Flash & Your Website – What You Need To Know!
Looking back a few years before the advent of the iPhone many hotel websites thought that Flash was a fairly safe choice for using to create attractive looking key content – and to the most part they were right. Issues with Flash (where search engines were unable to access content) weren’t such a huge deal as Flash tended to be used for visuals rather than text content, Flash accessibility was advancing, Google Analytics and other stats packages started supporting Flash and most computers had an up to date version of Flash in their browsers. Everything seemed rosy and many developers and SEO companies were beginning to relax their fears about Flash.
Now? Things have changed.
The most popular mobile browsing device Apple’s iPhone (and the iPod Touch) doesn’t support Flash. Nor will the new iPad, Apple’s touch-screen tablet computer which will hit the shelves in March. Although it seems like this is taking a step back in time there is a very good reason why Flash isn’t on Apple’s mobile version of the Safari browser – money.
Developers design applications and submit them to Apple to be vetted. If the content of the application is approved it will be sold in Apple’s App Store. Apple takes a percentage of the money made from the sale of every paid application (without actually having done any work towards the development of the applications). Having Flash on the iPhone/iPad would mean that developers could skip the App store (and Apple’s billion dollar revenue stream) entirely and sell applications directly from their site, coded in Flash. (Developers could do this by developing a Flash based application and storing application on their own site. By choosing to only allow registered/paying users to access it the developer would get 100% of the cost and the application could contain content that had not been approved by Apple).
So despite many pundits claiming that Apple will eventually bow to pressure and implement Flash onto the iPhone this would be a very expensive decision to make (and it’s a decision that they have very consciously not taken in the 3 years since the iPhone was first released, despite the fact that the technological challenge of putting Flash on the iPhone wouldn’t actually be too hard to beat).
Flash on the iPhone probably isn’t coming any time soon and if the iPad takes off then things might be about to get even worse. If key elements of the design of your website rely on Flash then many of your users will be seeing just a blank screen.
It’s unfortunate but the types of key content that many sites have chosen to implement in Flash are the bits that are most important either visually or technically – the pretty slideshows on homepages, the animation on the header of every page, the photo gallery, the booking engine and even, in the worse case, the whole site. If you are heavily reliant on Flash then the little blue box will be a user’s first – and, in some cases, only – impression of your website and brand. There are plenty of sites, including some that have been developed very recently, where instead of images a user will be presented with a big white space and a few small blue blobs – not a brilliant first impression. If you use a Flash based booking engine then that little blue box is all that the user will get when they should be booking your hotel. But you don’t need to worry right? Other sites will be affected too, won’t they?
There are two ways to look at this: the “If it’s affecting sites like Google Finance, CNN and the New York Times then it’s Apple’s problem and not mine” and then there’s the right way to think about it, “It’s my problem, I don’t want to be left behind!”. For every user that you aren’t catering for there are plenty of other sites out there that already have iPhone/iPad friendly sites. Developers that previously favoured Flash are now moving in a couple of different directions, either towards Apple’s app environment or towards the open standards of HTML 5. iPhone sales are increasing, iPad sales are just about to kick off and mobile browsing growing at a huge rate as technology is adopted (according to Morgan Stanley the number of pageviews made from mobile devices has gone from around 2 million in Q3 of 2006 to 12 million in Q3 2009 – taken from The Economist, January 30th 2010).
So what can you do? The first step is to test your site on an iPhone and see what happens. If there’s a problem you need to see if you can offer an alternative. You don’t need to go down the (expensive) path of developing a dedicated iPhone app, in the very least you could add a background image behind any Flash animations. Users no longer expect your website to look the same on all of the different browsers that they use but they do expect it to work on all of the different platforms.
If you have a Flash based booking engine then you should try to see if your booking engine developers can give your users an alternative, perhaps a more basic HTML version of the booking engine. This can take some time so we recommend adding a highly visible phone number on your website (so that users can call you to make a booking). The thing to take away is that even if the alternative to Flash doesn’t look as shiny as the Flash version it’s still much better than losing a sale to your competition.