January 01st 2003 | Jens C Brynildsen
There has been many 'wars' on the web. All versions of Netscape now account for less than 10% of the browser market. Microsoft won The Browser War by massively outnumbering the competitors. Now its time for the battle of streaming video. Outnumbering is once again the key and Flash MX will be the winner.
by Jens C. Brynildsen The Players
Microsoft with its Windows Media Player has fought a long battle against QuickTime and RealPlayer. They are fighting for a huge market where the biggest money can be made on controlling the content and streaming video to the end user. These three companies have spent huge amounts of money on their technologies. Media Players need constant updates and often depend on licensed properties such as compression algorithms and codecs. This is an expensive process and return on investment is next to none unless you see this as a marketing effort and a way to control the content delivered. Both to Apple, Real and Microsoft, their Media Player technologies have probably been expensive ventures.
The market for streaming video may be big in theory, but it has been a very expensive market for many. One of the reasons has been that there is no simple way to ensure that all users will be able to see the content. If your website lives from selling streaming video, you cannot afford to lose a customer due to lack of the right Media Player technology.
To safe-guard themselves, sites with streaming video have encoded their content in a variety of formats. Visit just about any streaming video site and they will offer at least two formats, usually Windows Media Player and QuickTime. The biggest sites, even offers all three formats. Converting video to these formats is a time consuming process and anyone that could save money by just encoding to a single format would do it. This will be possible within the end of this year.
Why will Flash be the winner of the video wars? The ease of installing the player is just one of many good reasons.
The RealPlayer has always been part of the Netscape Browser, but with Netscape loosing the Browser War, the potential for Real has diminished. The RealPlayer was one of the first technologies that really enabled streaming video on the web. When the DotCom age came to an end, Real quickly started charging money for a Pro-version of their player. They also made it constantly harder to find the free player on their web pages. In addition, they have desperately tried to gather email addresses to use for unwanted junk mail and the whole player is cluttered with advertising.
The RealPlayer had a competitive advantage with the support of the SMIL authoring language, allowing far more than just video. Real failed to develop good tools for creating SMIL files and the format never took off.
The last time I tried to download RealPlayer, I couldn't find the free version at all. This will be the death of the RealPlayer. If you have any shares in this company, get rid of them them as quickly as possible. Without an easily available, free alternative, the RealPlayer will die and it will be the first to lose against Flash MX video capabilities.
Windows Media Player
The Windows Media Player has always been big, though its only the latest versions that have successfully been able to stream big video files correctly. Earlier versions had serious problems predicting the actual connection speed and this caused the video to start before the player could play it back without problems. The reason for its reach is obvious. With almost 90% market share for their Operating Systems one would almost expect a similar share of the Media Player Market.
There may be many reasons that Windows Media only has 70% market share. Our guess is that many won't upgrade their systems in fear of the OS crashing. The fact that Microsoft never has managed to create a media player for any other OS may also be part of the problem.
Both the Windows Media Player and the RealPlayer are fighting a parallel war against other audio players like WinAmp and Sonique and they are both mainly video/audio playback technologies, while Apples QuickTime has got some extra aces up its sleeve.
QuickTime can do more than just play back video. Apple has positioned the QuickTime Player well, as it can playback 3D objects, VR Panoramas, still images, video and it can even play back Flash-files. In addition, the Pro version of the player can be used for editing and authoring content for the web. Apple seems to be the only company taking the threat from Flash seriously, as they have recently sued Sorenson, the makers of the video compression inside Flash MX.
QuickTime is maybe the best program for video on the web and they are the ones with the most to lose. If you want to see trailers for new movies, there's hardly any better place to go than the Apple website. Apple have been fighting a uphill battle in distributing the QuickTime Player and they have still not reached more than a 37% market share.
Flash MX enters the arena
Flash has always been lightweight and good content is the reason that people install the latest version of the Flash Player. With Flash now being able to play back high quality streaming video, this will change video on the web forever.
Installing the Flash Player is easy. Even my mom has installed a Flash Player, but she would never install any of the other Media Players. Why? She is connected to the web with a 56Kb modem and the Windows Media Player is a 10Mb download. In addition, the install process is way too complicated for her, but clicking the Yes-button to quickly download and install the Flash 6 Player is easy.
The current download rate are more than 3 million players per day and more than 460.000.000 Flash players have been downloaded to date (all versions) At this rate, Flash MX will surpass QuickTime quickly and Macromedia officials claim that by the end of January 2003, more than 90% of all web users will be able to view Flash MX content. Industry analysts claim that the adoption rate will be slower, but Macromedia have many years of statistics to back their numbers.
The new tools
With this week's release of the Macromedia Flash Communication Server MX, Flash MX will not only be able to stream video perfectly and easily. It will also open a whole new era of communication on the web. The MX Communication Server will enable real time presentations and video conferencing, things tried but never really used in the mass market. This is good news to anyone selling bandwidth as it will massively increase the capacity used by web servers. Video conferencing with MX promises high quality with no setup required. Its just there and its working, right off the web page. Forget big downloads and software problems, this is really going to change the web. Not over night, but slowly and steadily.
Macromedia has made a host of components for the MX Communication Server. Authoring these applications in Flash MX will be an easy process, more or less using drag and drop components and then connecting these with a few lines of code. Just imagine shopping on Amazon.com and seeing a button saying 'click here to talk to a customer representative'. After clicking, a video window pops up with a real person there to assist you in buying the goods you want. This can really enhance the online buying experience and boost sales.
Flash MX has only got one compression codec, Sorenson Spark, while the other Media Players have many codecs to choose from. This might seem like a big advantage, but most of these are legacy codecs that are there just to ensure backward compatibility with old video clips. Flash will not need to bother about such. The Spark codec is highly optimized for the web and just as good as the best available (if not better).
MX a daring strategy
With the massive investments made by the other players, will they just sit and watch their market share disappear? Their biggest problem is that the traditional, huge Media Players are only updated if a user is desperate to watch video. The Flash Player on the other hand is a very much desired download for end users and all the great content it is used for, will guarantee its distribution. If you don't need to sacrifice stability, get loads of junkmail or download big programs, you will not do it. If you make a living from streaming video and Flash is the most widespread plugin, you'll use it. It's actually that simple.
The momentum for Flash MX is massive and with more than 1 million developers, it will spread quickly. Macromedia is partly dependant on both Microsoft and Apple to distribute the Flash Player, but none of these will distribute new versions of their OS in the near future. If any of these dislike Flash taking over, Macromedia could get some short term distribution problems. Will they protest Flash taking over? We doubt it. All the players will probably coexist. The Flash Player has no desktop playback (for now) so this domain will still belong to the traditional Media Players.
Macromedia has now (in a beta version of the player) added support for reading ID3-tags within the Flash player. This will enable just about any Flash developer with above average skills to create fancy looking MP3-Players, complete with song info, skins, irregular shapes that are partly transparent on the desktop. This should boost the adoption rate for the new player even more and with the new Intel P4 optimizations playback will be even faster.