The denizens of Hollywood and Silicon Valley have, by and large, vastly different value systems, role models, even tastes in cars, food and clothing. But they increasingly agree on one thing: a standard for online video called Adobe Flash.
Flash was once known primarily as the technology behind those niggling Web ads in the 1990s that gyrated and flickered on the screen. Today, it is an ubiquitous but behind-the-scenes Web format used to display Facebook applications, interactive ads and, most notably, the video on sites such as YouTube and Hulu.
Now Adobe Systems Inc., which owns the technology and sells the tools to create and distribute it, wants to extend Flash's reach even further. Later on Monday, Adobe’s chief executive, Shantanu Narayen, is scheduled to announce at the annual National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas that Adobe is extending Flash to the television screen.
Digital box: Adobe’s visualization of how Flash video could look on television sets. The improved Flash will support high-definition videos. Adobe Systems / NYT
Narayen expects TV sets and set-top boxes that support the Flash format to start selling later this year.
For consumers, what sounds like a bit of inconsequential Internet plumbing actually means that a long overhyped notion is a step closer to reality: viewing a video clip or Internet application on a TV or mobile phone.
For Hollywood studios and other content creators, a single format for Web video is even more enticing. It means they can create their entertainment once in Flash and distribute it cheaply throughout the expanding ecosystem of digital devices.
“Coming generations of consumers clearly expect to get their content wherever they want on it, on any device, when they want it,” said Bud Albers, the chief technology officer of the Disney Interactive Media Group, who will join Adobe executives at the convention to voice Disney’s support for the Flash format. “This gets us where we want to go.”
Adobe, based in San Jose, California, is among the oldest Internet powers but perhaps one of the least visible to users. Founded in 1983, it first developed a common language for laser printers called PostScript and later built or bought popular desktop publishing tools such as Illustrator and Photoshop.
In 2005, Adobe acquired Macromedia, the originator of Flash, and expanded from making software to create and share digital documents, such as Adobe Acrobat and the PDF file format, to dominating the budding market of tools to create online graphics and video. Last year, the company reported net income of $871.8 million (around Rs4,350 crore) on revenue of $3.6 billion.
According to Adobe, Flash is now on 98% of all computers, and about 80% of Web videos are viewed using it.
Some major players in the phone market do not support Flash. Most notably, Apple Inc., maker of the iPhone, says Flash uses too much processing and battery power. Narayen says handset makers will ultimately not be able to resist, since it will make viewing the Web on a phone no different from surfing on a computer.
One company standing in Adobe’s way is Microsoft Corp. Its rival to Flash, called Silverlight, is used by Netflix and the British Broadcasting Corporation, among others, and was used by US firm National Broadcasting Co. last year to stream the Olympics.
Microsoft says the second version of Silverlight has been installed on 300 million PCs since it became available six months ago. It also claims that Silverlight better supports live, high-definition video, which is paramount to bringing Internet content to large HDTVs.
“I can’t imagine what could be more important on a television than high video quality,” said Brad Becker, director of rich client platforms at Microsoft—and a former Adobe executive. Adobe executives say the new Flash for television sets will support such high-definition video.
Some analysts are not counting out Microsoft just yet. They say the company has a significant presence in the living room with devices such as the Xbox 360 game consoles that can stream movies to a TV. Microsoft also has the resources to finance an escalating competition.
“There hasn’t been a true competitor to Adobe for quite some time and Microsoft could potentially start bridging the gap between the PC and the TV even more effectively,” said Josh Martin, an analyst at Yankee Group. “Maybe they could start putting out some of the fire that Adobe has long held.”
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES