Macromedia Versus Microsoft?

In his last column, my ClickZ colleague Eric Picard wrote about some of the less-publicized new features in Macromedia’s most recent version of Flash.

I’d like to continue the thread and discuss some of the implications of Macromedia’s recent moves, as well as speculate on where the company might be headed.

Macromedia has made several significant shifts over the last few years in an effort to broaden the dynamic capabilities of Flash and to solidify the breadth of its functionality as a development platform. With the acquisition of Allaire, which brought it the ColdFusion platform, and with the recent rollout of the MX suite, Macromedia is taking bold strides in this world.

Flash is already a favorite tool of agencies and designers wishing to push the envelope. In many cases, you can do much more in a Flash ad than in a GIF or even an HTML ad. And we’ve probably all seen case studies in which Flash ads significantly outperform standard ad units. Macromedia has done an absolutely terrific job of creating a simple yet powerful development environment, and designers have caught on quickly. As advertisers and agencies began to latch on to the tool, Macromedia paid close attention to the needs of its core development audience and worked well with other critical third parties, such as DoubleClick, to make sure Flash ads are easy to traffic and track.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the massive penetration of the Flash plug-in. Macromedia ensured widespread distribution by cutting deals with both of the major browser makers, and it now seems to be riding an incredible wave of momentum.

More recently, the company has been making deals to expand Flash to additional platforms beyond the desktop computer. Flash content is poised to appear on PDAs, other wireless devices, and even televisions via some very forward-thinking deals with set-top box manufacturers.

I’m going to go out on limb here. Flash is evolving into the operating system of interactive advertising. And with its new and increasingly powerful dynamic features, it is also beginning to achieve a level of excellence at which it may present legitimate competition to Microsoft’s own Web application development tools. Whether Macromedia intends to compete on this level remains to be seen. Launching a head-to-head battle with Microsoft can be dangerous.

As Microsoft begins to migrate developers to .Net, the software behemoth is pushing rapid development and simple integration across devices and channels. The message from Macromedia is quite similar in many ways.

Many developers have looked down on ColdFusion for years. Because of its rapid deployment architecture and frequent usage by designers and less-skilled programmers, it is often viewed as inferior to other development platforms, including those of Microsoft. Rumors of scalability issues have also kept it a few steps behind, or at least that’s the impression you’d get from most hard-core programming geeks.

Either way, it has been extremely interesting to watch Microsoft’s reaction — or, perhaps more accurately, its nonreaction — to all of this. Has Bill grown more confident and secure with his company’s capabilities? Does Microsoft not yet see Macromedia as competition on this level? Do they have plans to work together? Or has the ongoing antitrust trial softened the company, at least while nine of the filing states continue to fight for a stronger settlement?

I think the last question is a big part of it. If happened five years ago, would Microsoft have simply stopped including the Flash plug-in with new versions of Internet Explorer (IE)? Would it have developed a competing product or acquired and modified something similar? This is perhaps the company’s most infamous tactic — taking what the industry is pushing as a standard, “Microsoftizing” it, and rolling it out as a new enhancement to IE. The company’s support of Java is perhaps the most glaring example of this behavior.

If Sun’s write-once, play-anywhere language was that much of a threat to the behemoth from Redmond, how can it possibly continue to ignore Macromedia and Flash?

Competition is good; as the lines between on- and offline (and desktop computers and other “smart” devices) continue to blur, I am very excited, as a consumer, to see a potential challenger to Microsoft. As an interactive marketing professional, I can’t wait to see what’s just around the bend.

This kind of healthy competition can only be good for the industry. Perhaps a little bit of a market share threat combined with increased scrutiny of the company’s business practices might force Microsoft to do something it so rarely does — innovate.

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