Pixel Acres

Flash’s Weaknesses: Then and Now

Back in 2003 Mark Angeletti wrote an article for Sitepoint titled Flash Vs. CSS/HTML: Which Will You Choose?, in which he examined the strengths and weaknesses of Flash. Mark closed his article by suggesting that in the future Macromedia had the opportunity to fix Flash’s weaknesses, and would likely do so. I thought it would be interesting to look at how much progress has been made in the past four years, and see if those weaknesses have indeed been addressed, or if there is still work to be done.

Plug-In Required

Then:

Flash movies still require a separate plug-in installation in order to run in most browsers. Many companies do not allow their employees to install applications on their computers, which automatically denies some Flash site owners access to a portion of their potential userbase.

Now:

While of course it is still true that Flash movies still rely on a proprietary plugin, some advances have been made in this area. In August 2005 Macromedia announced a new detection feature called “Express Install” which allows the Flash Player to be upgraded from directly within a Flash movie. If a browser restart is required after the upgrade, the user will be automatically returned to the Flash website after the process is complete. No longer is there any need to pack your visitors off to the Macromedia/Adobe website to upgrade their Flash plugin, and hope that they bother to come back to your site afterwards. Macromedia also introduced an ‘auto update’ feature, which allows the Flash Player to ‘call home’ and check for software updates.

Video Woes

Then:

Video compression and playback in Flash MX is not of the same quality as some of the players developed exclusively for this purpose, such as QuickTime. For example, Flash video does not take advantage of enhanced video drivers for optimized playback at enlarged sizes.

Now:

As we know, Flash MX 2004 totally changed the ball game, and video is now arguably the aspect of Flash that makes it such a compelling proposition. Flash currently owns video on the web. Fullstop.

Search Engine Issues

Then:

Typical Web search engines (or spiders) cannot index content within Flash movies. If you create a 100% Flash-based Website, you may want to provide some text or HTML, displayed or hidden, on your Web pages if you want your content to be indexed by search engines. When I say hidden, I mean that the content should be available via a no script tag or other means that is search engine acceptable. This is perhaps the biggest shortcoming of Flash, and yes — it’s a biggie.

Now:

I’m sorry to say that nothing much has changed in the last 4 years. Flash is still woefully unfriendly to search engines, and the burden falls on Flash developers to devise cunning workarounds to expose the internal content of Flash movies to Google and co. Fortunately, the increasing seperation of content and presentation within Flash applications means that the task of extracting and rendering content in search engine readable format (ie: HTML) is easier than it once was.

Lack of Screen Reader Support

Then:

Although the integration of MSAA compatibility into Flash Player 6 is a big step forward, and has been heralded by accessibility experts, many kinds of screen readers do not support MSAA of the Flash Player yet.

Now:

To my knowledge, Flash 8 didn’t make any great advances in the area of accessibility. The situation described in 2003 still applies in 2007: to take advantage of Flash’s accessibility features a user must be using Windows, Internet Explorer, and either the Window-Eyes or JAWS screen reader. So no accessibility for Macintosh or Linux users, or anyone who happens to prefer Firefox.

Print Problems

Then:

If your site is based around delivering text-based information to the viewer, then don’t distract or delay them from getting what they want with unnecessary animations. Printing and selecting text in Flash movies is often not as simple (or familiar) to users as that on HTML sites.

Now:

Provided the Flash developer has made a textfield selectable, it is possible to copy text to the clipboard. In Internet Explorer and Safari this can be done using the crtl/apple+c and ctrl/apple+v keyboard shortcuts. In Firefox the user must right click on the textfield, and choose ‘copy’ or ‘paste’ from the contextual menu that appears. As far as printing goes, some advances have been made, specifically the introduction of the PrintJob class in Flash MX 2004. The PrintJob class allows the creation of pages formatted for printing, which are then spooled to the user’s printer. Unfortunately a ‘print this page’ button is still required within the Flash movie, which seems old-school when compared to the way CSS print stylesheets are invisibly integrated into HTML sites, but it’s better than nothing.

Conclusion

While big steps have been made in certain areas (video, printing, plugin upgrades), search engine visibility and accessibility still elude Flash. I would like to think there will one day be a ‘magic’ solution to the issue of search engine visibility, but I don’t hold much hope. What makes Flash powerful is the almost limitless approaches developers and designers can take to presenting content, and of course this is also what makes it so unfriendly to search engines. Without a standardized method of presenting content, I don’t see how search engines have any hope of making sense of the internal complexities of a Flash movie. I guess only time will tell whether this shortcoming can be surmounted!

Update 13 February 2007: One of my readers, Aaron Bassett, raised the issue of Adobe’s Flash Search Engine SDK, and the fact that Google is capable of spidering and indexing Flash movies. Google was already spidering Flash movie in 2003 at the time Mark’s original article was written, though he obviously thought that it was doing an inadequate job, and I would maintain that is still the case. If you want to read more about how Google indexes Flash sites, read Aaron and my comments below.

5 Responses to “Flash’s Weaknesses: Then and Now”

  1. Good article but I have to disagree with your point on Search Engine Issues. Some search engines (google, perhaps others) can index text within a swf.

    There is an interview on search engine workshops which covers most of the details about it.
    http://www.searchengineworkshops.com/articles/flash.html

    I know its not perfect but at least it is a step in the right direction :)

  2. Jonathan says:

    @Aaron: Good point, I should have mentioned the existence of the Flash Search Engine SDK.

    In my experience searches within Flash files are possible, but won’t show up in a typical google search. If you add filetype:swf to your search term, then you will get just Flash results, but of course you would need to know that the content you are looking for is contained in a Flash movie.

    I think Google also has problems indexing content pulled dynamically into a Flash movie, such as from a database or XML file.

    I imagine there might also be issues with spidering Flash movies that are embedded using javascript, which of course has been a necessity ever since the Eolas patent challenge was upheld.

    So although the SDK is definitely a step in the right direction, I would evaluate it’s real world impact as virtually nil, sadly.

    On the other hand, embedding html content inside of noscript tags, or sniffing search engines and presenting them with different content definitely works.

  3. Eddie Truman says:

    Ah, how this post took me back to a very specific moment in time when Macromedia (as it then was) and a fairly large contingent of web design people were convinced all web sites would be 100% Flash based in the very near future.
    The web was descending into overly designed, bloated and unindexable madness.
    Then CSS happened and we were saved !
    I’ve never seen it written as such but the cast iron law of web design from that near miss with madness has to be;
    Only ever use Flash as but one small component of a web page… if you really have to.

  4. Jonathan says:

    @Eddie: The Flash vs HTML debate is something I struggle with a lot. I worked for a number of years as a fulltime Flash designer/developer, and have a great love of Flash. But in the current climate Flash is clearly unfashionable, and I find it difficult to identify the real-world benefits of 100% Flash websites. I think it’s telling that of the sites I visit on a regular basis (and there are many), not one of them is a Flash site, and I’m a Flash developer! As you suggest, many sites I build today are HTML with a sprinkling of Flash, which gives the best of both worlds.

  5. sandrar says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

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