Not so Flash

Websites hurry to catch up with the iPad

Most of us have visited a winery website that unfolds like an animated fairytale. We wait as the landing page tells us it’s “loading,” then a soundtrack begins to swell, and an invisible guide takes us on a magical mystery tour. The eye candy is everywhere.

The second time we visit the site we might notice that it takes quite a while for each page to load (33% … 55% … 88% … hey, presto!). This time, we probably  already know where we want to go, but we still have to board the tour bus and take in all the sights and sounds along the way.

The third time we visit the site, we go and make ourselves a coffee while the home page is loading and then drum our fingers in frustration as the damned tour bus keeps stopping at the same old places while all we really want to do is read the “News” page quickly and get out of there.

Websites are for users

This is one of the biggest problems with Flash websites.  The design doesn’t always respect the user experience (UX). Ideally, you want visitors to return to your site many, many times – particularly to the news and cellar areas.  But here’s the rub. Repeat visitors prefer to do their own navigation – we get PO’d when the site steers us in a direction we don’t want to go.

Not sure what Flash is? Created by Adobe Labs, it’s a multimedia plugin used to add animation, video, and interactivity to web pages. It has many wonderful uses, and until a couple of years ago, it powered more than two-thirds of all video on the Web. Most computers came with Flash Player, or it could easily be installed. Website landing pages proudly proclaimed, “This site works best with Flash Player.”

Sometimes, however, the site doesn’t work at all without it. Instead, a message like this one appears: Alternate HTML content should be placed here. This content requires the Adobe Flash Player.

The website for Domaine Leflaive - Puligny-Montrachet as it appears with Flash.

Flash has long concerned advocates of open standards who believe that its proprietary nature is not compatible with the World Wide Web (in recent years, open source alternatives have emerged). Certainly, overuse of Flash slows down navigation and hinders usability in all sorts of ways. It makes Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) more difficult, and it lacks “scalability” so that only parts of a web page can be zoomed up or down. In New Zealand, where Internet speeds remain problematic, the loading times can be downright ridiculous. Devotees insist these flaws are easily remedied, but the number of clunky Flash websites still around makes me wonder.

Winery trends

Unfortunately, quite a few wineries in the ultra-premium category signed over their entire sites to Flash – modelling themselves on the example set by luxury goods conglomerates with very deep pockets. This was particularly the case in France and Italy, where Flash for many years has been the ne plus ultra in lavish web design (I’ve used Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet as my example, but there are many others). More than a few New Zealand wineries followed their lead, and, in most cases, user experience suffered in inverse proportion to the expense of the project.

Apple versus Flash

Today, thanks to the unparalleled success of the iPad tablet computer by Apple, all of those Flash sites are on the “endangered species” list.

Why? Because platforms designed for use without a mouse (such as the iPad) just don’t work well with Flash. Apple has maintained a long-standing feud with Adobe, and a couple of years ago the company decided to get real cranky: neither the iPhone nor the iPad supports Flash … nor are they ever likely to do so. This is a battle unto death, and I won’t go into all the gory details. Many have already weighed in on the subject: if you type “Apple versus Flash” on Google, for example, you will get more than 10 million results.

When the battle concerned only iPhones, it wasn’t quite such a big deal. But the iPad is going to change many areas of wine marketing – it has already begun to make serious inroads as a tool for restaurant wine lists. And one of the great things about an iPad wine list is that it enables customers to visit winery websites while choosing a bottle. If the chosen site happens to be loaded to the gunnels with Flash, then none of that expensive animation will show up – at all.

The website for Domaine Leflaive - Puligny-Montrachet as it appears on an iPad (almost nothing there).

The iPad has already transformed online retail – including the realm of luxury goods. Many retailers saw the writing on the wall within weeks of the tablet’s launch in 2010 and either rebuilt their entire websites or developed applications to enable shoppers to view catalogues and other content on the iPad. The results are typically less grandiose than their Flash antecedents, indicating (I think) a dawning awareness that it’s not worth betting the farm on existing platforms when technology is changing at such a rapid pace.

Wineries have been slower to respond, although work is definitely under way in some quarters. Unlike Banana Republic or Gap, however, an independent winery may earn only a teensy fraction of revenue from online sales (if it earns any at all). A marketing manager’s plea for a complete overhaul of the website may be met with hostile astonishment by those who hold the purse strings.

The business case

In this instance, the business case is not about a potential payback in online sales. Rather, it concerns brand positioning and management. Most of the wineries that opted for Flash websites in the first place belong in the ultra-premium category. Their customers are affluent, and they already own iPads. They also dine out at the very restaurants most likely to offer an iPad wine list. For such brands simply to disappear on the sexiest new technology around is embarrassing, to say the least.

Today, websites need to work across multiple platforms, including smart phones and iPads. Setting a budget is the real challenge: how much should you spend when your only guarantee is that the next website won’t be the last?

Note: Even if you don’t yet have an iPad, you can see how your website performs on this platform by visiting iPadpeek and typing your site’s address into the browser. Just remember, you will have to turn off your Flash Player for the preview to work.


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One Comment

  1. Rana Senojak
    Posted July 31, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Hi Rubes – looking good. I like your style!!!

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