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?
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.
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.
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.