Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why do concerns about Flash persist?

For the last ten years I've been making use of Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash) within websites to provide rich content features and applications unattainable with HTML.

Unfortunately I still get asked the same questions about Flash, regarding accessibility, file size and how many users have the technology.

I'd like to put these to bed.

Flash is an accessible format (meets the W3C's requirements in the WCAG), usage is extremely high (over 95%) and file size for downloading is no longer an issue (Flash files are often smaller than equivalents, due to compression and effective streaming).

I've provided more detail in my full post below.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s there were valid concerns over how many people could access Flash files and whether their size would cause issues for dial-up users.

There were also accessibility concerns, which more often reflected the level of production values for Flash in Australia, rather than actual issues with the platform.

I've noticed that there are still many Flash 'doubters' about raising the same concerns as were raised ten years ago.
  • How many people have Flash on their computers?
  • Are the files too large for dial-up users?
  • Is it accessible?
Fortunately there are some easy ways to put these concerns to rest.

Penetration rate - how many people have Flash?
Adobe representatives I have heard speaking at events regularly state that Flash penetration is greater than 97% in the western world - including countries such as Australia.

Ironically PDF penetration (also an Adobe created format) is slightly lower than this - so on that basis it would be better to provide content in Flash format rather than PDF.

Taking Adobe's self-promotion with a grain of salt, it is easy for organisations to check Flash penetration for their own website audience using their web reporting tools. Where their reporting doesn't provide this statistic, free web reporting tools such as Google Analytics do and can be easily and rapidly added to a site (via a small code block).

For example, for my agency's website, for the last month, Google Analytics tells me that 98.27% of website visitors had Flash installed (and 95% of visitors had Flash 9.0+ or later). This is even higher than that claimed by Adobe, and makes me very comfortable in advocating Flash use within it.

File size versus connection speed
It's also possible via web reporting to track the connection speed of website visitors. This will verify what percentage use broadband versus dial-up, and indicates what percentage are more capable of receiving larger files (250kb+).

This can be useful when validating the use of Flash, which appears to be larger than HTML pages (though often is smaller). However be careful when simply relying on a high broadband penetration rate to validate the use of Flash.

Often Flash is faster than HTML for delivering similar dynamic content. This is because of two reasons, 
  • to achieve the same outcome with DHTML (Dynamic HTML) requires much larger files and,
  • because Flash is a compressed format designed to stream information over time - therefore the user doesn't have to wait for the entire file to download before they can view it (as they must with MS Word files).

Due to straming even large Flash files do not take long to start running on the user's system, meaning that the raw file size is less important.

A recent experience we've had in our agency was in considering file sizes for internal elearning modules. In comparing the same module as a Flash file and as a DHTML (Dynamic HTML) file our experience was that the DHTML file was up to 10x as large in size - making Flash a far better option for sites with lower bandwidths.

There are also techniques to reduce the impact on users with slow internet connections, such as detecting the connection speed and running video at lower resolution or asking dial-up users to choose whether they want to wait for a Flash version or see a basic text page.

Flash accessibility
The simple answer for accessibility is that Flash is fully compliant with the W3C and US Government's Section 508 accessibility requirements. The Flash format is accessible.

However when developing in Flash, as when developing in HTML or PDF, the accessibility of the final product depends on the skill and experience of the developers.

Provided that it is clear in the business specification that the product must comply with appropriate accessibility requirements, and that the business can provide necessary alt text, transcripts, metadata, navigation alternatives, subtitles and details for a HTML equivalent - as would be required to make a DVD accessible - the Flash application will meet accessibility standards.

However if the business stakeholders and developers do not quality check the work - whether Flash, HTML, or PDF - it can fail accessibility requirements.

So in short, don't point a finger at Flash technology for accessibility issues, look to the business owner and developers.

In summary
There are still many negative myths around about Adobe's Flash technology - I'm not sure why.

However they are largely mistaken. 

Flash is an extremely useful and versatile technology, with extremely high penetration and a very small footprint.

It is also fully accessible - provided your developers know how to use it effectively.

So if your agency is considering developing a multimedia application, a video (for online use) or another interactive tool, Flash is a format you should not discount quickly.


  1. I'm also interested in why Departments don't update versions of software like Flash very often, particularly given the security implications.

    As an example, my Department has settled on a version of Flash 9 that is several dot points below what is required to run just about any modern Flash/Flex web application. Apps like image editors (Picnik, Aviary) are inaccessible, as are other apps like the Buzzword word processor. A growing number of web site navigations are also being developed in later versions of Flash 9, versions that have had many security holes patched up.

    What's your perspective on that?

  2. Oh, I forgot. The version of Flash we have rules out many embedded Flash media playback applications (eg Vimeo, Viddler and so forth). However, I don't think that's the intent behind it. I suspect that is more just a happy coincidence for the sys admins.

  3. Craig, a couple years back, I thought like you. Though I would add flash sites require more skill to maintain and some organisation including a major gov dept in WA block all .swf files at their firewall.

    However flash is no longer ubiquitous. It might be on 97% of all computers, but what about other internet savvy devices like phones? Flash is not available for the iPhone. My Windows Mobile 6 phone is limited to Flash 7 and all 4 websites with flash I visited last weekend required me to upgrade to the latest version of flash (7 is the latest version for WM6) to view the site.

    Those sites could of been built better, less stringent demands on the flash version, better detection and alternative content. But that requires somebody who knows what they are doing with flash and most organisation including government agencies can not afford them.

    Over the past few years, use of javascript, AJAX etc has improved the quality of "DHTML" so it compete effectively with flash, for most web apps. Video is the one major exception, along with really rich web apps like Aviary.

    ps found this post via Victorian eGovernment Resource Centre

  4. Like all technologies and tools it is somewhat benign: what matters is how we use it.

    For my part, flash is a proprietary technology requiring specialist tools to create and maintain. This is a cost and a barrier to entry, and reason enough for me to avoid it. Also, 97% is not 100% and whatever I do with flash I must either repeat with HTML or accept that 3% are excluded. This does not fit with the philosophy of universal design. However, these are my personal choices. I trust others to make their own informed decisions. Weigh the risks.

    Regarding performance... were you comparing flash with web content optimised according to Yahoo!'s exceptional performance guidelines? As with flash, the calibre of the developers will tell!

    In short, yes, flash is "out there". But consider if the goals can be accomplished with web standards first. Why bring an additional, proprietary technology into the stack if it is unnecessary.

  5. Government is required to set the benchmark for compliance to the W3C standards in order to ensure that everyone has access to the information and services they provide. This is from both the technology and disability perspective. A 3% exclusion rate might be a reasonable percentage for some but it isn't for government. Any content that requires a user to have an additional plug-in to access content is not accessible. It is the same that PDF's aren't considered accessible if the information isn't also available in HTML or a word document. People will continue to make arguments for why government should use flash etc however government's priority will continue to be accessible content. Government website users have a right to expect to have access to any information on the websites no matter what technology, download speeds, language or disability issues they have.

  6. Great comments guys, thanks.

    I have some concerns over some of the views however....

    Nick, people who choose to access the internet via handheld mobile devices will also generally have access to computers with internet connections - particularly in regards iPhones. Accessibility does not mean the same as universality.

    Government does not need to cater for every possible device using every possible web standard - hence, for example, most government websites are inaccessible with WAP, even though there are many WAP-capable mobile devices out there.

    Ben, a single universal design is a wonderful dream. However as there are over sixty different browsers in use, and many do not adhere to the latest standards - or use proprietary extensions and interpretations (as Microsoft does with Internet Explorer), you cannot reach universality without a large coding overhead even on HTML pages.

    Generally organisations aim for the top 95% - being IE 6+, Firefox, Safari, Mozilla and Opera.

    Even supporting these five browsers (and all their versions) can require significant additional coding to address their foibles.

    Interestingly Flash will run within all of these browsers equally, with no code changes required.

    As to Flash being a proprietary standard, how is that a bad thing?

    I believe you need to think a little further about your statements.
    Government is not required to 'set the benchmark for compliance to the W3C standards' - in fact government sites are only required to meet the lowest level of W3C guidelines - A level, rather than AA or AAA.

    This is hardly setting a benchmark.

    As to 3% exclusion - reread my post. There are other ways to cater for that 3%, and it is possible to do so using the same content repository used to produce the Flash file - which is much harder to do across PDF or word.

    Considering 'an additional plug-in' as making content less accessible is not in my view a concern. A web browser is in one sense a plug-in to an operating system - so the user is already expected to have additional software (and a computer) before accessing web content. Equally, Flash comes as standard with many browser installs rather than as an additional plug-in.

  7. I agree with Anonymous

    Governments do have a responsibility to set a social, legal and moral benchmark to ensure that all citizens have access to information and services it provides.

    By making accessibility a priority, governments should lead the way for the private sector to take accessibility more seriously.

    Recently the Australian Human Rights Commission set up a website to name and shame websites that do not provide PDF’s in an accessible format i.e. a html equivalent. This demonstrates that governments are required to set a high standard for accessibility. And that all content needs to be provided in a text equivalent.

    Craig, I’m a little concerned about your comment that "considering an additional plug-in as making content less accessible is not in my view a concern".

    The Victorian eGovernment Resource Centre clearly states that “PDF’s, video files and other downloads are inaccessible according to the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines…, because they require a plug-in to the browser in order to access the information”

    Check-point 1.1 of the standards specifically talks about “providing a text equivalent for every non-text element”

    In regards to flash, the Australian Human Rights Commission website states “While some positive progress has been made, it will be a considerable time before most users will benefit, and even then, flash may be accessible only in certain specific circumstances.”

    I also agree with Nick regarding making websites accessible via mobiles. Mobile phones are not a device that only a small percentage of people have, disregarding providing content which is accessible for mobile phones because you can’t make content accessible for all devices, marginalises the significant use of mobile phones and ignores the reality that more and more people will be accessing the internet via mobiles.

  8. This discussion is getting into territory that I term reverse discrimination - where organisations do not provide the experience that a majority of users expect, in order to only provide a basic service which all users can access.

    This runs the risk of not meeting the needs of the majority of web users - those who upgrade their browsers regularly, have both the free PDF and Flash plug-ins (as a default browser install option - thereby not 'additional plug-ins') and regularly view rich media via their web browsers.

    Yes government has an obligation to meet accessibility guidelines, and yes they must make content available to all potential internet users (with the base consideration that they have access to an internet-connected PC with a web browser).

    However there's little difficulty in rendering information in different forms for different users, thereby meeting both the minimum needs (basic HTML pages, not even using CSS) and meeting the needs of the majority of users (CSS-backed HTML, interactive multimedia content via Flash, Ajax and DHTML).

    In this way government remains relevant to communities as well as supporting the lowest common denominator.

    As to the Human Rights Commission - I support their stand on accessibility and have blogged about it several times, although it has been somewhat limited in focus, on PDFs, whereas a well constructed PDF is highly accessible.

    As to the HRC's view on Flash, again this comes down to how Flash applications are designed and the alternatives made available. The technology itself is compliant with W3C guidelines and in widespread use. Certainly Youtube would be surprised to hear that it is in breach of HRC's views - given that it has already given voices to many people whose human rights have been shortchanged around the world.

    As to mobile devices, as discussed Australian government has already failed almost unilaterally to support WAP. Fortunately mobile devices are moving towards full browser support and via my iTouch I can view most government sites seamlessly as websites (as they appear on a larger screen) - including Flash content. Government has already marginalised mobile devices and it is only the advances in the devices, rather than the will of Australian government, which is making government content available.

    There's a shared failure there on the part of the public sector - though fortunately due to high data costs and low accessibility, mobile internet access in Australia remains in its infancy. In fact it's only with the iPhone and iTouch that data use on mobile phones has begun to exhibit strong growth - looking at mobile internet access in Australia over the past five years it has been negligible in terms of quantity of users and only really affected higher income earners (who buy expensive smartphones) - these people all have other ways to access the internet.

    I would like to see the Australian government place more resources into developing content for mobile devices, however this is where limited resourcing comes into play. For CSA, for example, I track about a dozen accesses of our website by mobile devices each month and, as we have no website content management system, the cost of hand-coding a separate site that is mobile friendly far exceeds the benefits I can detail for our approvals committees to release the funds and prioritise the work over the many initiatives we have to deliver for the hundreds of thousands of users per month accessing the site using PCs and the most recent web browsers.

    I anticipate that other agencies are in a similar position. Resources must be applied to achieve the greater gains for the greatest number of customers.

  9. By the way, the Human Rights Commission document referenced by the second Anonymous above, is dated August 2002 (

    Given this document is six years old, predating enormous changes in the online environment, it probably requires some revision to reflect the current situation.

    After all, as public servants we are now providing services to people as at November 2008, not as at August 2002.

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  11. Why do you NEED to use flash, exactly? I can't think of a single situation where Flash might be necessary... only desirable.

    Consider your market. If Adobe says Flash penetration is 97%, why do you believe them? If i look at stats for my own (Australian Government) organisation, I can see that Flash 9 (of any point release) only makes up about 87%.

    More interestingly, the users who spend the most TIME on this site are predominantly Flash 7. The plot thickens...

    Also, there is no such thing as "reverse discrimation". User's are not disadvantaged by NOT having flash. That's just ridiculous. You wouldn't say that ending slavery was reverse discrimination against white plantation owners, or consumers of sugar. Flash is like sugar.

  12. Hi Xtfer,

    Per my post above,

    "For example, for my agency's website, for the last month, Google Analytics tells me that 98.27% of website visitors had Flash installed (and 95% of visitors had Flash 9.0+ or later)."

    Reverse discrimination (call it what you like) is quite common. As I described it it is institutions who discriminate against users when the users choose to adopt certain approaches or technologies.

    If over 98% of my website's audience has chosen to install Flash, shouldn't they gain the benefit of this choice? Particularly when no-one is disadvantaged or threatened through exercising this choice - other users are catered for using alternative versions of content - using the same content store.