Macromedia’s Flash: A Love/Hate Relationship

Macromedia Flash (including Shockwave and Generator) is an innovative technology platform that has promised many great things over the past few years. According to Macromedia, results show that 89.9 percent of web users can experience Flash content without having to download and install a player. The following features of Flash have helped to make this technology as ubiquitous as it is today:

  • Vector-based graphics – Graphic images compress down extremely well, making for streamlined animation.

  • Database driven content – Flash front-ends can be hooked into a database through Generator and can serve dynamically-generated images and text.

  • Typography – Flash gives designers new control over the display and size of typographic elements on the web.

  • Interactivity – Flash allows for designers to create custom drop-down menus and other innovative interface elements that better organize information.

    All in all, the promise of Flash is to take the user beyond the static and flat world of HTML web pages into the world of moving images, compressed navigation, and rich-user experience. It’s a sexy sell, and the end product can be a real mantle piece. Yet, it is by no means an easy trip to get there.

    The sexy appeal and “cool” factor of Flash has made way for a large number of mediocre implementations of the technology. This is unfortunate because these types of “seen it all before” Flash implementations take away from the truly innovative work that is out there.

    One tell-tale sign of a Flash implementation gone overkill is the dreaded “Skip Intro” button. You’ve seen it all before: load a web page, watch a meaningless and gratuitous animation play out, while all you want to do is get to the content, click Skip Intro, then leave the site. I feel like I’m back in ’96/’97 when everyone discovered animating gifs!

    Another casualty in the ill-conceived use of Flash is the unnecessary implementation of animating text. Text flies in from the right, flips around, bounces off the screen sides, then finally lands in a menu for you to select. This effect is dramatically overused, causing users to leave a website. All too often, developers are quick to convince a client that it needs a sexy flash site, when instead, at the end of the day, all the client really needs is a well-considered and simple Internet presence.

    Additional challenges that come up during a typical Flash implementation relate to compatibility. Flash 4 was recently deployed and contains a large number of great innovations; however, many of the current Flash-detect scripts only detect if the user has Flash. They do not detect what version of Flash the user has loaded on his machine. Many times, a new site will be created with Flash 4 functionality. The detect script will allow the user with Flash 3 to view the content, but nothing will appear because the Flash 3 Plug-in cannot process the Flash 4 content. This makes it very difficult to justify the use of Flash for applications that must have broad usability and appeal.

    Flash technology has created a new type of “developer,” a combination of designer and programmer. Because this is a new type of “programming,” many of the traditional methodologies of quality assurance and testing have not been formally introduced into Flash development methodology. Until the technology matures, this will continue to be the case.

    Macromedia Flash is an amazing technology that, when used appropriately, can help to create distinctive interactive applications. However, be wary of the pierced and goatee-wearing web designer who tries to convince you that you need Flash.

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