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A flash from the past : Apr 06 2010

Web Design / Comments

Saviour of the Webiverse?

Flash is still very much a swear-word in the web standards community. And with much justification.

Although there are examples of Flash sites that do address accessibility issues to some extent, and content and data can be shared and controlled via XML, Flash is still a 'closed garden' solution in web design, with all content embedded in the .swf file format, and also when considering that the Flash player is a third party plug-in that users have to choose to download and install. Some, as we know, often can't.

That being said, stats do show over 90% of web users have a version of the Flash plug-in installed, which, of course, makes it a very viable and commercial option.

Big brand name companies and organisations have Flash websites because, as companies, they have very strong global brand recognition, meaning SEO considerations aren't really an issue. They also have the luxury of being able to throw lots of money into indulgent animated user experiences. You also find many viral campaigns are often produced in Flash, to give a message that "in your face" delivery that animation and such can bring to the table.

But let's now bring CSS3 and HTML5 into the ring

As you'll be aware, JavaScript - and now CSS3 - bring animation very much into the fore of web design considerations. The catalyst could well have been the emergence of Apple's iPhone and related technologies - you only have to look at OSX for evidence of the value Apple place on movement and transitions in user experience.

The fact Apple also don't allow Flash to be installed on their mobile devices gives a very clear picture of how they see future in this regard. Let's face it, if standards based web design methods can now include rich animation of the same standard and performance of the .swf format, it leaves flash rather redundant for web sites and apps alike.

But what about Flash for video? Well HTML5 will mean video can be delivered to the user without the need for any third party plug-in.

I still see a future for Flash: Perhaps providing a solution for stand-alone animation. I wouldn't be surprised if the Adobe Flash application merges with After Effects to become a program that provides pure animation, leaving user interface animation on web sites and apps to CSS and HTML.

So, we should ignore and dismiss Flash sites more than ever right?

No. Wrong.

In the past, as standards developers, we have had a tendency to steer clear of any real investment of time spent on Flash websites. We see the loading bar or see things animating and glowing into place and immediately grumble under our breaths about "accessibility" and "having to wait" and such. We then hit the back button and go elsewhere. It's almost like we are incompatible with them, causing a redirect in our brain to be blind to any surface value or quality in what we are seeing.

You won't hear many standards developers saying much about how nice a menu animates in, or how nice an element moves and zooms, because we often aren't on the site long enough to experience those things, and when we are, it would almost be blasphemy to say so :P

To get back on point, I actually think we should be investigating and researching the very cream of today's Flash web sites. Taking off our accessibility hats when doing so, and really having a good look at them from an angle of "animation and transitions", as this area is emerging as a relevant consideration in our day to day work as standards designers.

Flash designers have been dealing with animated user interaction for many years, so I believe there is now much to be learnt from some of those Flash websites that use animation successfully to enhance user experience and organise elements on page.

We should invest more time into exploring Flash sites and try and perhaps relate certain methods to what we will soon be doing in HTML5 and CSS, and learn from certain ideas, with a motive to start thinking more in this new dimension when designing and developing sites.

At the moment, we are seeing some relatively basic CSS animations being demo'd on the web. These are important and relevant in terms of these considerations:

  • Seeing where we are at with what can be achieved in the "now"
  • Seeing how these animations perform in browsers
  • Helping us learn and understand any new syntax

But it's important to accept and be aware that it's with some of the latest Flash sites where we can perhaps learn the most about what may be possible in the future of web animation. Regardless of how much you dislike Flash overall, there is no doubt it delivers the best results, on surface value, in terms of user interface animation on websites.

And, as mentioned, when we think that Flash designers have been immersed in animated considerations for a very long time in web terms, it would be naive of us to think there is nothing to learn from their collective years of experience.

Perhaps good starting points would be here:

I say let's jump in and have a good look around. You can hold your nose if you like :)



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