99% Penetration

Adobe has for many years touted very high penetration figures for Flash, and I’m sure that, broadly speaking, they’re not too far from the truth. Almost everyone using a PC has some version of Flash or other installed. Now while the 99% figure is kind of stupid for obvious reasons, let’s stick with PCs and Flash to be as “fair” as possible to Adobe. While it’s interesting to look at their methodology, it’s positively enlightening to look at their sample survey.

Adobe hires a consulting company to determine the penetration of Flash at has gotten 99% for Flash 7 (+/- 3%!). It does this by sending out emails and then measuring the Flash usage of respondents. How does it pick who gets an email? Exactly what kind of person responds to such an email? (The sort of person who has Flash installed, apparently.)

But, now, look at the survey: it’s pretty easy to write code that sits in a web page and silently determines whether or not Flash is installed and if so which version. You could fairly easily produce a web page that simply (a) loaded an invisible Flash file, (b) checked to see if the Flash file loaded, (c) then have the Flash file (if it’s running) interrogate the Flash runtime to determine the exact version of Flash installed, and finally (d) report your findings to your server — all without so much as requiring the user to look at the screen. “Thank you for participating in the survey” would be all you needed. Heck, you could piggyback a questionnaire for one of your other clients on the back of your survey and make more money. Even if you went on to ask “can you see the fish” questions, you could use the automated results as a reality check.

But that’s if you’re actually trying to get a correct result, as opposed to get repeat business from a customer in whose interest it is that you report the highest possible penetration values to.

Imagine you’re the kind of person who clicks on links in emails from marketing companies. Do you have ClickToFlash installed? Probably not. (Does someone, like me, with Flash 10.x installed but blocked by ClickToFlash count as a yes?) A web page with three long paragraphs of text the last of which implores the user NOT to click “Get the Plug-in” and a “Plug-in Not Loaded” dialog appears. We’ve established that you’re the kind of person who clicks links in emails from marketing companies, so what happens next? Do you read three paragraphs of text, NOT click “Get the Plug-in” (and screw you if you’re not running IE under Windows 95 and the dialog you got bears no resemblance to their example), and then complete the idiotic “do you see a fish” questionnaire? Or do you click the default button, then do the survey?

And this is how you can confidently claim to have 99% penetration.

Aside: I was posting on Twitter* this morning and noticed that MacRumors had informally surveyed its followers and discovered that most are using ClickToFlash. I’m finding that the people I tell about ClickToFlash react to it the same way people reacted to Firefox when I was championing it five years ago: they love it and start recommending it to everyone they know… who uses a Mac, anyway.

* I’ve decided Twitter is handy for dumping one-liners that don’t deserve a full rant — I don’t care if no-one else ever reads them (and it’s pretty clear that no-one does).

If you want to try out this ClickToFlash thing:

If you want ClickToFlash (it requires Webkit/Safari) then you can get it here. I thoroughly recommend it even if you like using Flash as it cuts down the CPU hit from windows you’re not looking at and blocks most ads (for now). I love Hulu and Netflix (which are both Flash-heavy) but haven’t even bothered to whitelist them on most of my machines because I’d rather not have Flash wasting cycles on windows I’m not looking at.

If you’re not using Safari then your options are Flashblock for Firefox and, by the sounds of things, a ClickToFlash port for Chrome (it’s not trivial as ClickToFlash relies on Objective-C APIs).