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To Flash or Not to Flash

Flash is a technology that allows you to have "rich" media on the Web such as animation. It’s commonly used for banner ads on Web pages. It was originally called FutureSplash back when it was first introduced in 1996. I remember the excitement it created then. It allowed designers to have animations on websites, and that was a big deal because this is when everyone was still connecting to the Internet through phone lines. Since then Flash was acquired by Macromedia and then by Adobe. It is one of the most successful technologies in the history of the Internet so far. But in April of this year, Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, made a statement about Flash that threatened the future of Flash. Apple has made a decision not to support Flash in their mobile devices like iPhone and iPad. Adobe ran an advertising campaign to counter Jobs’ curse on their product. Many Flash developers voiced their displeasure in the blogsphere. At the same time, those who agreed with Jobs scrambled to convert their Flash-based contents to HTML. What does all this mean to business owners who have no time or interest to understand the techno-jibba-jabba?

My first piece of advise: Don’t use Flash if you don’t need to. I’ve held this view consistently since 2002 when I wrote a paper on the subject. Back then, Flash was useful for drawing attention to the site because most people saw the Web more as a place to amuse themselves than to get useful information or get things done for real. The name "Flash" was appropriate in that it was mainly used to create something flashy. Since then, we have all grown up. The Web is a powerful tool of communication and productivity. We are no longer amused by spinning logos and sliding menus; we want to get to the information as quickly as possible, the fewer clicks the better. In today’s world of mature Internet users, there is a growing consensus that Flash should be used only if we need to. In other words, if there is a way to achieve the same thing without using Flash, why use it?

Since I wrote the paper in 2002, nothing much changed. Flash is still awkward when it comes to printing the content. The search engines like Google still cannot send visitors to the appropriate sections of Flash-based websites, so Google for the most part does not bother. The traffic from search engines account for the majority of the visitors to most websites, so this is a big loss. You also cannot accurately track the site usage if your site is built using Flash (e.g. Which page of your site is most popular?).

To figure out how many visitors you may lose by using Flash, your need to figure out what percentage of your visitors has Flash installed. Adobe claims 99%, but there is a significant amount of skepticism on that number . Let’s check the reality. Looking at the statistics among my clients, the more realistic number is around 90%. That is, 1 in 10 visitors are missing Flash, unable to see Flash content. (You can see this yourself in Google Analytics, under Visitors -> Browser Capabilities -> Flash Versions. The item labeled "(not set)" is the percentage of users without Flash.) For retail businesses like restaurants, the number is more like 80%, 2 in 10 are missing Flash, because more people are likely to be on foot while needing information about the retail stores. If they are seeking information about your business on their mobile devices, it would be reasonable to assume that they are quite serious about coming to your store. Given that most mobile devices do not support Flash, there could be a tangible loss of business from their inability to find the information they seek about your business. So, if you do not have to use Flash why risk it? You need to weigh the risk and benefit to make this decision, and in the vast majority of cases, there is no real benefit.

There are a few exceptions. If your business is visually oriented (fashion, graphic design, photography, video production, video game, etc..), it may make sense to build your site using Flash just to create more visual impact. But even among these industries, the general trend now is to avoid using Flash. Some of the biggest creative agencies, like R/GA, JWT, and Wieden & Kennedy, used to have all-Flash websites, but has recently rewrote their sites using HTML. I suspect that others will follow suit soon.

Flash is a great tool if used appropriately. I have done a significant amount of Flash development myself whenever I felt the choice was justifiable. In some cases, Flash is the only viable choice we have, like delivering video games via the Web or creating animated and interactive banner ads. For these uses, I believe Flash will continue to thrive. For everything else, good ol’ HTML is the way of the future. Funny how we come full circle to embrace something simple and basic.

—posted by Dyske   » Follow me on Twitter or on Facebook Page

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