Flash v. jQuery: When to Use What

Mike D'AgrumaThere’s always a right tool for every job. A corkscrew opens a bottle of wine; a TV remote changes channels.
The same principle applies to frontend Web development – especially when it comes to creating interactive elements. Some software platforms or programming languages are better suited for certain tasks than others.
But what standards should a developer consider with reaching into his toolkit? In this post, I’ll look into mine and explain when I use Adobe Flash vs. jQuery.

Adobe Flash

Since its inception, Adobe Flash has given designers and developers an innovative way to create content that went beyond HTML, CSS and – until the introduction of the jQuery library – JavaScript. It became an extremely popular tool to build interactive animations and effects and combine video and audio elements into one package.

The beauty of it is its cross-platform compatibility – it’s operating system and browser independent. If a user has the correct Flash plugin, content will always render as it should on just about any Web browser.

It also has its share of problems, though. Development time takes much longer; it takes forever to download Flash-based content on a slower network (which in turn requires the development of a Flash preloader); a knowledge of ActionScript is required to really unlock its full potential; it presents an inconsistent and incompatible mobile experience; it’s SEO hit-or-miss; and Flash players are usually buggy, crash regularly, require frequent updates and create a host of security and privacy issues.

jQuery

I always felt the Flash death knell sounded in 2006 with the release of the jQuery library. It simplified JavaScript and gave it cross-browser compatibility – Flash’s major advantage at the time. Six years later, jQuery is now compatible with more browsers than Flash as it can be used to develop on mobile devices.

jQuery also enjoys the advantage of being an open-source software platform, giving developers the ability to create on top of it and extend its functionality. Currently, there are thousands of jQuery plug-ins available on the Web to handle routine tasks or add interactive elements to a website. All in all, it’s become a vital component of the frontend developer’s toolkit.

That doesn’t mean jQuery is the best solution every single time, though. 3D features are more robust on the Flash platform, for example, and too many desktop browser users have come to expect and rely on Flash to display interesting and innovative forms of content using media players and other interactive elements.

So, how do you know when to use Flash and when to use jQuery? There are a few rules of thumb:

Choose jQuery over Flash when creating:

  • Slideshows
  • Form validation
  • Drop-down menus
  • Content that uses tabs to toggle
  • Pop-ups/Tooltips
  • Content that is controlled by expandable/collapsible elements
  • Pretty much anything that isn’t on the list below

Choose Flash over jQuery when creating:

  • Video/Audio players
  • Complex animations or multimedia projects like motion comics
  • Elements with 3D features
  • Games

Of course, the selection of which platform to develop on comes down to one thing – the developer. jQuery will probably become the more popular and oft-used software platform as its libraries expand and mobile device development and compatibility becomes a bigger issue, but I’m a believer that designers and developers should always work with the tools they feel comfortable with. While there’s always a right tool for every job, most developers know that sometimes the best tool is “whatever works.”

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