Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Islands in the Stream

Islands in the Stream
In 2002, Macromedia introduced the Flash Communication Server MX to the world. It allowed for several in-demand Internet-based applications. Among those was a player application for streaming video media. Yet, four years later, the new and improved Flash Server 2 still struggles for presence on the web.


During its early stages, the Internet was used as a tool to present static content. Designers created web pages that acted and looked like the printed materials they were used to creating. That approach to web design changed as e-commerce sites extended to include such Internet applications as “shopping carts” and “wish lists”. Sites that featured “send this page to a friend” helped form the ideas of tagging and passing information and the web began to move from static content to social networks. When sites like Classmates.com, Friendster, and Blogger became popular, networking through the web became the major success story after the dot com bust. Sites that excel in social networking continue to be the success stories of the Internet industry.

Introducing the New Web
In 2004, an O’Reilly Media tradeshow presentation coined the term “web 2.0”. However, adding the label certainly didn’t clarify how the next generation of Internet experience was to take form. For the last few years, the Internet industry has been trying to pinpoint reoccurring themes that emerged to define the new web experience. Yet now, even the term “web 2.0” is passé. The web has already reformed, even though the people reporting on it can’t quite keep up. The Internet has moved forward, introducing software-like applications such as Ajax that shed clunky HTML formatting and help the web realize its potential.

Web 2.0 has always been a movement toward a new way of thinking about Internet usability. Not to deliver content statically, but to deliver content meant to be managed by a community. As a result, wikis and online communities like MySpace gained rapid popularity. In 2002, Macromedia introduced to the world the Flash Communication Server (FCS). People wanting web 2.0 interactivity were initially excited about what the new server applications offered. But even after remarketing themselves in 2005, the server failed to integrate itself into the new web model. Macromedia offered companies a great new service alienated individual users. The newly branded Flash M2 (FS2) does not allow users to pass information virally and as a result, it struggles for position on the new web.



History
Because creative people use Adobe software to do creative things, the company leverages the talents of others to increase the popularity of their products. Adobe software dominates the market because it works well and seamlessly integrates its product line. Adobe has a long history of keeping customers in the fold by buying up rival companies and integrating their software into its product line For example, when they produce an inferior product like “GoLive”, they revert to their competitive strategy and buy, in 2005, Macromedia along with its superior “Dreamweaver” (for 3.4 billion in stock). Back in 1998, Adobe attempted to purchase the one missing link in its desktop publishing suite by trying to purchase rival Quark. The takeover failed, but Adobe eventually made up for the lost bid by successfully producing InDesign, a software that integrates seamlessly with Photoshop and Illustrator -- its two software powerhouses. The frustration over Quark’s lack of integration caused InDesign to be the biggest backlog for orders in the company’s history.

Flash History – Back in the Day, 2002
A year after it was introduced, the first edition Flash Communication Server MX won an award for “Best Internet-Based Communication/Collaboration Solution” from the Software & Information Industry Association's Codie Awards. The FCS was introduced as a powerful new web application tool and its integration with other Macromedia applications like Director was a major draw. The Macromedia press-release stated that, “Director can take advantage of Flash Communication Server for collaborative applications and can use the data integration features now in Flash, although both require Flash to be used in some way in the Director application.”

Macromedia wanted its server to move forward with the industry and move past the idea of Flash as just a motion graphics creator. A report from the New.architect stated, “With the recent release of Flash Communication Server MX, Flash gains still more collaboration capabilities, including multi-way streaming audio and video. Macromedia's product developers are betting that these features will make it even more attractive to the enterprise application development market--and they might be right.” Not long after it was introduced to the public, the server was publicized as the “killer” application for online dating. Carolynne Tilga president of DateCam began using the FCS in its first year; “DateCam's paying subscribers…make virtual dates on private channels. DateCam is the first online personals with the webcam application”. Despite its access to this cool feature in 2002 and the soaring popularity online personals since then, DateCam hasn’t been able to rise above novelty site in the online dating world. These reports touting the FCS were released back in 2002, but despite the positive press, “enterprise application developers” didn’t seem to pay much attention to the Flash Server.


The New MS2 -- Remarketing Flash Media Server
In the fall of 2005, with little done to market or spread the use of the Flash Communication Server, Macromedia repositioned it as the Flash Server 2. According to the press release it “reflects a strategy to reposition the product as a fully functional alternative to media servers from Microsoft, Real, and Apple. It also reinforces Macromedia's strategy to reposition Flash as not simply a commodity animation plug-in, but a full-blown Rich Internet Application (RIA) framework as well”. Three years later, Macromedia is still trying to position Flash a more than just an animator’s tool for motion graphics and web interfaces. Chris Hock, director of product management, stated that, “the core advantage of the new Flash platform is that it provides better creative control, thanks to the development-oriented features. While Windows Media Player, Real Player, and Apple QuickTime are primarily designed to transmit rich media in one direction, Macromedia development tools enable creators or developers to add interactive features or more tightly weave them into web pages.” Amazingly, in this world of perpetual versions and upgrades the server works toward backward compatibility with Flash Player 6.


Partnerships
When Adobe took over Macromedia, it was already well into the habit of buying media properties and leveraging mergers to strengthen its integrated product line. Usability and software cross-compatibility has become one of the hallmarks of the Adobe corporate strategy. As way a to increase the ubiquity of the Flash Server in web platforms, Adobe partnered with middleware companies to sell their new Flash Server to the corporate world. In November of 2005, the company partnered with Limelight to provide “integrated web distribution”. Limelight Networks, “provide media and entertainment companies' deployment of advanced Flash video experiences for movies and trailers, TV shows, broadcast media, advertising, and major events with Limelight MediaEdge Streaming for Macromedia Flash”. Chris Hock, director of product management stated, “Media and entertainment publishers are turning to Flash video because they can integrate video into their websites with complete control over playback, interactivity, and branding. By partnering with Limelight Networks for the new Limelight MediaEdge Streaming…we are able to leverage their advanced content delivery network and extend those benefits to an even larger audience.”

Besides Limelight, three other middleware partnerships with VitalStream, Akamai and Mirror Image exist to bring streaming video content and “real-time usability” to their prospective clients under what VitalStream calls a “content delivery network”, or a CDN. These companies offer services to their clients at a range of prices depending on site traffic and content requirements. All four utilize the FS2 and all are trying to sell their middleware as the new media and the new way to participate on the web.

The New FS2
Now four years since its original inception, the server is reorganized and the middlemen are in place, but there remain questions about who is going to utilize these features and when this new media will be taking over the web to integrating the user experience. Clients who use middleware to provide web communication tools are the same clients and industries unsure of what web communication will do for them. Companies are not clear how they want their TV shows represented on the web and are terrified that copyrighted content will be released to the public without the normal channels of control that they are accustomed to.

Where Are We Now?
That brings us back to the topic of web 2.0 and the new media deal. Some changes have been implemented since Macromedia brought the FCS to life in 2002. The increase of high-speed Internet, wireless access, and the 97% usability of the Flash player offer users a faster more integrated Internet. But more interesting changes have come about as well; more important are the ideas behind web communication and more specifically, viral communication. Viral Internet communication tools such as RSS feeds and tagging have been implemented with greater speed over the last few years. Driving these Internet connections are online communities. Wikis, Friendster, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Del.icio.us, and MySpace have all started to gain the upper hand for the new Internet.


YouTube
According its the press coverage, YouTube is the new media, new web success story. It serves over 45 terabytes of video per day and requires 75,000 dial-up modems running at full speed. YouTube pays this gigantic Internet bill with a combination of venture capital, online advertising, and emerging partnerships with companies like MTV2. YouTube works because its content is viral and managed by its user’s inherent social network and when partnered with other online social sites like MySpace can spread even further into the web. Unlike Adobe, its partnerships consider the viewer of streaming video rather than companies.

YouTube’s sudden popularity has faced a backlash as well. Not long after Saturday Night Live’s “Lazy Sunday” video hit it big on YouTube, NBC demanded its removal of the popular clip. Despite the free publicity and advertising for the show, NBC was uncomfortable having copyright protected content outside their control. Unsure of what to do with an upstart video swapping site, NBC legally demanded that the clip be removed.

Other companies have seen YouTube’s internet potential as an outlet for free publicity and viral marketing – an effect advertisers have been trying to duplicate in the last few years. MTV2 has been sending clips of The Andy Milonakis Show and Wonder Showzen as a marketing strategy. MTV2 is named an “official partner” with YouTube as is some of Hollywood. The first eight minutes of Lucky Number Slevin are available on YouTube as a promotion to drive people to the theaters.

YouTube vs. FS2
YouTube is a success partly because it has developed in-demand features to the process of video streaming. It makes videos available without additional software uploads, it does not require the user to have their own server or storage space, and it supports multiple media players. It is also easy, requires no third party company to implement it, and more importantly, it’s free.

The Working FS2
The FS2 and the companies that work the middleware do what Adobe has always done with their software - set out a working, efficient software package and let creative people do creative things with it. The company showcases what designers have created and then effectively sells their software as the tools for inspiration. This strategy works well for tools like Photoshop, but doesn’t work for the FS2 package.

The FS2 does have hope though. Companies are starting to realize that users are becoming more savvy and used to having content delivered to them when they want it and managed on their own terms. TV stations like NBC and CBS who have been fighting the system need to implement an online presence or risk losing their audience and millions in advertising. ABC made Desperate Housewives and Lost available for video downloads though a partnership with Apple. If the benefit of using the FS2 is delivery of a better quality, better user experience then large companies would be wise to pick up the service, start showing their content in clips and previews, and allow for a viral spread of content.

FS2 success stories include sites like the Sundance Online Film Festival and Buena Vista. Both companies utilize the strengths of FS2 video streaming by using it to manage their substantial amount of content while providing excellent video quality. For large files where quality is an asset, the user experience is better than what can be provided with YouTube or other free video streams. When dealing with copyrighted “professional” content making it available and looking good matters. Companies that have been utilizing the benefits of the FS2 have seen a rise in their web traffic and have watched as eager moviegoers pass clips to one other.


Challenges with Participating Companies
FS2 was used by RedBull to create an elaborate and admittedly cool site about extreme sports. It’s clear that RedBull paid serious cash and used serious Flash developer time to drive people to this site. Advertising events like as the RedBull Ski challenge may be cool and trendy, but in the end, its delivery was not enough to spread the site virally. As an advertising trend, anything that spreads virally is golden; it essentially advertises for you. Set it out into the world and it moves along the web on its own stream of cool. More importantly, when friends send it to like-minded friends, the ads are consistently seen by just the right kind of people advertisers hope to target. For example, Nike allowed its Brazilian soccer commercial to post at YouTube for free and watched as this clip was viewed more than one million times.



What the Industry Says Now
The online video service market is spreading rapidly across the web. IDC, an IT research firm released a report stating that, “Internet video services will reach $1.7 billion in revenue by 2010, increasing more than $1.5 billion from 2005”. This may be good news for Adobe and a way to gain the video market share with the FS2. But, the server is not built for the individual like other Adobe software products; instead it is built for commerce. Adobe stated that one of the core features was “aimed at online advertisers or developers of content, an enhanced stream logging features tracks how the user consumes the content. If they pause, log off, or skip to a different section, the logger tracks what the user sees or hears. For instance, that could provide data to advertisers as to whether their online ads are read, or to developers of educational training as to what content was actually viewed.” In 2006, an article in the Red Herring claimed, “Advertising will continue to be the major way to monetize video, accounting for 46 percent of revenue in 2010, though subscription and à la carte models are set to take a bigger chunk than they do now.” A la carte is what the FS2 and its partners are leverage as a major draw for its usability.


Moving Forward
In 1995, a company called Advanced Video Communications Inc. (AVI) started to offer “superior web communication services and AVC Video Conference[ing]…powered by Macromedia Flash Media Server, designed for the delivery of multimedia Web communications…to offer true interactivity and Web communications across multiple geographies and platforms.” Their site Stickam, “allows you to easily place streaming video, slide show, music, and live video chat on your blog and/or web site. …[and] can instantly play your videos online using just your web browser.” Like YouTube there is no software to download, users copy and paste the Stickam code into their web site or blog, and its services can be viewed on any operating system including Linux, Windows and Mac. Stickam is leveraging the FS2 as its new media provider and making it accessible to individuals through blogs, cell phones, and social web sites. It provides the excellent interface of FS2 and the usability of two-way video streaming. All for free.



Conclusion
Throughout its inception all the way back to 2002, the Flash Server 2 and its later version the Flash Communication Server have gathered great press. Industry types have visualized what it can do are impressed and companies that implement it are satisfied with its functionality and usability. But, video streaming is a small part of what the server does; it just happens to be the most widely understood function. The true strength of the server is its ability to alter and facilitate the delivery of content in real time.

Adobe has treated the FCS like all its other software tools, by saying to the customer, “here is the software, now go and make something cool”. Adobe also relies heavily on partnerships and uses they connections as middleware for the FCS. It has partnered with groups like FlashStreamWorks and FlashcomGuru to run information about its services and features as blogs. Adobe attempts its own viral marketing strategy by providing additional information and personal advertising through use of this own employees and developers as info-bloggers to extolling how cool their next launch or product is.

But sometimes content on the web needs to be about more than how is it moved around. Companies who use the FS2 do so for the look it gives to their valuable copyrighted material. Third party delivery companies like VitalStream claim that the reason to pay for their service is clear: that by using the FS2, the quality of streaming video is amazing and worth the monthly cost. And because users do not have to worry about usability issues, setting up or managing their own server they feel it is worth the price. To an individual, the cost of using VitalStream may not be worth it.

Long established industries are painfully slow to adapt to business models outside the ones they have been using for years. The movie industry is losing theater customers, TV is losing home viewers and the record industry is losing its market of CD purchasing customers. None of these industries seem to be able to deal with the need for their one-time customers to gain access to content through downloading or file sharing. These customers have instead unitized the Internet and will gladly accept crappy Internet downloads as long as one thing remains true – that it is managed and available on their own terms. The next phase of the web is about media moving through the channels of other people.

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