So, for reasons I’d rather not get into, I had to break down and install Flash Player in Safari today. (OK, I’ll get into it briefly… due to a rather obscure bug, Chrome — my preferred browser — has been crashing repeatedly on me whenever I try to upload a file. Long-term solutions aside, I had an immediate need for a way to use a Flash-based file uploader, so I had to install Flash in Safari.)
On the final page of the Flash Player download process on Adobe’s website, they offer a series of helpful screenshots to guide the most novice of Mac users through the process of locating and running the installer. Only… no, wait. Those can’t be real Mac OS X screenshots. The fonts are all wrong! So is the anti-aliasing, if you want to get really geeky about it. They’re mostly Arial, with the trademark overly-hinted anti-aliasing of Windows. Strangely though, it looks like the text label under the disk icon in the first screenshot is in Helvetica.
The real telltale sign for me though was the white mouse pointer arrow. Mac OS X has a black arrow. (The Mac has always had a black arrow, and Windows has always had a white one… presumably one of Microsoft’s infringement-suit-skirting superficial changes to the GUI in the early days of the Mac/Windows rivalry.)
I have come to expect subpar user experiences from Adobe, a company whose products I once loved so dearly. But this really takes the cake. I can’t even quite comprehend how screenshots like these were produced. It’s impossible to get results like this on a real Mac. Do they have some weird proprietary in-house Mac emulator that runs on Windows? (Actually, that might explain a lot.) Did they actually meticulously create these “screenshots” in (the Windows version of) Photoshop? Or do they have a Windows application specifically designed to generate fake Mac screenshots for all of their documentation? I’m at a loss to explain it, but there’s no way it wasn’t significantly more work than simply, you know, taking screenshots on a real Mac.
See for yourself… (Note: The image is slightly scaled down here to fit the page. Click it to view at full size.)
Caveat emptor. This is going to be a really long post. But I’ve been saving this up for a long time, and hopefully I can purge myself of it in one sitting. Also, I apologize for that vaguely vomitous metaphor, but it fits my feelings about Flash. And, perhaps, by the end yours as well. So if you have a strong stomach (and care at all about this crap), read on. Otherwise, see you next time.
OK, so I’ve chimed in on the whole Apple vs. Adobe, no Flash on iPhone OS situation before. (And, if you care to scroll back through my history of mostly beer-fueled tweets about the Minnesota Twins, you’ll find a few choice 140-character missives on the matter from me on Twitter as well.) But up to now I’ve never made a clear — or, failing clarity, at least a verbose — argument for why I so strongly dislike Flash. The time has come.
I am well aware that Flash means different things to different groups of people. Essentially, as I see it, there are three main groups of people where Flash is concerned: pro-Flash designers/developers, anti-Flash designers/developers, and users. I don’t bother to distinguish between pro- and anti-Flash among users, because ultimately I don’t think most users (unless they’re also in one of the other two groups) give a crap what technology is behind the content they’re consuming on the Internet. They just want it to work.
So, with this in mind, I’m splitting this post into two sections: my arguments against Flash from the user perspective, and my arguments against it from the designer/developer perspective. I don’t bother representing the third group, because there’s really no part of me that supports it. I have reluctantly used Flash for a few, very limited purposes in recent years1, but I am actively striving to eliminate even those rare instances of it from my work.
But enough about my work (for now). Any web designer or developer worth their hourly rate knows the user comes first.
Part one: the user’s perspective
1. Flash-based designs look bad. I know I’m not an ordinary user, given my professional background, but I can spot Flash-based content in an instant, and it’s always a turn-off. There’s just something… cheap-looking about most of it. More often than not, I notice that Flash-based content has bad text rendering (both because of kerning and leading issues and because of Adobe’s abysmal anti-aliasing technology, far surpassed by the built-in anti-aliasing of plain HTML text in modern Mac web browsers and Mac OS X itself). And beyond the text, most Flash content I see has cheesy, cookie-cutter animated effects. It’s not as objectionable as a PowerPoint presentation, but it’s almost as immediately identifiable, and equally uninspiring.
Now, it’s true I’ve seen some excellentFlash-based web design. But it’s definitely the exception, and it’s rarer as an overall percentage (or at least feels that way) than first-rate design is on non-Flash sites. Plus, since I can never entirely turn off my professional perspective, knowing the drawbacks that an all-Flash website brings, my experience even of these best examples of Flash-based design are tainted beyond redemption.
2. The most high-profile use of Flash is for ads — and annoying ones at that. OK, there’s a lot of Flash content out there that’s not ads. I’d like to believe that ads make up a minority — hopefully a small one — of all Flash content on the web. But I think most of the interesting Flash web design is never seen by most people. The only Flash-heavy content that draws a lot of traffic is either online games (some good, some… meh), kids’ interactive sites (probably the only use of Flash I unabashedly support), and promotional sites for blockbuster movies and console video games. Of course, the number one use of Flash these days is probably to watch video online, from sites like YouTube, Vimeo, Funny or Die, Hulu. Flash-based video is everywhere. But that’s changing.
So, set aside the sites that require heavy-duty interactive content or (for now) video, and what are you left with? Where else does the average Internet user encounter Flash most often? Ads. Annoying, intrusive, obnoxious ads. I realize perfectly well that unless a website is actually selling stuff (including, potentially, access to the site itself, and good luck with that unless your content is either targeted at highly-specialized professions or X-rated), the only viable revenue source is advertising. But websites that operate on an ad-based business model walk a fine line: the ads need to be attention-getting enough to encourage the user to click on them, but they can’t get in the way so much that people stop visiting your site altogether. As a user, when I encounter a site with an over-abundance of intrusive ads, it’s a double negative: not only do I think the site’s design is too annoying to deal with, but I automatically assume its content must be crap, not worth wading through the ads to get to anyway.
3. It’s a plug-in. A plug-what? A what-in? This is beyond the level of most users’ interest in their computers. I just want it to work, I don’t want to fiddle around with downloading extra crap, especially when the installer was written by Adobe. (See, it’s hard for me to divorce my mind from my professional experience, even for a few minutes.) Once it’s installed, you’re done forever (or… well… until a new version of Flash comes out), so it’s easy to forget about it, but get a new computer and it’s either not installed, or you’ve purchased a PC that’s not only preloaded with Flash but 3 dozen other crappy OEM add-on applications that you’ll spend a week trying to get rid of (or, more likely, leave on your desktop gathering metaphorical dust along with 100 other icons, including every Word document you’ve ever created, forever).
Flash filled a niche, but web standards have caught up (or are well on their way to doing so), and a proprietary add-on just isn’t necessary in the way that it used to be. And, of course, on any device running iPhone OS, it’s not even that. It’s this.
4. You can’t “deep link.” I realize that to anyone who doesn’t know what a “plug-in” is (as I joked about in the previous item), the concept of “deep linking” may cause a spontaneous mental breakdown. But just because the average user doesn’t know what “deep linking” means doesn’t mean they don’t want to do it. The best example of this (though sadly I don’t have an example of it at the moment) is the scenario of a Flash-based photo gallery. Want to send your friend a link to the 14th photo in the gallery? Too bad. If you copy and paste the URL from your browser into an email, they’re going to be taken to the first photo, or, more likely, to the obnoxious crap you didn’t bother watching when you first landed on the site, because the designer at least had the courtesy of including a “Skip Intro” button.
It’s possible now to work around some of these limitations, but in my experience most Flash-based websites don’t.
5. It’s sometimes used when it’s not really needed. This is closely related to the previous item, and is probably more of a complaint I have as a developer than as a user. But there are just some sites that don’t need Flash. Or even if they do, the whole thing doesn’t need to be in Flash. If Flash were restricted to the parts of the site that require its capabilities, and things like the main navigation and text content were in plain HTML, then deep linking and a host of related problems could be alleviated.
7. The security and privacy settings you don’t know about, but should. There’s a reasonably good chance you’ve looked at the privacy settings in your web browser’s Preferences dialog box. But have you seen this screen before?
I’m not claiming the sky is falling or crying wolf. I don’t personally know of any major security exploits that have come out of this particular capability of Flash. But what happens if there is an exploit? There’s no one who can fix the problem but Adobe, and no alternative means for you to access Flash-based content. If Internet Explorer has a security exploit, you can always browse the web with Firefox, but despite some noble open source efforts, there really is no alternative to Flash. Adobe has an absolute monopoly on Flash-based web content.
8. Performance. Flash is notoriously much slower on the Mac than it is on Windows. Always has been, always will be. Apparently, according to none other than Steve Jobs himself, it’s also the number one reason Macs crash. I don’t doubt it, though I haven’t experienced it myself, mainly because I avoid Flash-based content as much as possible. But even though it performs well on Windows (largely due, I suspect, to more direct access to the system’s hardware — another security concern, incidentally — on Windows compared to the abstracted hardware access the Mac grants applications), it’s a resource hog everwhere else. I already talked about Flash’s performance issues on mobile devices. The upshot is that Flash seems to be pretty bloated and inefficient, and since Adobe won’t let anyone else look under the hood, I suspect there’s a good chance that it is… perhaps even more than anyone thinks.
In other words, if there’s a better way to do something, use it. Dump Flash.
Part two: the designer/developer’s perspective
1. Flash created a rift in the community. You don’t say! Just as there’s a big wall in the corporate software development world between .NET and Java, there’s a huge wall in the web design/development community between those who use Flash and those who don’t. This may stem in no small part from Adobe’s (and, previously, Macromedia’s) marketing tactics. There are almost unlimited options available for free (or at least cheap) IDEs for web and application development (or you can just use Notepad), but the only way2 to create Flash content is to pony up.
The result of this — and I speak from my own experience, which was a contributing factor in which side of the fence I fell on — is that designers who were given Adobe Creative Suite had Flash on their desktops, and developers who did not have CS were shut out. Flash, with ActionScript, became a gateway drug for designers looking to get into programming. Adobe capitalized on familiarity with their applications’ user interfaces, and a generation of Flash evangelists was born.
Or, on the other hand, you had developers or, like me, designer-developers who happened to fall just slightly more into the “developer” column, who were maybe given a copy of Photoshop, but encouraged not to use it. There have been periods over the past decade where I have been receptive to the idea of getting into Flash development, but was denied access to the necessary tools. It doesn’t take too long playing that role — in the context of all of the criticisms I’ve already levied from the user’s perspective — before you just decide it’s a piece of crap; you’re better off without it; and you’ll do everything you can to prove that standards-based alternatives are better.
The war between Apple and Adobe over Flash support on the iPhone OS has brought the situation to a head, with the Flash development community up in arms over Apple’s war (in which they are at least collateral damage, and at worst Adobe mercenaries), and the standards community cheering what they see as the overdue demise of public enemy number one.
2. Flash developers use it unnecessarily. There’s the rift in the community again. Because Flash developers were often weaned on Adobe Creative Suite and don’t know how to program in anything other than ActionScript, nor often how to build a simple web page in HTML/CSS, and because it’s easy for them to dazzle clients with a Flash-based site, it’s often tempting to just build an entire site in Flash. It looks impressive, the client thinks they’re getting what they want, and the check’s in the mail.
The problem is, although you can build an entire website in Flash doesn’t mean you should. In addition to the aforementioned mobile devices, Flash content is invisible to screen readers, meaning visually impaired users can’t access it, and, probably more important to the client’s bottom line, to search engines. As far as Google is concerned, that whiz-bang all-Flash website you just created for your client may as well not even exist.
Again, there are ways around a lot of these limitations, but I can think of a better one: just don’t use Flash.
And so on. I had a few other items on my list of complaints from the developer’s perspective, but they’re mostly facets of these same points: it’s a closed system entirely dependent upon one company; it’s expensive; it’s increasingly unnecessary as web standards evolve; it encourages bad user experience (UX) design; it distracts designers-turned-developers from learning web standards; etc.
Arguing for or against Flash is a lot like arguing politics and religion. It’s a polarizing issue. Everyone who has any interest in the debate also has investment in a particular perspective — baggage and biases they may not be fully willing to admit even to themselves, much less throw into their arguments. And a lot of it isn’t entirely rational.
As Upton Sinclair famously wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” It’s also easy to use that argument when you’re entirely convinced that it’s describing the other person’s position. I’m sure there is more behind most pro-Flash arguments than a vested interest in the ongoing potential for work developing for the platform. But from my perspective, it’s difficult to see.
2 OK, owning a $700 copy of Adobe Flash isn’t the only way to create Flash content. Knock yourself out. Adobe will be standing by to take your order when you get back.
I’m sure I’m not the only child of the ’80s who watched Johnny Dangerously several (hundred) times as a kid. One of my favorite characters was Roman Moronie, whose command of the English language — well, more specifically, English profanities — was tenuous at best. I’m sure he would be highly offensive to a particular nationality or ethnic group, if it were possible to tell where he was actually from. (That mystery itself being a joke in the movie; at one point a newspaper headline reads: “Roman Moronie deported to Sweden — claims he’s not from there.”) Yes, I was a big fan of ’80s Michael Keaton movies that, in retrospect, are somewhat problematic. Johnny Dangerously, Mr. Mom. I think I partly liked him because I thought maybe he was related to the characters on Family Ties. OK, I was old enough to know better than that.
What does this have to do with Apple vs. Adobe, or anything for that matter? I’m not sure, but I do know that their battle has escalated to fargin’ war!
Steve Jobs fired the first metaphorical salvo last month with his Thoughts on Flash. I thought he nailed it, as expected. Of course Adobe can’t let him win, so yesterday Adobe retaliated with their “We [heart] Apple” / “We [heart] Choice” ad campaign and an open letter of their own.
The idea that Flash is somehow open — or that Apple is somehow trying to “close” the web — is both disingenuous and misguided. My natural inclination is to blather on ad nauseum about such things, but as I’m home with a sick kid today (which is to say, there’s enough nauseum in this house already), I’ll let some more pithy writers say it for me.
First, an excellent and concise response from Jim Whimpey in Brisbane, Australia (by way of John Gruber in Philadelphia):
Adobe: not open, claim to be.
Apple: not open, don’t claim to be, contribute heavily to that which is truly open.
Update: Over on the Macworld website, the Macalope has some choice words on this topic. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here’s my favorite bit, dissecting excerpts from the Adobe open letter:
If the web fragments into closed systems, if companies put content and applications behind walls…
You mean like the wall of a lousy runtime environment that would just as soon crash the Macalope’s browser as play back a Daily Show clip? The wall of a development environment controlled by one company that makes some pretty good coin off the deal?
Oh, no. That’s not the wall you were talking about. Sorry. Go on.
…some indeed may thrive — but their success will come at the expense of the very creativity and innovation that has made the Internet a revolutionary force.
The Internet is an open range where anyone can compete in any way they like. But Adobe didn’t make the Internet. In fact, they tried to wall off a section of it. Apple, on the other hand, made its own walled garden with a scenic view of the Internet.
Comments. Over the past decade, the Internet has become inundated with them. Ten years, ago, the concept of a “blog” was considered cutting edge, by those who even knew what they were. Now, they’re everywhere, and their general format — a dated archive of topical posts by one or a small number of authors, each of which is trailed by a string of reader comments — has become the standard structure for most news and information websites.
But… comments. Oh, comments. They help turn a one-sided online journal into a thriving community of engaged individuals. Or not. By now, the true nature of most comment threads — a bunch of morons yelling “FIRST” followed by a bunch of even bigger morons ranting at each other without ever engaging — is so well-known, so obvious, that it’s boring even to mention and somewhere between tiresome and excruciating to experience.
So, how long will it be before comments go the way of Internet Explorer 6 and Flash? (Oops… have I spoken too soon?) I think the day is coming soon.
I can’t tell you how tempting shutup.css is. I’ve spent more time angrily scrolling through insipid comment threads than I care to remember… but it’s driven me to rant before.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
But, just like Flashblock (or, for you Safari users, ClickToFlash), I think if I were to try it, I would quickly go back, no matter how annoying the comments are.
Don’t get me wrong: I feel the same way about comments as I do about Flash. Both have potential, but far more often than not they are just intrusive and annoying rather than useful. I tried Flashblock for a few days last week, and I was happy not to be intruded upon with overlaid advertisements, intro animations, and other bandwidth- and time-wasting nonsense. But turning off Flash also meant I had to click an extra button to watch most videos, and even worse, to upload files on my WordPress blogs… not to mention the client sites I’m developing that have JWPlayer and YUI Uploader embedded in them. So, as much as I want to be rid of Flash, and as content as I am not to have it in iPhone OS, I decided I needed to turn it back on in Firefox on my MacBook.
The same goes for comments, but I don’t even need to try shutup.css to know I wouldn’t want to keep it. Sure, I hate the comments on most news and tech sites I read, but I like them on my own site, and I like them on the sites that I want to comment on.
Turn it on again
So, with both Flash and comments, there are proponents and opponents. It seems in the recent dust-up over Flash (or the lack thereof) on the iPhone and iPad, the most fervent supporters of Flash are Flash developers, or people who just hate Apple. And with comments, well, it’s pretty obvious: people who like comments (or, more specifically, like to make them) want them, and just about everyone else doesn’t. It’s clear to me that comments rarely add value, and they often detract from the sites they’re on. On the other hand, allowing comments on my sites has for the most part added value to them, and, critically, commenting on other sites has driven traffic to my sites.
Does this mean that the act of commenting is purely, or at least primarily, an act of shameless self-promotion? Perhaps. I wouldn’t post a comment if I didn’t think the comment had merit on its own, but I’ve also consciously posted comments on some sites knowing that doing so was a prime opportunity to bring some of those sites’ readers over to my sites.
And in the end…
Comments, too, are about helping people communicate. But it’s become clear that — more or less, depending on the particular site — few people who engage in comments on a blog are really all that interested in communication. If comments cease to be seen as communication and instead become an ugly, depressing wasteland at the bottom of web pages, then they’ll die off too.
Looking forward into a new decade, I am beginning to see the old alignments of the Internet as we’ve known it falling away. There’s a convergence of new standards, new devices, and new means of communicating. And this naturally means that certain older ways, “standards” or not, will fade from our day-to-day experience. I’ll certainly be happier to see Flash go than comments, but then again, I think I’ll do just fine either way. Let me know what you think. Or not.
OK, it’s not really deadly at all… other than that it will kill your CakePHP session and log you out.
My CakePHP-based CMS uses YUI Uploader, a Flash-based file uploader utility. It’s much better than the default HTML file uploader, because it supports a fully CSS-customizable progress bar and multiple file uploads.
It’s pretty slick, even though I did tear some hair out earlier in the year trying to get it integrated into the CMS. All went well for several months, until one particular client, using Windows Vista and Internet Explorer 8, discovered a showstopper of a problem: whenever you uploaded a file, all would seem well until you went to save your changes and you’d get kicked back to the login screen, without the changes being saved. Bad news!
I did some diagnostics and determined that, yes indeed, the CakePHP session was in fact being dropped as soon as the Flash process finished queuing the file uploads (an AJAX-based process), before you actually click the “Save” button… but since there’s nothing else happening dynamically on the page, it wasn’t obvious that the session had been killed in the background.
Anyway, some research led me to a perfect explanation of the problem, and an equally perfect solution: Flash is sending a different user agent string, which was resetting the CakePHP session. I’m still not sure why it was only affecting Internet Explorer, but at any rate, a simple change to the app/config/core.php file solved the problem in a snap. The critical line:
I suppose by removing this line, the application is ever-so-slightly less secure, but there should be enough other precautions in place that removing the user agent check as part of the process of validating a session should not pose a significant security risk.