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More Flash Brings More Light

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What’s Microsoft to do when Adobe comes knocking on its door? Take the battle to the internet, moving desktop applications to the web in the same way the competition wants to bring the web to the desktop. Such is the strategy behind the current competition between Microsoft’s Silverlight and Adobe’s Flash.

Undoubtedly the biggest news in online video for 2007, the Silverlight/Flash battle is one that finds both Microsoft and Adobe significantly shifting their fundamental approaches, although in both cases, there’s historical precedent.

Back when I was first getting my hands around T1 videoconferencing, QuickTime Conferencing, and progressive downloads, I made a living on the technical side of crisis-management public relations. One of the tools I used to build rapid response systems was a program called Director, which we used to build interactive kiosks with synchronized laserdisc playback and touch-sensitive EloTouch screens. Another tool I had was a product called After Effects, created by a small company called CoSA, which soon sold out to a large company, Adobe, that also had recently acquired Aldus, a desktop publishing software company. Director, owned by Macromedia, had a utility called Shockwave that we began to also explore; it seemed to offer potential to put some of our interactive Director designs on the web.

Jump forward 12 years and I’m now using Flash—what Shockwave morphed into—as a tool to control not just a Laserdisc player but hundreds of media devices, from flat panels to PTZ cameras to disc recorders, across campuses and training centers. Director may be in the dustbin of history, but the acquisition of Macromedia by Adobe, which now owns all the products I listed above, guarantees Flash will play a central role in web development for many years to come and leverages that early interactive know-how into tools that work great on the web.

Except the tools aren’t just for the web anymore. Adobe is making a play for dominance of the desktop—any desktop—and shooting to go well beyond the level of integration of web and desktop that was the crowning achievement of Macromedia Director’s glory days.

For instance, at Adobe MAX 2007 in Chicago, Adobe’s showcasing of future and soon-to-be-released products relied heavily on technologies we’ve now come to understand are integrated into the Flash player. A VoIP demonstration, for example, including multiple-person conference calls, relied on a communications stack that is part of Flash.

H.264, which is being touted as Adobe’s next-generation Flash video codec, will play on Adobe Media Player—the company’s new desktop video viewer—which itself is undergirded by new Flash Player technology.

Even Flex, the programming language Adobe is using to move Flash content off the web and onto the desktop, is based on ActionScript 3, Flash’s scripting language. Flex is the language of choice for the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), a desktop-based platform that allows Flash content—created in either ActionScript 3 or Flex 3—to be moved from the web to the desktop with no modification and puts Adobe in the desktop application business. Adobe execs see AIR as a way to leverage a legion of developers who have cut their teeth on rich internet applications (RIAs) that include database integration and significant dynamic data hooks, but don’t have C/C++ programming skills to turn these internet apps into desktop apps.

Combining the pieces together—AIR, Flash, and a move into media services—puts Adobe squarely in line for a pitched battle for control of any desktop, be it Linux, OS X, or even Windows. The issue really isn’t so much bringing Flash to the desktop as it is a way for Adobe to jump start the next generation of applications, regardless of where they’re used. Want to use them on the desktop? Use AIR. Want to use them on the web? Use Flash. Want to use them on a mobile device? Use Flash Lite 3, which can now handle several video codecs with no bandwidth constraints, as well as any Flash or Flex interactivity you want to throw at it.

Let In the Light
Microsoft’s Silverlight is more than just a set of content creation tools; the company sees it as a cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in for delivering next-generation media experiences and rich interactive applications for the web.

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