net.wars: Ten things I hate about Flash

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 15 March 2002

My personal rule is that any time a designer finds himself putting a "Skip intro" button on the front page of a Web site, he should know that he is doing something WRONG. Flash is a big part of that. Inevitably, the "intros" you want to "skip" are Flash monstrosities that hog your computer, suck up all your available bandwidth, and leave you with the visual after-effects of a 1970s disco.

Wendy M Grossman

OK, there really aren't ten things I hate; there are about three. Flash has been the bane of the Web's existence for some years now, and all that time I've had two major objections to its existence, one practical and one philosophical.

The practical objection is that the damn thing is just too slow. In the days when I wrote an e-commerce shopping column for a now-defunct newsletter called, creatively enough, Future Shopping , I used to give "Banana Slug" awards to appallingly slow and incomprehensible sites (and that's the improved version, my God. For extra fun, try it in Netscape, where it loops infinitely, achieving nothing).

Macromedia boasts that 98 percent of Web users have Flash. To me, that's like saying that 98 percent of British rail travelers have visited Clapham Junction. So what? It's not like you actually wanted to go there.

The philosophical objection has to do with accessibility. Peter Bosher , whom I ran across a few years ago, has a lot to say about the injustice of turning computers and the Internet into no-go zones for the visually impaired. Until computers came along, he points out, blind people were limited in their choice of reading to whatever texts one or another charitable organization felt were worthy. Screen reader software and electronic texts changed all that. The early, all-text days of the Internet were hugely liberating: you could go anywhere and read anything. And then came Windows, and the Web, and Flash, and it all started being whittled away. Things got bad enough that the National Federation for the Blind in the US sued AOL because its graphics-heavy design was completely inaccessible The suit was dropped when AOL promised to work with the NFB to improve matters.

And I suppose users of mobile devices could say much the same sort of thing.

This is a genuinely important problem that is going to affect more and more of us as we age. One of the great things about cyberspace is that it promises to give back some autonomy to people in our society who for one reason or another can't participate as equals. It is a travesty and a great injustice if that gets lost just because people want to make the Web fancier.

Apparently Macromedia has noticed that people are making these complaints, because at the launch this week of Flash MMX the company went to great lengths to stress that it has fixed both these problems. The new, all-singing, all-pole-vaulting version is apparently so tiny as to make this column look huge and is designed so that it's all readable. Does that mean we shouldn't still hate Flash?

No. For one thing, it wasn't clear from the Macromedia demonstration if they had thought all the way through the sight problem. It isn't enough to make the site accessible via screen reader software; partially sighted and deaf users need the ability resize text and fonts. The original design of the Web empowered the user; today's Web empowers the designer at the user's expense.

For another, while Flash's designers had a wonderful time showing off all the "integrated," "interactive", "animated", and "beautiful" applications you could build with it, you know and I know that's not how it's going to be in real life. No. These are the same kind of people who promised us speech recognition and gave us infinitely branching voice menu trees. What we're going to get is hideously overblown animations of goofy little smiling, giddily dancing, chartreuse guppies to guide us through the infinitely complex universe of buying toilet paper. And you thought the TV puppy was bad.

Plus, if it really is as good as they say, it's going to proliferate. Macromedia was boasting, for example, that this means government sites can use Flash now, and look all pretty and non-functional too. And all those old Flash sites with their horrid, slow, inaccessible animations will keep them and make them bigger and slower, not realizing that there's a new version because the sites using the new stuff will – yes, I know, the whole world can't be all text – lend a depressing air of legitimacy to the whole thing. Oh, well. Maybe Microsoft will bring out a competing product.


I have to agree with the many reviewers who have said that dot.con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, by New Yorker writer John Cassidy is disappointing. It is: chock full of stock figures and stuff you've already read in books by Michael Lewis, Po Bronson, Jim Clarke, Howard Kurtz, and even me . If you think it would be useful to have all that material in a single volume as a reference, then it's fine. But it's just not a juicy, inside story of the dot-com years. If you want that, rent or buy the DVD of Startup.com , which is terrific – kind of like Survivor without the pointlessness.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).