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Flash comes out of the shadows

While researching a recent column about the European Union's consideration of anti-trust remedies involving Microsoft's media player, one theme continued to pop up everywhere I looked, and even in response to that column: Macromedia Flash. Developers reported a variety of frustrations with content development for streaming media technologies such as Windows Media Player (WMP), RealNetworks RealPlayer, and Apple's QuickTime.
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Written by David Berlind, Inactive on

While researching a recent column about the European Union's consideration of anti-trust remedies involving Microsoft's media player, one theme continued to pop up everywhere I looked, and even in response to that column: Macromedia Flash. Developers reported a variety of frustrations with content development for streaming media technologies such as Windows Media Player (WMP), RealNetworks RealPlayer, and Apple's QuickTime. Increasingly, Macromedia's Flash has surfaced as an alternative platform for streaming video and rich content development.

Whether you're developing corporate training materials, Web sites or your business requires rich, Web-based content that includes streaming video, Flash isn't usually the technology that comes to mind. While many Web users and content developers are familiar with Flash technology, it generally conjures up images of animation (sometimes accompanied by sound) with a healthy dose of Web-based interactivity. WMP, Real, and QuickTime have been the go-to technologies whenever interactive video is involved.

Macromedia is getting more serious about video, and more importantly, developers taking notice. If the incumbent streaming media vendors don't figure out how to work out their differences and play nice, Flash could be a viable alternative for rich content development.

In the realm of streaming, Flash is more likely to be on client-side devices than any other Web plug-in. Almost as a matter of religion (especially for Mac and Linux systems), many users have taken sides when it comes to WMP, Real, or QuickTime. But, invariably, almost every system supports Macromedia's Flash.

Furthermore, developers are reporting fewer compatibility problems with Flash code than the other streaming clients. At the very least, Flash could turn out to be biggest and most predictable target for content developers to target. Even my own company, CNET Networks, is experimenting with developing entire Web destinations using Flash.

Does Macromedia want Flash to be the party crasher that I'm describing? Jeff Whatcott, Macromedia's vice president of product marketing, calls Flash the dark horse favorite in the video space. “Flash has one thing going for it that no one else has and no one else is going to get—ubiquity,” Whatcott said. “If you're a developer, you want to reach as many people as possible with the best experience possible. Today, if you want to do that with the other technologies, you have to target multiple clients. Techies know what to do when they go to a site and suddenly, they have to pick a player. But, my mother is not that way. She doesn't know what it means when she comes to one of those selection screens.”

The video format selection screens that Whatcott speaks of are not uncommon for sites like ZDNet that have to support multiple formats. End-users must not only select a media format, but in many cases, they also have to optimize the experience (which usually determines the size of the playback window) by indicating the speed of their network connection.

In the mainstream streaming media player world, if you're looking for something ubiquitous that's pretty close to write once, run anywhere, then RealNetworks' RealPlayer might be it. Pointing to what energy drink manufacturer Red Bull has done with flash as an example, Whatcott said, “With Flash, you can do much more than with the other technologies because the video your seeing is not interactive.”

The Red Bull Flash-based site offers multiple camera views of the same rock music enhanced motocross race while at the same time animating the racer's heart rate, the motorcycle engine's RPM and speed, and the position of the bike in a bird's eye view of the track. It's one of the best mergers of animation, sound and video in an interactive Internet-delivered format that I've seen. Whatcott admits that other streaming media players can provide interactivity, but he contends that Flash is better at synching up the frames with the content side by side.

Macromedia has also programmatically tied the Flash platform to databases and application servers. Citing the data-driven experience found at the Mini Cooper site [link: http://www.miniusa.com ] where the entire online car configuration experience is driven by Flash connected to a database. Whatcott said that Macromedia's goal was to provide the richness of a desktop application over the Internet in ways that can't be matched with HTML.

Whatcott sees the Web services revolution as a great enabler for the Flash platform. Macromedia has hitched Flash, XML Web services style, to both the .Net and J2EE wagons, and is also creating a technology called Flex for more traditional programmers who want to build content with source code. “Flex is a code-centric way of building apps, and it works on top of existing J2EE and .Net infrastructures” said Whatcott. “Using our XML format—MXML--programmers will be able to describe the application and the Web services from which it must gather its data.”

Perhaps more compelling is Macromedia's thrust into the handheld and embedded device communities, which represents an opportunity for network and content providers to offer premium services. In addition to supporting Microsoft's PocketPC operating system and PalmSource's PalmOS, the Flash player is showing up on mobile telephones by the millions, from companies like NTT DoCoMo, and set top boxes. “The entire user interface for Lodgenet--the set top technology you see in the hotels--is Flash driven,” said Whatcott.

Given all that Flash has going for it, I'd agree with Whatcott's description of Macromedia's platform as the dark horse. More content developers are waking up to what the Flash platform has to offer. At the very least, Flash will push all of the rich media content delivery platforms to raise the interactivity bar. That's a good outcome no matter who wins the raise, and it's more than likely that no single platform will prevail, despite Microsoft's current advantage with its built-in Windows Media Player.

You can write to me at david.berlind@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check the archives.

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