People Used To Hate Flash

July 10, 2007

Well, some still do. But in the past few years, Flash has moved from annoying to rather useful. Today, people consider the lack of Flash on the iPhone a weakness, when just a few years ago, people would have seen this a benefit as it would mean no banner ads on their iPhone.

Recall that back in the day (which in Internet time means 2003) people wrote funny, flame war posts like “I hate Flash” or noted surveys that said “consumers hate Flash.” There’s this gem from Jakob Nielsen in 2001 saying that Flash is 99% bad.

Flash was considered an animation tool, and hence responsible for some of the dumbest websites around, where zooming, moving graphics took the place of actual content. The ubiquitous “loading” sequence was enough to piss off many users (myself included) and we immediately hit the back button. Flash also found a home in banner ads which were pretty much sneered at by everyone. Annoying Flash led to some funny satirical websites.

Today, much to Adobe’s credit, the “I hate Flash” attitude has decreased significantly. It has come a long way in terms of utility and web designers have figured out appropriate uses for it. It has also nearly shed its timeline roots and its scripting language ActionScript has moved towards an actual programming language through Adobe Flex and AIR.

Flash video (.flv) is huge.

Flash games are all over the place.

Flash viral animations are really popular. I think this started with All Your Base and moved up to the JibJab stuff.

In some instances, a whole site done in Flash can be pretty cool. I see this most commonly for entertainment-related websites and design firms, where the users are more likely to be looking for an immersive experience.

More commonly, I see hybrid sites with a mix of HTML and a few carefully designed Flash elements for the interactive “wow” factor.

Granted, I still see some instances of less than ideal Flash use. The site Smalltown bugs me with too much Flash for their entire UI, obscuring the content. But overall, I think Flash has definitely come a long way from the days where anything Flash = Trash.

Wikipedia: Flash History


  1. Anon says:

    You really couldn’t be more dead on. And I have to credit someone I used to work with for pushing through and ‘forcing’ a company to go with Flash when everyone – customers included – told him otherwise. He settled with upper-upper-management and the vocal anti-flash customers by creating an HTML/CSS-only version of the same page, which gets less than 1% of the views of the Flash version.

    Now, a couple of years later, those same customers absolutely adore the page, love Flash, and would probably complain if they couldn’t watch their silly videos etc in Flash.

    The pages in question: (Flash) and (no-flash).

  2. JC says:

    I can’t agree with you here. The problem is not whether or not Flash is good; Flash is not an open web standard. Period. It is owned and operated by Adobe, and it requires a special plugin written by and controlled by Adobe to run. This makes it as problematic as IE for web designers and web users alike.

    No responsible designer would ever make a page that “requires” Flash, anymore than he or she would design a page that “requires” Internet Explorer or Firefox.

    The web is supposed to be free and open to everyone. The W3C standards group was created to ensure this. Supporting Flash in any way is a step back from standards adoption.

    Apple does not and should not support Flash on iPhone, because it will only help Adobe further monopolize the web. The mass popularity of iPhone, which is sure to come, will help drive designers towards better, open alternatives.

    Google has already consented to re-digitize its entire catalog into the open H.264 standard. Flv on YouTube will be gone by this fall. Getting an icon on iPhone wasn’t the only reason for Google to do this. Google, like Apple, believes in pushing open web standards. Why give Adobe your money and power when there are free and open alternatives?

    Imagine that Flash became as popular as Adobe would like it to be. Where would that leave companies like Apple? At the whim of a corporation which no longer has any motivation to support its platform. Just as Microsoft dropped support for IE for Mac as soon as it no longer needed Apple, Adobe could just as easily stop porting the Flash plugin over to the Mac, or even the iPhone. Remember, Adobe wants Flash Lite to become the next operating system for mobile phones (i.e. LG Prada). If the web became dependent on Flash, Adobe could just stop porting the Flash plugin to iPhone, thus giving itself the upper hand on mobile browsing. Not good.

    And if you think Adobe would never do such a thing, think again.

    Ajax and the next revisions of HTML and CSS should be able to deliver just as rich a user experience without handing control of the web over to Adobe. The world will be a better place.

  3. Bryce says:

    “It has come a long way in terms of utility and web designers have figured out appropriate uses for it.”

    I think that’s the root for why many people (myself included) hated Flash. I didn’t hate Flash itself so much as the complete misuse of it. It really shouldn’t take 15 seconds of animation to transition to one page to the next on a dentist’s website. The user shouldn’t have to guess whether the backflipping bear or the steaming coffee cup links to the “Contact” page. I still hate unusable Flash, but also hate unusable HTML. When I was working on band websites, I had many many conversations with clients about making their sites usable rather than full of moving garbage. “But it looks cool!” “Would you rather it look cool the one time a potential customer shows up and leaves in frustration because the menu is a bunch of unlabeled rectangles, or would you rather have a site where they can find what they are looking for?” It’s a little disheartening how hard a decision that was for some clients (and that some still chose the former).

  4. webomatica says:

    Hmm, good points. I’m commenting on how the general mood out there has shifted from “Flash sucks” to something more positive – whether or not it is a smart move is another matter.

    I do agree with JC that the closed nature of Flash is pretty lame and anti Web 2.0. As far as I’m aware there is still the problem of search engines indexing content in Flash.

    But I actually saw Apple wanting to re-encode the YouTube videos for iPhone and Apple TV as their way of supporting the Quicktime codecs. Apple also pushes AAC for the iTunes music store. Companies are just promoting their own interests and standards – it’s a choice between Apple or Adobe.

    The mere fact that Apple saw YouTube videos as important enough to do the whole encoding thing kinda shows how important Flash has become – in that mainstream users might have noticed right off the bat the iPhone’s lack of FLash support the first time they browsed to YouTube and couldn’t see a video.

    Do you think that the YouTube site itself will nuke Flash? I hadn’t read that elsewhere…

    I think Adobe has a good amount of momentum on their side because so many sites now use Flash, if not for their whole sites but in little modules here and there. Heck even the Google Maps street view uses Flash.

    Bryce good points about usability – the client wanting what looks “cool” vs. against their better interests of keeping users happy. I guess that’s something designers have struggled with ever since the animated GIF (or even before when desktop publishing enabled people to use 34,992 fonts in a print document)… and will continue to when the Al Gore Holographic Technology comes to web sites.

  5. Hal Rucker says:

    I’d like to counter the point of view that Smalltown’s use of Flash gets in the way of the content.

    Let’s do a usage case: I’m going to search for who has the best hot dogs in San Mateo, CA using and I have a stopwatch in one hand and my mouse in the other ;-)


    - Go to (first page loads in about 5.2 seconds)
    - Type in “hot dogs” and “San Mateo CA”. The next screen comes up and you have to choose a category. (3.6 seconds)
    - Choose “hamburgers and hot dogs”. There is a total of 3 results, one for a hamburger diner and two for sandwich shops that aren’t in San Mateo. (2.9 seconds.) No hot dog restaurants are listed. End of that game.
    - Now choose the top result anyway (Jeffrey’s Hamburgers. I’m pretty sure they serve hot dogs). (1.8 seconds)
    - Try to learn more about Jeffreys. If you click on one of the links in the listing, you have to use the browser back button to get back to the choices. Page forward; page back… a good metaphor for reading documents online, but a bad metaphor for interacting with information.

    2. Smalltown, San Mateo

    - Go to (the whole application loads into the browser cache in about 5.8 seconds)
    - Type “hot dogs” into the search box and you get results in all 3 tabs at the same time: Webcards, Reviews and Discussions (2.8 seconds)
    - Note that there are 7 listings, all in San Mateo. Each “Webcard” already displays the basic information for each listing, including photos. If you want to get additional information about a particular listing, it’s all one click away. Let’s click on the Windy City Pizza Webcard. Why does a listing for a pizza parlor show up? Because we know that this pizza parlor serves Vienna Hot Dogs, as mentioned in their Webcard.
    - Do you want to watch a video about this restaurant? Well, it’s just two clicks away, if you include the “play” button.
    - Do you want to read user generated reviews about this restaurant? Those are all one click away.
    - How about a discussion about who has the best hot dog in San Mateo? Sorry, that’s two clicks away (click on the Discussions tab, then open the first discussion about who has the best hot dogs.)
    - What if you want to save the Windy City Pizza listing for later? Simply click on “add to favorites” or click and drag it into your “favorites” folder.
    - Other features that are one click away: send to friend, print, write a review, view on a map, send the owner an email, attach the Webcard to another Webcard to automatically link them, report the Webcard as inaccurate, read today’s Daily Digest…

    I could go on and on about the fun and useful features you can discover at Smalltown that simply aren’t available at any html site, but let me stop to make some observations:

    1. It does take Smalltown a little longer to load the first time than a typical html site. But not a lot longer. Then, once the app is loaded, every action is super quick because we don’t have “pages”. I used a stopwatch to show that when an action does take longer, it isn’t very significant.

    Why did I stop including the time it takes to do all those advanced steps at Smalltown? Because after the app was cached, there were not any page refreshes. Smalltown behaves like an app and clicking on links and buttons and other ui elements happens instantly. In some cases, we do include an animation, but this is always to help the user stay oriented and understand the result of an action taken. We thought long and hard about every decision about where to use animation, if at all.

    2. We could have done most of these features in AJAX (not all), but we chose Flash for a number of reasons. The most important one is that Flash is truly write once, run anywhere. For a startup with limited resources, AJAX is just too time consuming to test and debug on all browser configurations.

    Read more about this topic on our blog:

    3. Smalltown is in the business of creating tools that make it easy for local businesses and community organizations to have a rich Web presence that is easy to make, change and share. Therefore it’s important that we use a technology that enables rich media AND advanced functionality. The features we have coming out soon will all fit nicely into the Webcard metaphor, and could not be built in html.

    When we first launched, critics thought our ui was too complicated for what it did. But now, as we add advanced new features that all fit nicely into the same Webcard metaphor, the critics are starting to understand that at launch we exposed the foundation without the great stuff that is being built on top of it.

    Don’t design yourself into a corner by not planning ahead.

    A place for everything, everything in its place.

  6. webomatica says:

    Hal thanks for posting your opinion. It’s part of the reason why I have open comments. Anyhow when I checked out Smalltown a while back I felt like as a user, I was interacting more with the interface than the information itself. Maybe I should check it Smalltown out once again (I’ve noticed many Web 2.0 sites doing redesigns).

    Obviously you guys enjoy Flash so I consider that another indication that people have a positive opinion of Flash.

    Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  7. JC says:

    You say Apple is “pushing” its own standards with AAC and H.264, as compared to Adobe pushing Flash. But neither AAC nor H.264 are Apple’s standards. They are free and open standards that Apple chose to support over their own proprietary standard. This shift to open standards after Jobs’ return in 1997 has proven to be one of Apple’s best decisions when it comes to OS X and particularly the iPod. They effectively put an end to Microsoft’s WMF monopoly. I’m sure they’d like to repeat that with iPhone.

    I like Flash, and I’ve made a lot of money developing sites with Actionscript. But my mind has been completely turned around to supporting only web standards recently.

  8. webomatica says:

    Technically you are right that AAC and H.264 are open standards – I guess my choice of words should have been the format that Apple wants people to use, vs. what is commonly out there or what Microsoft or Adobe would have people use.

    Most audio files were MP3 but iTunes with the momentum of the iPod is managing to switch much download-purchased music to the AAC format. I would imagine there are tons of users downloading iTunes songs thinking they’re Mp3s – but it doesn’t matter as the songs work on their iPods. It’s a pretty slick trick, and Microsoft is probably not too happy that folks are moving away from the Windows Media Format 0 the sound format obviously matters to them.

    Definitely true that WMV and Adobe’s formats are a heck of a lot more restrictive than what Apple has been supporting since Jobs took over. I felt comfortable enough converting my entire music collection to 192 AAC and my ripped videos to .mp4. I didn’t even consider using WMV or FLV for fear of future incompatibility.

    But what I think you’re getting at is that the iPhone, by not supporting Flash, might be Apple’s way of getting people to embrace more web standards – anything that works in Safari – without using Flash. That is a noble goal, but I’m not sure if I agree with you that Apple and the iPhone has enough momentum to make that happen.

    I guess we’ll wait and see if in the future, Apple announces Flash support on the iPhone.

  9. Dan says:

    “In some instances, a whole site done in Flash can be pretty cool…

    * Simpsons Movie (cool make your own Simpsons avatar)”

    Funny you should mention that site! That piece of crap won’t let me in because I’m not running the latest Flash plugin… D’oh! I AM RUNNING THE LATEST PLUGIN! Flash I just too stupid to recognize it. BTW, whatever happened to degrading gracefully???

  10. andy says:

    Flash for entertainment sites isnt an issue with me. If im trying to find information on a movie, and the site is completely done in flash, you counted me out from ever going to see it. thats not a problem.. but when any other site has flash or is flash based, there is no reason for this.
    #1. not everyone has the newest flash player, or has a flash player installed. why would an informative website only want certain people to be able to view it? for example
    #2. user friendliness. flash is not user friendly.
    A. you have to wait for the entire page to load before you can do anything
    B. you cannot search it with cmd f
    c. there is no site map search
    d. one misclick on a flash link, you have to wait until the next page fully loads, and hopes there is a link to go back to the first page.
    3. seo. once again, search engine optimization is what brings people to websites. if you cannot find a website, what good is it?
    4. graphic intense. flash is a major bandwidth hog
    5. do programmers realize that in 2007 49% of the world was/is on dial-up? once again, excluding users isnt the way to get people coming to your site.
    6. basic browser functions are disabled. browser limitations are there for a reason.. the same reason we have speed limits. when someone breaks these limitations they should be punished. If a back button is unusable, then apparently the flash programmer knows what people really want, and everyone whos coded browsers in the last 20 years are fools.

    Time will show that flash is an evil that people arent willing to deal with.
    go back to the trusted and true html.

  11. Hal Rucker says:

    This Flash religious war is boring. It all comes down to using the best tool to solve a particular problem. Sometimes it’s html. Sometimes it’s AJAX. Sometimes it’s Flash. And sometimes the right tool isn’t even the Internet.

    But I would like to clear up some misconceptions:

    - It is possible to build a 100% Flash site that is SEO friendly. is an example.
    - More Internet users have a modern Flash player installed than have Windows. This certainly wasn’t a limitation for YouTube or Google Analytics or Yahoo Maps or, for that matter, most banner ad networks.
    - Flash can actually be faster than html on a dialup if the app is architected properly. Sure, the initial download is longer, but the experience of using the website can overall be quicker.
    - It is possible to make a Flash app work with the browser back button. (See again)
    - Flash apps are graphic intensive if you choose to make them graphic intensive. It is not an inherent quality of Flash.

  12. andy says:

    in response to hal
    “More Internet users have a modern Flash player installed than have Windows. “
    do you really expect us to believe that? show me a single pre-manufactured computer that has flash installed.
    “the initial download is longer, but the experience of using the website can overall be quicker.”
    until you click a link, then you have to wait for an entire new page to load. html will always be faster period.
    “Flash apps are graphic intensive if you choose to make them graphic intensive. It is not an inherent quality of Flash.”
    thats ridiculous! flash is read as an image. no image has ever, in the history of man kind loaded faster then plain text.. ever.

  13. Justin says:

    Dude, I work for a adult video site that streams flash to 5 million unverified uniques users per day, 6 million verified registered users. Flash 9 is pretty ubiqitous. We're talking 73% of people have Flash 9 before they reach the site. Seriously, I think what your opinion is ,and what my analytics tell me are a world of difference. Straight Talk.

  14. andy says:

    so because you force 11 million people to install a modern flash player to USE your website, you once again, expect us to believe any of hals ridiculous claims>?
    why dont you throw a poll on your site asking whether they would like to be able to download avi/mpeg files or stick with the streaming flash. What do you want to bet that the majority would prefer a downloadable video? flash simply is not user friendly, because you are trying to reinvent the wheel.

  15. italiaotoko says:

    In the age of open source and collaborative development, a platform so popular like flash should be open and made available for use and improvement by the community. Period.