The Flash Dilemma.
With the growth of dynamic websites and social media, Adobe Flash has proven, at least for some, a godsend. Flash has allowed developers to create wonderful (and not so wonderful) animated content. However as the war between Apple and Flash continues some are now looking to HTML5 as the new direction on video and audio embedding on the web. Steve Jobs at Apple has perhaps controversially, put all his eggs in the HTML5 basket. To date Flash is still not supported in either the iPad or iPhone devices. From a users perspective, this certainly makes sense. 3G and now 4G can be very expensive and anything that reduces data-loads can only be a good thing.
So what this mean for web and video developers. Will developers still be using Flash to deliver dynamic and video content to the web? the answer is: probably. Flash is currently the best supported video format on the web. So, does that mean Apple will finally come to the party? Probably not. Steve Jobs is no longer the only voice in the wilderness. With Microsoft’s IE9 now promising both CSS3 and HTML5 support and both Youtube and Vimeo now offering support for the new html5 video there is no rush for Apple to change its mind.
Apple’s track record can’t be easily dismissed. It was partly Apple and the sheer buying power of the iPod that drove music companies to finally abandon their draconian Digital Rights Management (DRM) for digital music, enabling iTunes users to convert their iTunes Store music to MP3, so it could be used in a wide range of non-Apple MP3 players. Previously this could only be achieved by burning a playlist to CD and then ripping it back into iTunes, to remove the DRM and then converting it. A small change that was not overlooked, particularly by MS Windows users, who could now convert files and load them into Windows Media Player. The player of choice for many MP3 users.
Of course, Flash is not just used for video. It’s also used for slideshows and other dynamic web content. The main problem is not just the lack of support on iPad and iPhone devices, who are still a relatively small sector of the overall market. There are also many ordinary browser users who are choosing to disable flash for whatever reason. This can be done by downloading a plugin such as Click-to-Flash or Firefox’s Flashblock addon which hides Flash under an added level of interaction.
Click-to-Flash and Flashblock mean users must click inside each and every Flash box in order to display the content and they must click again to get the video to play. While this may seem annoying to some, it does offer a greater degree of control to users. It also means users can be spared irritating Flash-based adverts and expanding banners that seem to want to take over our browsers. Remember that search engines don’t really like Flash either. This leads us to those agonising flash-sites, those which are coded entirely or primarily in Flash. Well, sorry to say, Flashblock makes short work of those. Instead of all your stunning, spinning graphics all you get is this:
Great, isn’t it? an empty box. Not only is there no content, there’s no reason for me to want to click on it to find out what it is. I’ve got better things to do than guess what your website is. It’s like calling an unknown number on your mobile, you think it’s someone important only to discover it’s one of those holiday contests.
Worse are those sites, which hide their navigation an/or content under a great big Flash box or even a series of Flash boxes. This is a big no-no folks. No one wants to play hunt the content all over your website, not even for pizza.
The key here is having a fallback, either as text or a still image. Giving users an indication what is hiding under the box is the key to successfully using Flash. Here is an excellent example of making Flash work by offering a fallback image underneath the Flash box. These designers have ensured their client’s site degrades gracefully. In fact, I would argue the fallback actually looks better than the flash version. Compare for yourself.
While HTML5 may well offer a simpler means of delivering video, it isn’t going to solve the question of codecs anytime soon. One thing is clear, whatever happens to HTML5, Flash will continue to offer a convenient fall-back position for video developers. Instead of offering the same video in three different codecs, it would seem reasonable to offer Flash first with an H.264 fallback for systems such as iPhone that are unable to support Flash.
Whether browsers will fall in behind OGG Theora, an open source codec, supported by Opera and Mozilla or the proprietary H.264 codec, supported by Apple and Google (the owners of YouTube), remains to be seen. Given OGG Theora is free and H.264 costs in at some $5 million dollars a year, the choice should be obvious; however the web doesn’t always play by the same economic play book as everyone else.
So what is the simple message. By all means, keep using Flash but keep it for video and web apps only. Avoid using Flash for navigation or anywhere important. Keep in mind, more and more people will see nothing but a big empty box, where your navigation or your content is supposed to be. Not a good look.