July 2013 Edit: I disagree with myself from 2011. It’s never O.K. to use Flash anymore. Except maybe for video.
There’s been a lot of debate over the last year or so about ditching Flash for HTML5. It seems like every other article in the web design world is about how awesome HTML5 is. There have also been an uprise in Flash-to-HTML5 converters on the market (don’t even think about going that route). HTML5 has also become a misappropriated catchall for everything on the web besides Flash.
HTML5, like it’s predecessor HTML4, is a markup language that provides instructions to web browsers for displaying content. HTML5 contains an assortment of new “tags” or features that browsers can choose to implement. The lauded features are the video and audio tags, and also the support for vector graphics and animations. In theory, these new tags aim to supplant the need for Flash.
Here’s when it’s OK to use Flash:
Flash soars with video because of hardware acceleration and active streaming, two features the HTML5 video tag does not support natively. Hardware acceleration allows Flash to take advantage of additional computing power for smooth video playback and streaming allows for selective playback and browsing in video. Lastly, while Flash works the same cross browser; the HTML5 video tag only excels in Safari and is limited in other browsers implementations.
Brands, creative agencies and movie/television promotions use microsites to create fully immersive experiences for users. Flash is the preferred medium as most of these sites are multimedia heavy and require game-like interactivity. Lastly, due to the inherent nature of Flash as graphic drawing tool, these sites allow for “boundless” design without concern for the technical limitations of HTML5 and CSS3.
Nearly anything designed in Photoshop can be achieved in Flash; stackable vectors, knocked-out typography, and simultaneous 2D/3D support. While the HTML5 Canvas tag and SVG libraries are powerful there are many shortcomings. For instance, layering various tag content is extremely difficult in HTML5 with limited computability cross browser (notably Internet Explorer).
- Interactive Banner Ads
Though annoying for some, Flash ads subsidize the cost of “free” content on most websites. Ads must be eye-catching with animation and motion is a critical part of that. Flash is the best tool for this, and digital content publishers are guaranteed 99.6% of users on a desktop will see them.
- Desktop Applications
With Adobe Air and Flash, developers can build applications that run in operating systems (OS X, Windows 7, Ubuntu) without the need for a browser. Certain products that require heavy file transfer (like FTP) perform better outside of a browser, Flash with Air does this quickly and effectively. Lastly, with Air, developers have access to hard components (audio/video devices, drives and inputs) that would be out of reach within a HTML5 browser.
- Multimedia and Audio
Flash supports both webcam and microphone access, as well as manipulation of the two. An example of this functionality in production is a multitrack audio recorder. A user records music while simultaneously listening to the playback, which demonstrates the power of Flash’s input/output functionality.
Some criticism of Flash games is that the browser was never meant to be a gaming platform—however, there are countless successful games to emerge from world of Flash: Bejeweled, Canabalt, Farmville to name a few. Flash games also have the ability to reach an unprecedented amount of users as a result of social gaming through Facebook.
- Special UI Elements
The Grey Area: Full Flash Websites