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Taking Care of Business, In a Flash

While Microsoft, QuickTime, Real, and the various MPEG-4 proponents are betting their respective farms on the video quality that their various codecs can deliver, Macromedia thinks they’re missing the point. Consumers want video that works, period, and Web site developers want more control over how they deliver streaming video, says Chris Hock, director of product marketing for Macromedia’s Flash Video division.

"Our codec is probably a little less efficient than the latest versions of Windows Media and Real," Hock says. "But we believe that what really wins with Flash is the whole video experience. For the average consumer, the stream looks about the same."

While Flash Video isn’t new, it’s only in the last year—as broadband penetration has risen to more than 20 million U.S. households—that Macromedia’s been giving it an aggressive marketing push. Companies like Creative Bubble, a New York-based video production and post-production house, have been using Flash Video for client approvals for more than 18 months, and now Macromedia believes it’s ready for its closeup.

On the user end, Hock says, the benefits of Flash Video are readily apparent: minimal buffer time and, with the Flash player on 93% of all PCs in the U.S., little doubt that when the user presses the "play" button, they’ll get what they expect. "Too often, the last thing that happens when you press the ‘play’ button is that the video plays," Hock says of competing codecs and players. First, you get windows asking what size viewer you want, how fast your connection is, or what player you want to use. "I know the answer to those questions, but does my mom or dad? No way," Hock says. When users click on a Flash Video, it opens and plays right in the Web page, no questions asked.

Those factors also benefit developers, of course, who can more wisely assume that users will be able to play their video, and do so without having to open a separate player that takes them away from the Web page. Since it’s not platform-dependent, videographers and Web page developers need only encode the video once, rather than multiple times for multiple players. And since the Flash player is fully customizable, developers have full creative control over not only the video itself, but the window in which it plays. "It’s very good for brand-centric and advertising-centric video," Hock says. "There’s no branding other than the customer’s."

Organizations from Comcast to Ben & Jerry’s to Ford are now using Flash Video presentations--which are really combinations of Flash Video and Flash movies--on their Web sites. A shining example of Flash video’s possibilities can be found on a Web site produced jointly by Red Bull and the AMA Pro Racing organization. Visitors to the Web site can view a motocross race from several different camera angles, while a Flash movie animation shows the rider’s progress on a map of the racetrack. A digital timer and both a tachometer and speedometer run throughout the race, and the viewer can choose different combinations of music, rider commentary, and cycle noise to accompany the video.

Finally, the scrub bar at the bottom lets the viewer rewind or fast-forward--all without ever leaving the Web site. And if you’ve got a fast machine (1gHz or higher) and broadband, there’s no buffering at all.

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