Flash Flood Rising

In recent weeks, I’ve had a lot of reason to watch the rising Flash floodwaters with great anticipation. Macromedia is on the cusp of realizing the true potential of Flash, a development with encouraging implications for the rich media ad business.

About a month ago, Macromedia announced the release of Flash MX. The advertising world generally ignores new releases of Flash because of the player issues — we can’t use the fun features of the new Flash release until the corresponding Flash player hits at least 80 percent market acceptance across all Web users. But this time the capabilities of Flash have undergone a quiet revolution. You need to be aware of the hidden capabilities, because they could change the way you approach building rich media ads. And for those of you who build Web sites or are involved in wireless, iTV, and other interactive initiatives, there is similar change coming.

First, let me share why I’m so intimately familiar with the technology. Much of the strength I see in this Flash release has to do with dynamically generated content. Macromedia has discussed, but not yet announced, an upcoming release of a Flash Real-Time Server system, which will enable the simple creation of dynamic applications in Flash. Bluestreak, a company I co-founded, pioneered this in the advertising space in our Java-based ads way back in 1998. We built ads that were tied to customers’ databases, collected and distributed information, and showed real-time content.

I started investigating the integration of Flash more than a year ago. Flash clearly became the winner of the rich media wars when Microsoft removed the JVM from Internet Explorer. Bluestreak needed to dive deep into the Flash technology and see what competitive advantages we could uncover from an ad-serving standpoint.

As part of our investigations, I compared Flash with Java on stability, power, and extensibility. I have to admit being a bit surprised at what I found. Flash isn’t just “flashy,” it is also a very powerful technology — actually it’s very similar to the JVM that enables Java to run in the browser. So, we licked our wounds and gave Macromedia a call. We implemented Flash into our ad server as a natively supported creative format — and tied our existing rich media tracking directly to Flash.

Now Macromedia has released Flash MX and its corresponding Flash 6 player. Find out about the basics of Flash MX at the Macromedia Web site. I’ll focus here on the less publicized things that Flash MX can do — and why you should care.

One great resource I came across is a Flash white paper by Macromedia CTO Jeremy Allaire (former CEO of Allaire), which really gives insight into the corporate vision for Flash. Macromedia bought Allaire last year, and the MX suite is one result of this marriage. Flash MX is an integral part of Macromedia’s forward-thinking mission. To understand the power of MX, you need to change your view of the current world.

Today we’re very HTML-centric about how the Web works. Even nontechnical people are affected by the limitations of HTML — they just don’t realize it. Let’s look at some of these limitations — and the changes that Flash makes to alleviate each problem.

Dynamically Generated Content

  • HTML. In HTML, the only kind of content that can be dynamically generated is text (and calls to nondynamic objects, such as images). And if you want to change that content, you need to reload the page.

  • Flash MX. The possibilities are truly endless with Flash. Anything can be dynamically generated, from graphics to charts and graphs. And the new application interfaces for features such as “Flash Remoting” promise amazing breakthroughs in what can be generated dynamically without refreshing pages.
  • Examples of use. Imagine a Web application for MapQuest that shows you one map of a city and allows you to drill down as deeply as you’d like within that map — all without refreshing the page. Imagine building charts for a Web-based analytics application that could show any graphical depiction of your data that you can imagine — and that graphic could be interactive, zoomable, and collapsible.

Data Transfer Size and Bandwidth Costs

  • HTML. When content needs to be updated on an HTML page, the entire page must be refreshed for you to see the change. An immense amount of data must transfer to pass a relatively small piece of data. This means big dollars from a Web-serving standpoint, and in this post-VC-funded world, you’d better believe that your IT department cares about bandwidth costs.

  • Flash MX. Content within Flash can be dynamically updated without refreshing the page. This means independent chunks of data (text, images, video files, new Flash files, etc.) can be passed into the page without refreshing other content.
  • Examples of use. Think about the millions of times an hour (across users) pages on a site like E*Trade need to be refreshed to see the text in stock quotes change. With Flash MX, only the text of the individual stock quotes needs to change — nothing else is uploaded or refreshed — saving the publisher lots of money on bandwidth charges and giving the user a much more palatable experience.

Compatibility of Distributed Content

  • HTML. Every browser version on every OS is slightly different and requires different coding behaviors by the HTML author. Nowhere is this more true than across devices, where the HTML shown on wireless devices and that on Web pages are radically different. This leads to immense development resource issues (just to support browsers, let alone multiple devices) and has a huge impact on quality assurance timelines.

  • Flash MX. The Flash player is virtually identical across browsers and platforms. In a sense, Flash is more universal than HTML — and truly a more “develop once, play anywhere” technology. Since Flash has a vector graphics engine at its core, it can scale content to any dimension (even to a tiny little cell phone screen) without loss of quality or need to redesign. This is more important given the host of distribution agreements Macromedia has signed with virtually every major device sector — from cell phone makers to cable infrastructure companies to game console manufacturers.
  • Examples of use. Imagine developing one Web site/application that would work on any platform, any device, any screen size or shape. The costs of supporting dynamic pages across browsers, platforms, and devices in HTML is very high (see the “download map to PDA” link in MapQuest for an example).

I’ve covered a few of the less publicized features of Flash MX that I don’t think most people have heard about, let alone recognized for the revolutionary features they are. But there is a lot more where those came from, and I hope all the designers and developers out there will start cracking their knuckles and jumping into the fray. This is just the beginning.

Note: In my last column I spoke about an atrocious ad unit that was running on MSNBC for an online casino. I was contacted by an MSNBC representative, who stated the ad referenced by my article had been trafficked in error and was implemented unintentionally. Once the company realized the error, it pulled the ad down. In the company rep’s words: “We care about our customers and listen to their feedback. As such, we apologize to any customer who encountered this ad and continue to be committed to closely reviewing the methods used to market products on MSN.”

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