Story by: Colophon Editor
September 28, 2004

If you surf the web on a regular basis, you have probably used FLASH. People talk about FLASH websites and FLASH animations. But what is FLASH?

FLASH is a bandwidth-friendly and browser-independent vector-graphic animation technology. There are benefits to using websites developed in FLASH as well as a number of drawbacks that can influence a person’s ability to surf the web pages effectively. Overall, the technology has had a positive impact on people who surf the web.

Macromedia FLASH ENABLEDFLASH technology was developed by the Macromedia Company to enable web developers to deliver rich, dynamic content in small file sizes. When you see an animation on a web page, it is most likely developed in FLASH. Games, demonstration tutorials and learning tools have also become common in the FLASH format. The technology has gained support from the web development community because of its ability to create stunning animations as well as its integration of complex programmatic features using its own language called ActionScript. This is all achieved at very low file sizes.

The banner on the cnm website, for example, is developed in FLASH. It utilizes both the animation features in FLASH and programming in ActionScript that runs a functioning clock complete with second hand. No matter what browser or operating system displays the cnm banner it will work the same way. So what are the drawbacks?

FLASH has been widely criticized by web “usability” experts whose main focus is to build websites that are “user-friendly”. Usability experts are less concerned with aesthetics like animation. Their main focus is to allow the web-user to achieve tasks quickly. The basic rule that “form follows function” is a good one for the web, and FLASH has been guilty of hindering website function since it’s introduction in the mid-1990’s.

One of the biggest criticisms of FLASH is that it renders the controls of the web browser useless. In a standard, non-FLASH website you click back and forth between distinct web browser windows. A FLASH movie plays inside of a single browser window. So, if the visitor to a site were to click from the “Home” page of a FLASH site – to the “About Us” page, the FLASH movie would take them to the “About Us” page. However, if the user then clicked the back button on the browser software, they would not return to the “Home” page. Therefore FLASH breaks from the fundamental conventions of web surfing.

The single most negative thing about websites developed solely in FLASH is that search engines are not able to read the text on a FLASH file. This makes it almost impossible for the site to achieve good search rankings.

FLASH also tends to encourage poor web design by including lots of “bells and whistles”. You may remember seeing lengthy animations that eventually led to the website you were looking for. These “Splash Screen” pages were a classic abuse of FLASH technology and rarely improved the user experience.

Usability expert Jacob Nielson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sums up these problems:

“Although multimedia has its role on the Web, current Flash technology tends to discourage usability for three reasons: it makes bad design more likely, it breaks with the Web’s fundamental interaction style, and it consumes resources that would be better spent enhancing a site’s core value.”

Despite these problems, not only does FLASH persist as a popular technology, it is rapidly growing as a platform for expert web development projects. Poor designers will continue to abuse FLASH’s animation power and build sites that have lots of sizzle and little steak. Good designers will harness the power of FLASH to enhance the web surfer’s experience. Used appropriately FLASH is a powerful tool for delivering rich media over the web.

As FLASH technology improves, and web surfers become more accustomed to using it, we are seeing the creation of dynamic websites that capture your attention while allowing to you accomplish tasks efficiently and effectively. When used properly FLASH provides a rich online experience and has a positive impact on the rapid evolution of web development.

If you have questions or comments about this article please contact
James Eastman at:

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