ECHAEno. 3

Why no flash?

This article dates back to 2002, but I think the point remains relevant. Flash still gets used, more often than not, to add unnecessary “flash” to web sites and compromising their usability in the balance.

In the mean time, HTML has been extended (most recently with things like sIFR and AJAX), to provide a richer experience without taking control away from the user completely. One the other hand, broadband penetration is up and prices are down, making the web a truly multimedia environment for more and more users. And of course, the recent Adobe-Macromedia merger might turn this all it's head. Stay tuned.


When I sat down to revamp this site I had a choice to make: Flash or no Flash. After all, its almost 2002 and HTML, despite its revisions, is getting a little bit long in the tooth. On the other hand Macromedia has improving Flash version after version with the goal of making it the tool of choice for web designers.

Even the new media job ads are filled with "3 years Flash experience" and "knowledge of ActionScript required". Why didn't I build an artsy site that really shows off my creativity and skill with a Flash-crafted web site?

Because I don't see the point.

Background

Let me tell you why. A few months ago I was surfing the web from Canada on my Sympatico DSL line. The great thing about living in Canada, besides the clean water, fresh air, low crime, friendly people, etc., is that you can get a DSL line for cheap. The monthly rate was only C$40 and, because Bell is currently fighting for market share with cable industry, installation was free.

Compare that to where I am now, London. The monthly rate from BT is £40 (about C$90) plus a £150 (C$350) installation charge. And since DSL requires the physical line to be switched at the central office, you can't take it with you when you move. Not good since we only have a six month lease on our flat.

Which leaves me surfing the web at less than a tenth of the speed I was previously and the animation intensive sites that used to require a little bit of extra patience have slowed to the speed of an injured turtle (or, if you prefer, a Renault 4). In fact, many of these sites are simply unusable.

Now this is really a rant against high-bandwidth web sites. Ones that assume, or even expect, you to have a DSL or better. After all, Flash does some things very well and you could build a low-bandwidth but highly interactive site that simply wouldn't be possible with HTML and javascript. Unfortunately, Flash is like a drug and once you put in one overactive button you just have to have another. You're hooked.

Less is still more

I once worked on a project creating interfaces for two mapping tools. One was in HTML, for our low- bandwidth customers, and the other was a Java applet, for everyone else. (The HTML version was actually a reaction to the poor usability of the applet, but that's another story.) Ironically, the Java applet was such a bandwidth hog because it included functions that the HTML version didn't. Fuctionality that no one ever asked for and was ever seldom used. But the developers got so carried away with what they could do, they forgot what the applet was supposed to do: help the user select a location on a map.

And that's what most Flash sites I see today are like. They have unnecessarily long intros, pages that build themselves rather than simply displaying themselves and rollovers that create so much havoc that you're afraid to press the button. Other parts of these sites are less spectacular, but better for the user, and they could have been done without Flash.

Someday I may build a Flash version of this site, but only when the added interactivity it offers makes the site more usable or the information more accessible. Until then it's HTML all the way.

Bryce Ashdown
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