Flash Forward: A Year Later

OK. I’m gonna do it. Even though I’m sure I’ll have to fend off angry emails for the rest of my days, I’m going to take the plunge and write about Flash again.

The last time I wrote about Flash (see “It May Flash, But It Doesn’t Streak“), I nearly had to change my email address. Flash aficionados from all over the world wrote to tell me what an idiot I was for daring to say what most consumers would like to say: Flash intros suck.

Even though I went on to explain that what I was really complaining about were those useless, bandwidth-hogging barriers to content and not Flash as a technology, few people heard the message. Instead I had to deal with lots of angry technophiles who love impressing their clients with zippy demonstrations of their talent that often bear little relationship to 1) their clients’ brands or 2) their clients’ customers. They didn’t listen to the fact that Flash can be used very successfully when done so for an actual purpose, or even that my own company’s Web site uses Flash. Oh well. I guess I’ll never learn.

Coincidentally, that article ran almost one year ago. A lot’s changed since then. And as I sat here at my computer answering yet another email about that year-old article, I thought it’d be a good idea to do a follow-up. As luck would have it, Macromedia decided to justify my desire by releasing Flash MX, making the whole proposition a lot timelier.

The online world has changed quite a bit since March 2001. The bubble’s long popped, the U.S. economy is coming out of recession, and Internet usage continues to grow. Broadband access has continued to increase, too, with over 875,000 new cable modem subscribers coming online in Q4 2001, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA). Nielsen//NetRatings reported that, in January, broadband users spent more time online than their dial-up counterparts — a major first.

Along with this increased usage has been an increased desire for broadband services by consumers, according to a study released in early March by BroadJump and Mindwave Research. Perhaps most important, a Yankee Group survey released around the same time found that consumers are increasingly using their home computers as entertainment devices, with a third of broadband households using their PCs to experience streaming content, 23 percent downloading video, and a whopping 60 percent using their broadband access to play online games.

At the same time, hardware manufacturers are latching on to the entertainment possibilities of the home computer, increasingly coming to see it (or a PC-like set-top box device) as a digital hub for home entertainment. Apple is explicitly pursuing this strategy, integrating everything from MP3 players (the ultra-hip iPod), DVD burners, and to-be-named devices with their computers. Microsoft’s Xbox may be marketed as a gaming machine now, but that Ethernet jack in the back leaves a fat pipeline to the broadband Internet wide open. The company is expected to launch a broadband multiplayer gaming service soon, but I’d be very surprised if that Xbox doesn’t have a couple of other tricks up its sleeve. (This may include some interesting adaptive capabilities. I’ve heard rumors about technology that will allow it to modify its menus to better fit the user over time.)

In the midst of all this comes Flash MX, the new iteration of Macromedia’s ubiquitous (reportedly 98 percent penetration) animation software. MX still does animation, but now has the potential for much, much more.

Like what? Like streaming video incorporated into Flash movies. Like XML linkups with application servers that allow dynamic, database-driven content. Like enhanced programming capabilities and other nifty technical features, which should make it even more flexible for developers to create compelling content online.

But while all that stuff is pretty cool from a developer’s point of view, perhaps what’s most exciting for our changing online world is Flash’s new capabilities to deliver content to a much wider universe of platforms. MX can now be deployed on Microsoft TV, PocketPC, Liberate, and a variety of mobile and convergence devices. And that’s probably where the real untapped potential of Flash MX lies.

As I reported in my last article, interactive TV in all its forms continues to inhabit a fairly chaotic world, full of competing technologies, competing strategies, and competing philosophies about its usage. Advertisers want you to be able to click and buy, but they don’t want you jumping away from their ads. Techno-types love the capabilities but haven’t done much to actually match technology to need. And consumers… well, there’s no real evidence that they even want the stuff yet, even if they could figure out what they’re being offered.

But you know what? All of that confusion and competition is probably OK. If consumers have taught us anything over the past few years, it’s that any attempt to pigeon-hole them and force them to interact with us (as marketers or the companies we represent) is doomed to failure. Consumers will come to us in the way that is most comfortable to them. Some want high-bandwidth multimedia experiences. Some want text. Some want one-way couch-potato entertainment, and some want high-involvement online games. Some want to call you on the phone, and some want to come in and talk to a real, live person. It’s just what they do. They’re humans, and humans are an unpredictable bunch.

The problem from a marketing and budgetary standpoint is that we can only do so much. That’s why new cross-platform technologies such as Flash MX and XML are such a boon to all of us in the biz. Rather than having to make all-or-nothing decisions regarding how we touch our customers as technology evolves, we’ll be able to deploy compelling experiences at all contact points. Greater broadband adoption and convergence aren’t going to decrease those touch points; they’re just going to offer more opportunities for compelling communications.

Flash intros? They still suck, even a year later. But the cross-platform content — engaging content that communicates brand and meets consumers when they want to meet us — still rules… regardless of the technology you’re using to create it.

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