It’s time to retire your website’s Flash content

Adobe’s Flash platform has been responsible for presenting dynamic web content since 1996 (released via now-defunct software company, Macromedia, who were acquired by Adobe in 2005). Today, Adobe Flash is used to present video, animation, websites and web elements, and within games development either as stand-alone games or within software ‘wrappers’ presented inside mobile device apps. Many people view Adobe Flash as something of a revolution because of the way it opened up video and animation delivery, and made the web a “brighter, more fun place to be”.

For webmasters, Flash was a revolution because static web banners and other non-animated content could “become alive” and interactive; engaging customers had never been so rewarding. Everything from video to games, to interactive banners and entire websites built with Flash, the platform’s penetration is massive.

Perhaps the most high profile adoption of Flash is that of YouTube, presenting their video content via a web browser’s Adobe Flash Player plug-in. Since the late 90s, having a Flash plug-in has been a requirement for most web users but recent popular browser versions include the plug-in as standard, such is the demand for viewing Flash content online.

But in 2010 all that changed.

In April of that year Apple released its iPad to the world, selling 1 million of the devices in the first month of release in the US, and 3 million within 80 days. In less than 12 months of that initial release, Apple had sold a staggering 15 million iPads worldwide. As of the final quarter of 2012, Apple reported sales of 97.95 million iPads in 97 countries, giving Apple close to 70% market share of global tablet sales.

Flash content doesn’t display on iOS devices The relevance of Adobe Flash and iPads (as well as all other iOS-powered devices such as iPhones and iPods) is the well-known fact that users who own these devices are unable to view Flash content natively (3rd party solutions are available but most are reported as unreliable).

For entire Flash-driven websites this could have disastrous effects on the site’s sales/conversions, and even sites using small elements of Flash such as interactive content, web banners and the like, also render as invisible to anyone visiting via an iOS device. Instead of seeing an important piece of information, a call to action, or a costly or important piece of video, Apple’s iOS users are presented with a grey box and a message stating that Flash content can not be viewed.

Now of course there are millions of tablet devices that run alternative mobile operating systems to that of the iPad’s iOS such as Google’s Android, which has a reported share of around 50% of the world’s mobile device market. But although there may be plenty of mobile device users who can view Flash content via Android, there is still a staggering volume of iOS users who can’t.

It’s worth noting that one article suggests that in 2012, 91% of web traffic generated by tablets originated from iPads. If this is true, websites featuring Flash content are either being abandoned by iPad users completely, or key messages are going undelivered. Either way, this is bad news for Flash-content websites.

However, Adobe show no signs of slowing their Flash support; if anything, it’s increasing. My take is that Adobe is betting on Microsoft’s recent Windows 8 release making significant inroads to the mobile market but early reports suggest that sales of Windows 8 haven’t been encouraging.

And before we berate Apple for making the decision not to support Flash on their iOS enabled devices in the first place, this open letter written in 2010 by late Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, makes for enlightened reading. I suggest you read it. In his letter, Jobs explains in great detail the reasons why Apple took the path they did, and to be frank, it’s difficult to not see Apple’s reasoning. Jobs’ argument that the decision was based on issues such as mobile device battery life (caused due to processing power required to decode Flash for browser display), the letter’s many arguments especially appear sound when Jobs discusses the virtues of HTML5.

Consider whether a Flash-content exit strategy is relevant to your website As a consultant, my advice to business owners using Flash on their websites is to consider a Flash content replacement strategy, preempted by a study of their user’s browsing habits and operating systems (information easily obtained via Google Analytics). But unless you’re a media or entertainment company that simply must have intricate animation on your website, you shouldn’t ignore the significant volume of iOS users who can’t natively view your content.

More to the point, though, is the fact that HTML5, as Jobs points out in his letter, is perfectly capable of delivering rich, dynamic content, as this music artist’s website clearly demonstrates. Not only is HTML5 a powerful method of delivery, it virtually guarantees that Flash content re-built for HTML5 is unlikely to become outdated anytime soon, certainly unlikely within the next 2-3 years, by which time HTML5 will have evolved, not folded. I know where my bets will be placed.

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