Why we still support Flash in 2015

8th April, 2015

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Edit: Following Microsoft’s decision to drop support for IE7 & IE8 in early 2016, we decided to depreciate the KeyLines Flash component. KeyLines v3.1 will be the last to include a Flash renderer for IE7 & IE8 support. Additionally, KeyLines v4.0 will be the last to support IE9 & IE10.

This will allow us to invest more time and energy in our HTML5 Canvas and WebGL renderers – providing users with a faster, more secure experience.

Veterans of the Internet will remember the great Flash v HTML divide of the early 2000s.

It seemed that webmasters (as they were then called) were split into two tribes: half built websites in lifeless HTML, the others worked on slightly absurd creations powered by Flash and too many sugary drinks.

Of course in 2015, the Internet is a very different place.

HTML has evolved into HTML5 – W3C’s recommended standard. In combination with CSS and JavaScript, you can do pretty much anything you could want to do in a browser, plug-in free. Users now expect web applications to ‘just work’ without the need to install anything, and they view with suspicion anything featuring a Flash animated introduction.

HTML5 v Flash for data visualization

KeyLines is a software development kit for building network visualization web applications. To render the data being visualized we use HTML5 Canvas.

Different techniques have come and gone over the years, but HTML5 Canvas looks set to stick around. It’s well supported (IE9+, Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera), provides excellent performance and is hugely flexible.

To the confusion of some people, we also offer a Flash fall back. If you are running a browser that cannot handle HTML5 Canvas, it switches instantly to a Flash version.

Why on earth do we use Flash?

Whilst web technology has changed dramatically in the last 5 or 6 years, there’s one group that has remained stuck: Enterprise users.

Those accessing the web from a corporate PC often have no choice which browser they get to use. It’s also rare that they have a chance to upgrade, trapped as they are in a dependency hell forcing them to continue using legacy browsers.

internet explorer 6

Welcome to the internet – c.2001

How widespread are legacy browsers?

We don’t track any statistics on our customers’ use of KeyLines (once it’s installed, no information leaves the corporate perimeter) but we do have some insight on enterprise IT challenges.

One of our customers, who provides data visualization to major multinational institutions, gave us some data on the browsers they themselves support:

  • Nearly a quarter of users only have access to Internet Explorer 7
  • Less than 10% of users access the web using Chrome
  • Firefox and Safari barely register, totaling less than 2%

That’s not just in one company. Based that sample of thousands of enterprise users, only a quarter was using web browsers compatible with HTML5.

That’s why we still offer a Flash network visualization option in 2015.

How does the Flash component work?

We’ve designed KeyLines to make the developer experience as hassle-free as possible.

Building your application

Flash and HTML5 Canvas are both just rendering engines. There is only one KeyLines API to learn, and only one codebase for you to maintain. The whole Flash v HTML5 issue is abstracted away from your code completely.

Deploying your application

When deploying a KeyLines network visualization component, most people choose to use both the Flash and HTML5 rendering engine. (The Flash file is only downloaded when required, saving bandwidth and having no effect on loading time).

Using the application

The end user doesn’t need to know which version of KeyLines they require as KeyLines will detect which rendering engine is supported by the browser being used and automatically switch to the appropriate option.

If they require the Flash version, but do not have Flash installed, we have included a helper file to create an alert that direct them to the Adobe download page.

What’s the trade off?

Naturally, there is some trade-off when using the Flash version of KeyLines. You can’t expect the same performance in IE6 (c.2001) to the latest WebKit browser!

Performance will start to degrade slightly faster in Flash than in HTML5 Canvas. For example, Canvas can animate a chart of 1000 nodes and 1000 links before the frame rate drops below 20fps. For Flash, you should expect to halve those numbers.

But we still think that’s pretty good. Flash is equally capable of handling those larger networks if users are prepared to wait a few extra seconds.

Find out more

Whether you use HTML5 or Flash, building a custom graph visualization tool with KeyLines is simple and fast. We’d love to show you how it all works.

Get in touch to see a demo of the KeyLines toolkit and start your own evaluation.

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