Please turn off the Flash

Posted in Camino, Life, Software at 11:06 pm by

Flash is already ill-regarded by Mac users for its wretched performance, detested by Linux users for its proprietary nature, and disliked by millions of web users for its general annoyance factor.

The larger problem, though, is that Flash breaks the web and defies established conventions that make the web usable. There are no hyperlinks per se (only clickable spots), no way to determine where clicking will take you, and no way to get back there (that is, no URIs or URLs). Even worse—and one of the reasons Flash is so beloved by certain types of content creators—Flash is a black hole; nothing comes out, which makes Flash entirely inaccessible for reuse, collaboration, or whatever the next great idea on the web is.

Case in point: we’re headed to Oslo this summer for a wedding, and the happy couple are registered at (surprise, surprise) a Norwegian retailer of fine table- and kitchenware. Part of the registry website is plain-old HTML, which means the non-obvious Norwegian words and phrases I encounter can magically become mostly-intelligible English words and phrases thanks to the wonders of Google Translate.

The other part of the store’s registry website, unfortunately, is a series of Flash objects. These are completely opaque to anything that reads the web. Google Translate can’t translate the “button” labels, and I can’t hover over the buttons to see where clicking them will take me (or even inspect the page source to learn the destination, which slightly crazy people have been known to do in order to get useful information). I can’t copy and paste the “button” labels into Google Translate, because, for all intents and purposes, they’re bitmaps, so if I persist in my efforts to have Google Translate decipher the site for me, I have to manually enter some Norwegian text (no non-ASCII characters on these buttons, thankfully). It’s painful, and it’s frustrating that what would “just work” in standard HTML has become a chore that only the most crazed or desperate among us will actually stick with through completion. What’s worse, there seems to be no compelling reason for the “buttons” in question to be Flash; unless the site intentionally desires to obfuscate the destinations of each “button,” the only “functionality” provided by Flash is a hover effect. :hover, anyone?

Perhaps you’re thinking, “this is an unusual/rare/contrived situation; there’s no real-word applicability here.” Unusual or rare, sure, but why cut yourself off from the opportunity to be useful/profitable from every situation presented (Occasionem oblatam tenete —Cicero), when you could just as easily (or perhaps even more easily; surely HTML+CSS is easier than writing a Flash applet?) be open to them? Norwegian retailers don’t have to worry about making their sites accessible to non-Norwegian speakers; Google can do it for them, if only they would use real text, the real web, HTML. No expenditure at all would be required to get this added market, but the retailers could reap the benefits of a scenario they never expected.

Every day on the web, use-cases you haven’t thought of are appearing and becoming mainstream, and in the rapidly changing world of technology, do you really want to be left behind or have to spend extra time and money re-working your site to become compatible with the next great movement on the web?

Please, turn off the Flash.


  1. User Grav­atarfungi said,

    05.14.08 at 2:01 am

    I concur… flash sux… not to bad for embedded video… but only because the alternatives (even open options like vlc and mplayer) are ugly and broken.

    The problem (aside from video) is that flash has an idiot proof gui and thats all your average designer can handle. A really nice, free, unencumbered IDE for the web is so overdue its not funny, the best we have is compozer and its nothing to recommend a friend. Flash has a wonderful learning curve.

    As a freetard its my duty to blame everything on Microsoft and this is no exception. The last 10 years of MSIE has paved the way for flash. Consistent and deliberate breakage of every conceivable standard and technology has made web development just to __hard__ for your average numb nuts designer. Failure to implement SVG and consistent javascript/activex idiocy has made flash a comparatively easy and consistent development platform.

    When it comes to implementing the average graphic designers brain fart flash is second to none. Problem being brain farts dont and cant make the web go around.

  2. User Grav­atarnobody said,

    05.14.08 at 5:53 am

    Well said. It’s not just flash that creates a problem; I browse without script. The majority of sites could easily be made to function fine without but many do not, to the extent where a script-free user cannot even navigate category listings or preview blog comments (hint).

    Then there’s the situation where sites use javascript to embed a flash player and video. That one requires reading script to figure out the URL before I can use wget/mplayer.

    One small correction. Flash isn’t a black box, it’s trivial to decompile the bytecode unless it’s been obfuscated.

  3. User Grav­atarvoracity said,

    05.14.08 at 8:25 am

    While I wouldn’t be quite as blunt as fungi, I agree that the reason there’s so much unnecessary Flash about is because of the developer tools (and IE, though let’s not forget other browsers were also dragging their feet in adding Flash-like abilities until recently).

    ‘Developer’ tools (and print-browser stagnation) are also why there’s so many darn PDFs on the web.

  4. User Grav­atarAaron Bassett said,

    05.14.08 at 8:54 am

    I have to disagree on many of your points, its not flash thats broken but people’s application of the technology.

    You are correct in stating that those simple buttons should have just been HTML/CSS and maybe even unobtrusive Javascript if it was truely needed – but there are many cases where Flash is the best option.

    As the previous commenter mentioned Video is a great use of Flash, do you think youtube could have succeeded without it?
    Infact any kind of media player is a definite use case for Flash.

    You forget that as few as 3 or 4 years ago everyone was saying the same thing about Javascript as it’s only purpose seemed to be annoying mouse trailers and ad popups.
    This wasn’t a fault of the language, it was misuse by developers. Now people are using Javascript in great ways and it has enabled alot of the whole 2.0 thing!

    We are now in the same position with Flash, although some people are doing great things with it (youtube, yahoo maps, musicplasma) other people are misusing it and ruining it’s reputation.

    @fungi: Saying Flash is all about the GUI is the biggest load of non-sense ever. Actionscript is a very powerful language and is not just “brain fart”
    Yes creating simple animations is easy in Flash, but beyond that it has a steep learning curve, hence why most people never even scratch the surface of what it can do!

  5. User Grav­atarmonk.e.boy said,

    05.14.08 at 8:56 am

    flash is much better than boring HTML

    How can you make a cool site in HTML? You can’t. It sucks.

    Start sprinkling in JS and animation then it gets better.

    Use flash and it is amazing.

    So, what choice do you have (I am talking about the non geek here)? Have you even played any games on the playstation, x box or wii? Ever tried to emulate one of the interfaces using crappy HTML? You can’t even put text at an angle.

    Yes, I read mozillazine, I know all about svg, css animation, canvas etc… they all suck.

    Anyway, flash is all open source now isn’t it? You can make your own player with API hooks for google to query things.


  6. User Grav­atarChris said,

    05.14.08 at 12:12 pm

    monk.e.boy, congratulations on totally missing the point and possessing the reading comprehension skills of a first-grader.

    Smokey isn’t talking about games. He’s talking about the Web site of a retail store that’s impossible to use unless you a) speak Norwegian and b) have Flash. How do you think that site sounds to a screen reader? Oh, did you mean to purposefully exclude anyone who does not speak your language or have 20/20 vision?

    I would also make a pretty strong argument that a site like YouTube could have succeeded quite well without Flash. There were (and are) a number of video formats out there for exactly the sort of thing that YouTube is concerned with; namely, video. QuickTime, RealMedia, and Windows Media all come to mind. Flash is the worst of those four major formats for playing video for a number of reasons, largely because it wasn’t designed as a video platform in the first place. It just happens to have the ability to play a series of static images accompanied by synchronized audio at a framerate usually approaching that of television. That doesn’t make it a great, or even good, platform for delivering online video.

    Of course, that’s (again) totally beside the point. Lazy designers use Flash for things that would (and should) be easily done in HTML + CSS, creating endless accessibility and translation problems as a result. That’s not a debatable point; it’s indisputable fact.


  7. User Grav­atarOlly said,

    05.14.08 at 12:34 pm

    Smokey, I agree up to a point. However, until all of the popular user agents improve their support for open Flash alternatives (SVG, SMIL, canvas, HTML5’s media elements [with a common codec set], etc), there will still be a very strong case for using it. The developer tools are also very nice, which can’t be said for most of the alternatives. Things are getting better, though.

    @nobody — Flash decompilation is trivial for whom exactly? It’s certainly not as trivial as view source :)

  8. User Grav­atarSmokey said,

    05.14.08 at 3:04 pm

    nobody: whether it’s trivial to decompile or not, that doesn’t make it any less of a black hole for real people on the web. As for comment previews, aside from those that require actual form submission, I’m not aware of any that don’t require JavaScript.

    Aaron Bassett: There are certainly uses of Flash that are more reasonable and less inappropriate, and I’m less bothered by those. Any use of Flash that’s purely decoration just draws a laugh of ridicule from me rather than my ire (for instance, a series of slowly cycling images which could be done using HTML + JavaScript, or a background image); I’m more concerned with content that has no reason to be trapped inside Flash.

    For the moment I’ll even (grudgingly) cede you and Olly video playback, but for the life of me I can’t understand why people don’t just use a standard, widely-implemented format like MP4 and a common codec like H.264 and toss it directly into a well-constructed <object> tag, letting the user-agent and the user play the video in the plug-in or player of choice. If video content weren’t locked into the resource hog that is Flash, I’d be a lot more willing to look at more of it. I can play a better quality version of the same resolution video clip as MP4 in QuickTime with smoother playback and far lower CPU load than the lower-quality (same resolution) version of the clip stuffed inside Flash, which makes one or more of my fans turn on during playback.

    Olly: We’re certainly stuck in a bit of limbo right now for some misuses of Flash, but hopefully limbo won’t last much longer. I read the other day (I can’t find the reference now, alas) that someone had written a fully-functional <canvas> implementation in Javascript, making it possible for individual sites using <canvas> to bring that feature to laggard or recalcitrant user-agents!

  9. User Grav­atarSmokey said,

    05.14.08 at 4:50 pm

    Oh, I forgot this bit:

    monk.e.boy: Flash isn’t open source. Only the ActionScript Virtual Machine (the part of Flash Player that executes JavaScript code) is open source.

  10. User Grav­atarAndy Dremeaux said,

    05.14.08 at 5:34 pm

    Good god, here we go again.

    First, flash can have deep-links and history management. It just has to be implemented. I don’t complain that HTML sucks because a lot of people make shitty HTML, it is in no way fair to say flash sucks because a lot of people make shitty flash.

    Here, let me prove it to you:

    The first one links directly to the Ford Taurus page. The next links to a set of all the Ford Vehicles with at least 5 seats and at least 20 MPG. They are both the same swf, both the same page. Oh, and view the html source, its all searchable by Google. Good?

    Moving on…

    Next, what is the whole Flash is a black hole thing? Have you searched the web for shared flash libraries? There is a TON of code sharing going on. Just because a language isn’t open source doesn’t mean it sucks. Do you complain that you can’t view the source when you are playing Half-Life 2? No, of course not. Not everyone wants everything they write to be open.

    The whole button example is as bad as can be. You complain that you can’t copy and paste the text from the button because its an image. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty damn sure you can’t copy and paste the text from a button that’s an image in HTML either, you twit.

    Lastly, Flash is detested by mac and linux users? Really? I develop flash professionally on a mac, and not an especially fast one either. It runs just fine. And they’ve released an official flash player for linux, too. Plus, they are making moves to make it more open source. In fact, the runtime will be open source within a couple years.

    Next time, learn what you are talking about before you post a rant.

  11. User Grav­atarEevee said,

    05.14.08 at 5:52 pm

    Clueless developers tend to believe statistics over principle. I haven’t had the Flash plugin installed for a month or two now.

  12. User Grav­atarDan said,

    05.14.08 at 6:07 pm

    http://www.homestarrunner.com/ is one of the few exceptions to this rule!

    Another is in-browser media players using flash (YouTube et al).

    Those are just funny/useful, respectively.

    But yeah, using Flash when the same feature would be…
    – easier to do in HTML/CSS
    – simpler with no loss of functionality or appearance
    – and manipulated by text-to-voice or translation or other accessibility software
    … is dumb.

  13. User Grav­atarSmokey said,

    05.14.08 at 8:21 pm

    Andy Dremeaux: The Ford site is certainly interesting. You’re right, by viewing source I can see the searchable text of the non-Flash/non-JavaScript version of the site. The Flash site, however, remains inaccessible. If you’re going to make an accessible version, why bother writing the site twice?

    In addition, the Flash site still fails the Google Translate test; despite the underlying HTML, it’s not possible to render that site in, say, French (unless you disable Flash or JavaScript). Doable, yes. Easy and useful, no. I also can’t use my context menu or command-click to open links in a new tab if I so desire, and all of the text on the Flash site is still not selectable. (In this case I can get some of it out of view-source, but that’s only because Ford went to the effort of making a pure HTML page for non-JavaScript user-agents or users browsing with Flash or JavaScript off.)

    Again, why should I need to go through all the additional effort here? Flash has made perfectly usable HTML content into something I (yet again) have to put forth a lot of effort to get something out of for use or reuse.

    Regarding performance, in this case, the Flash page is using 80% of my CPU just sitting there, whereas the HTML-only version (obtained by disabling JavaScript or plug-ins) uses about 4% just sitting there.

    Finally, HTML does URLs, history, and selection of text by default; you have to expend some effort to break them. On the other hand, you’ve demonstrated that Flash can have unique URLs, but even that requires effort that apparently the vast majority of Flash developers are unwilling to expend.

    After spending some time with the Ford site, it seems all the more like a poster child for something that would be, in the words of Dan above,

    – easier to do in HTML/CSS
    – simpler with no loss of functionality or appearance
    – and [able to be] manipulated by text-to-voice or translation or other accessibility software

    Moving on, you missed the point of the “black hole” argument. It’s not that Flash is not open source, it’s that content inside of Flash is trapped in a black hole. You can’t get anything useful out of a Flash applet without a lot of effort, at best.

    Next, apparently I wasn’t clear enough that you can make all sorts of lovely looking buttons using the <button> element, the text label of which Google can translate (or, in the absolute worst case, I can extract the text from the source). This is certainly one of the easiest things to mess up in HTML, and using an image is indeed a very common way to go astray.

    Finally, let’s all remember to keep the discussion civil and avoid personal attacks here. I’m not very tolerant of poor behavior, but in the interest of constructive discussion on this topic, I’ve allowed comments containing language I wouldn’t ordinarily approve.

  14. User Grav­atarcreamdonut said,

    05.18.08 at 1:24 pm

    In my opinion, Flash can do everything you say it can’t. A well built flash website using .xml can be google translated. For instance, htlm text in the page, that is then loaded via xml into the flash site. When google translates the html, it automatically updates flash. Everything can be done in flash. Sure, it takes more work to do in flash than in htlm, but if we can add cool effects and still make it a challenge to us, developers, then sure, it’s a viable option. Just like doing things in javascript that are easier to do in flash is a load more fun. Given respect to the user, of course, who needs everything to be accessible to him.

  15. User Grav­atarHavvy said,

    05.18.08 at 2:15 pm

    Hmm, flash.. I rarely have flash objects open. Most are blocked for being annoying.

    I believe there are some places for closed boxes on the web, and flash allows for that. The thing is, the majority of the web (95-99%) should be open, and not in flash. Some current uses for flash should not be there at all…, one of which being navigation. A good use for it would be complex games such as the ones at newgrounds.com/kongregate.com/and countless other flash game sites. Also, they are used on WWE.com to block the amount of people stealing their images.

  16. User Grav­atarShawn Fumo said,

    05.23.08 at 11:27 am

    I do agree that it’s harder to do the right thing in Flash and it gets misused a lot. I do want to come to the defense of the video side a bit, though.

    I released a video a while back in H.264 and had to put a FAQ up on the site so that people could manage to play it. Windows can’t play it by default, Quicktime Player doesn’t support a lot of settings in the spec, etc. You can always tell everyone “Use VLC”, but I dunno..

    I also think a lot of the reason for YouTube taking off wasn’t just playing the videos, but letting people embed videos in their own pages, with a watermark that would bring you to the main site if you clicked it. That sort of thing would be harder to make work when you’re just launching an external video player.

    BTW, the latest version of the flash player does support H.264 files in MP4 containers directly (even in Actionscript 2). I think Adobe realized that they were in a bit of a precarious situation going forward and decided to hedge their bets.

  17. User Grav­atarmichael said,

    08.28.08 at 1:12 am

    You could just make a static image of an animation rather than go through the trouble of animating it.. it’s
    -more accessible
    Why would you ever want to animate anything???

    This is basically your argument.
    Flash exists because it does things HTML/CSS/Java can’t. It’s beautiful because it can serve as a display point for a lot of different data, and give a different light to that data. If you just want a standard web page, you wouldn’t use flash. Flash offers you the opportunity to redefine for the viewer what the web is.

    If accessibility is your concern, you can make flash accessible. You can use it sparingly if you think it’s cumbersome, but still want nice, anti-aliased vector animation. http://ecodazoo.com/ I know you’ll rationally hate it, but how can you condemn its use?

  18. User Grav­atartyesha said,

    01.03.09 at 12:38 pm

    i need flash off now everytime i try to install it always says it failed and i get so mad. (I NEED FLASH OFF NOW)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  19. User Grav­atarmark said,

    08.20.09 at 7:00 pm

    Your all a little right, flash can be as annoying as javascript when it comes to adverts.

    im a webdesigner and in some cases haved use flash on websites for links, but i also place a imaged linked underneith the flash object in case the user does not have flash installed.
    burnleycreative.co.uk uses flash links but if you disable flash you can still navigate as normal.

    You have just bumped into some webdesigner wanabies..

    a true web designer builds for all

  20. User Grav­atarRon said,

    01.15.10 at 1:23 am

    Maybe some like to develop with it but I am just a user who wants to watch FOXNews Videos after I come home from work as an architect.

    Maybe Flash is great inside, but whoever writes the instructions on how to download it or repair it (!) probably can’t find his bum with both hands.

    Sure, Flash videos for Fox news work on our cross platform Macs and PCs in the office but only half the Pcs will play it on only just one version 2.54 but not 4.234….WHY? No one writes about this stuff for the end user. It’s as if I designed a house where half the doors didn’t swing right…and then expected home owners to consult Google on how to open the bathroom door. Basics lads, let’s get back to basics before we get too fancy

  21. User Grav­atarSmokey said,

    11.11.11 at 3:42 pm

    Kroc Camen recently (but some years after my original post) came up with a more extensive list of standard elements of web-browsing that plug-ins, such as Flash, are unable to perform or participate in, reinforcing my original point about the “inaccessibility” or “black hole” nature of content served via Flash: A List of Things That Plugins Don’t Work With

  22. User Grav­atarOn Flash | As it were… said,

    08.11.14 at 6:53 am

    […] Ardisson is a Mozilla developer, and did an excellent blog post that articulates my feelings […]

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