Why Flash isn’t dead

Public’s senior rich media developer Chris Padmore provides his take on the debate that’s splitting the world of web design

The cold war is starting to thaw. In what has proved extremely exciting news for developers, content originated in Flash is now finding its way onto smartphones, including – gasp! – the iPhone.

Flash content created in CS5 can now be exported through iPhone Packager and Android Packager to work on these devices. Public is currently creating gaming content in CS5 and will be deploying it to browser, Android and iPhone.

Meanwhile, Android’s latest build – 2.2 (Froyo) – has full Flash 10.1 support in-browser. This update is being rolled out to the latest handsets now. The success of Samsung’s Galaxy i9000 means there are five million Android devices being upgraded to have full Flash support. And Samsung is due to release the Galaxy Tablet, which runs Android 2.2 and has full Flash browser support, along with a screen that complements the rich user experiences Flash delivers and the hardware to support it.

But even so, using Flash today is not something you would do without consideration. Probably the most pertinent problem is that Mobile Safari (used on iPhone and iPad) can’t display it. The iPad particularly highlights the problem of cross-platform Flash, because its browsing experience is so close to that of the desktop.

Targeting smaller mobile devices usually means rendering a different version of your site. You’ll strip the clutter out of your design, limit it to a single column, increase the text size, and of course avoid any Flash elements. But iPad users expect to see the full site, not a mini mobile version.

Even if you have the budget to build a separate mobile site, the iPad still poses a problem if you had planned to use Flash on your main site. This presents a case for avoiding a full-Flash site, and ensuring that any inline Flash elements fall back to something reasonably attractive.

Some will say the number of iPad users is too small to worry about. But consider that this small base includes many early adopters, including influential figures and journalists. If you’re rolling out a new product that needs traction, you may wish to think twice before writing them off.

Agency work

In the agency world you have to check your evangelism at the door and simply use the right tool for the job. That means the right tool for today and for the life expectancy of the product you’re building. Your client will probably not be that interested in the debate around proprietary software on the internet, or whether Steve Jobs has it in for Adobe. They’ll have a specific audience they want to reach, and a level of brand experience they wish to deliver. That means delivering it through the most appropriate channel on the most appropriate platform.

The decision of Flash or HTML for a website will be raised fairly early on; usually after the initial creative and before any visual design. This may mean deciding whether it should be a full Flash site, or whether it can be largely an HTML site with Flash elements dropped in. Some or all of these elements may be achievable with dynamic HTML.

Case by case

The question “Does this need to be Flash?” is probably better posed as: “Can this be achieved without Flash and not compromise the creative?” For example, a slideshow promo on your homepage probably doesn’t need to be Flash. Substituting TV-like transitions with simpler fades or reveals and waiving the custom font may not be the end of the world, and your site will be more device-friendly. However, when it comes to fully immersive brand experiences and uncompromised design, in the current climate this very often means using Flash, and reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated!