How Web Animation Works

By: Tom Harris

The Difference Between Flash and Shockwave

Flash and Shockwave software applications cover a lot of the same ground, and they are produced by the same company, but there are a few significant differences. Most of these are directly related to the origins of the two file formats. Director, the software application used to create Shockwave files, has been around for a long time, longer than the Internet in its current form. It was originally developed to create dynamic content for CD-ROMs, and it is still used for this purpose. As dynamic content has become more popular on the Internet, however, updated versions of Director have included more features that tailor Shockwave files for use on the Web.

Flash, on the other hand, was built from the ground up for use on the Web. Macromedia adapted Flash from Future Splash Animator, a vector art animation program. Macromedia's version was tailored specifically for transmission over phone line connections. So at their heart, Flash and Shockwave have two different specialties. Consequently, they have a number of contrasting strengths and weaknesses:


  • Flash files load more quickly than Shockwave files.
  • Shockwave is more versatile. You can create more complex games, more elaborate interactivity and more detailed animation.
  • You can use more types of files with Shockwave. You could, for example, import a Flash file into a Shockwave movie, but it doesn't work the other way around.
  • Flash is more universal. More than 90 percent of Web users have the Flash plug-in installed, while a little less than 60 percent have the Shockwave plug-in.
  • Flash creation software is cheaper. Director costs a little less than $1,000, while Flash costs about $400.
  • Flash is an open-source format. Anybody can see how it works and is free to adapt it for their own purposes. Director uses a compiled file format, so it is extremely difficult to modify the program.

With each software update, the two formats move closer and closer together. Shockwave has better Web capability with each version, and Flash gets more versatile. Eventually, the two formats will probably be merged into one comprehensive format that encompasses the best qualities of each.

A Flash movie from our fuel cell article.