The Rise of Flash Video, Part 1
Published on October 9, 2006
In 2003, I was in Seattle getting ready to do a presentation on Flash Video at Digital Design World when Jim Heid, the Conference Organizer, saw the title slide of the presentation and mentioned that I might be facing a rather tough crowd. I looked out over the audience, sized them up and told Jim I had his back covered. He said he wasn’t too sure about that and pointed at the title on my screen: “QuickTime is dead.” Looking out into the darkened room, I watched about 200 people in the audience open their Powerbooks; hundreds of bright white Apple logos staring back at me. It was indeed going to be a tough crowd.
Nobody really expected the stranglehold that Apple, Microsoft and Real had on the web streaming market in 2003 to be broken. Yet by Spring 2005, just 18 months after that presentation, that is exactly what had happened. Those three web video delivery technologies practically vanished, replaced almost entirely by Flash Video. This is not to say QuickTime and Windows Media are dead technologies. They aren’t by a long shot, but when it comes to putting video on the web, the Flash Player has rapidly become the only game in town.
In this article, I am going trace the rise of Flash Video, where we are with the technology and where, from my vantage point, I see us heading. In the second part of this series, I will survey the video creation process, discussing both the tools used to prepare the video file and how video in Flash is undergoing a profound and exciting change with huge implications for the web community. To start the process you have to understand how Apple, Microsoft, and Real “lost” the market.
How Video Players “got dead”
QuickTime, Windows Media, and Real essentially lost the market when they got blind-sided by the growth of the web, fast internet connections, and, in many respects, the “Standards Movement.” At the same time that practically everyone had gotten an internet connection and the cost of bandwidth to the consumer was plummeting, the web standards movement led by Jeff Zeldman, Molly Holzschlag and Eric Meyer started taking hold and web designers and developers began to look at the web page as a space they controlled. Content went where they said content should be and that was the end of that discussion.
The upshot was that consumers, with more bandwidth than ever before, were unwilling to wait for video to download before it played, and that the guys that designed the sites realized they controlled the web space. Their attitude was that if a video was to be content in a page with text running around it, there was no way they were going to let Apple’s QuickTime plugin tell their viewers to “upgrade to pro,” or let Microsoft’s video player move the video off the page into another area of the screen. This was a profound shift in perception for the design community. Up to that point, video was a “cool” technology and cool won out over control every time. When developers and designers started looking at video not as “video” but as “content,” we started our move toward the Flash Player and Flash Video.
This move in perception from “video” to “content” is still occurring and you can still see examples of the “bad old days.” For example, if you are viewing this article through Firefox (Mac or PC) or Safari, click this link: http://video.msn.com/. The odds are almost 100% you will see this screen:
Here’s the clincher: I am willing to bet that most if not all of you have the latest version of Windows Media Player installed on your machine. The average person will look at that and think, “Whoa, I need to upgrade.” They will do that, but get promptly returned to the page above anyway. Sometimes you get lucky and don’t see that page, instead seeing the word “Loading.” The thing is, the video isn’t actually loading. The browser isn’t seeing a darn thing and I have encountered users who will sit, looking at that word, for over 10 minutes before they just give up in disgust. Those of you who use Internet Explorer probably haven’t encountered this frustration.
Another favorite of mine is hitting a site and being told I don’t have the codec. The browser is really nice and asks me if I would like to locate it. I click OK and am told, essentially, “Your codec is here. You are a smart fellow, go find it.” Safari will tell me a plugin is not supported. Windows Media will tell me that the “specified octet stream is not recognized” and, more often than not, when there is a video I really want to watch, I can, as long as I am prepared, as shown below, to sit through a bazillion ads.
I didn’t think the situation could get any worse… but then it did. I am unafraid to admit that this summer I got hooked on Rockstar Supernova. If you hit that site, you will discover it is a Flash site. This really got me pumped until I clicked on one of the three video links. A pop up opens and I am looking at:
It wasn’t until I scrolled to the bottom of the Flash page that I caught the “disclaimer” regarding the need for Windows Media on my machine. Being a “tech weenie” I closed out Firefox, opened IE and headed back to the site. I click on my video link and am treated to a video that plays for a couple of seconds, stops for a while, plays a couple of more seconds of the video, stops for a while and … I think you know where this is going.
I use these examples not to point an accusatory finger at the designers, the companies, or even the technologies. I use them because they are prime examples of what makes the experience of watching web video such a profoundly negative experience. We are awash in a world of video thanks to TV. We bring our TV mindset to this technology on the web and, when we want to watch a video, we expect “play” to mean “play.”
Further, we expect “play” to mean “play on whatever device we are using to watch the video.” Web video is being delivered to desktop computers with an Ethernet cable stuck into the back of the box. Web video is being delivered to portable computers in coffee shops and parks outside Macy’s in New York that are connected to a wireless network. Web video is being wirelessly delivered to my PDA. Web video is being delivered to my Nokia cell phone. These are heady times for us and I suspect this is just the start. If you had told me five years ago that video would sweep the web and that the Flash Player would be the delivery platform, I would have thought you were more “Pollyannish” than pragmatic.
A short history of Flash Video
The rise of Flash video from relative obscurity to a web standard is a fascinating tale. There is no one date we can point to and say, “This is when it happened.” Some would point to Flash MX and the inclusion of the Sorenson Spark codec. Others will claim it was Flash Professional MX 2004 that really got things started, and a valid case can be made for the current iteration of Flash (Flash Professional 8) and the improved FLV Playback component which seems to be so ubiquitous in today’s video experience. For me, Flash Video became “real” in 2000.
I was in New York attending the inaugural meeting of the New York Macromedia User Group and the evening’s speaker was Hillman Curtis. This was just before Hillman became famous and the room was filled with Director guys who were there to listen to Hillman talk about motion graphics in Flash. During the course of his presentation Hillman played some video in Flash. To say he got my attention would be an understatement. Up until that point video in Flash was a pipe dream. Many of us hanging around the forums would have long discussions regarding the “theoretical” use of video in Flash. Here I was, a few stories up in New York City and theory had become reality.
How Hillman did it was to apply an old video technique to a new technology. He simply exported the video out of QuickTime as a series of frames—the technique is called “rotoscoping”—and placed those images, sequentially, on the Flash timeline. Needless to say, the word got out; suddenly a lot of rotoscoped video started appearing in Flash. I’m not claiming it was Hillman who invented the technique and kicked off the video revolution; he simply was the first person I had encountered who was able to get video working in Flash.
The next big event in the Flash Video timeline was the release of Flash MX and the adoption of the FLV format as the video standard in Flash. When you installed Flash MX, a built-in encoder was included that used the Sorenson Spark codec to convert a variety of video formats into the FLV format. What caught everyone’s attention was how small these FLV files were compared to the original. In a book I wrote regarding the MX Studio, I cited the example of a 5.4MB video file being compressed down to around 40K.
At the same time that Spark was on the street, Sorenson Media, which had developed the Sorenson codec—regarded as the standard for streaming video at the time—also developed a stand-alone FLV encoder called “Squeeze.” This product offered even more power and flexibility than Spark and many Flash video developers started regarding Spark as being nothing more than “Squeeze Lite” and shifted to Squeeze to create their videos for Flash.
In these early days, we rapidly discovered there was a huge problem with Flash Video. It still had to be embedded on the Flash timeline and the result was a rather massive SWF file. The odd thing was this: users were quite content to wait for the SWF to load simply because video was such a novelty. The other issue was that video longer that 2 minutes in length experienced, to be gentle, image and playback degradation.
The next iteration of Flash, Flash Professional MX 2004, solved those issues. Instead of embedding video into the Flash timeline, developers and designers could stream video from a web server. Those new to video could use Drag and Drop video behaviors to get into the game, and, most important of all, the FLV format became an output format for all of the major video editing applications, including QuickTime. While all of this was going on, another company, ON2 Technologies, had developed an amazing codec, TrueMotion VP6, that could be used for broadcast purposes. Unknown to the Flash developer community, Macromedia was also paying attention to them and had started talking to them about a Flash version of the codec.
While all of this was going on, Flash Video was seriously catching on thanks to the rapid adoption rate of the Flash Player 7. The rate was the fastest in Flash history and Macromedia would tell anybody that would listen that well over 3 million Flash Players were installed each day. Microsoft, Apple and Real also found themselves caught in the perfect storm. Bandwidth became cheap, users were demanding an easy install, and these same users regarded platform as irrelevant—video content should play equally as well on both the Mac and the PC platforms.
Netscape had lost the browser war and RealPlayer was a part of the Netscape browser. Once Netscape went south, Real’s potential—at the time it was the best streaming video solution out there—followed Netscape. The sad part of the decline of Real is the fact it supported the SMIL language which allowed it to do more than just video. Real never developed good tools for SMIL authoring and they are still trying to play catch up. Windows Media Player was OS-dependent and that cut out a lot of Mac users (there is a Mac version, but it never really caught on). The fact that Microsoft had 90% of the OS market but only a 70% market share in the streaming media arena tended to indicate their clients were not exactly happy campers. QuickTime, thanks to the adoption of the technology by a variety of media companies became a de facto standard for broadcast-quality streaming, but it failed to catch on with the general public. Today, Adobe can claim that the Flash Player is on 97.3% of all of the internet-enabled computers in use today. Microsoft’s Windows Media Player is on 83% of computers, QuickTime is on about 66%, and Real is hovering at 56%.
The deal with the users was “sealed” last year when Flash Professional 8 hit the market. The ON2VP6 codec provided superior video quality and the use of Alpha channel video. The FLVPlayback component reduced the inclusion of video in a Flash video into a web page to a series of mouse clicks, and Adobe bought Macromedia shortly there after. If you were to ask anyone from Adobe why they bought Macromedia, the answer was succinct: “Flash.”
Flash Video takes over
In 2004 Flash Video was still a bit of a novelty. Two years later it is a standard. It is the video format of choice for two of the most popular sites on the web: YouTube and MySpace. Those two sites are classic examples of that old business adage of “Being at the right place at the right time with the right product.” As the web evolved from a static, page-based format to what the pundits are calling “Social Networking,” the market is realizing that video is a more powerful communications medium than words and images. YouTube and MySpace have also become outlets for video captures from cell phones, digitized videotape recordings, and web cams. The market has caught onto the fact that if you can digitize a video, you can broadcast it. The odd thing about this is that video is the least interactive media format out there.
Many of the major media companies, the Washington Post and the New York Times among them, are recognizing that web video is a great value-added and economical feature that supplements their print efforts. They can get into the “broadcast game” without the major-league expense of creating a TV network.
When the Tsunami devastated the East Indies, the New York Times was able to broadcast audio, video, and photographic records of the disaster in both the paper and the Multimedia section of the site within hours of its occurrence. In fact, video has become so important to the New York Times that there is an entire multimedia section of their web site and the front page of their web site contains a Flash video broadcast that changes on a regular basis. Obviously, it is no longer “all the news that is fit to print.” It is all the news that is fit to print “and broadcast.” Even so, the broadcasters aren’t missing a beat.
At a recent Online Marketing Conference, Ross Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive Media, talked about Fox’s recent promos for “The Simpsons,” and the start of the show’s 18th season. In the three days that the Simpsons clip was available on Fox, it kicked out 1.4 million streams. What’s more, 80 percent of MySpace users watched five minutes of the clip, he added, while 50 percent of visitors who streamed the clip from Fox.com saw the entire video. Those are numbers that will pull advertising executives out of their chairs and get them running for their interactive divisions.
News organizations and broadcasters aren’t the only ones that are getting in on the web video game. Retailers are adopting this technology… big time. Vodaphone is one of the best retail examples I have come across where video is treated as content.
A few years back, in answer to questions about where they thought their technologies might be heading, Vodafone created their Future Vision site. In this series, Vodafone makes extensive use of Flash video. The thing that really caught my attention was the fact that the video was content. Through a clever use of masking and other techniques video appeared in watches, rolled up pieces of plastic, and futuristic screens—the video was used in context. There were no controls and, in many instances, you were made to feel you were peeking over someone’s shoulder as they engaged in a video conference, found directions to a club in London, or interacted with their parents in Italy.
Where is all of this leading?
Business is now realizing that video is a powerful marketing tool. One of the most common questions I am getting today is: “The boss wants to take the stuff from our corporate DVD and put it on our web site. How do I do that?” Two years ago, that sort of thing was in the realm of sheer wishful thinking. The advertising industry is now crazy about this technology because they can now measure its impact using real numbers; 80% of MySpace users and 1.4 million streams over 3 days for an 8-minute clip of the Simpsons makes a rather powerful business case for media buyers.
From my perspective, I find the shift from “video as video” to “video as content,” especially on the Flash stage, to be rather fascinating. Experimenting with After Effects, I have come to the conclusion that the boundaries are blurring between what we’d call “Flash content” and “Video content” in a Flash movie clip. I have been bending video around objects, putting the FLV in a movie clip and applying Alpha transparency and the Blend modes to the movie clip. The upshot is what I call a “meta movie clip.” That is content in a Flash movie clip that is a hybrid of Flash and video content. Even simple things like using a video with an Alpha Transparency and embedding it in an HTML page is no longer in the realm of advanced web video tricks. It will become more and more commonplace when designers and developers discover it really isn’t that hard to do.
What I am really looking forward to is the day I stand on a stage at a conference somewhere and, as I watch the Apple logos wink on in the darkened auditorium, I know they will be able to see exactly what I see… when they want to see it.
In the next article of this series, I will review the Flash Video creation process, show how video streaming works, and point out a few of the “kinks” in the system.
Tom Green is a professor of Interactive Multimedia, through the School of Media Studies at Humber College in Toronto. He is also a speaker, and the author of six books, including two recent ones on Flash and Flash Video. An Adobe Community Expert and a Community MX partner, he believes the amount of fun we have in this business should be illegal.