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Flash vs. Windows Media: Choosing the Right Format

When it comes to audio-only streaming or downloading, Windows Media is still the dominant format. Typically, the Flash format is not used without some sort of video component involved. So for content such as music, or porting content to portable devices and mobile hardware, Windows Media is still the winner. Adobe has done some deals in the handset and carrier markets porting the Flash platform over to wireless devices, but its primary use is for Flash-based design and content services like games, not video. So far, Windows Media still has Flash beat in terms of carrier and handset adoption for actual video.

Windows Media also supports multi-bit-rate encoding and the ability to scale the video playback window without problems. Flash does not support any multiple bit rate encoding at this time, and scaling the Flash video window greatly reduces the quality of the video. [Editor's note--The originally posted version of this story included the word "variable" instead of "multiple" in the previous sentence. We regret any confusion this may have caused.] As for the cost to stream content via a content delivery network (CDN), Windows Media is cheaper than Flash, as CDNs have to charge a platform license fee imposed by Adobe to use a Flash Media Server. This fee is small, but it can add up quickly for anyone delivering large amounts of streaming videos, and these days, delivering videos is a volume business.

At this point you might be saying, "Hmm. Sounds like Windows Media wins." Maybe it does for your particular business or content need, but there are some strengths of Flash you should know about as well.

When it comes right down to it, most people I speak to who use Flash say they do so because the browser plug-in has a higher penetration rate than the Windows Media Player. Does it? No one really knows. Adobe has third-party metrics that say 97.7% of web users have the Flash Player installed, but these numbers vary based on region and player version. Also, just because someone has the player installed doesn’t mean that they use it. For you, the most reliable data on player install numbers is what you see from your customers. That’s all that matters.

The biggest advantage the Flash format has over Windows Media is the end-user experience. When it comes to Flash Video, users don’t think about whether they have a player installed, what version it is, what codecs are installed, or any of the technical details. You go to a website and the video just works. It’s seamless, it’s part of the content experience, and it takes the technical questions out of the picture. That’s what consumers like: ease of use. Many content creators want to make it as simple as possible for viewers to consume as much content as possible.

When people describe Flash Video, the terms they often use are immersive and interactive, like the ability to roll your cursor over a Flash Video and interact with that content. When it comes to customizing the video player, adding additional video data, and designing a website around that video, Flash beats Windows Media. The huge benefit for Adobe is that web developers already develop in the Flash format. Flash is considered the standard for web developers in terms of adding interactivity to websites, so it’s natural for them to develop websites with added video components in the Flash development environment.

That being said, Flash loses to Windows Media when it comes to tools that allow you to edit video that has already been encoded, as Adobe does not make any tools that allow you to edit an FLV file. Windows Media toolkits are far more robust than Flash, and Microsoft provides a player, something Adobe lacks, forcing you to have to build your own or get one from a third party.

Embedding video into a web page is easier in the Flash format and does not require a stand-alone player like some sites do for Windows Media-based content. Websites that include Flash Video make the video seem like part of the overall experience of the site, as opposed to treating it like a separate component from the site, the way many sites do with Windows Media Video. Flash also tends to work better across multiple browsers than does Windows Media, not to mention across PC platforms. Yes, Windows Media video does work on Macs, but it is not a seamless experience. The Mac player does not support digital rights management functionality, some of the newest audio and video codecs are not supported with the Mac player, and the new Intel-based Macs require a plug-in called Flip4Mac (www.Flip4Mac.com) in order to play Windows Media videos at all.

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