A Look at Adobe's Flash Access and Player Roadmap

Today's announcement of the immediate availability of Flash Access 2.0, which Troy Dreier covers in detail in a separate article, is an important part of the Flash roadmap for 2010. The digital rights management (DRM) solution formerly known as Flash Media Rights Management Server 1.0 is now a more modularized approach to licensing and encryption.

But for Flash Access 2.0, to work most effectively, it requires the release of two additional tools‚-Flash Player 10.1 and Adobe's HTTP Dynamic Streaming-neither of which is currently shipping. 

To understand the importance of these three pieces working together, let's step back a few months, to the Adobe MAX conference.

Shortly before Adobe MAX, which was held in Los Angeles in October, Adobe representatives set up a conference call to talk about DRM and HTTP delivery for content, both of which have been of great concern to content owners and delivery networks, respectively.

Adobe has always delivered Flash streaming video via RTMP, a proprietary delivery transport protocol, and has more recently also offered an encrypted transport solution, RTMP-E. Up until today, however, the company has not had a method for encrypting the bits once they are delivered to a desktop player.

This one-two punch of a proprietary protocol and lack of bit encryption was an ongoing concern to premium content owners. To quickly address these concerns, Adobe moved on three fronts: first, it moved to open source RTMP; second, it promised an HTTP streaming solution; and, third, it promised a basic DRM solution for bit encryption.

Flash Access 2.0 is the fruition of the third promise. Adobe says it has learned a significant amount from feedback on the original Flash DRM solution.

"Feedback after the release of Flash Media Rights Management Server (FMRMS) was positive," said Florion Pestoni, Adobe's principal product manager of rich media solutions, "but FMRMS was a full server solution based on life cycle. Feedback was that it should be more modular, and that it should be offered as an SDK to content owners and content delivery networks, who wanted to separate license key servers from Flash Media Servers. "

Pestoni also said Flash Access moves from the idea of just having the transport pipe encrypted (which was a key feature of RTMP-E) to having all the bits of the content encrypted.

"The move from session encryption with RTMP-E to persistent encryption with Flash Access 2.0 is key," said Pestoni, "as many content owners may choose to download content to AIR-based rich internet applications, for offline viewing. Since Flash Access 2.0 content will playback on Flash Player 10.1 and AIR 2.0, persistent encryption is an important step towards making offline players adhere to licensing and DRM concerns."

Flash Player 10.1 is available in beta form, and has been for some time, with Adobe hopeful that the widespread adoption of the beta will mean that Flash Access 2.0 license servers, which are being stood up over the next few weeks, will be able to allow protected content to play back on a sizable number of desktops. 

Flash Player 10.1 also allows for generic H.264 hardware acceleration of playback, to push content to full-screen using the built-in or discrete graphics processors (GPUs) found in all desktop and laptop computers.

In addition, Adobe AIR 2.0 will also be released in the near future, to accommodate offline content playback via the rich internet application model that Adobe has championed with AIR and its Flex-based programming counterpart to browser-based Flash playback.

The other part of the triangle is HTTP streaming. Some CDNs, namely Akamai, had already moved ahead with HTTP streaming systems that allowed Flash content to be served on less-expensive HTTP servers as progressive download content.  Adobe calls its answer, HTTP Dynamic Streaming, a "new protocol support for media streaming on the Flash Platform," although should not be construed as a new protocol being used on the Flash Media Server 3.5 (FMS).

When HTTP Dynamic Streaming is launched in June, it will be available in two parts: a free version for video on demand, which according to Adobe "is expected to be available at no charge," and an HTTP Dynamic Streaming version for live streaming which has pricing available upon request.

HTTP Dynamic Streaming and FMS will remain separate, with FMS handling streaming of content in RTMP or the encrypted RTMP-E, while HTTP Dynamic Streaming will stream unprotected and protected content via standard HTTP servers.

Beyond just Flash Player 10.1 for the desktop and HTTP Dynamic Streaming for the server delivery side, however, there continues to be much discussion about the fate of Flash Lite, Adobe's mobile-only, trimmed-down version of the Flash Player, as well as the use of a full-blown Flash Player on mobile devices.

It appears that Flash Lite will live on via its use-and potential upgraded feature set-on basic mobile handsets, but that it will be superseded by this newer version of Flash Player on smart phones, in line with Adobe's suggestion that Flash Player can now scale from mobile to embedded devices (set-top boxes) to the desktop.

We do know, based on the beta versions, that Flash 10.1 is set to support mobile-centric features such as accelerometer awareness and multiple touch computing. Even as far back as six months ago, Adobe also stated one of its primary goals with Flash Player 10.1 on a mobile device is improved rendering while still conserving battery life, primarily through the use of hardware acceleration and subsequent lower memory consumption.

Adobe had stated at last year's Adobe MAX conference that it would make a test version of Flash Player 10.1 for Android and Symbian in early 2010, following the beta release of the desktop version in late 2009. These release times seem to have slipped a bit, since Flash Player 10.1 is still in beta on the desktop, but the company remains hopeful that it will meet a beta release for Android, the Palm WebOS and Research in Motion (RIM) Blackberry devices within the year.

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