technology, hospitality, and plumbing…

Flash – how we got here

In General on May 10, 2010 at 22:00

Let’s go back to the end of last century, and look at how people accessed the web. Without a doubt, it was a desktop or laptop computer. However, that ignores the fact that there were many different competing browsers, and no established standards. Most famously, Microsoft and Netscape were engaged in an arms race to develop the best browser, with Internet Explorer and Navigator respectively. Each came out with new features to wow users. The downside of this was that the browsers displayed pages completely differently, and worse than that, pages written for one browser would often fail to work at all on a competing browser. JavaScript was still relatively immature, not capable of the fancy tricks that we expect from it these days. Many people turned it off due to the perceived security risk — remember that?

Enter Flash. Here was something that looked and behaved exactly the same on different platforms (Adobe having done the hard work of creating plugins for each browser, and therefore creating a level playing field for developers). Adobe cleverly got Flash plugins included in the major browsers, and before long the adoption was 90 percent plus.

At the same time, Adobe created a ‘development environment’ (the software that is used by developers to create other software) that was intuitive enough for non-technical people to use. This opened it up to the design community, who were able to use Flash’s stunning graphical capabilities to create incredible eye-candy. Clients around the world saw this thing and dictated that their Next Website Will Be Flash.

So for several years, Flash ruled the roost: “boring” (text-heavy) sites, and those doing any form of ecommerce used HTML, and high-brand, high-concept sites were built in Flash. This was fine when websites were token gestures, the kinds of things that people put up because everyone was doing it, rather than because they expected to make money from it. The average web user seemed to love Flash, the animations, the creativity they allowed. Seemed, because Flash was slow to download, and often wasn’t very user-focused, making it difficult for users to complete simple tasks on the sites. Meanwhile, ecommerce sites quietly went about making money, easier to find due to the better performance in search engines, easier to use because of their adoption of basic, familiar patterns, but not sexy.

However, soon the landscape started to change. A ‘web standards’ movement started, by irreverent web developers who knew there had to be a better way. These people had a holistic approach to web development. They were designers who could code, programmers who could design, and most importantly they ‘got’ the interactive nature of the web, they built sites that could be used, they puts the users first. No longer the preserve of classically trained graphic- and print-designers, the web finally had people who could deliver sites that the medium deserved.

These developers couldn’t a have done it without great advances in technology. Suddenly browsers were more capable. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) allowed incredible things to be done with the look and feel of HTML. JavaScript had matured, with some frameworks beginning to be distributed that allowed non-programmers to develop sites using advanced functionality and, increasingly, visual effects. An industry body laid down standards for HTML, CSS, and other important building blocks of the the web.

Attitudes of the consumers had also changed: businesses had by this stage had probably already developed a website, and were going for version 2. Learning lessons from their experience with their first website, they knew they wanted something that could easily be updated — there was always news, or new products, or updated prices, and they didn’t want to have to go to the web agency every time they needed an update. They also began to wake up to the money to be made from search engine visibility — something that Flash was poor at.

Changing client attitudes, and the emergence of the web standards movement had a fantastic effect on the internet. Great looking, easy to update sites sprang up across the web. It didn’t matter (or at least it mattered less) if you were using IE or Firefox (the phoenix from the ashes of Netscape), whether you were a Mac or PC. Sites just worked.

Web 2.0 (wow, this already seems very dated) wouldn’t have been possible without the environment that web standards created — and sites built by the man in the street, uploading blogs and creating sites using freely available tools, were a consequence of web standards.

Saying that, a lot of big brand sites, and especially luxury brands, chose Flash, betting that the experience they could create within a Flash site was truer to that of their brand itself. Sites such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Rolex all chose Flash to create an experience online that rivaled the experience offline. In the area of hospitality, high-end properties built sites in Flash to convey brand; the high-end properties’ booking engine of choice, iHotelier started life as a Flash site.

Flash’s greatest contribution to the web has been video: video before Flash was a real pain (remember Real Player fondly, anyone?). Adobe introduced codecs that allowed sites to display high quality video with high compression, meaning it was quick enough to display at a time when most people were upgrading from dial-up lines to ADSL. As the adoption of Flash was so high, every browser was in effect a web video player. This in turn allowed sites such as YouTube to flourish.

So where are we now? This issue is more important than ever, with Steve Jobs linking his thoughts on the issue from the home page of the Apple.com homepage — surely one of the most expensive billboards on the web.

The example of iHotelier is instructive. Last year it abandoned Flash for an HTML version of the booking engine, with the same look and feel as the Flash site that preceded it. HTML sites, built using web standards, video, and the latest JavaScript effects, have most of the high-brand, high touch that were formerly the domain of Flash, with all the benefits of search engine friendliness (come on, who doesn’t want to be found in Google?), rapid development, and great performance. Even video has alternatives, with MP4/h.264, and a recent report claimed that 66% of video being added to the web now is being encoded in non-Flash alternative formats.

That’s where we stand now. So what happens next? Well, that’s an interesting question…

Anthony Green – May 2010

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