Flash Media on the Web

With the advent of what appears to be a ‘media boom’ on the Internet, I think it’s time for a reminder about accessible media on the web. Where new ideas like Dovetail, Yahoo! Current, Google Current, Memocast, Videoegg, MSN Soapbox, AOL Video, and tons more.. are jumping along on the same bandwagon that has made YouTube into a huge success, we have issues that continue to arise.

The biggest issue for me with most of those companies is the format in which most require you to watch videos – that being Flash. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Flash for displaying video. In fact, I prefer flash to most media options because if used sensibly, it doesn’t require severe hacking of your Linux install to view videos. Note that I said ‘used sensibly’ — most do not. It is the job of the web developer or media person to decide the format videos play in, and to make that choice well, they need to know what versions are compatible with what operating systems. Sorry if that sounds like actual work, but research is part of the job of being a web developer. This applies to more than just Flash – you need to check what kinds of support there is for any kind of media you intend to use, you need to know whether this is something that comes supported in the base install or if they would have had to be tech-savvy enough to install it manually. It’s about understanding your user.

My first issue with Flash movies – the version of Flash player required. You absolutely need to check what versions are compatible with which operating systems. Read the specs, that is what they are there for. If you hop on over to the Flash section on the Adobe site, and dig around a bit you will find the following system requirements documents:

Now, I hope you’ll go and read those documents, but I’ll summarize here: The only Flash player version inherently available for all Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and Solaris is Flash 7.

Unfortunately, a lot of sites are not using Flash 7 player requirements to display their content. My daughter players games on NickJr and PlayhouseDisney – or she did. They started changing their content over to types not inherently supported by Linux, and now that has become an issue. (Yes, Linux has changed. If my 6 year old can use it, so can you.) A friend of mine tends to place the blame on Flash itself for this, and is boycotting them based on the fact that they aren’t releasing more system compatible versions of the player. While I agree with this in part, I place the majority of the blame on the web developers and media designers. It truly is quite simple to allow the most users to access your content – remember common denominators in mathematics? – use Flash 7 player output.

It’s simple to do. Using Flash:
File -> Publish Settings -> Flash (tab) -> Version (dropdown) -> Select Flash 7.

Now why is YouTube so successful? They have the right idea:
From their troubleshooting page (emphasis mine):

Next, check to see if your system meets these requirements for running the Video Viewer:

* Macromedia Flash Player 7.0+ plug-in
* Windows 2000 or higher with latest updates installed
* Mac OS X 10.3 or higher
* Firefox 1.1+, IE 5.0+, or Safari 1.0+
* Broadband connection with 500+ Kbps

While there are lots of new media companies on the web – if they are not implementing their ideas from the start with all users in mind, then they are missing the boat. When there is a simple solution to making your media viewing content accessible to other people – there is no excuse for not doing it.

~Nicole

5 thoughts

  1. Nicole: I suppose I can sympathize when it comes to online games and the like, but when it comes to video, Flash 7 just isn’t good enough. The difference between a Flash 7 and Flash 8 video encoded at similar bitrates is *enormous*, and if you’re looking to compete with YouTube, the first item on your to-do list has to be “make sure our stuff looks and sounds better than theirs”.

  2. Roger,

    While I’m sure there are important differences between the versions, I still think that part of the appeal of YouTube is that pretty much anyone who goes to view something on their site will be able to because of the version they use. It’s a big selling point.

    It’s the kind of issue that each developer needs to weigh for themselves – which is more important to them: quality or accessible content for all their visitors.

    Whether or not the visitors will notice the bonuses from a higher version or if it’s the sort of small differences they won’t notice but someone trained to see those differences (like a developer) definitely sees clearly. Or if it will be more damaging to their business to lose an entire section of user base because of their operating system.

    On the other hand, there is nothing stopping a developer from making an ‘enhanced’ version available to people who come to their site using a browser/platform combination that supports it – at least until Adobe has made compatible versions for all the systems people run most commonly.

    Just some thoughts – it’s still the choice of the developer. Personally, I would be much more annoyed by an alert of ‘you need to download an update to your flash plugin’. If I didn’t just close the browser window right there (which is 90% of the time for me) I’d be much more annoyed to try clicking on that link to update my plugins and find out that the one the site wants is not even available for me. So as a browser, I’d take a slightly lower quality/less features any time over the alternative of not being able to see it at all.

    Again, it’s in the hands of the developer to choose how to handle it – but it’s in the hands of the consumer to determine how they react to those choices. I firmly believe that if you cannot provide an equivalent content alternative to a visitor on your site, you shouldn’t do it.

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