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A List Apart: Articles: Flash and Standards

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Flash and Standards: The Cold War of the Web

Pu blish ed in : Fla sh , Industry, State of the W e b

Youve probably heard that Apple recently announced the iPad. The absence of Flash Player on the device seems to have awakened the HTML5 vs. Flash debate. Apparently, its the final nail in the coffin for Flash. The arguments run wide, strong, and legitimate on both sides. Apple C EO Steve Jobs calls Flash Player buggy
(http://www.wired.com /e picenter/2010/01/goo gles-do nt-be -e vil-m antra -is-bullshit-adobe-is-la zy-a pple s -steve-jobs/) . John

Gruber of Daring Fireball says that Apple wants to maintain their own ecosystem
(http://da ringfire ball.net/2010/01/apple_a dobe_fla sh) a formula Adobes software doesnt easily fit into. On the other

end, Adobe C TO Kevin Lynch argues that Flash is a great content delivery vehicle
(http://blo gs.a dobe.com /conve rsations/2010/02/o pen_acce ss_to_content_and_app.htm l) . Mike C hambers, Principal

Product Manager for Flash platform developer relations at Adobe, expresses his concerns over closed platforms
(http://www.m ike cham bers.com /blog/2010/01/28/som e-pe rsonal-tho ughts-on-apple-and-the-tre nd-to wards-clo sedpla tfo rm s/) . Interactive developer Grant Skinner reflects on the advantages of Flash (http://www.gskinner.co m /blog/archives/2010/02/m y_tho ughts_on.htm l) .

However, the issue is larger than which one is better. Its about preference and politics. Its an arms race. This is the C old War of the Web.

Both the standards community and the Flash community are extremely good at sharing knowledge and supporting the people within their respective groups. The relationship across communities, however, isnt nearly as cordial. Two things are happening: either the people within each camp stay to themselves, or one ignorantly hurls insults at the other. As new technologies emerge, their following naturally starts small. An effective rallying cry is to findor createa common enemy. Huge strides such as Doug Bowmans Wired redesign (http://devedge te m p.m ozilla.org/vie wsource/2002/wired-intervie w/) , Dave Sheas C SS Zen Garden (http://cssze nga rde n.com /) , and

Jeffrey Zeldmans Designing With Web Standards (http://www.zeldman.com/dwws/) had a significant influence, not only on




A List Apart: Articles: Flash and Standards

the standards community, but on the entire web design industry. They positioned standards as an alternative to Flash and table-based sites, not in conflict with them. However, less enlightened followers wrongly interpreted these champions examples as the first assault. As Adobe Photoshop Principal Product Manager John Nack says, people want a certain killer narrative (http://blo gs.a dobe.com /jnack/2010/01/sym pa thy_for_the_devil.htm l) . The same thing is happening today. Those pushing the HTML5 specification forward, such as Ian Hickson
(http://ian.hix ie.ch/) , Jeremy Keith (http://a dactio .com /) , and the NYC gathering of geeks (http://www.flick r.com /pho to s/ze ldm an/sets/72157622014232906/) , are offering it as a new alternative with some major

advantages over existing technologies. Yet again, some have dubbed it the harbinger of doom for Flash. The antagonistic nature of this debate is destroying the industry. Designers and developers waste their time playing the one-up game, as opposed to collaborating. Specialization has its advantages, but only as a subset of a larger whole. Jamie Kosoy, my colleague and Associate Technical Director at Big Spaceship (http://www.bigspaceship.com /) , says it well (http://www.bigspa ce ship.co m /blo g/labs/will-all-the-flash-devs-plea se-stand-up/) :

We dont have a single Flash developer at Big Spaceship. I n fact, w e grimace at titles like that.We happen to be good at (and love) Flash, but w e also happen to be good at (and love) a couple trillion different other technologies.We believe in strategic thinking and great design and pushing the limits. Now here do w e say it has to be done in technology X or programming language Y in order to be a successful and engaging project, and w e dont believe the users w ho engage in the projects we put out there do either.

A line in the sand

The problem with rallying behind a technology is that it traps us within the confines of its constraints. We easily shift dont know and not sure into cant and wont. C reativity is dictated by programming languages. How sad. Technologies arent inherently bad or good. Theyre only appropriate or inappropriate for certain circumstances. Theyre a means to an end, not solutions within themselves. Each one is powerful in its own right to accomplish a certain goal. The responsibility to use an appropriate technology lies with the one who made the choice. Unfortunately, weve misinterpreted irresponsible development as inadequate technology. C ase in point: Loading. Flash provides powerful methods to track the download progress of every miniscule element. And what have we chosen to do with it? We load everything up front and make the user suffer through minutes of a loading sequence, instead of loading assets progresssively as theyre requested. The Flash platform does not deserve the blame for bloated websitesthe developers who made these poor decisions do. Until we realize the foolishness of faith in technology, well see the same cycle repeated.

Doomed to repeat the past

JavaScript has grown exceedingly popular of late, with much credit due to easy-to-use libraries likejQuery
(http://jquery.co m /) and the rediscovered usefulness of Ajax. More and more, sites use JavaScript to provide great

functionality for the people who visit. More so, many experimentslike Scott Schillers site (http://www.scottschiller.co m /) and Browser Ball (http://ex perim e nts.instrum 3nt.com /m arkm aho ney/ba ll/) push the boundaries of what JavaScript is typically used for. The same is true for HTML5, with amazing displays such as 9Elements HTML5 C anvas and Audio Experiment (http://9e lem ents.com /io/pro jects/htm l5/canva s/) or Jilions more practical SublimeVideo player
(http://jilion.com /sublim e/vide o) .




A List Apart: Articles: Flash and Standards

These new executions bring interesting questions, many related to user experience. If a feature needs a lot of code or graphics to power it, do we need to give the user progress indication (read: preloader) before they can use it? Once we use HTML5 video to interact with other videos, text, and graphics, will we need blending modes in HTML6
(http://twitte r.com /squa re deye /status/9888275417) to create more seamless online environments? Will JavaScript

developers realize the value that sound brings to an online experience and have to create ways to handle audio? Will we need a visual editor so that designers who dont code can take advantage of <canvas>? Will heavily scripted web applications become intense processor hogs? If this sounds familiar to you, it should. These are the kinds of questions the Flash community explored throughout its early years. Regardless of your opinion about Flash, its difficult to deny the tremendous
(http://en.wik ipedia.o rg/wiki/Ado be_Fla sh#History) growth (http://www.npr.o rg/te m plate s/story/story.php? verified=true &sto ryId=122921703) it has experienced. From a simple drawing application, to a full-fledged scripting

language, to powerful streaming video capabilities, and more, the Flash platform has expanded exponentially to respond to the needs of its usersthe people who use it to create and the people who use the end result. For better or worse, Flash has shaped the way people absorb online content. We now have the advantage of learning from that journey, and were already reaping the benefits. For instance, any interaction model that modifies the full page refresh breaks the browsers back button functionality. While it took eight years from Flashs inception to birth a solution such as SWFAddress (http://www.asual.com /swfa ddress/) , JavaScript developers have the benefit of hindsight and were able to implement a similar solution for JavaScript-based applications
(http://www.im pressivewebs.com /deep-linking-ja vascript-a jax/) much faster.

Ill go so far as to assert that most technological advances are born from something that would be good for people using it. When we put stock in technology and try to be creative for creativitys sake, we almost always repeat our mistakes. When we try and solve problems instead, we force ourselves to care. Innovation is a natural side effect.

Worth fighting for

But we take pride in our technologies. If Im not striving for my guru ranking in a particular programming language or design style, then what really matters? Ive hinted at it throughout the whole article, but let me make it painfully obvious. People. People matter. Not users, but people. A user is a faceless entity, robotically performing tasks that we test and optimize. A person lives, laughs, cries, loves, hatesand uses the sites and applications we make. My mom. Your five-year-old. His grandfather. Her best friend. Their science class. They dont tell us how much they appreciate our progressive enhancement or how we use the drawing API or our impeccable use of attribute selectors. They only say that a website was confusing or hard to read or fun to play with. Thats the real motivation for excellence: bringing ease, joy, and fun to the people around us. We should be getting to the point where people cant tell how a site was built. I love coming across a site where how it was made is not immediately apparent to me. Thats how it should be: C reate something excellent where the technology is transparent, and allow only the curious to look under the hood to actually see whats going on. JavaScript, Flash, HTML5, tables, Shockwave, Unityno one cares when people using it can do what theyre supposed to. When something is brokenwhether its functionality or the user experiencethats when youll hear whining about platforms. C reate a great experience for people and youll receive due praise, regardless of the technology.




A List Apart: Articles: Flash and Standards

We want you
The bickering is getting old. Heres what we can do. Start supporting initiatives instead of bashing them. Do you think Flash sucks? Dont write a Dear Adobe rant on your blog; contact the Adobe team directly (http://www.webkitche n.be/2009/02/18/a dobe-on-twitter/) and tell them what you think could be improved. Think HTML5 is a joke? Get involved with the working group (http://www.whatwg.o rg/spe cs/we bapps/curre nt-wo rk/m ultipage/) to make it better. Got a problem with how a certain site is built? Approach the creators

with your concerns and suggestions, privately and humbly. Agencies: Stop writing job listings for HTML5 designers or ActionScript gurus. Youre just fanning the flames. Instead, invest in creative people who know how to execute in a number of ways, people who prioritize learning new tools to solve a problem over honing their chops. Dont sell (or discourage) Flash or standards to your clients; instead, sell creative brand extensions, accessible content, enjoyable experiences, and simple maintainability. Allow technologies to die on their own. Macromedia Director is no longer popular because its usefulness decreased, not because we crucified it. The old way of writing JavaScript is fizzling out on its own, because we support unobtrusive
(http://onlinetools.org/a rticle s/unobtrusivejava script/) and DOM-based (http://dom scripting.com /) methods.

Teach. Approach your local college (or high school (http://te achm ethewe b.o rg/) !) web design program and offer to instruct the new generation of designers and developers. Web design education is stagnant; it will take dedicated people who are willing to challenge the status quo to change that. Get involved with the wonderful work thats being done in the area of web design education, such as the WaSP InterAct (http://intera ct.we bsta nda rds.org/) program, Opera Web Standards curriculum (http://www.ope ra.co m /com pany/e ducation/curriculum /) , or Adobe Education Technologies
(http://blo gs.a dobe.com /edtecha tadobe /) .

Finally, remember what really matters: People. For everyones sake, its time we all learned to get along
(http://www.slidesha re.ne t/danielm all/flash-web-sta nda rds-ge tting-along-on-the-playgro und) .

Illus tratio n by Kevin Cornell (http://alistapart.com/authors/c/ke vincorne ll)

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Related Topics: Flash, Industry, State of the Web

About the Author

Dan Mall is an award-winning interactive art director, designer, and developer. He is an enthralled husband, Senior Designer at Big Spaceship (http://www.bigspa ce ship.co m /) , former Interactive Director at Happy C og
(http://www.happyco g.com /) , technical editor for A List Apart, and singer/keyboard player for

contemporary-C hristian band Four24 (http://www.fo ur24.com /) . Dan writes about design and other issues on Twitter (http://twitter.com /danie lm a ll) and his industry-recognized site, danielmall.com (http://www.danielm all.com /) .


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A List Apart: Articles: Flash and Standards