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Flash heads for next frontier

Developers told Macromedia aims to seed Flash everywhere, from cell phones to Web TV
Written by Daniel Turner, Contributor on

Macromedia chairman and CEO Rob Burgess set the tone at this week's Flashfoward2000 conference in San Francisco on Tuesday when he started his keynote speech with an animated video titled "Internet killed the video star".

Besides trumpeting the ubiquity of Flash, his company's streaming vector-animation format, Burgess also announced the release of the Flash Player and file-format software developers' kits (SDKs); offered a peek at the upcoming Version 5 of Flash; and pointed to the "next frontier" of Flash as a multimedia technology aimed at Internet set-top boxes, handheld computers and mobile phones.

The crowd, consisting primarily of Flash developers, applauded when Burgess cited figures such as an installed base of 222 million Flash users. In turn, Burgess thanked the audience for integrating Flash into their Web sites.

Burgess said Macromedia's goal was to seed Flash everywhere, from cell phones to WebTV. He listed as corporate partners Microsoft, Apple, RealNetworks, Exite@Home, Palm and others, and demonstrated a Windows CE-based handheld computer displaying Volkswagen's Turbonium site, complete with animation, sound, colour and--of course--purchasing links.

The San Francisco company also announced the immediate availability of the Flash Player and file format SDKs. "This will give you the ability to author Flash animations in many products," Macromedia chief technology officer Kevin Lynch told the crowd. One such product, Adobe Systems' LiveMotion multimedia production tool, recently released in a beta preview version, was on display at the conference.

Although Macromedia opened the Flash file format in 1998, the file-format SDK includes new export code and improved documentation, Lynch said. The file-format SDK is available for free download at Macromedia's Web site; the Flash Player source code SDK is limited to developers approved by the company.

The keynote also included a sneak peek at the next version of Flash. Although no release date was set for the product, the pre-production software ran without a hitch. Flash 5 will feature a revamped interface, one more familiar to professional users, Lynch said, including floating, tabbed palettes. Also new will be advanced widget builders that use Flash-based interfaces within the application.

Flash began its life as FutureSplash Animator, a Web animation tool that Macromedia acquired several years ago. Flash was slow to catch on, since users were required to download a special browser plug-in to view the content. However, licensing deals resulted in the Flash plug-in being distributed with all versions of Netscape Navigator, Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple's Mac OS.

According to Macromedia, 90 per cent of all browsers now in use include the Flash plug-in. "It's the most distributed software in the history of the Internet," Burgess said.

Apple's director of QuickTime marketing, Frank Casanova, followed Burgess at Flashforward 2000 with a speech that focused on Apple's QuickTime multimedia technology. Casanova made much of QuickTime-Flash integration and showed examples from Apple's own QuickTime TV site, which used Flash animations as navigation tools for streaming QuickTime movies.

Casanova also talked up Apple's open-source QuickTime Streaming Server, which he said is available free for every major platform. In an oblique dig at RealNetworks, Casanova characterised QTSS as "the only Internet-streaming format that's open". Casanova said that about 40 million copies of QuickTime 4.0 have been installed via the Web, about 36 million of them for Windows.

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