Flash And JavaScript : On Again, Off Again


POSTED ON SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2011 AT 4:13 PM

I hate Flash! Actually, that's a play on words — we don't hate Flash at all. But we're still hearing this comment quite frequently in our conversations with people about web design lately. We remember exactly how it all began back in our Macintosh computer business days. Not everyone had a high-speed Internet connection up here in North Vancouver in the late nineties. In fact, for quite some time, you couldn't even get ADSL in certain areas of the city thanks to a mile-long waiting list, calls to customer service which resulted in two-hour hold times (excluding those "accidental" disconnects — click — oops, sorry!) plus the fact that you couldn't live any more than about 5,000 feet away from the telephone company's nearest central office*. Not all of the central offices were equipped with ADSL ports at the time (the other high-speed alternative, cable Internet, hadn't been rolled out yet in our neck of the woods).

Those were the days. No matter where you went on the Internet after Flash was introduced in 1996, the words "skip intro" graced the home page of almost every website on planet earth. As Macintosh computer technicians, people would actually ask us if we would "kindly remove Flash Player" from their computers! With slow, 56K dial-up Internet connections and all sorts of problems with early versions of the Flash plug-in crashing Netscape (and the computer it was running on) so frequently, we didn't have much choice but to respect our client's wishes. The very first ADSL service here in Vancouver didn't help either. It was nothing short of a nightmare (it wasn't until cable Internet finally arrived that the telephone company began to smarten up although those annoying automated attendants still have us wondering). Nevertheless, things have certainly changed since then.

Last weekend, just for the heck of it, we decided to disable the Flash plug-in on one of our computers and to make things even more interesting, we also decided to disable JavaScript. We tried surfing the Internet for an afternoon of Flash-free and script-free browsing (hey kids, let's have ourselves some real fun!). We couldn't make it past the first hour. Go ahead and give it a try yourself. Very few of the websites we frequent on a daily basis worked properly. No doubt, many of you will ask — "now why on earth would anyone want to disable Flash and JavaScript in the first place?" Well — some people actually do, in fact, end up disabling both. Sometimes, they disable JavaScript for security reasons. And sometimes, they disable Flash in an attempt to avoid the lengthy load-times ("Loading... 10%, 20%, 30%...") aside from the plain old annoyance of some of the animations themselves depending upon which websites they visit. You can actually download Flash blockers for your browser now (some of the more popular "ad blockers" can also block animations on the fly).

Interestingly, after the introduction of Apple's newly revamped MacBook Air in October of 2010 (the first Mac in well over 10 years to ship sans Flash), every brand new Mac sold from that point onward no longer includes a pre-installed copy of Flash. Apple was quoted as saying that "the best way for users to have the most secure and up-to-date version of Flash is to download it directly from the developer". Perhaps there was a little more to it but our PC colleagues tell us that Windows doesn't ship with Flash either.

Although most of the websites we build here at MW Web Design focus primarily on simplicity and ease of use, we do use Flash and DHTML (or DOM Scripting) from time to time depending upon the client's needs. Adding all of the "bells and whistles" to your website using the latest Flash animation and dynamic scripting technologies can be a wonderful idea. But — what happens to your website the moment a visitor decides to disable their Flash plug-in? What happens to your website when JavaScript is disabled in a visitor's browser?

During our afternoon "experiment", dozens and dozens of the websites we visited wouldn't display properly. Some of them wouldn't work at all. We were unable to navigate a number of websites because so much of the navigation relied upon scripting. Many websites had completely blank spaces where something was supposed to have appeared. Contact forms refused to work. And other websites which used dynamic scripts for motion and interactivity displayed a series of vertical images which overlapped the textual content and boundaries of the pages (some displayed absolutely nothing at all in certain areas of the pages due to the types of scripts used and because no "Plan B" was put into place to handle a scriptless browser). Very few websites displayed a "JavaScript required" message — most of them just automatically assumed that JavaScript was enabled.

By disabling Flash, a lot of the functionality (and content) of many websites went missing. Naturally, many videos and presentations were dead in the water. Areas which contained animated banners and logos were missing. Vertical and horizontal Flash-based navigation elements didn't work. And of course, websites which were completely Flash-based didn't work — period. On some websites, we saw the "Missing Plug-In" prompt and on other websites which took our Flash plug-in installation for granted, we saw solid-colored backgrounds with nothing inside of them whatsoever (depending upon the particular browser we were using as well as the method used to embed Flash content in the webpages).

Always be sure to test your website with Flash and JavaScript disabled first before uploading your website to the Internet. Since some of your visitors may disable JavaScript for security reasons and others may disable Flash for their own personal reasons, can we assume that everyone who visits your website will always have Flash and JavaScript enabled in their browser? In a perfect world, yes. In the real world, no.

In many cases, with a little bit of extra care and planning, you can implement workarounds on your website for visitors who may have JavaScript disabled simply by using the noscript tag:

 <noscript>display alternate content here</noscript> 

A little tip here: rather than placing actual text inside of the above tag which reads something like "JavaScript is required to view this page", you may wish to use an image instead of text. Why? Because search engines may sometimes index alternate content (text), causing the text to appear in a search engine result description (ie: when a meta description tag is either missing or not descriptive enough and especially when the text is located at the very top of your page). Workarounds can also be implemented for missing Flash plug-ins depending upon how you choose to embed Flash content in your webpages. If you do a bit of searching around on the Internet, you'll find a number of solutions.

In closing, MW Web Design recommends that for an optimal Internet experience, you shouldn't disable Flash or JavaScript in your browser unless it is absolutely necessary. For those of you who do prefer to surf the net "naked", let's hope that more and more of the websites you visit will utilize workarounds in order to provide a better, overall web experience. And just to reiterate, we do like Flash (and JavaScript) here. Honest!

* Note that most telephone companies now limit ADSL lines to a maximum of 15,000 feet away from the central office (that's just under three miles). There are many more central offices equipped with ADSL ports today than there were back in the nineties — ADSL Repeaters have also helped to extend distance limitations.

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