Making the Best of Video Using Flash

Including any form of multimedia within a website has an ugly history behind it. Browser inconsistencies, required third party plugins, and the need for a proper codec made including multimedia a true problem. Even worse, it made it very difficult for any potential readers to successfully view your media. By far the most difficult piece of multimedia to effectively include in any document would be video.

The disaster that was

Back in the days of media player badges and codec requirement notification paragraphs, it would take a large effort from your reader to successfully view any piece of video you wanted to share. They had to have the proper credentials to view the clip or else they would be faced with various ‘missing plugin’ notifications either from their media player or browser. With any luck a reader would be provided with instructions on how to obtain the proper software in order to play the file, and after installing the new software, they could hit your page and try again. In my personal experience, that process left much to be desired, including repeated browser crashes and general failure of properly viewing the video.

What’s interesting is how determined people are in their stance behind getting video on their webpages. Time after time, new techniques were thought up to try and improve the state of video on the Web. More often than not, the new methods were just as bad as the previous, until one method came along that would rule them all. A method which uses technology the majority of your readers would have anyways.

The rise of Flash video

Flash LogoFlash video (FLV) has been available since Flash version 6, but until fairly recently it was ignored in a way. The evolution of certain video based websites really pushed the use of Flash video into the mainstream at a rapid rate. Through these huge Flash video based websites, the ability to make Flash based video was easier than ever for anybody to do. Not only was it easy to create, it was easy to do what you wanted with it. Including the pieces of video just about anywhere was now arguably simple for someone to do. Viewing the video was also quite nice — the ability to fast forward, rewind, pause, adjust the volume, and perhaps most importantly: stream, were all present and it seemed to ‘just work’ (unlike many previously accepted techniques).

Beyond the convenience of actually using FLV, designers have the ability to customize the player in which their video is played. Unlike using one of the various media players which inherit their native interface, a FLV player can be designed to really mesh well with the project you’re working on.

So why is Flash video so great?

The true benefit to Flash video, in my opinion, is the ability for Web developers to provide effective alternate content for the content. Flash video has its own accessibility benefits, including the ability to provide subtitles and captions for the video. Not only that, a developer could use unobtrusive Flash detection via JavaScript to see if the reader has the proper version of Flash. If they don’t, links to download the content in other video formats could be included. Personally, I think we can do better than:

This site uses Flash 8. You need to upgrade your player to view this content.

“Alternate content” such as that puts us back at square one — you may as well have a WMP badge linking to a download page. Links to download the video in other [popular] formats would work better here, in my opinion. Beyond that, different alternate content could be provided entirely. Instead of providing download links, equivalent text could be provided, outlining the dialog of the video if necessary.

In defense of the strictly based video sharing sites, a message similar to that used above may be acceptable; after all, the sole purpose of the site is to display a piece of video. Much of my opinion surrounding alternate content for video is when it is included as a piece of information to be absorbed by readers.

In summary of Flash video

While I personally feel that Flash is sometimes overused just to say it’s there, I think for video, FLV is by far the best solution. I think that we’re at a point where Flash can be included within a document in such a way where it is not obtrusive to anybody. While some may argue that you are neglecting the population that chooses to browse the Web while having JavaScript disabled, my argument is that through the production of effective alternate content, it shouldn’t be a problem. Your reader should be provided with equivalent content, and theoretically not even know they missed out on a Flash based video.

All in all, I believe using FLV in combination with unobtrusive Flash detection to include video is currently the best solution. The benefits to design are secondary to the ability developers are given to provide effective alternate content. The most difficult genre of multimedia to provide alternate content for would have to be video; animated visuals in sync with audio does not convert to something text based very easily. The development of FLV and functional Flash detection techniques are a step forward.