Is it Time to Kick Flash Off Your Site?
Robert Cunha, an iPad- and iPhone 4-toting systems administrator for the public school system in Burlington, Mass., has experienced his share of the duality of being an Apple fan.
On one hand, Cunha helped roll out the district's one-on-one iPad implementation, which puts an iPad in the hands of every teacher and student. But on the other hand, Cunha confirms what many Apple users cite as -- and every Web developer knows to be -- a major frustration: The lack of Flash support in Apple's mobile devices.
"When I am accessing a website that has Flash, I usually get a blank part of the screen, or a red box where the Flash element is," Cunha says. "Or I may just get a static image." If the organization behind that website hasn't developed a scaled-down mobile-friendly alternative, Cunha says he usually avoids the site totally.
Cunha's experiences illustrate a growing dilemma for corporate website strategists and developers: We live in an increasingly mobile society, and managers, coworkers and customers increasingly access the Web from mobile devices. If you want the mobile Web experience to be truly accessible, you may need to create a scaled-down version of your website for iDevices, and keep Flash off it.
That does not necessarily mean avoiding Flash entirely. But it does mean you must be aware of how your customers access your site, and what type of experience they require.
"There's no immediate hurry to remove Flash video from main sites," says Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst with Forrester Research. "What I advise companies to do is to start encoding video in H.264 and VP8 too," and then detect which browsers customers are using. Depending on the browser, "serve up the video stream that is best for it," Hammond suggests. For versions of IE lower than 9, that means Flash."
Plus, Hammond says, "roughly 40 percent of current desktop browsers are still not HTML5 Video capable -- Flash remains a good option for them."
Just saying 'no' to Flash
Developers agree that there is no other application that can directly replace Flash and do what Flash does as well as it does. And that includes HTML5 -- the only seriously suggested substitute for Flash -- despite all its promise.
Flash is "wonderful at" anything to do with animation, with lots of interactivity, with gaming, with going full-screen -- video playback, for instance -- says Joseph Crawford, a Web developer and Flash expert at Slackers Radio in San Diego. "HTML5 is still catching up with Flash in terms of compatibility -- but still, you don't often have a choice to go either/or," he explains.
If a developer chooses HTML5 only, "you often end up needing Flash" to help play multimedia for Firefox, for instance, Crawford says. "And if you go Flash only, you end up needing to provide a non-Flash option" for iPads and iPhones, or for the increasing number of people who have browsers with Flash blockers. "In some ways, this is the worst of all possible worlds," Crawford says, "but it's where we are right now."
If developers are asked to de-Flash a website, their response may depend on how long they've been working with the application, and how strategic a role development plays.
"I don't think of what I do as "de-Flashing" a website," explains Dale Cruse, senior user interface designer at Digital Results Group, in Boston. "Flash and HTML5 are not direct replacements for each other. It's not like taking off glasses and putting in contact lenses. Instead, Flash and HTML5 are two different things."
That said, if a client hires him to get rid of Flash and go with HTML5 -- which has happened -- "what I do is take the opportunity to sell the client on a complete redesign of their website," Cruse explains. "If you exploit what HTML5 is good at, you'll probably have a positive outcome. But if a client views HTML5 as a direct replacement for Flash, they're probably setting themselves (and their developer) up to fail."