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When is it O.K. to Use Flash?

While we should embrace HTML5 and JavaScript with open arms, there still is a small place for Flash on the web.

July 2013 Edit: I disagree with myself from 2011. It’s never O.K. to use Flash anymore. Except maybe for video.

There’s been a lot of debate over the last year or so about ditching Flash for HTML5. It seems like every other article in the web design world is about how awesome HTML5 is. There have also been an uprise in Flash-to-HTML5 converters on the market (don’t even think about going that route). HTML5 has also become a misappropriated catchall for everything on the web besides Flash.

HTML5, like it’s predecessor HTML4, is a markup language that provides instructions to web browsers for displaying content. HTML5 contains an assortment of new “tags” or features that browsers can choose to implement. The lauded features are the video and audio tags, and also the support for vector graphics and animations. In theory, these new tags aim to supplant the need for Flash.

Flash developers appear to be making the switch to Javascript and HTML. Although I definitely agree this HTML5 switch is a great thing, there is a need for Flash on the web. I’ve compiled a list of when it’s good practice to use Flash.

Here’s when it’s OK to use Flash:

Video

Flash soars with video because of hardware acceleration and active streaming, two features the HTML5 video tag does not support natively. Hardware acceleration allows Flash to take advantage of additional computing power for smooth video playback and streaming allows for selective playback and browsing in video. Lastly, while Flash works the same cross browser; the HTML5 video tag only excels in Safari and is limited in other browsers implementations.

  1. Anonymous Content – uses Flash 10 video, and HTML5 video for the iPhone/iPad.

  2. Microsites

    Brands, creative agencies and movie/television promotions use microsites to create fully immersive experiences for users. Flash is the preferred medium as most of these sites are multimedia heavy and require game-like interactivity. Lastly, due to the inherent nature of Flash as graphic drawing tool, these sites allow for “boundless” design without concern for the technical limitations of HTML5 and CSS3.

    The Morphosis Architects microsite is the front-facing companion to their sister site, Morphopedia, which is an HTML archive of all of the studio’s work.

  3. Infographics

    Nearly anything designed in Photoshop can be achieved in Flash; stackable vectors, knocked-out typography, and simultaneous 2D/3D support. While the HTML5 Canvas tag and SVG libraries are powerful there are many shortcomings. For instance, layering various tag content is extremely difficult in HTML5 with limited computability cross browser (notably Internet Explorer).

    The Together Counts homepage uses Flash to the display recent activity of people using the site.

  4. Interactive Banner Ads

    Though annoying for some, Flash ads subsidize the cost of “free” content on most websites. Ads must be eye-catching with animation and motion is a critical part of that. Flash is the best tool for this, and digital content publishers are guaranteed 99.6% of users on a desktop will see them.

    The Vanguard ads use algorithms in Flash to animate the datasets of the various packages.

  5. Desktop Applications

    With Adobe Air and Flash, developers can build applications that run in operating systems (OS X, Windows 7, Ubuntu) without the need for a browser. Certain products that require heavy file transfer (like FTP) perform better outside of a browser, Flash with Air does this quickly and effectively. Lastly, with Air, developers have access to hard components (audio/video devices, drives and inputs) that would be out of reach within a HTML5 browser.

    Built with Flash, our clients can use an Adobe Air app to batch upload to their CMS.

  6. Multimedia and Audio

    Flash supports both webcam and microphone access, as well as manipulation of the two. An example of this functionality in production is a multitrack audio recorder. A user records music while simultaneously listening to the playback, which demonstrates the power of Flash’s input/output functionality.

    My Song To You utilizes the Audio Capabilities of Flash 10.1

  7. Games

    Some criticism of Flash games is that the browser was never meant to be a gaming platform—however, there are countless successful games to emerge from world of Flash: Bejeweled, Canabalt, Farmville to name a few. Flash games also have the ability to reach an unprecedented amount of users as a result of social gaming through Facebook.

  8. Special UI Elements

    There will always be circumstances where HTML/Javascript won’t cut it. With the recent emergence of game mechanics on the web, certain websites will need to have effects and an animation throughout. When these effects are translated into UI elements, it’s sometimes not feasible to create complex keyframe animations and sound-playback with Javascript. Flash makes it simple for developers to rapidly build out UI elements and be confident that those elements are cross-browser compatible.

    Together Counts uses Flash for custom UI

The Grey Area: Full Flash Websites

Most websites don’t need to be entirely Flash. Occasionally, there will be the branded experience that needs to resonate emotionally with users. With the current state of HTML/CSS/Javascript, the technology is limited in what can be built with it. Sometimes these limitations can only be overcome by Flash.

There are still some great and innovative uses of Flash websites on the FWA, but even entries on there are moving to HTML/Javascript. Right now the features in HTML5 are too young to do everything that Flash does, and if web designers aren’t willing to budge and embrace the limitations of HTML5, Flash websites won’t be going anywhere any time soon.


Jason Farrell is the CTO/Co-founder of Use All Five.
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