Flash: 99% Good

Macromedia Flash. ­People either love it or hate it. As its popularity has spread on the Internet, so too have certain misconceptions that I hope to either clarify or outright dispel with this article. I prefer the phrase ‘myth-conceptions’ (with a nod to Robert Asprin, fantasy author), since so many of these half-truths have passed into the ‘common wisdom’ of Internet lore, with only a slight or distorted basis in reality, their origins shrouded in mystery.

The Myths I’d like to debunk are:

  1. Flash animations are too slow and take too long to download.
  2. Flash animations are nothing more than eye candy, and ugly besides.
  3. No business serious about making money uses Flash on their site.
  4. You need to go through a long download process to get the Flash runtime files.
  5. Anyone can build a flash animation ­ it’s easy.

1. Flash animations are too slow and take too long to download.

With all myth-conceptions, there is a grain of truth here, IF the flash developer is not careful and considerate about bandwidth and streaming issues. As a streaming technology, Flash can begin displaying an animation the moment it has downloaded enough relevant content.

In other words, I can create a flash movie that begins to tell its story within a second or two of streaming download, if I carefully limit myself to some initial text and simple graphics. The rate of playback is usually slower than the rate of download, so as one set of actors appears on stage and does their thing, more ‘actors’ and ‘scenes’ can download in the background, patiently waiting their turn ‘behind the scenes.’

If the developer is not paying attention to these design considerations, they can foist upon an unsuspecting browser a long delay (and blank screen!) while a stage full of 3d rendered objects, large bitmaps and a complete musical score all try to download over a thin pipe.

Certain Flash movies may require some heavier actors to appear from the first frame. The trick then is to provide some sort of preloader, or ‘opening act’, which keeps the audience occupied while the main show loads in the background. A true master integrates the preloader as a branding experience, or message, that literally and figuratively sets the stage for later action. But even a simple ‘progress’ bar would be better than a blank screen.

Is Flash to blame for this? No more than Photoshop can be blamed for those wonderful HTML-based sites that cram half a meg worth of unoptimized photos onto the home page.

2. Flash animations are nothing more than eye candy, and ugly to boot.

Actually, I might agree with this one, in so far as saying that most amateur Flash developers equate Flash with "flashy": lots of spinning text, driving techno-dance backbeats and psychedelic transitional effects.

The reality is that Flash is a tool, not a solution. The ‘coolness’ (or conversely, ‘crappiness’) of a given Flash animation is a direct result of the developer’s experience, capabilities, vision and wisdom. If someone creates an ugly HTML-based site, with really bad graphics, does that make Dreamweaver or Fireworks a bad tool?

Flash itself supports a host of high end functionality: connectivity to back-end databases, support for CGI & Javascript, XML, sockets, and of course, interactivity and animation. And while many folks will continue to inflict upon us ‘Yet Another Spinning Logo’, others will see the wisdom of knowing when to do something and when not to, and produce such wonderful sites as Disney, Barney’s, Gucci, Turbonium and Eventstyle (ok, that last one is one of mine.)

3. No business serious about making money uses Flash on their site.

This is one of my favorites (usually espoused loudly by the mavens of the Text-Only Society). Do you think Disney is not serious about making money, driving traffic and closing sales? Do you think Coke really needs to charge 75 cents for a can of soda? Is Calvin Klein underwear worth $18 a pair? (actually, I do!) They spend millions and millions on BRANDING experiences (store designs, marketing, image building, levels of detail that make my head spin) that are incredible, and make shopping/purchasing that much more luxurious and rich. And yes, their prices reflect that level of sophistication. Armani would not be Armani if it took a bare-bones, warehouse approach to its look, feel and client base.

These firms collectively spend billions of dollars on marketing, creating the very best of branding experiences for their customers. They know that an effective brand evokes certain goodwill, a positive feeling that reinforces (and is reinforced) by consuming their product. They work hard to make you feel good about going to Disneyland, or buying a Coke, or shopping for a handbag. This type of effective branding and image management is almost impossible with a text-only campaign.

Flash provides a relatively low-impact, high-payback means of creating compelling, entertaining and effective customer interactions, whether they are rich-media emails, banners, animations, games, navigation systems, how-to manuals, CDs or entire web sites. And yes, I am very serious about making money.

4. You need to go through a long download process to get the Flash runtime files.

Another bit of truth warped out of proportion over time. Yes, you do need a runtime (plug-in or Active X control) to view a Flash movie. No denying that. But any major browser after v4.0, as well as Win 98 and Mac OS 9, ship with the very small Flash runtime engine. According to Macromedia, 96% of all computers can see Flash movies.

If a developer chooses to use a newer version of Flash (currently version 5) than you have a run-time for, the download of the latest version can occur automatically (with the proper code on their website) and takes about a minute to complete. While this may be viewed by some as an inconvenience, it is a far quicker solution than some other popular browser add-ins, such as Quicktime, Real Player, Acrobat & Shockwave. In fact, this particular myth probably has its origins in the downloading of the Shockwave player, (also made by Macromedia ­ think Flash’s big brother) which is several meg in size, and takes considerably longer to download than the small (under 200K) Flash runtime.

5. Anyone can build a Flash animation!­ It’s easy!

Anyone can learn the basic moves behind chess in about 15 minutes, but that doesn’t make them a Grand Master, ready to take on Gary Kasparov or Deep Blue. With the latest release of Flash, I have noticed a marked increase in the number of "Flash 5 for Fools in Five Minutes" books. Sigh ­ more bad Flash coming your way!

The basics of Flash are relatively easy to grasp. It’s these basics that most amateurs begin and end with, churning out those ‘sites’ that fuel the fire for these myth-conceptions. The more challenging (and rewarding) option is to move beyond the basics, in both skills and aesthetics. It’s about finding your vision, your voice, your style and learning the wisdom of when to use a particular effect and, more importantly, when not to (spinning text, anyone?)

As with any tool, it’s all in the execution. Anyone can pick up the basics of HTML, and slap together a few pages over a weekend, calling it a site, and a day. Which one do you want representing your business ­ the amateur or the professional?

Conclusion

As an emerging Flash developer, you could say that I have a vested interest in the ‘spreading of the good word’ about Flash, and you’re right! But I am not a ‘Fla-natic’ who would use Flash in every site and situation. I certainly would not try to create Yahoo! or Amazon with Flash technology. It ‘s all a matter of scale and appropriateness.

As I have stated several times, Flash is an extremely powerful tool, with an amazing set of features and functionality. But it is only a tool (and therefore neutrally blameless) ­ not a solution. It can be a wonderful addition to an experienced developer’s tool chest, whether used to create an accent piece, a site intro or an entire web presence. It has great power, which also comes with great responsibility, to be used for good or evil.

Use that power wisely, and you can become one of the mythic ‘new masters’ of Flash ­ the gods to which I pay homage daily. Abuse it, and your sites will fade away into the obscurity of time, their passage marked by a collective sigh of "thank goodness THAT’S over with!"

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