Flash turns 10

The ubiquitous Adobe Flash media player and its authoring tool sibling turn 10 this month as a far more robust interactive, vector graphics/animation/video tool than its original incarnation as Future Splash.

The program’s accomplishments are many. They include powering a Web presence for Homer, Marge and the kids on the Simpsons’ Web site, near omnipresence on the desktop and being a major driver behind much of the video and interactivity seen on the Web and mobile devices.

On its 10th anniversary, IPTV Update turned to Mike Downey, Adobe senior product marketing manager for Flash, to gain some insight on the program’s role in the IPTV market segment.

IPTV Update: What is the unfolding role for Flash in the IPTV space?

Mike Downey: We have some fantastic distribution deals with device manufacturers — some with set-top boxes, some with home entertainment systems. We have a deal with Sony that delivers the Flash player on some of their gaming systems.

As far as IPTV, we have a pretty aggressive team that works with the different providers to get our Flash SDK implemented in those systems. We have an SDK available for a variety of embedded systems. It’s been a pretty big draw for a lot of them so far because it’s a lot easier for a systems integrator or hardware manufacturer to find Flash talent — Flash expertise — than it is to find that in a lot of the more complex, unique embedded UI systems that are widely available. Flash is a draw because they can find talent more easily. We go out there and talk to everyone out there.

IPTV is still evolving, and the models are still evolving. I would imagine we will be successful there as it really springs up and becomes a big deal.

IPTVU: One of the big draws for IPTV from a marketer’s perspective is interactivity, and Flash is all about interactivity. But so far often creating this sort of interactivity has been a “one-off” experience. Can Flash offer a more streamlined workflow for creation of interactivity — such as hot spots — for IPTV?

MD: What our goal with Flash and distributing our player to all these systems and devices is not to recreate the wheel on how to create content, but to use the tool as they would to create content for any media and to create Flash content for any given type of interface and not have to have particular features for any particular type of delivery format.

For instance, with mobile, when you are building mobile content in Flash and content for the browser, it’s not that different. We’ve done it that way on purpose. We want to be able to publish to multiple formats and not change things or evolve their skill sets. I think where it has been necessary to make those types of changes to the authoring experience to streamline or simplify a particular type of workflow, we have really looked at things that seem to be promising to hit critical mass and really focus in on usability studies and working with people doing this kind of content, seeing how we can solve their problems in the authoring experience. And I think a good example of that is with video. In our versions 6 and 7 releases, we saw a big explosion of video content on the Web. We also saw a lot of people interested in leveraging Flash video on the Web but not being able to be successful because it was too complex to get it to do what they wanted to do.

So in version 8, we spent a significant amount of time doing new user usability studies and focusing on that learning experience without taking away any of the creative freedom people want. We created a fairly simple workflow that allows anybody to go through and publish video in the Flash tool without a steep learning curve. I think that if IPTV content is going to be open to the masses of Flash developers out there and there are specific things we need to do in the tool to make that approachable, we’ll take that on as we always have and design features accordingly.

IPTVU: There was a major shift in video encoders between the 7 and 8 release. Could you discuss that and where the video encoder in Flash is headed?

MD: In version 8, we added a new video codec that was a response to this explosion in video content and a lot of people saying, “Hey, great, but we need better quality.” So we went with the smallest codec we could get but gave us the best quality. It happens to be one of the best codecs available today, which is DP6 from On2 Technologies.

We put that in the player, and at the same time we built up a pretty great encoding tool and environment for actually encoding your video. We are also fortunate to get that technology licensed to Adobe early on as they were building the current release of the production studio for After Effects and Premiere so that the same encoding technology got built into the current version of After Effects.

We had a great relationship with On2 in providing us great code libraries and great codecs. As we look forward into the future, we have not closed our minds to anything really. We look at other codecs. What’s the next thing in codecs? We look at all the obvious things, like HD. What’s next in HD video? We look at more complex digital rights management capabilities. We look at all those things. I can’t give you any specifics about what we are planning to do, but I will say Flash Video is one the top priorities of Adobe, and there’s a lot of excitement here about what the potential is for a video platform.

IPTVU: Where does mobile TV and interactive support on the cell phone and other portable devices fit into the future of Flash?

MD: We now provide a variety of tools and solutions for creating all types of content that take advantage of Flash in our platform.

For the Flash authoring tool going forward, the focus is specifically on video and specifically on mobile. We think mobile is just about to completely explode as far as rich content, and we want Flash to be the dominant runtime for powering that.

IPTVU: How do you accommodate these different requirements in Flash for the various mobile devices, screen sizes, interface differences, etc.?

MD: The nice thing about Flash is it’s an inherently scalable format. So a Flash file by default will scale to fit whatever box it’s put inside of. So whether it is a small screen or large screen, the content can scale. Being the vector format is naturally conducive to that.

Going beyond, to the production stages, building content specifically for a mobile device is very different from building for the desktop. The way users interact with content on the device is different. They don’t have a mouse and full keyboard in a lot of cases, so the interaction models are quite a bit different.

The most significant thing we have done in the latest version Flash Professional 8 is we have included a pretty extensive mobile emulator. So now when you create a new document inside Flash, you can define the publish target — a particular type of phone or actually more specifically, a particular distribution of our Flash player. And when you test that content, we take the content and put it in a skin representing that device.

We’ve provided a skin for every single phone out there with support for Flash today with the unique characteristics of that phone. So it gets into some pretty minute details, like some phones actually implement Flash in fairly unique ways.

Moving forward, we plan to keep moving on the emulation experience and make it more powerful for the user in terms of what it can emulate, like performance, glare on the screen and memory management — all the kinds of things that you really need to factor in in building mobile content.

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