Flash Design

February 8, 2010

Lately, people have been complaining and arguing about the absence of Flash on iPad. I’m wondering about a different problem.

The situation seems to be that people are upset that Flash isn’t available on iPad to take advantage of all of the Flash content on the web: sites, games, videos, etc. As this definitely is an unfortunate circumstance, I don’t think it’s entirely Adobe’s fault. (Yes, Flash performance is still a factor.) The biggest concern I have is the people designing Flash content.

Take websites that are fully fleshed out in Flash. A lot of these websites require hovering a cursor over menus. In a lot of cases, clicking the menu item takes you to a certain page and hovering over it reveals a submenu. This presents a huge problem to the interaction on a touch-screen device like iPad. If I wanted to go to a link on the submenu, how can I hover over one of these menu items to reveal the submenu? I can’t. I can’t tap on the item either, because that’ll take me to a different page. You can begin to see the larger problem.

Sure, sites made entirely with Flash may be a small part of the web, mostly for say… upcoming movie websites. What you really want is to play games, right? But how many of those current Flash games that you want to play require you to use a keyboard for controls? You need the left, right, up and down keys for some games. Spacebar to jump maybe. Sometimes you might need a variety of keys. Each game behaves differently.

Three years ago when introducing iPhone, Steve Jobs said a similar thing when describing the problem with other mobile devices: “Every application wants a slightly different user interface, a slightly optimized set of buttons, just for it.”

You can’t predict what buttons a Flash game might need, and even if you could, how do you want to display only those buttons? Surely you don’t want the full keyboard blocking your view. The idea with iPhone and iPad is that you should view as much content on the screen as possible. It is this reason that iPhone games today do not use a keyboard for controls, they have their own controls, whether it be a virtual joystick, buttons, or the accelerometer.

Regarding Flash videos on the web, there are similar problems here as well. Take Hulu for example. I’m sure a lot of people (in the United States) would love to watch these TV shows on their iPad. Putting Apple’s iTunes business aside, I see the same interaction problem here. When watching a video on Hulu, after a few seconds, the playback controls fade away to give you the best experience of watching. How do you get the controls back? Simple! Move your cursor back over the video, and they appear. Not so easy on a tablet without a cursor. Sure, you say that you could just tap the video, right? Wrong. On Hulu, tapping on the video itself pauses the video. If on iPad, to bring up the controls to scrub or view in HD, you’d have to pause the video first. That sounds like a broken interface right there.

When Apple designed the iPhone interface, they recognized the fundamental difference between using a keyboard and mouse to using only your finger for input. Apple built their own media controls for audio and video on iPhone. Tapping on a video on iPhone brings up the playback controls.

I don’t think the problem here is Adobe. Even if Flash kinda sucks, it does represent a large chunk of unique content on the web. Unfortunately, the real problem is that when people designed Flash content on the web, they assumed that people would only be accessing that content with a mouse and keyboard. They built their games, websites, and videos assuming people could do things like hover their cursor with a mouse and tap a key on the keyboard.

And while people can attempt to come up with potential solutions like a cursor that you drag around and double tap to click, this would be cumbersome for most other things. Building a device to conform to old standards makes it more difficult to do things in entirely new ways. Sometimes we have to let go of the way things used to be in order to make new things.

If Apple did have a Flash plugin for Safari on iPad, all of the websites, games, and videos that wouldn’t work correctly… the problem would likely fall on Apple, even though it isn’t their problem. They would—no doubt—get tons of support calls and emails from people complaining, wondering why they can’t do these things.

Flash doesn’t necessarily have to die here and now, but content creators should rethink the way that they are creating for the web. It’s been three years since the launch of iPhone, and an ever-increasing number of people are browsing with Safari on their iPhones. If you have Flash content on the web, consider those people who can’t view your website, play your game, or watch your videos. Start building your websites without the assumption that people have a mouse and keyboard, because in a few years, we might not.