streaming. Personally, I expect to be wowed at these sites and flash gives you the ‘wow’ factor. Most users of these brands have the Flash plug-in or are happy to download it. Another great example of Flash’s capabilities is hopeactchange.com.

Main plus points:

  • Complex animation, particularly for banners providing far more rich results than animated gifs
  • Online games
  • Supports vector graphics which used wisely can mean very low download time
  • Full, efficient streaming of audio and video
  • Solves some cross-platform browser issues – Flash movies will work the same if the user is on Netscape or IE, on Mac or PC
  • Fixes content to designers required position

Best uses of Flash

I believe the best use of Flash is to incorporate it within HTML. By mixing it with the power of HTML, CSS and JavaScript you have a usable, accessible and SEO friendly site. With Flash and faster broadband speeds one use is online ‘television commercial’s or mini ads. Nike use Flash video’s capabilities very well to create an online ‘ads’ that are similar to a television commercial which are slick and informative without being intrusive.

With its Rich Internet applications components developers can create engaging sites like miniusa.com or applications like the BBC’s iPlayer which can be used online or downloaded to the desktop.


Adobe is trying to position Flash to play a vital role in the delivery of broadband entertainment, news, and information. Hoping it will become the essential ingredient that helps the browser glue many different types of rich content together.

They also want Flash to be the forefront when the internet and television merge. Adobe has made a deal that will allow them to put Flash software into many of the chips that go inside TVs and set-top boxes. One problem they have is getting this technology onto the Apple iPhone.

Flash violates Apple’s Terms of Service of the developer’s agreement. The concern being that if Flash technology is merged with the iPhone’s Safari browser it would allow developers to build apps that bypass the iPhone. Recently, Adobe have announced that they have found a way round Apple’s strict license terms. Developers will be able to change Flash applications into native iPhone applications and offer them via Apple’s App store. Only in beta form there will be large restrictions mainly video not being allowed and it is not where Adobe really wants to be: Fully integrated with Safari.

Improvements to the latest plug-in with a new text engine which promises to render text better on the screen. Adobe has also introduced a Flash Search Engine which creates additional Meta information that is indexable by search engines.

So the application that started life as a simple animation tool which became Macromedia’s ‘jewel in the crown’ and which Adobe so actively sort has grown beyond recognition. The forever changing face of Flash may go in and out of favour with designers but it certainly something they should always keep one eye firmly on.

Team Tamar