Neil's News

Flashy Lies

17 July 2004

Flash is a really good vector-based file format that allows one to produce interactive graphics on the web. I've used Flash once or twice for personal projects and many, many, many, many times at work.

It's commonly accepted that most people can see Flash. The source of this myth is, of course, Macromedia. They make a big deal out of a survey that says that Macromedia Flash content reaches 98% of Internet viewers. Web designers are aware of this figure and have repeatedly argued that because of this near-universal coverage, there's no need to create a time-consuming alternative for the 2% who don't have Flash.

I began to suspect that Macromedia's figures were cooked when I noticed that not a single client I've visited had Flash installed on his or her computer. Only one public Internet kiosk I've used has had it. Sure, web developers like myself have it, but we're not exactly a large portion of the population. Since all the 'information' I found on the web simply parroted Macromedia's figures, I conducted my own survey.

Statistics gathered from the Digital Routes server shows that Flash content is only served between 21% and 59% of the time (varying from site to site). The weighted average across all our Flash-enabled sites is 40%. Data was gathered between 1 Jan 2004 and 1 July 2004. Robots (including search engine spiders -- probably the most important visitors) were removed from the data. The sites in question are primarily aimed at the tourism market.

The next question is how did Macromedia get the 98% figure? Part of the answer is that although they claim "Macromedia Flash content reaches 98% of Internet viewers", the actual survey from NDP Research found that "98.0% of Web users can experience Macromedia Flash content without having to download and install a player". That's a huge difference. What NDP looked at wasn't what percentage of users see Flash, it looked at what percentage of users had the Flash player sitting somewhere on their operating system's installation CD (i.e. no download). Sure enough, when I check my clients' computers, the Flash player is indeed there, waiting to be activated. Macromedia gloss over the fact that they're measuring those who can see Flash (98%) rather than those who do see Flash (40%). It would be interesting to find out who paid NDP to run this survey.

Conclusion: Most people don't see Flash. If one does use Flash, one has to make absolutely certain that the 60% of people who don't see Flash (as well as the search engines) can still use the site.

Update: p2pnet have picked up this story and are running it (along with an official response from Macromedia) on their site.

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