AJAX or Flash? Where is the Line?

January 3rd, 2006 | by Mike |

I just completed a complete redesign of a site for my company and part of it was to create a web application that allows the user to play with a myriad of options and configure the product how the want it all while giving them a preview of their progress and a continually updated pricing list. They had something like this on their current site, but it was old, and clunky perl CGI with lots of refreshing and rebuilding after every change the user made, so I opted to go with an AJAX approach. After many changes and feature tweaking and adding, I found myself staring at a small-ish group of PHP files and one very large file of javascript. Its finished now, and seems to work well, but as I look back on this aspect of the site that seemed to be growing every day, I wonder: I should have done it in flash?

AJAX has been a great tool for the modern web designer and it has allowed the creation of even more dynamic web applications with relative ease, but at what point of complication do you drop AJAX and move to a more cohesive tool like Flash? One of the first things I heard when AJAX became vouge was the flash people screaming: “We could already do this!” and its true. Flash has always been the go-to platform for web apps of the more complicated nature, but now AJAX has cut Flash off at the knees with its ability to do things like Google Maps without having your users download the latest Flash upgrade and wait to download the app. So when does an app cross the line from being “Perfect for AJAX” to being “Wow, that sounds like a Flash app.”? Or does it have to? Is 700 lines of javascript to get an app working with AJAX still better than having to go pick up a copy of Flash MX? What about 1000 lines? 2000? If you drop that much time and effort into a cool AJAX app, are your worried about how easy it is to get a copy of the code with just a right-click?

I think it depends on many things: Your familarity with Flash (ActionScript) or AJAX (PHP/ Ruby/Perl…, CSS, XML, and JavaScript) and your time. Play to your strengths so to say. The obvious answer, I know, but I also think that AJAX, in its present form, can only take you so far. That might not be the case in a few years, but currently, for a complated app, like the one on SpreadShirt Flash seems like the best option. Couple that with the on-going issues with standards compatibility on the world’s most popular browser: Internet Explorer, and if you are going for a complicated web app targeted to everyone, Flash seems like the clear choice. For everything below those tough standards, things like Backpack, Google Maps and Yahoo! Mail (in beta), AJAX seems to be working fine. Hopefully in the future, they will become competing methods where a developer can use one or the other at anytime, like PHP and ASP. For now, it looks as though one must be able to learn both and adapt to the project at hand.

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