Why Flash Could Disappear from Online Ads

Flash could disappear from online advertising. Sound ludicrous? Then you aren’t aware of what has happened between Microsoft and a little-known company called Eolas. If you are aware, you probably don’t know the issues this will raise for online advertising.

Back in August, Microsoft lost a patent infringement case related to how Active X controls load into Internet Explorer. Eolas (which holds the patent in question) was awarded a whopping $500 million dollars. Active X is the mechanism used by most Explorer-compatible plug-ins, including Macromedia’s Flash and Shockwave, Quicktime, Real Media, Adobe Acrobat, and many others.

As a result of the ruling, Microsoft has chosen to alter the behavior of its browser rather than licensing Eolas’ technology. I downloaded a developer version of the new browser to review how they’re planning to work around the patent.

It isn’t pretty.

Essentially, any time an Active X control is called, a small pop-up warning asks if you want to continue loading the content. It actually stops all content from loading onto the page while the message is displayed — not just the Active X control. Perhaps most disturbing is that Internet Explorer launches this popup message every time the browser encounters an Active X control on the page, not just once per page load. If a page has multiple Flash ads, every single ad would halt page loading. Surfing the Web could become almost unbearable.

The good news is Macromedia plans to release some server-side tools to allow the security mechanism to be bypassed. The bad news? Every Web site, ad server and content provider in the world will be compelled to adopt and to release this solution prior to Microsoft’s release of the Explorer update that enacts the mechanism. It won’t be a one-line code change. It involves integration of a server-side code engine that will read through every piece of HTML placed into the browser, then switch the code to comply with the change.

Macromedia and many other companies are collaborating with Microsoft engineers to develop toolkits to enable publishers and ad servers to develop server-side solutions that will prevent the pop-up warning from appearing. There’s no guarantee a workaround won’t be blocked by legalities.

Based on my experiences watching people use the developer version of IE, the experience of Web surfing would be onerous, at best. Visit any Web page with Flash (almost every existing Web site that carries advertising uses Flash) and you’ll get a series of halts, skips and jumps. The interruptions in content loading are so jarring it’s almost shocking.

I urge everyone with an interest in this issue to get involved. Macromedia has a special section on their site where developers can learn about the planned tools. Apparently, they’ve already enacted a version of the tools on their site that fixes the problem, as I’m no longer getting the pop-up warning when visiting their site.

History of Dropping the Ball

As long as all the companies that will be impacted by these changes keep up to speed and get fixes out prior to Microsoft’s public release of the new IE, everything should go smoothly. But as we’ve seen in the past, many companies have chosen to ignore this type of issue, or have simply been unaware of pending changes.

Macromedia and Microsoft should hit the streets to get the word out. But as the issue is somewhat sensitive, it’s being handled with a deft hand. It exposes the fragility of a continuum we’ve constructed. It can have a huge impact on every business that’s evolved around the fact that Active X controls are a default browser capability.

There are cases of such issues being missed completely by the industry. When IE 6 was released, a new privacy protocol was instituted that required a simple compact XML header to be attached to all content served by a third party so a cookie could be set.

That meant when an ad server from a separate domain was used, no frequency cap cookies set to halt annoying pop-up ad behavior would function. Many major publishers haven’t yet corrected this. It’s significantly contributed to negative public perception of pop-ups. Companies that had properly configured their ad server to frequency cap pop-up ads suddenly showed pop-ups with every page view. The pop-up issue is only one of many changes that resulted from IE 6.

To offer another example, changes to Macromedia’s Flash 7 player caused problems for many companies. The software was released with a new security policy that blocks sub-domain calls from Flash by default. The fix was simple. All companies had to do was put a single text file on their server and the problem went away. But Macromedia didn’t get the word out until after the release.

Sub-domain blocking is a bigger issue than Macromedia apparently realized. Many companies use content distribution networks, such as Akamai, Digital Island or Mirror Image. By default, this requires serving Flash content from a sub-domain. Instantly, every Flash file running on servers that didn’t apply the fix began to show a security warning.

Our industry has a history of dropping the ball on back-end changes to very public software. This pending change in IE is one of the most significant to occur in our industry. I’m not convinced we’re up to the task of addressing it.

Potential consequences to the entire industry will be severe if we drop the ball on this one. Users will not stand for the Web surfing experience I’ve been having with the IE developer version.

Get the word out.

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