Using progressive enhancement with Flash

There’s a fantastic article on Adobe’s devnet site that Bobby wrote (he’s the guy who wrote SWFObject’s biggest competition, UFO*). All about progressive enhancement with Flash. It includes helping your Flash content get picked up by search engines, supporting people without the Flash player, and a ton of other good info. Go have a read.

* But hey, it’s not really a competition, use whatever works best for you.

On embedding Flash content using Web Standards (yes, again)

Lately there’s been a bit of buzz around embedding plugins while adhering to Web Standards™. First this ALA article came out and said “bye bye embed”, then yesterday one of the WaSP nerds posted something about “Valid Flash, video and audio embed (object) markup”.

It’s understandable to want to try and force browsers to display your plugin content in a way that adheres to “Web Standards”. It’s a very popular subject, and it’s been covered a few times before. These two recent articles don’t uncover anything new, other than bringing to light (via the comments on them) that Javascript is the only viable method of embedding Flash (and other plugin based) content on the web today.

Now I’m going to say something here that might seem a little controversial, but I really want to get the point across, so I’m going to use some ‘shock and awe’ tactics:

Using only the object tag to embed your plugin content (especially Flash content) is fucking stupid.

There. I said it.

You may say that I’m a bit biased because I wrote some fancy pants Javascript Flash embed script. Maybe I have a hidden agenda of world domination based on plugin detection. So while I no doubt would like to dominate the world, let me say that my reasons for advocating the use of Javascript are much more mundane.

This post was originally going to be titled “Flash Satay considered harmful,” and since the main topic are these “Web Standards” compliant ways of only using the object tag to embed plugin content, I’ll focus on the issues with doing so:

  • “Click to activate” in IE. The only way to get around this is to use Javacript.
  • No plugin detection. While Ben says ‘meh’ to this, it’s a very important aspect of the user experience. If I have Flash Player 6 installed, and I visit a site that uses Flash 9 content, my player will go ahead and try to play that swf anyway. I could end up seeing half of the content, or broken content, or who knows what. Do you really want to show your users broken content?
  • Issues in older Safari versions: Safari pre 1.2 will completely ignore param tags, which are often used to pass information to the plugin. This means broken content for your users.
  • Support for the object tag varies widely from browser to browser. Do you think that just because you work around all the quirks in the 3 main browsers today, it will still work when the next new browser is released?
  • A bug in Flash Player 9 can cause the browser to crash if you have more than one swf on the page and are using ExternalInterface to communicate with Javacsript. While this isn’t specifically related to how the swf is embedded, SWFObject does include a fix for this issue.
  • Using Flash Satay or other ‘object only’ methods will not stream your Flash movies to the user – this means extra work for you in creating a ‘loader’ swf
  • JAWS will ignore it.

It’s a pretty long list, right? Now if you compare that to the user experience when using SWFObject (or other Javascript based techniques), you can see a noticable difference:

  • The only time a user doesn’t see Flash is if they have Javascript turned off, or they don’t have the required version of the Flash Plugin. This one is a two parter: One, do you think that people really turn off Javascript but leave Flash on? Consider the type of person who turns Javascript off. They are probably the über nerd user who considers anything that isn’t text to be completely evil. They browse the web using Lynx. They probably stay a mile away from the Flash Plugin anyway. The beauty of the way SWFObject works is that even these people get content if you set it up right. Since you put alternate content ‘under’ your swf, they will just see the alternate content. As long as you set it up right (you do, don’t you?) they may never even know they are missing out on Flash content.
  • They don’t have to click your movie once to ‘activate’ it
  • Their browser doesn’t crash just because you had two swfs on the same page that use ExternalInterface
  • They only see Flash content if their browser and plugin support it.

Taking all of the above into account, the choice is very clear: Javascript wins hands down. Any questions?

Now that all of that is taken care of, I wanted to address a couple of things:

First, these types of posts are not good for the Web Standards community. Basically what’s happening is highly visible people (even if they aren’t that well known, they still carry the WaSP name, or have articles on well respected online publications like A List Apart) are posting information that is bad for your users. Even worse is that they are doing it in the name of “Web Standards” and not taking into consideration any of the other options outside of pure HTML. This is extremely bad for the Web Standards movement. It makes the standards advocates look like crazed zealots who don’t care about user experience, but only care about adhering to the written rules exactly how they are stated even if it hurts them.

Second, you may be saying “well, if I can’t use the object tag, then what good is it?” and that is a FANTASTIC question. What good is it? Beats me, because the object tag is completely and utterly broken in nearly every web browser out there. Want to do something about it? Maybe you could join WaSP and create a task force to fix how browsers handle plugins?

UPDATE: I added this as a comment below, but wanted to put it in the main post as well: I want to say that as for Flash Satay: It was fantasic for the people who use(d) it, and in it’s time it was great. But now that certain big issues with it have been discovered, and Flash has changed over time, it’s time for it to retire. This is something I’ve been meaning to mention for a while, and it was sort of implied on the SWFObject page. So, since we are on the subject, it’s time to give it up.

UPDATE (8-17-2006): Ben has posted a follow up.

Where is the Web Browser Plug-in Task Force?

Let’s face it, using plug-ins in your website is a pain in the ass. Most of the documentation provided by plug-in makers is either grossly outdated or non-existent, and when you do find useful information, one plug-in maker might have you use one method, and another has a completely different set of rules.

HTML has had proper support for plug-ins for a long time: the object tag, which is flexible enough to handle pretty much anything you can throw at it. But because of the [wrong] way many browsers interpret this information, many plug-in vendors still require (or at least suggest) the use of the embed tag either along with or instead of the object tag. Why is this? It’s 2006! Lets put some pressure on these companies to make things easier for us as developers. Why can’t I layer HTML over my Flash content or my Quicktime content? Why does Internet Explorer make me use this crazy classid attribute when specifying a mime type should suffice?

It’s time to clean up the world of browser plug-ins. It’s not enough to just sit back and say plug-ins suck, or that the very nature of them doesn’t fit into the ‘Web Standards philosophy.’ Whether you like it or not, they are here to stay. Standardizing them won’t be easy (If things like this were easy, the Web Standards Project wouldn’t exist), and it will probably take years to do, but it’s something that really needs to be done.