Is there a future in Flash?

Image by gahlord via Flickr

I was recently asked by a marketing student at one of Burlington Vermont’s several colleges whether she should spend the time learning to make things in Flash. This post is my attempt to provide some guidance. If you have some useful information or feedback, please don’t hesitate to use the comments section.

With the latest shiny object released by Apple without support for Flash, there’s been a lot of conversation about the future of Flash. But there are much larger wheels in motion than the Flash/Apple situation. But examining the future Flash does make for an interesting and useful lens on the direction of several technology trends currently in play.

Preliminary statement of bias: I enjoy making Flash projects and have been involved with the platform since I first entered Stuart Butterfield’s 5k competition back in 2000. But I’ve also been heavily involved in search marketing activities, where Flash can really mess things up.

Initial observations about Flash and online marketing

Let’s look at a couple observations that I think are relevant to the future of Flash:

  • The iPhone and the iPad don’t render Flash content and it’s likely they never will unless Adobe can keep Flash from crashing.
  • HTML5 is being rolled out as we speak. One of the big features of HTML5 is that the video embed method doesn’t require Flash.
  • None of the HTML5 implementations of video that are available today allow for full screen viewing of video content. (See comments below–thanks to Joel for setting me straight)
  • Immersive websites and other content that relies heavily on interactive and generative animation/video are a real challenge to code in anything other than Flash. Think movie websites, super brand-heavy websites and other projects which don’t rely heavily on random search traffic to reach an audience.
  • Many people see social media marketing being equal to search engine marketing for reaching audiences in the near future.
  • The media industry, typically supported by brand-heavy display advertising, is having trouble.
  • Future versions of Flash are going to be able to compile iPhone apps.
  • Mobile devices are increasingly being used to access web content.
  • Adobe recently bought a top-tier web analytics software company.

Putting observations of Flash in context

Lets see what we can come up with, given the above observations. I think there’s a couple areas of specific importance that sift out of the above observations: The future of online video, the impact of mobile browsing behaviors and changes in how marketing reaches audiences.

Video on the web

Flash is likely to cede dominance as the default video platform online. This will probably be in direct relation to the rise of mobile device computing. Even though Android can accept Flash, developers and clients of developers will save their funds and roll out HTML5 enabled solutions.

Flash will probably remain in place as a video platform for destination content: anything you want to see full screen. This involves players, technologies and industries which are much larger and entrenched than Flash is. It’s also pretty volatile.

On the other hand, all those short YouTube and blog-length talking head/presentation style videos will head on over to HTML5. Bloggers and presentation content creators tend to be pretty SEO focused, so they’ll gladly jump at the HTML5 implementations for video and start doing their own hosting. They’ll do this to get search visibility from blended video results. Sure they can host their own video and start doing this today using Flash. The change of options, all at once, is likely to increase HTML5 video adoption. That and Flash players/encoders and the embed code are a real mess, making HTML5 the more likely path for the DIY set.

Watch for:

  • Increased mobile device usage
  • Adoption of HTML5 compatible browsers
  • The effect of the internal differences in handling HTML5 among the various browser makers
  • Relationships between online video destination sites (Netflix/Hulu/iTunes), the technology makers (Microsoft/Adobe/Apple), the search industry (Microsoft/Google) and the movie industry

Mobile influence and Flash

Effectively banned from the Apple ecosystem until Adobe can find a way to get Flash to not be the primary source of crashes in OSX, you might think that Flash will have little to no influence on the mobile market. First there’s Android, which I don’t think will be that big a deal for Flash because people who commission content (clients) aren’t going to commission one version of content for Android and another version for iPhone. I just don’t see it happening. And who wants a return to the bad old days of browser detection anyway?

However, Adobe has said that future versions of Flash will be able to compile iPhone apps [note: this has come to pass with AS3 compilers, ugly but functional]. The real frontier and objective for most online strategies in regards to mobile is to get an icon on the user’s mobile device. One of the strengths of Flash is the ability to create good user interfaces. Flash developers should be able to leverage this in developing iPhone and other mobile applications.

Watch for:

  • Will Adobe deliver on their promise to make Flash write iPhone and other mobile content?
  • Will Adobe buckle down and resolve whatever it is that makes Flash content frequently crash in MacOSX (training the developers to not write buggy apps has clearly not worked)?

Social media marketing and Flash

One of Flash’s longstanding weaknesses has been it’s invisibility to search engines. I know that Google theoretically indexes Flash content, but that requires the Flash developer to make their Flash app contain text and other things for Google to index. Awareness of SEO techniques are not common in the Flash community relative to standard web developers.

However, with the rise of social media, there is an increased opportunity for Flash content to reach an audience without the need for search engine optimization features. Well-made and executed Flash projects stand a good chance of being promoted via social media channels. Tie in Adobe’s purchase of web analytics firm Omniture and the potential exists for developing some very clever content with Flash that can help marketers learn more about their audiences.

Watch for:

  • Increased interest in social media marketing methods at the expense of search engine marketing.
  • Whether Adobe can successfully integrate Omniture’s tracking capabilities into Flash.

Advice to a college student who is considering whether or not to learn Flash

So here’s my advice to the college student (and tangentially, to anyone considering making Flash applications):

  1. The basic Flash lecture: Learn to make clean code (Flex is your friend), be aware of bandwidth and CPU bottlenecks, be involved in search engine optimization + Flash conversations, learn to tie web traffic analytics into Flash. If you don’t learn these things, your job will not be in the United States (which, by the way, isn’t necessarily a bad thing).
  2. Learn the skills required to make good immersive content. This won’t be a software/technical skill so much as it is a concepting/planning skill. Learn to storyboard and make user workflows.
  3. Be a student of good user interface. “Good” is always in the eye of the beholder (or the person cutting the check). But if you start with making an interface that enables achieving a business objective you’ll likely be on the right track.
  4. Learn math. All the coolest Flash projects involve copious amounts of interesting math and algorithms. If you don’t learn math, make really good friends with a math person (my math friend is a rocket scientist who specializes in fluid dynamics–very useful).
  5. Learn the advanced Flash topics: Augmented Reality, Papervision3D and other 3D frameworks, generative content, etc. Be prepared to stay on the leading edge of Flash.

I hope all this is helpful. Feel free to ask questions or give feedback in the comments below.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for the link, Joel. I’ve modified the article to take it into account. My bad for not looking hard enough.

    However, when I followed the link I got a “browser not supported” graphic (I’m flying Firefox along with about 30% of the web, according to StatCounter).

    The problem with HTML5 and full screen is that it varies browser-by-browser. The different and varying implementations of video and other interactive content across browsers and OSes is precisely the reason for Flash’s ascension back in the day. And until HTML5 implementation gets sorted out, it will be the same story again–history repeating itself.

    Here’s the spec for implementing HTML5. Note in particular:

    User agents may allow users to view the video content in manners more suitable to the user (e.g. full-screen or in an independent resizable window). As for the other user interface features, controls to enable this should not interfere with the page’s normal rendering unless the user agent is exposing a user interface. In such an independent context, however, user agents may make full user interfaces visible, with, e.g., play, pause, seeking, and volume controls, even if the controls attribute is absent.

    So we end up with a balkanized solution once again. I don’t think many organizations will be commissioning content for a variety of browsers/devices except in situations where they have to (i.e. mobile). And in those cases, a more tightly controlled distribution and brand-experience will likely be preferred (i.e. Apps).

  2. I think this is great advice for prospective Flash students. As you know, I’m a big advocate of open standards over proprietary platforms such as Flash. There will definitely continue to be uses of Flash and jobs for those with Flash skills. However, I’d encourage students to spend some time exploring the new features in HTML5 including video, audio, and canvas as these features can replace many of the current uses of Flash.

  3. Thanks for stopping by Bradley.

    I very much agree that the commodity-level video and audio of HTML5 will sooner or later overpower Flash. And I think that’s a good thing.

    The main thing holding HTML5 back will be the nature of open-source software + browser implementations. We all know how long old crappy browsers hang on (IE6 anyone?).

  4. I find a lot of the Flash/SEO troubles people talk about to be very easy to work around. Just block the .swf file from any search engines with your robots.txt, keep all media content (audio/video/images/text) outside of flash, and let flash load it on demand. Create alternate content for those without flash that includes all the media content (so, the same content is available to everyone).

    Deeplinking, Analytics, and alternate content in flash has been available for quite a few years with the SWFObject and SWFAddress libraries.

    This way anything from a flash module to a full page flash site can be totally indexable, It keeps the flash modules themselves very light. (In our experience we keep it @ 10-40KB depending on the functionality.) It’s all about using progressive enhancement to provide a “better” experience for the users with flash, while everything else is available for the non-flashers.

    If your main use for flash is for a video player, and you’re really happy with the one you’ve made, use the basic html5 players as fallback for non flash users. Advanced applications will be exactly as indexable no matter what functionality you use. And people will create javascript that crashes just as much as they’ve made flash that crashed. Some RIA’s are just bad apples, and it’s more or less always not the technology, it’s the programmer.

    If you decide to pursue the apple model, you can then export the flash version of the site as an app and start recieveing micropayments from those users who bought a gadget that doesn’t have the required flash functionality for the free web model.

    It’s not a question of whether to flash or not to flash. It’s all about progressive enhancement and graceful degradation. You’ll be doing the same with html5/css3/javascript as well.
    Build your sites in layers, create the best content available, then make it look as good as it can for those with inferior or older browsers afterwards.

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