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Flash vs. Windows Media: Choosing the Right Format

It’s been about 14 years since streaming media technology was first used on the internet and, like it or not, after 14 years no single format is considered the standard for video delivery today. Competing formats from Adobe, Apple, Microsoft, and Real all still vie for market share across various business verticals and playback devices. For many content creators, confusion still reigns over which format or formats content providers should encode and deliver their content in.

Though Real and Apple's QuickTime both have their fans, Microsoft and Macromedia/Adobe have won the bulk of both the B2B and consumer-content format market share. Which means people ask me all the time, "Which format is better, Flash or Windows Media?" With that question in mind, lets look at some of the differences between Flash and Windows Media that will assist you in making that decision. Compression specialists and engineers all have their opinions when it comes to comparing things like codecs, server options, and the hard-core technical details of each platform, but for the purpose of this article I am going to cover basic facts, not opinions.

Crucial to this discussion is that the format makes no difference if you don’t know who your audience is, what they want to see, how they want to see it, and how your business model works for delivering those things to viewers. Knowing your customer is the most important aspect of any business, especially when you are delivering content via streaming or downloading. If you don’t know your audience, you have bigger problems to worry about than which format(s) to choose.

With that in mind, let’s look at some differences between Flash and Windows Media and the strengths and weaknesses of each format. For starters, it’s impossible to compare one format to another unless you are comparing them in specific verticals. Adoption rates and usage vary greatly among the enterprise, media/entertainment, broadcast, education, and government markets, as well as among geographic regions.

Yes, there is no question Flash has been one of the hottest topics in the industry the past 12 months and each day we continue to see more and more content on the web in the Flash format, for specific content markets. But most of that adoption for Flash has been in the media and entertainment vertical as well as the video advertising market. No one would argue that in the video adverting market, Flash has Windows Media beat hands-down. But in the enterprise market, which I classify as Fortune 1000 as well as internal streaming communications users, Windows Media still reigns supreme. Flash is typically used for short-form content (under 30 minutes in length) whereas Windows Media is still generally used for any long-form content. Different industry verticals have different adoption rates.

Look on the web; how many live events do you see in the Flash format? Live streaming (webcasting) is primarily done in the Windows Media format, not Flash. Microsoft has a free Windows Media encoder tool for this purpose. Adobe does not yet have its own live Flash encoder and requires you to build your own or use one from a third party.

As of today, Flash has no digital rights management component and does not give users the ability to download videos to their desktops. Windows Media has digital rights management and is widely used for content models that let users download video or audio content while limiting their ability to copy it.

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