Death and a Salesman

My dental hygienist confirmed that a lot of people of my generation have a greater negative association with dental visits than younger people. In the 1960’s, dentists didn’t have the whole pain management process down as they do today. But also when I sit down in a dentist’s chair, I’m reminded of that most heinous of capital punishment devices; the electric chair. The idea for the electric chair was in fact, invented by a dentist, Alfred P. Southwick.

The development of the chair fell partially to Harold P. Brown who, anxious to become more than a salesman of electrical devices, was hired by Thomas Edison to research the danger of electricity. Well not just any form of electricity but the form of electricity sold by the competition, Alternating Current (AC). Edison’s system used Direct Current (DC). In the 1880’s, the world of electrical energy was divided and Edison’s system was on one side, while Westinghouse’s system of AC was on the other side. If Edison could demonstrate that AC current was deadly, he could help associate this deadliness with the competition?. Besides being a prolific inventor, Edison was a master marketer.

Incidentally, Edison’s company Edison General Electric was merged with another company to form GE, which today employs over 300,000 people and is of course, one of the largest companies around. GE also bought NBC. Westinghouse, on the other hand, morphed itself into CBS. Electricity has become media.

Macromedia Adobe Flash

At my previous company, a web development shop, we had become early adopters of all things Flash. In fact many years ago, Macromedia (the makers of Flash and since acquired by Adobe) had a technology called “Generator”, which connected Flash with data sources. Later, Flash connected to databases out of the box but at the time you needed Generator to make that happen. My shop ponied-up a fairly large chunk of money to become a Macromedia partner with Flash Generator. One of the benefits of that partnership was that Macromedia sent a trainer to our shop for a couple of days. I still recall the moment the trainer showed me how to move a graphic on the screen using action script (the scripting language that underlies Flash). It’s a simple concept in Flash programming but for me, it was an enormous eye opener. From that day on, I became a Flash Fanatic.

Of course, there was no reason why we shouldn’t have recommended the technology to our clients. Some of the most memorable websites built were done completely in Flash. Balthaser was a quick-paced collage of images with a driving soundtrack. Another, Jump Tomorrow, was an incredibly awesome site for an indie movie, which you can still get on Netflix. These were sites that you would call co-workers over to your desk to see. These sites had an enormous WOW factor, and while the Flash websites are long gone, they were still some of the finest web productions I’ve seen during my career.

Even then, opponents to Flash complained that the technology wasn’t good for SEO. True, if you knew what you were doing you could easily create an alternate site in HTML. , The problem with that solution is that when it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind – and those alternate sites rarely got updated.

Flash gives sites sexiness. Done well, a simple little mouse-over can do a lovely little flip and spit out sparkle dust. Also, a complex message can sometimes be communicated very nicely with a bit of animation. {link to one of those infographics}. A Washington DC company, Second Story, has created dozens of wonderful Flash websites that I don’t think would have been nearly as interesting in straight HTML. I still think a touch of Flash can give a website an extra “ooh!” or “ah!” but there is a big difference between a “touch of flash” and a Flash interface.

I still run into all-Flash websites and I’m amazed that they are still being created. It seems to still be popular in the luxury real estate industry, where there is a strong need to communicate value. In fact, luxury goods in general seem to be the cause of a lot of all-Flash websites. [Check out]. Perhaps at those companies, it’s felt that the brand name in itself is all that’s needed.

I stopped advocating for all-Flash websites a long time ago. Earlier in Internet history, Google didn’t drive the majority of traffic to your site – it was typically driven by offline marketing. But once that switched, the case for all-Flash websites became pretty weak.

The latest nail in the coffin is Steve Jobs.

For some reason, Apple has declined to allow Flash to function on iPhones or iPads. Apple CEO Steve Jobs wrote an open letter in April 2010 stating that Flash, “is a relic and not the future”. And of course, Apple’s iPhone and iPad are getting to be pretty widely used. The good news is that if you want your site to have that wow-factor, there are other animation methods available. The bad news is that for anything really interactive, those solutions just don’t match Flash. As Flash developed, it went from being a mere animation plugin to being an interface system that supported data sources and sophisticated programming logic. THAT’s the type of Flash I’m going to miss in the iPad/iPhone devices.

The lesson for website owners is that if you don’t require it, don’t use it. If you DO need it, will an alternative work? And if you REALLY need it in an advanced way, make sure the development team is provided with requirements that specify alternatives for browsers that don’t support flash.

Choosing Sides

If you bought Beta instead of VHS, you know the pain. In technology we don’t always know what the winning technology is going to be. We have the same problem with content management systems and programming languages. Businesses often have to cast their lot with what they think is going to be enduring-and often end up finding that their company infrastructure has been built on technology that only a few retired programmers know anything about.

I think that one problem with this conundrum is the expectation that technology SHOULD provide enduring value. We come from a world where our equipment would last for years, if not decades. I propose that websites, programming projects, etc. should all be considered as having a life span of no more than 3 years (do you hear that, IRS?). And that you should be sure to extract the value you require in that time. Maybe you will get value past that time – but to expect it is not reasonable. When we choose a technology, we don’t really know if we’ll be choosing Edison or Westinghouse.

Whaddya Think?

Can the case be made for Flash? For dentists? Special tip-of-the-hat to SEO and Marketeer, Andrew Kolyvas,  Russell Dean Roering,  Stephen J. Caggiano, and some of the other Twitter instigators, friends and gadflies.