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A Blue Perspective: An Internet divided

An Internet divided
2 December 2004

On the one side, you have Flash. On the other, you have HTML. And in the middle is the Internet, slowly being carved up.

It's been the title fight on the Web now for about five years. Which technology shall reign supreme? Previously, I'd always thought it was a battle over the same territory – for the domination of the entire Web. But I feel they've become increasingly specialised, each growing (or shrinking, depending on how you look at it) to occupy their mutually exclusive part of the Internet.

Michael Bierut's fantastic article about the caricatured opposites in the world of designers highlighted to me one of the ways by which this division grows deeper. In his piece, Michael quotes Nick Bell on the existence of "agents of neutrality" and "aesthetes of style" – those who strive to bring a client's message to the fore, and those who seek to create a beautiful monolith unto themselves.

Obviously, parallels can be drawn between the "agents of HTML" and the "aesthetes of Flash". HTML, notoriously known for its focus upon functionality, accessibility and usability. Flash, infamously recognised for its disdain of information, love of moving objects and unbookmarkability.

At the moment, the two technologies attract different designers and different clients. Wired isn't going to be moving to Flash anytime soon, nor is Nike Football going to be moving to HTML. The two have different needs, which are met by different solutions.

Individuals that view "visual expression as the most important ingredient in design" will most likely gravitate towards the medium where they are most easily able to satisfy their desires; whether it be through technological freedom (Flash's ability to create rich, flowing experiences) or from the freedom granted by the projects they are given (Nike's need to produce rich, flowing experiences). Conversely, those who consider themselves the "passive mediator of the client's message" will gravitate to the tools and opportunities that allow them to fulfil their personal priorities.

This does, in part, answer Keith Robinson and other's questions as to where "design" has disappeared to. Not just the "oh wow, that's pretty" graphical design that's the key in the Favourite Website Awards, but also the "oh wow, I found what I'm looking for" information design and accessibility that's the key in the Web Standards Awards. The best of both exist in entirely different worlds.

This duality is often combated by creating a hybrid of the two solutions, but in so doing I find that the strongest aspects of the respective mediums are often diluted. With the growing calls to re-establish the balance in web design, is it only a matter of time until one of the camps gets its act together and offers a truly compelling solution to the entire problem? Only then will the best of graphic design meet with the best of the usable Web.


1/24. 2 December 2004 @ 04:18, Matthom wrote:

Very well put. I've been torn in the middle of this battle for years. Who's right and who's wrong.

This is a good reference for HTML vs. Flash - the powers of each, and the weakness of each.

2/24. 2 December 2004 @ 05:21, Jeff Croft wrote:

Nicely said.

To me, the crux of the problem lines in the simple fact that XHTML/CSS is simple for computer geeks and programmers to grasp, where as Flash is simple for long time designers to catch onto.

XHTML/CSS is similar, in many ways, to programming. Thus, I think the first wave of designers jumping to it are those who have backgrounds in technology -- programming, etc.

Flash is similar, in many ways, to traditional design programs (Illustrator, Photoshop, Quark, etc.). This, I think the first wave of designers jumping to it are those who have backgrounds in traditional design -- print, advertising, etc.

Obviously this is a broad generalization. There are great designers who are advocates of CSS, and there are programmers who are quite skilled at Flash. Likewise, there are people who are excelent at both. But, in general, I believe this is the case.

There is a need for both, and a need for both <em>at the same time</em>, in my mind. You said that the hybrid solutions often dilute the strongest aspects of each medium. I'm not sure I agree.

Part of the problem is a bit of elitism, as well. People in the XHTML/CSS world often shun Flash as being inaccessible, over-the-top, or otherwise "impure." Flash designers often shun HTML as being too simple for their needs. Neither is really true. The bottom line is that there are things both sides could learn from the other camp, if we'd open our eyes and stop being so elitist.

3/24. 2 December 2004 @ 06:08, Shawn wrote:

The Flash info/community/tutorial site has generally impressed me with their blend of Flash and HTML, though certainly they have more Flash skills than markup. It did take me a few times of poking around their markup to see where exactly the first stopped and the second began, rather than the typically obvious lines that make hybrid sites just seem way too awkward.

I still haven't seen a well done hybrid that keeps the strengths of each, though. And unfortunately, I definitely don't have the time to make one just for the sake of having an example out there. Any sites that I make use XHTML/CSS or they use Flash, but never both, since whenever a client wants a "Flash site" they don't want anything else getting in there. Almost seems like they fear contamination, though from what I couldn't tell you.

4/24. 3 December 2004 @ 03:34, David house wrote:

How about Dave Shea's Bright Creative [1]? That's a nice mix of a lot of HTML and a smidgeon of Flash, and a nice effect too!


5/24. 4 December 2004 @ 03:10, Kevin Cannon wrote:

I have to say I'm dissapointed with this entry. Are we in 1998 again?

It's not a case of Flash vs HTML. We use both depending on the clients needs & wants. That's the way it should be. Technology is a tool, not a religion. Giving credibility to this argument is something I thought was long gone.

6/24. 5 December 2004 @ 17:36, The Man in Blue wrote:

I highly doubt that Flash and HTML will be living side by side in five years time. Macromedia continues to improve the accessibility and scalability of Flash, while we in the Standards world continue to make progress on things like SVG and application delivery. It's a question of which will get there first.

Given Macromedia's commercial incentive to make Flash more than just a pretty header graphic, and their ability to rollout new versions of the technology to end users much faster, I'd put my money on them developing a holistic product quicker than the open source movement.

7/24. 7 December 2004 @ 10:07, Amit Karmakar wrote:

Good post Cameron. IMO I don't think the two will go side by side either. Over the 5 odd years the differences have grown between the 2 different fields. And they are continuing to grow even more. At the end of the day a lot depends on the designer/developer and the skills they are comfortable with.

8/24. 8 December 2004 @ 01:50, jeremy wrote:

I guess the problem with this argument is that it pits the bleeding edge of one movement against the bleeding edge of another. While this is where many of the most obvious faces in the Internet development world live, the rest of us live in a world where the bleeding edge is neat, but it doesn't accomplish what we need it to accomplish. And in that world, Flash and HTML can certainly live peacefully side-by-side.

The question isn't whether they can, it's *how* to use them appropriately.

Despite Macromedia's plans to take over the world, in *my* world, Flash has a set of very specific purposes, and it accomplishes those purposes amazingly well. My last full-time job was for a company that built web-based training modules for resellers of technology products. There were things we built in Flash that wouldn't have worked any other way. (I mean, a lot of it could have been built with DHTML, but the development cost, not to mention the overall inelegance of that solution, would have been prohibitive.) And there were pieces that we build in straight HTML. It just depended on the content we were providing.

Before that, I worked for a company that developed cartoon-based educational content for children. We built a giant interactive world for schoolchildren to use that closely matched our print materials. This included several 2-8 minute cartoons, for which Flash was absolutely perfect.

There are a lot of reasons why this worked, including the fact that our clients were the same people who bought and built the computers their users used, which allowed them to ensure that Flash was appropriately installed on every machine.

I'm not saying that we got it absolutely right, and I'll certainly agree that many many developers out there get it very wrong. But I don't see the gaping schism Cameron describes at all.

I think the pixelfest experiment Cameron created last month is a good reference for this discussion. Cameron built the experiment, and I decided to built an animation to go along with it. His pixelfest is created with javascript and CSS. I've got plenty of experience with DHTML ( - the code could be optimized, but you get the idea), but I chose Flash to build the animation instead. Here's why I made that choice:

1) First and foremost, accessibility isn't a primary concern here. There's always an argument somewhere for making everything more accessible, but there's also a huge difference between the accessibility requirements of CNN, or a community newsletter, or whatever, and an art experiment on a website that pushes the envelope.
2) Cross-platform issues in DHTML are painful, painful, painful. There was a time when the Flash player wasn't well distributed, but those days are long over. I'm not saying that you can count on every user who visits your site to have the player installed, but the percentages are more and more acceptable every day.
3) DHTML is a nasty memory hog, especially when you're dealing with thousands and thousands of pieces of data. In my personal experience, Flash deals with this problem much more efficiently.
4) Flash is already timeline-based, which matched my specific needs.

It took me all of two hours--and a couple more hours of tweaking--to create the PHP script that culls and reformats the data, and to build the Flash file that grabs the reformats that data and then animates it. It was a quick-and-dirty, simple solution to the question, "what would this look like if it were animated?"

But if you visit my personal website, you won't find a lick of Flash on it. It doesn't make any sense there, so I don't use it.

(I desperately need to re-build the whole site with XHTML, but that's another job for another day.)

I think, instead of pointing out the fight that rages between bleeding edge developers, we should spend our time advocating for appropriate use (and better, more integrated, more accesible versions) of the tools we've got.

9/24. 8 December 2004 @ 10:50, The Man in Blue wrote:

I'll admit, I'm not really interested in the current state of affairs here. I'm more interested in how it's going to turnout, where we should be looking.

You've mentioned that we should spend our time advocating for "appropriate use" of the technologies. But what is that appropriate use based on? The deficiencies and strengths of each particular methodology.

A good product developer will always try to eradicate the weaknesses of their product, and this can be seen through Macromedia's development of XML data sourcing, and through the Standards push for separated code.

Assuming that current weaknesses in both technologies will be strengthened at some point in the future, what decision will "appropriate use" be based on?

If Flash was equally as accessible as HTML, and you could bookmark/link to each page, which technology would be "better"?

10/24. 11 December 2004 @ 00:22, AGoodExample wrote:

Isn't this a perfect blend of both?

11/24. 11 December 2004 @ 00:44, jixor wrote:

I think optimally what he is saying is that its about what is more appropriate at the time of authoring for the job at hand all factors considered. Heh.

12/24. 13 December 2004 @ 14:29, The Man in Blue wrote:

#10: You find an unboomarkable, unsearchable, one page web site a "perfect blend"?

You have a strange definition of perfection ...

13/24. 15 December 2004 @ 00:40, jeremy wrote:

No question about #10. Perfect blend of what? That's pretty much pure Flash, and Cameron is absolutely right. No way to save your place, no way to search the contents. It's got a lot of "hey, neat!" qualities, which become a lot less important the more you use any website. Content is always king, and getting to that content as quickly and easily as possible is critically important.

Say I want to show someone who the head honchos are at 2advanced--there's no way to point them directly there. I've got to send them an email with the root URL, and then I've got to send a set of instructions for clicking through to the right spot.

As a perfect example of *what to do* here's a link to the team that runs Adaptive Path:

See how easy that was?

I'll say it again: Flash is neat, but until it's searchable and bookmarkable, it won't be replacing HTML (or its cousins) any time soon. There's an appropriate time and place.

Cameron, here's one hurdle I think Flash may never overcome: one of the innate advantages of markup languages is the built-in searchability and bookmarkability of the pages. When you build a web page with a markup language, you just build it, add your links, and viola! people can bookmark it or search it. All that without a developer spending hours and hours making it that way. (I know that there's always room for improvement in terms of searchability, but that's another thing.)

Flash, on the other hand, has the distinct disadvantage of being timeline-based. Which is to say, Macromedia has already set it up so that you can use a #hyperlink to jump to a frame in the (main) timeline, but you *have to set it up yourself.*

So frankly, when I look into the future, I have a hard time seeing a Flash that works as well as markup languages when it comes to the organization and presentation of text.

I'll reiterate my point: for now, and into the forseeable future, IMHO, Flash has a bunch of very excellent uses, in the right time and in the right place. But it's no replacement for markup. In the same way that you can't really use XHTML to build an animated cartoon.

14/24. 15 December 2004 @ 16:07, Rob wrote:

Flash is searchable and bookmarkable but not many people are capable of doing it...yet. is bookmarkable is searchable and, wait for it, is over 2 years old.

The technology is there, just waiting to be harnessed.

15/24. 16 December 2004 @ 02:39, beto wrote:

Since I work on a development firm where web standards and accesibility are, my opinion might be a bit biased since practically all we do is XHTML- and CSS-based. However, I think the problem doesn't lie in a "Flash vs.HTML" choice, but on advocates from each side of the field pretending their choice be the be-all, end-all of web development. None of them is right. We don't get many requests from clients for animated tutorials, online games or things like that, but if we did, we'd probably agree using Flash on these assignments would make more sense than anything else. And for what we do most (cross-platform web application management systems with complex database interacting) it would be just silly to think we could get away with it using Flash.

I always have thought of Flash as this little animation tool it once was, now pretending to be too many things at once. The tool has come a long way since then, sure, but that's no argument to say it can replace HTML. Nor to say it's more practical to deal with DHTML issues to create animations and graphical data representations that are far simpler to deal with in Flash. Not to mention the open source vs. Macromedia thing: That alone leaves a lot of room to ponder.

What really gets my nerve as I said before are the advocate fundamentalists of either technology that pretend their way to be THE only way to do things, which in turn has created a lot of misinformation among developers and clients.

16/24. 16 December 2004 @ 02:40, beto wrote:

Should be read on first line of above comment: "where web standards and accesibility are core values of our business"

My bad.

17/24. 16 December 2004 @ 03:01, jeremy wrote:

fantasy interactive is bookmarkable? Uh, not in the traditional sense. You can certainly send whatever page you're on to a friend using their handy-dandy little emailing app, but what if I just want to bookmark a page for myself? As far as I can tell, I've got to send myself an email with the appropriate link. It's nice to be able to jump to a page in Flash, but what if I want to use delicious to bookmark it? I can't just copy the URL into the delicious form, or I'll simply get the front page.

No, this is exactly what I'm talking about. The developers who built this functionality (which still isn't as powerful or as simple as it would be were these pages built with markup) spent hours and hours making this happen. If they'd built those pages in a markup language with Flash widgets installed where appropriate to create the *zip* all of the bookmarking and all of the search would work like a charm.

All that time for functionality that doesn't even work quite right. I mean, yes, Rob, you're right: there is a kind of bookmarkability in one case and a kind of searchability in the other. But I look at those pages, and I frankly don't understand why they aren't build with both technologies. They certainly could be, without any loss of look-and-feel. And I imagine (though obviously I don't know) that it could have cost a lot less, in the long run.

18/24. 16 December 2004 @ 03:13, jeremy wrote:

Hang on, actually, my bad: there's another layer of bookmarking functionality built into the Fantasy Interactive site. If you try to bookmark using the traditional "bookmark this page" contextual menu (as long as you're on a PC . . . I haven't been able to test it with my PowerBook) you get what amounts to an error message telling you to use Ctrl+D or the bookmark menu to bookmark the page.

This, in fact, is one more layer of functionality they've added, beyond being able to email direct links to pages. The problem is, they've had to hack my browser's normal functionality to do it, which IMHO is a big no-no. And still, the URL in my browser simply doesn't represent the actual page I'm on.

In a way, you could argue that using frames (which they also do, by the way) is the same thing--it prevents the end user from being able to easily capture links to pages they like. Which is always a bad thing, no matter *what* kind of web page you're building.

19/24. 16 December 2004 @ 04:34, Rob wrote:

Jeremy, using your example from comment 13, you said, "Say I want to show someone who the head honchos are at 2advanced--there's no way to point them directly there."

On the Fantasy Interactive site I surfed to the relevant page and copied from my address bar. That surely covers the bookmark issue?

20/24. 16 December 2004 @ 05:59, jeremy wrote:

That certainly works, except that that's not what I get in my address bar. I'm using Firefox on a PC. Maybe it's hacked to do that in IE?

21/24. 16 December 2004 @ 07:41, jeremy wrote:

And that's confirmed. The hyperlinks work in IE on a PC. But not in any other browser/platform combination that I tested. Which just reiterates my point. I'm sure they could make it work on every major browser on every major platform, but why waste the time? If the site was a mix of markup and Flash, all of that would *already be done*.

22/24. 19 December 2004 @ 07:57, Amrk wrote:

works now in opera and firefox. so they have done it.

23/24. 20 December 2004 @ 12:37, jeremy wrote:

Amrk, do you mean, if you click on the link Rob provided, you end up at the Team page? Because that has always worked, and probably works on every browser.

The thing that doesn't work is getting that link *when you start at the beginning of the website* with any browser except IE.

Go to the FI site in Firefox:

Now use the menu to go to the "Our Team" page (Menu > Our Company > About Us > Our Team).

Look at the URL in your browser. Is it the same as when you started, or is it ?

When I do it, it's still the root URL. Which means that if I'm using Firefox to browse the site, when I find a page I like, I can't copy the URL and paste it into another document to save it. And if I bookmark the page, it's not going to take me to the deeper part of the site. I'll have to start at the beginning every time.

24/24. 11 February 2005 @ 07:37, Ed wrote:

There is no HTML v Flash. That's like bikes v cars.

A search engine can, just, grab the text within a swf file and index that information; there is no document structure, no heirarchy. Search engines serve content to users, not the websites themselves and without HTML, and plenty of it, a small business has no hope of getting a decent rank.

Usability, bookmarks, compatibility etc. have all been mentioned and no doubt will be addressed in the future.

From an accessibility point of view, Flash actually serves people with certain learning difficulties very well because of it's high visual interaction. Accessibility isn't always about mobility or sensory impariment.

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