Introducing Flash 6 - now only 98% Bad!

October 30, 2000 11:16 AM   Subscribe

Introducing Flash 6 - now only 98% Bad!
Jakob Neilsen focuses his alertbox on the evils of Flash, calls it 99% bad. Take that Rob Burgess, CEO of Macromedia (who last week equated the technology have-nots with being damned to Hell).
posted by DragonBoy (39 comments total)
One thing you can say about the guy, he sure can dance.
posted by john at 11:27 AM on October 30, 2000

LOL john... Now there's a good application of Flash on the web, Jakob!! :)
posted by PWA_BadBoy at 11:33 AM on October 30, 2000

This is my favorite:

Animation clearly has its place in online communication. However, as my 1995 guidelines discuss, that place is limited.

1995, huh? That explains so much...
posted by solistrato at 11:40 AM on October 30, 2000

flash doesn't kill people, people kill people.

(wasn't that same thing said in the *last* flash-is-evil thread?)
posted by patricking at 11:59 AM on October 30, 2000

I particularly despise Flash, because where I've often encountered it is in advertising. I do not like animated advertising (I don't like advertising at all, but that's a different issue) because it distracts me from reading the primary content of the web page.

Of course, that's exactly what they want. But their goals and my goals come into conflict, and I don't care about their goals. I have, on some web pages where this is particularly egregious, actually dumped the source to the web page and figured out the location from which the Flash advertising is being loaded, and then put a special rule in my firewall code to block it so it can't be loaded. (My firewall operates both at low and high level; I can block specific URLs and they can be fairly generic or extremely specific. I can, for instance, block entire directories or entire directory trees, or any path which includes a specific character sequence anywhere within the path. It's quite powerful.)

I honestly can't remember any time I went to a web page, found Flash there, and actually was glad. I always mash the "skip flash intro" button as fast as I can, and if given a choice between a flash page and non-flash, I always choose the latter. If I could remove the Flash plugin from my browser, I'd do so. Unfortunately, it's built in.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:02 PM on October 30, 2000

Yes, it does, solistrato... It shows Nielsen got it right a long time ago, and you still haven't.

McLuhan's Understanding Media was published in 1964, and is still not only valid, but more fresh than the overwhelming majority of media writing today.

But there's a reason why it's hypertext markup language... The Net is inherently a textual medium. Illustrations and animations support text, not the other way around. Every time anyone's tried to shove something else down the users' throats, they've been tossed right back on their ass.

The surprising thing, really, is that many developers and clients still don't get that. {shrug}

posted by aurelian at 12:05 PM on October 30, 2000

What he's saying is that if it doesn't add, it subtracts. This is a basic rule of any writing or design. Though I disagree with Neilsen a lot, in this case he's right on the money.
posted by frykitty at 12:17 PM on October 30, 2000

On the contrary, aurelian, the reason that McLuhan's work still appears fresh is because it is breakthrough, out of the clear blue sky thinking. I'd doubt the seriousness (and perhaps the sanity) of anyone claiming the same for Mr. Nielsen's work. Try reading his latest book if you don't believe me.

For what it's worth, hypertext was certainly the foundation of the Web originally, but communication on the Internet has grown beyond mere text and now encompasses the visual and the aural. You don't have to like it (Jakob Nielsen seems to have built an entire reputation out of nothing but ranting that this is now so), but you would be foolish to try and assert that it's not true. You're entitled to your opinion, just as there are people who are entitled to run Linux from a command line prompt as main computing environment - you just can't claim that the rest of the users of the Internet should stop using a GUI with funny little pictures and that new fangled rodent pointer.
posted by m.polo at 12:18 PM on October 30, 2000

just as there are people who are entitled to run Linux from a command line prompt as main computing environment

Yup. It just depends on whether you want to crash a lot or you're willing to invest some effort in learning more powerful, safer tools.

Those of you who don't, you go have fun. But you can have vi when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.

(Given the other quote above, that seemed apropos. :-)

I will note here, though, that the gratuitous use of Flash for things that should be done in HTML is still a Bad Thing; there are lots of people out there who a) don't have enough machine for Flash to run reasonably (though that's moderating, slowly), or b) don't have working eyeballs (screen readers can't cope with flash, either), and they're still not getting indexed for that content, either -- you're invited to notice just how hard the search engines are falling over themselves to index the insides of Flash...
posted by baylink at 12:39 PM on October 30, 2000

Vi? Isn't there an antibiotic they can give you to rid you of that problem?!

FWIW, Flash is capable of outputting the text of the Flash movie as text for inclusion in the web page; the purpose, of course, is to enable indexing by the recalcitrant search engine developers. Probably wouldn't help if you were blind, but then if I'm creating a piece where the primary delivery mechanism depended upon eyesight, I guess I would have already determined visually impaired viewers were outside my target audience.
posted by m.polo at 12:58 PM on October 30, 2000

I'd doubt the seriousness (and perhaps the sanity) of anyone claiming the same for Mr. Nielsen's work.

That was not my claim. Rather, solistrato appeared to be saying that solely because Neilsen's guidelines were from 1995, they're therefore not valid. By contrast, McLuhan's work, though much older, is still applicable. Certainly I wouldn't hold up Neilsen as a model of graceful writing. just can't claim that the rest of the users of the Internet should stop using a GUI with funny little pictures and that new fangled rodent pointer.

Except GUIs aren't. Graphical, that is.

Rather, they're text with graphical add-ons.

Difficult as it might be to for some folks to use an o/s with all text and no graphics, I submit it would be vastly more difficult to use an o/s with all graphics and no text. That's mostly because, depsite the ambiguity of language, there's even more ambiguity in graphics.

I'm not disputing that visual and aural content exist on the Net. I am saying that such content is indexed, labelled, criticised, captioned, manipulated, pointed to, referred to from one friend to another, etc., etc., etc., in text. (Such as here on MetaFilter, for example :)

Have you tried any of the voice recognition packages for system control? What's very interesting is that you run smack up against a brick wall with them -- you have to memorize the manual before being able to fully use the program. An example: How do you get help? Just saying "help" doesn't do it, if you're in an edit window the program types "help". The answer varies from program to program, but you have to know the particular phrase from having read the manual.

It was at moments like that where I realized to what extent menu structures really function as aides to memory, to remind you just what the program can do. Menu structures, of course, are all in text. But we lean on them, and don't bother memorizing the program, precisely because we know, even subconciously, that the text is there to remind us when we need it. Voice recognition tosses that all out. But... would such a structure work any better if it was all graphical?

Graphics and animations do enhance text. Just as I said the first time. But text is still central to that.

posted by aurelian at 12:59 PM on October 30, 2000

I've yet to see a novice computer/internet user get up and leave in disgust if a site doesn't have a "search" input field at the top of a page, or the link colors aren't default or any of the other crap that Nielsen complains about. Until he stops being so arrogant and expecting everyone to be stupid and helpless unless they are patronized, I don't think I will agree with any of his "alertboxes".

Anyway, this discussion reminded me of the worst-designed page I've seen in a while: The best part is that he put right-click protection on it. tee hee :)
posted by kidsplateusa at 2:23 PM on October 30, 2000

Yes, it does, solistrato... It shows Nielsen got it right a long time ago, and you still haven't.

Well, Aurelian, I'll take your little bitchslap at face value and respond in kind.

First of all, I feel that was an unnecessarily personal cheap shot. I don't know who you think you are, but you could have disagreed with my opinion without acting like an asshole. So if I seem a little angry right now, it's because I'm wondering why a total stranger is trying to tell me what I "get" based on one snarky comment.

Second of all, your logical error trying to equate McLuhan and Nielsen based on age doesn't wash. McLuhan's work is valid not because it's old, but because it's true. He worked at it. He thought about what he was saying. McLuhan was a scholar dedicated to the truth.

He was not some clueless hack who stuffs his pockets by braying like a jackass about how all communications media should conform to His One Way Back In The Old Days. He was not a megalomaniacal mummalard conning the captains of industry into buying his hogwash. He wasn't some shill trying to profit off of other people's ignorance. And he SURE AS HELL wasn't some whiny coot without an ounce of aesthetic knowledge.

In 1995, Netscape was still the dominant browser. In 1995, the IMG tag was still a neat idea. In 1995, most people had no idea what the Net was.

Things evolve. Things change. And holding a rapidly evolving medium to one mindset is ludicrous.

The Net is whatever we want it to be. The dominant theme is data. It's whatever it wants to be, whatever people make of it.

Oh, people misuse Flash? That's a damn shame. People misuse animation. People misuse graphics. People - like you - misuse language. To dismiss a format, a medium, a technology out of hand because it doesn't conform to your particular mindset is ludicrous.

So if you want to sit at the Nielsen campire and pretend that the world went to Hell when the GIF made its way onto the net, fine. Meanwhile, the Web continues to evolve.
posted by solistrato at 2:30 PM on October 30, 2000

"the net is an inherently textual medium"

I guess that explains the net's runaway popular sucess with the introduction of the CERN linemode browser.

If anything the net is a visual medium that is only getting more and more visual. The usability problems with flash are the result of adhoc engineering on the part of the browser manufacturers and the innability of the standards bodies to acknowledge the commonly used methods of multimedia expression.

Flash is an animation format pushed past the breaking point, much like HTML is a physics paper markup langauge pushed past the breaking point. The fact that either are being used to model interface and interaction is an "abuse" of the format. That we all feel so passionate about the "moral" use of either has always struck me as odd.

The main complaints about flash seem to be that the back button is broken, that content is obfuscated within a presentation, and that it gives the designers too much design freedom. The first two complaints are really the fault of the browser. The back button should be programmable by the page author to go to the last logical "previous" stage, this also plagues web apps that are written in HTML. The URL addressing scheme has no method for representing state within a presentation, and in most broswers cannot be changed on the fly without refreshing the page (which reloads flash).

The last point is actually a feature. Designers should have arbitrarily imposed technological constraints. They should be able to design however they want. With that freedom comes the responsibility to make documents that are appropriate. What we are ending up width is lots of immature design, where the designers have grabbed at the freedom that flash offers without being considderate of their audience. That will change over time as inconsidderate designers find themselves not asked back by clients.

Is this animation site using flash innapropriately on the homepage?
posted by captaincursor at 2:33 PM on October 30, 2000

This all seems a little too subjective if you ask me. There is no truth, just preference.
posted by john at 2:54 PM on October 30, 2000

Can't we all just agree that the whole point of the web is that there is no "one size fits all" solution? I don't want a web where there's no flash, no shockwave-- if it works, people will use it. If it doesn't, they won't. J

akon Nielson's ideology could no doubt help any number of UI people and designers, but my site is my site, and I reserve the right to use any and all tools to enhance my users' experience.
posted by s10pen at 2:58 PM on October 30, 2000

Would the web ever have developed as it has if it had been based on a proprietary format requiring special software, rather than an open format requiring little more than a text editor?
posted by harmful at 3:15 PM on October 30, 2000

Would the web ever have developed as it has if it had been based on a proprietary format requiring special software, rather than an open format requiring little more than a text editor?
posted by harmful at 3:18 PM on October 30, 2000

I dunno, let's give Microsoft a few more years and find out.
posted by gluechunk at 3:31 PM on October 30, 2000

Harmful, it depends on what period you're talking about. Of course in the beginning, the idea was just to create a kindler, gentler, hypertext system but then it moved on becoming just as much graphics oriented as text.

You're right to point out the proprietary nature of Flash and as soon as there's a non-proprietary alternative, I'll be first in line to get my copy but do you really think it's the proprietary nature of Flash that Nielsen is complaining about? The technology could be owned by the U.S. Parks Service and Nielsen would be complaining. The kind of experience that Flash affords -- at its best and we can all think of examples -- is just something that Nielsen doesn't get. It's that simple. Frankly, the guy must be a drag to hang out with.
posted by leo at 3:34 PM on October 30, 2000

What's interesting to note here is that while Flash has many good uses, it is often mis-used by the web designer simply because it tends to make a more impressionable impact on the client than a standard HTML+GIFs web site. Most clients don't have a clue about the technologies that make up the web, and some designers are taking advantage of that fact -- skipping past all the [hard] things that make the web what it is, and producing Flash-only sites. This is the fault of the designer, not the technology. So, what we need here is some education. The more people who come out and say "Perhaps Flash isn't the best choice of technology for your ecommerce web site, and here's why" the more we'll see more intelligent decisions being made by the people who are abusing the Flash format.

It boils down to choosing the best technology for your site's (or your clients's site's) needs. If you choose to use Flash, you absolutely must be able to defend that choice. If you choose not to use Flash, you also must be able to gives reasons why.

I've seen some very innovative and useful Flash-based web sites, but I have yet to see a site done entirely in Flash that has not suffered from some of the most basic usability problems that face non-Flash sites. I know that Macromedia is addressing these issues, but that doesn't excuse designers today from making the right decisions about technology.
posted by camworld at 3:38 PM on October 30, 2000

There already is a non-proprietary alternative to Flash. It's called SVG.
posted by camworld at 3:47 PM on October 30, 2000


I am genuinely sorry I could not write well enough that you could see the difference between a forceful disagreement with (solistrato's-ideas), rather than "an unnecessarily personal cheap shot" against (solistrato-the-person). Since that's a difference that's fairly obvious to me, I'm going to have to spend some time thinking about this, since I'm not sure how to fix it.

Still, I am sorry.

posted by aurelian at 3:50 PM on October 30, 2000

cam-- great point. So much of the bad flash on the web is directly related to the wishes of clients who don't understand the web, and want things to jump out at them, play music, and otherwise annoy the crap out of ordinary users.
posted by s10pen at 3:56 PM on October 30, 2000

I thought it was the name. But who would download a plugin called substance or something like that?
posted by john at 4:09 PM on October 30, 2000

SVG doesn't work for animation. You won't get the performance you do with a binary rendered file with an interpreted text based system. Heck most of the time flash runs too slowly. SVG as a format for creation and sharing of the source files seems viable though, or using SVG as a way to make a illustrative site with simple movement (much like how DHTML works). Flash is still a better choice for presenting animation where timing is critical.

Now SVG and XUL teaming up to describe and present an interface would be great.
posted by captaincursor at 4:36 PM on October 30, 2000

Cam, Nielsen isn't criticizing sites done entirely in Flash -- he's criticizing sites done using any Flash at all (i.e. the "presence" as he puts it). The guy just has a problem with things moving around his screen. That's okay. Not everyone has this problem. Animation and multi-media are far too much fun for anyone to get upset about a guy with a text-complex.
posted by leo at 4:44 PM on October 30, 2000

Neilsen is interested in useability, it makes perfect sense that he would focus his column on his site on the useability issues related to Flash. At the same time, talented designers will continue to create astounding work using Flash.

The web isn't a database or a cinema or a shopping mall. It's a database AND a cinema AND a shopping mall and much more besides.

I don't agree with everything Jakob Neilsen says, but I make sure I at least read it and think about it.
posted by astro38 at 4:54 PM on October 30, 2000

The non-proprietary alternative to Flash is Flash. Macromedia opened up the file format some time ago, and there are now a number of programs capable of writing Flash files, including Beatware's e-Picture Pro, Electric Rain's Swift 3D, and of course Adobe LiveMotion.
posted by kindall at 4:59 PM on October 30, 2000

It's open, but it's still proprietary. Macromedia and only Macromedia gets to decide what changes to the file format are made, what features and modifications will be incorporated into the next version.

Until they hand control over to the IEEE, the W3C, or some other standards organization - which they will do 3 months after Sun lets go of Java - it's still proprietary.

Moderation, really, is the key. It pretty much is to everything else, too. I mean, you can build some kick-ass DHTML sites, flooded with animations and mouseovers until your favorite CEO is having multiple orgasms of glee, it's still going to suck just as much as if it were done in Flash.

(not to mention being ickily larger, but that's a whole other ball of wax)
posted by cCranium at 5:13 PM on October 30, 2000

there seems to be some confusion between a tool (flash) and gratuitious or sloppy animation effects (insert site of choice here). at its best - especially with the actionscript capabilities introduced in F4 and enhanced in F5 - flash can be an elegant, lightweight alternative to clunkier java or other sorts of programming tools. there's interesting development that's being ignored because of a bunch of spinning logos - i like to think that we'd be more savvy than that.

an example of elegant lightweight flash application development: colin moock's chat client, which is a whopping 7kb file (and is still in beta).

jakob's article runs the risk of turning people off of technologies rather than sloppy executions, which is generally the issue that bothers me about his writings...
posted by judith at 5:18 PM on October 30, 2000

Thank you, Judith. This is it exactly. I'd even say this is what bothers me about his writings, too -- that is, if I read him on anything like a regular basis but I don't : signal-to-noise is too much against him and I can find better titilation elsewhere.
posted by leo at 6:01 PM on October 30, 2000

Too often, sites end up with dubious Flash implementations because it provides a cheap, quick and dirty way of creating the whizzy stuff that clients want to see. So yeah, Flash is a tool: but in too many cases, it's a hammer used in place of a screwdriver.
posted by holgate at 3:47 AM on October 31, 2000

Solistrato: The Net is whatever we want it to be. The dominant theme is data. It's whatever it wants to be, whatever people make of it.

Precisely. "The dominant theme is data." I like that. It's precisely opposite to the argument I think you were trying to make, but I like it anyway. :)

CaptainCursor: The back button should be programmable by the page author to go to the last logical "previous" stage,

We've already got that; it's called "porn sites using onExit". This violates another of Neilsen's precepts; one which I fully agree with: the user should feel in control. If you give control of my back button to the page author, I'll kill you.

That's why I hate 'Back' links that are actually 'Up' links (ie: they don't do the same thing as my browser back button because the writer of the link ass-u-me-d that I'd *only* *ever* get to that page from his or her previous page in the tree. history.back(), OTOH, I rather link.
posted by baylink at 7:45 AM on October 31, 2000

On my current project, I've been trying to explain to the decision-makers round here why having out "Back" buttons use history.go(-1); is better than making them go "up", it's more intuitive.

Of course, they don't think so. But then, they're prototypical "(l)Users", and, really, we're building the site for them and users like them, so the back button doing what they think it should do makes sense.

It's rare that I find myself unable, after a reasonable amount of conversation with a user, to get myself into their mindset and understand what exactly they're trying to do with something. This, however, is one of those times.
posted by cCranium at 8:08 AM on October 31, 2000

It's open, but it's still proprietary. Macromedia and only Macromedia gets to decide what changes to the file format are made, what features and modifications will be incorporated into the next version.

This is true, of course, but Macromedia is obligated by market forces to ensure that older Flash content remains playable by new versions of the plug-in. Even if Macromedia stopped publishing the file format, it's already got plenty of oomph and would remain playable by most browsers for the foreseeable future.

Yes, it'd be nice if it were an ISO standard, but if it were, it would probably be patented.
posted by kindall at 11:04 AM on October 31, 2000

cCranium: build a fake google, have them search for your page (hardwire the link), have them click in to the site, then have them hit Back. Maybe they'll understand *then*.

Or, if you have an internal search, use that.
posted by baylink at 1:02 PM on October 31, 2000

baylink: believe me, I've tried many different ways of trying to impress on them the importance of maintaining a constant "Web Feel" to our site, but they're currently in the "Just build the fucking thing and get our name out there, THEN worry about everything making sense!" phase.

After, quite literally, letting the fact that they follow no design scheme or no logical pattern drive me to stress-induced panic attacks (not a fun experience, I tell you what!) resulting in them losing me for a day I spent in an emergency room, given up on trying to enforce logical business practice there. I'm actually enjoying myself more and am greatly more relaxed.

And, better yet, I've got an hour of the president's time on Thursday to, in his words, "Hold nothing back. I don't care if it's insulting to [him], [he needs] to know what [he] can do better."

So I've got some thinking and note-taking to do. :-)

Woah, topic drift! Happy? I know you are. :-)
posted by cCranium at 4:32 PM on October 31, 2000

You bet.

I'm happier that your president has a clue, though, and you can tell him I said so. If you'd like my opinions on the site, mail me the address.
posted by baylink at 2:05 PM on November 7, 2000

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