A flash of anti-genius

Just this week, I saw two emails that painfully illustrate what is maybe the single worst thing about the way Flash is used on many web sites: the lack of addressability.

The first email was a request for help about finding a specific view on a Flash-based app (one that, I must shamefully admit, was created by Oracle). The answer came quickly, in the form of a screen capture of the Flash app with the multi-level menu open and pointed at the menu entry that produces the requested view. Does anything with this strike you as wrong?

If not, look at the email that arrived the following day. A fellow Oracle employee wanted to advertise for rent an apartment he owns in the new One Rincon Hill tower in San Francisco. In order to provide a link to the floor plan, here is what he had to put in the email:

Plan 5 – see http://www.onerinconhill.com (Lower right “Skip intro”, then follow the link on Residences and Views -> Condominiums -> Tower One -> 1 Bedroom -> Unit 05)

No need to comment on the “skip intro” part. We all know how stupid these “intros” are. BTW, it would be nice if you didn’t have to download the entire Flash file before clicking on “skip”. But this is a “no Flash, no service” site. There is no alternative. Ironic for a tower in which 95% of occupants own an iPhone (the remaining 5% are  Android-wielding Google employees, also Flash-challenged).

Even more ironic is that fact that Flash is used on this site to navigate menus (usefulness: zero) and when you get to the floor map it’s a plain static image. Even though that’s the place where you could provide innovative features in Flash (like having a list of typical furniture items that people can drag and drop to see how to use the space).

You could say, NRA-style, “Flash apps don’t screw up web sites, bad Flash designers screw up web sites”. Sure. It’s not Flash per se, it’s the way it’s used. There is a good case to be made for small areas of web pages being delivered through Flash for increased interactivity (rather than having Flash become a navigation mechanism). But just like with the gun, when you are on the receiving end the difference seems pretty academic.

In a blog entry three and a half years ago (an entry which, in retrospect, is a strong contender for “most obscure, pretentious title”), I recalled hearing Tim Berners-Lee explain in 1999 on the radio how he came up with the idea of a URL: before the Web, people would create small files that describe where to find information in a human-readable way. TBL wrapped this in a consistent format, the URL.

And now, more than 15 years after TBL’s invention, Flash-drunk nitwits are recreating the problem he solved and forcing people to again “create small files that describe where to find information in a human-readable way”. When WS-Addressing decided to deprecate URLs, they at least provided a replacement (the EPR). What is the Flash equivalent going to be? Who wants to write the DARC (Distributable Addressing for Rich Clients) specification?

[UPDATED 2008/10/3: Someone pointed me at the “solution” for this problem: SWFAddress. Looks interesting. Except that this is an extra step that the Flash developer needs to know about and implement. If your Flash developer has that state of mind and level of competency, you’ve already solved 95% of the problem. For starters, s/he won’t create your whole site as a Flash movie, s/he will just use Flash judiciously on the site. I don’t see how SWFAddress is going to help with the throusands of mostly clueless Flash developers who keep banging out Flash-only sites. If you really want a technology solution to the general problem, it would probably require something like a click tracker that generates a trail of crumbs and packages it in a URL. But I don’t think the solution here is a technology solution. It’s more a “get a clue” solution. After all, almost no web site has an empty, pretty-looking, entry page anymore (except Flash sites of course), even though those were pretty common at a time.]


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