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Macromedia Innovates Web Media
by Jon Leland
Originally published in Videography Magazine, July 1999

I was late. The scene was another one of those big, high tech conference keynote addresses. This time it was the Macromedia International User Conference (UCON "99), and once again the location was San Francisco"s Moscone Convention Center.

I was especially interested in this next speaker because he is one of the champions of bringing more bandwidth to the video Web. Macromedia"s special guest, thanks (as you might expect) to a new strategic alliance, was Tom Jemoluk, Chairman, President and CEO of cable modem pioneer, the @Home Network.

But as I hurried in, the huge, ten-foot screen at the front of my side of the large, dark room wasn"t showing Jemoluk. Rather it was blasting a custom-produced video presentation. Just the same, the message was perhaps the most encouraging I had ever heard. In an Internet world where video quality seems to constantly suffer at the hands of limited bandwidth, the talking head was saying "Go use the Bandwidth. We'll make more."

And as I continued to explore yet another producer and developer-oriented conference (see last month"s Video Web column "Real Neworks" Wild Web World", I was impressed with not only @Home"s bravado in encouraging more bandwidth intensive program development (including new forms of interactive video). I was even more impressed -- dare I say, inspired -- by Macromedia"s latest innovations which seemed to begin to define a new level of web media. From Flash 4 and Director 7.02 to Macromedia"s new web site and Shockmachine virtual media player, this software company that is known best for its multimedia authoring tools is demonstrating real Internet savvy. The resulting products incorporate video and also can help to make the video Web more commercially viable.

In a sense, Macromedia is leading a new charge on the increasingly complex dynamics of these new digital media forms. At the same time, they are illustrating new ways that video can and will be integrated into online multimedia applications. As a result, I"m using this month"s Video Web column to report on some of Macromedia"s array of new announcements with a special focus on how these developments are particularly relevant to video professionals who have the vision to be focusing their sights on Net-based delivery.

For better or worse, we undeniably live in a world of increasing fragmentation. Not only do we have an increasingly wide selection of everything from video formats to lipstick colors, but we also have an increasingly wide selection of "time-based media" delivery systems for the Web. From the user"s perspective, the streaming market is, at the moment, dominated by the Real Networks RealPlayer, the Microsoft Windows Media Player and QuickTime. And these streaming formats (or multimedia architectures) now include animation vector formats, still image sequencing file types, multiple media type layout strategies, and more.

Flash/Shockwave PlayerIn addition, I believe that one must now add to the mix Macromedia"s Flash and Shockwave players which offer an alternative platform for the video Web including other "time-based media" such as games and corporate presentations. Since Flash is becoming something of an online vector graphic standard (Macromedia now claims a downloaded/installed base of 100 million Flash players), its relationship with the online video players has become another strategic factor worth considering.

Among other announcements and demonstrations at UCON '99, Macromedia announced a new strategic relationship with RealNetworks to incorporate its lastest version, Flash 4 into the RealPlayer G2. This extends RealFlash which had stalled after Flash 2, so that RealFlash movies will now support (among other things) transparencies and movie clips (which are Flash movies-within-movies much like "comps" in Adobe After Effects).

As a stand alone delivery option, Flash 4 now also supports and compresses MP3 audio and provides improved synching of animation and audio. With MP3, which one Macromedia product manager called "the best overall audio codec on the web," Flash has become an even more interesting alternative for some online multimedia productions. (Flash also continues to output QuickTime as well. More on Flash as a QuickTime tool below.)

On the player side, Macromedia also announced a new Shockwave player called Shockmachine. As most of you know, Macromedia"s flagship product Director is used to author full-featured multimedia applications that can include QuickTime movies. Director applications designed for the web have long been supported by a relatively large playback plug-in called Shockwave, but now Macromedia has taken another major step by providing what it calls a "standardized virtual device" in Shockmachine.

ShockmachineA more complex engine than any of the streaming media players, you might think of Shockmachine as somewhere between a TV/VCR remote control and a video game machine -- but built completely out of software. Clearly entertainment-oriented, Shockmachine includes both built-in VCR-type controls and a game cartridge interface metaphor. It also includes the ability to save pieces of content (like games in progress) and the freedom for developers to customize Shockmachine"s "skin" with their own unique graphical interface.

With an eye toward commercial viability for your Shockmachine productions, in the future, this new virtual entertainment platform promises to incorporate mini and micro e-commerce transactions (i.e. $.05 per play, per minute or whatever), subscription programs, and more. If some of the other video software vendors don"t start making these types of programs including the necessary authoring tools more accessible, Macromedia could become a standard for offering online video program subscriptions (beyond the more complex multimedia programs like games and cartoons for which it is uniquely qualified).

Like RealPlayer Plus and QuickTime Pro, there is also a more souped-up version of Shockmachine for sale; and like RealPlayer there"s both search and programming channels built-in to support audience building and online marketing programs

As if these components don"t make Macromedia"s entertainment market focus as clear as a mountain stream in springtime, Shockmachine is the focus of Macromedia"s new web site and a new Macromedia business unit with its own new entertainment industry veteran CEO.

Underscoring the way that software companies are now getting into what technology companies call "the content business," is described as "a new personal online entertainment center;" and it will be headed by Disney alumni, Stephen Fields. In another demonstration of how video and TV executives are converging on the new media frontier, Fields joins from Disney Interactive where he was senior vice president and general manager of Disney Software. Previously, he headed original programming and marketing for the Disney Channel.

For video producers authoring QuickTime for the web, the most important new Macromedia announcement may be Flash 4. By the time you read this, Flash 4 should be available; and Flash 4 promises to be more versatile than ever because it can or will be able to write to its own ".swf" file format, to the RealFlash format, and to QuickTime.

With QuickTime 4, Flash 4 writes to the QuickTime vector layer enabling low-bandwidth Flash vector animations to be super-imposed over QuickTime movies. (Please see illustration.) While QuickTime components cannot be incorporated into Flash (.swf) movies, Flash"s ease of use and sophisticated animation capabilities immediately make Flash 4 one of the most powerful tools for taking advantage of the QuickTime vector layer.

Another important software announcement was the availability of "G2 Objects" for Macromedia"s Dreamweaver popular web site authoring tool. Once downloaded and installed in Dreamweaver"s Objects folder, these code kernels makes it far easier to imbed RealMedia files within web pages.

As If the real bottom line is business, then the Macromedia"s strategic relationship with @Home is especially important. CEO Jemoluk went out of his way to pitch the producers at UCON "99 for at least two reasons. First, his system is best showcased by more bandwidth hungry content; but more significantly, he knows that he needs sophisticated producers (like Videography readers as well as Macromedia developers) to produce content that can make a buck on his new network.

you For this reason, @Home"s new strategic relationship with makes sense, and it"s even more dynamic that you might suspect because it incorporates applications from Enliven, one of the web"s most impressive "rich media" advertising technologies. ("Rich media" means animation, video and audio.) In addition to its more dynamic presentation capabilities, Enliven includes sophisticated interactivity, e-commerce, tracking and reporting capabilities. Enliven which officially became a wholly owned subsidiary of the @Home Network in May claims a 70 percent market share of rich media advertising on the web.

With a vision that"s also illustrated by the promised e-commerce enhancements for Shockmachine, Macromedia seems to understand that web media includes more that just video, multimedia or other forms of "time-based media." More and more, Macromedia is morphing into a very special kind of Internet software company.

As the video Web continues to become an increasingly important part of the overall video business, it may well be software tools like some of those demonstrated and promised by Macromedia that will help to make the video Web commercially viable.

Stay tuned.

Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at [email protected]


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