Adobe Flash – Web Design Wonder Or a Flash Menu For Disaster?

By Ray Cassidy

Adobe Flash is a truly amazing innovation, even after more than a decade Adobe Flash is a software platform for multimedia content. It was originally created by Jonathan Gay as a project known as Future Splash Animator. When Disney Studios and MSN got interested in using it for their websites, this pricked the awareness of Macromedia who were already developing their Director software. Macromedia bought out Jonathan Gay’s parent company and the software was re-badged under the title of Macromedia Flash 1.0.

Currently, it is under the wing of Adobe Systems. Ever since its introduction, Adobe Flash has enjoyed tremendous popularity as an essential tool for adding animation and interactivity to web pages. It is increasingly being used for a growing variety of website related tasks such as Flash menus. These include; adding animation, advertisements, and widgets and integrating video into web pages.

The speciality of this application is that it can manipulate both vector and raster graphics and it supports bi-directional streaming of audio and video. This makes it extremely easy to embed animation, interactive movies and virtual tours on web sites, which would previously not have been possible. In the hands of an experienced web designer, Flash can lend a slick and professional look to all kinds of web sites.

The software uses a scripting language called ActionScript. This provides the first challenge for people who intend to enter the world of rich multimedia content development. There is a steep learning curve before you can produce the high quality results modern web visitors expect. The reward for all that effort is the fact that your content is probably playable on almost everybody’s PC.

This is thanks to the free Adobe Flash Player, which is the most common tool available for playing Flash content in web browsers. This is under constant review and development with updates available online (almost weekly at times, it seems). In other portable electronic devices a slimmed down version known as Flash Lite is used to display the content.

Flash is incorporated into websites through files in the SWF format, traditionally called “ShockWave” movies. These files usually have a .swf file extension and are technically an “object” on the web page, usually “played” in a standalone Adobe Flash Player. Flash Video files have an .flv file extension and are either used from within .swf files or played through an flv aware player, such as VLC, or QuickTime and Windows Media Player with external codecs added.

Flash is credited with giving the common man, the power of animation because it becomes relatively easy for experienced programmers to create animation and develop interactivity. In fact there have been several attempts to produce low cost Flash animation editors that have even been trialed successfully with UK primary school children.

One of the most ubiquitous uses of the technology is in the production of animated Flash advertising banners, which despite common gossip, remain an effective tool in the advertising cupboard.

What is considered to be the main argument against Flash is that it breaks some of the conventions associated with normal HTML pages. Some actions like selecting text, scrollbars, form control and right-clicking act differently than in a regular HTML webpage.

There are those who consider Flash to be unfriendly towards to disabled users of IT. Currently, it is only compatible with certain screen readers and then, only under Windows. So in the case of Internet users who are visually impaired; who require larger text sizes or high-contrast color schemes, they will frequently find sites that make extensive use of Flash difficult to read. This problem has been solved to some extent by controlling the full page zoom options found in many modern browsers.

Some of the other disadvantages of Flash are dependent on its implementation in the web site structure. If you anticipate your website receiving large numbers of customers, it is better to avoid the excessive use of Flash, because the fairly large files will take time to load. With multiple users accessing the same content you can put a heavy load on your servers.

Another disadvantage of Flash is that it is not optimized for search engine indexing. As a result of this the content of Flash animation is not visible to most of the search engines. Thus, much content of this type gets excluded from search results. Some developers are now coming up with ingenious solutions for including indexable information in the coding around Flash objects on the webpage. The most significant example is within Flash rollover menus where the “Googlebots” can now index the links on those menus.

If a Flash file contains un-optimized raster images (i.e. big images you haven’t sized to the player’s window), the final animation’s size will cause higher than necessary page loading times. With the notoriously short attention span of information hungry surfers, this always ends up irritating users and losing you potential customers. It is also more expensive to update the Flash content of a given website than traditional non-Flash based content due to the quite technical nature of generating and editing that content.

Overall, Adobe Flash is a pretty amazing innovation in web design. It has allowed ordinary people, with commitment, to develop graphical eye candy that was once upon a time, only in the realm of the big animation studios. It is and remains, revolutionary: even this far down the line. However, it is not a panacea for your graphical requirements. The high skill levels needed and the large file sizes involved can, give you expensive overheads and laborious web page loading. On the other hand, for some effects it is the only practical solution, if you have very specific requirements.

Always take a long hard look at the effect you want to achieve; the alternative methods and the cost in money or time before you launch yourself into a major Flash project.

Ray Cassidy,

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