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Getting it right from the ground up

Sometimes even the best ideas sit for years before gaining acceptance.

I was motivated to write this column to a product for two reasons: because I was tired of depressing stories (my own included), and because the just-released Macromedia Flash Communication Server MX deserves attention. FlashCom, as it’s called, isn’t a product for everybody; it’s software for a computer server and appeals mostly to Web programmers. But I think it points to something we often overlook in the rush to the next big thing: Sometimes we have to build the right thing from the ground up.

Some ideas can be implemented almost from the minute they’re conceived. This might apply to one-hundredth of one percent of all ideas. Other ideas, especially those in the computer industry, come with an enormous amount of hype that makes us think the idea is already upon us and ready to go. Often it is not: A long time ago the computer industry promised us that the Internet would make on-demand movies commonplace. We’re still waiting.

Other ideas, especially the really good ones, are easy enough to understand at first, but often take years to find a way into widespread application. We tend to forget that the personal computer required nearly 10 years to become widely accepted, and the Internet at least as long. So it is, I think, with delivering multimedia experiences on the Web. The idea is obvious: Most of us would like animation, voices, music, graphics, movies, and other sensory bombardment to be part of the Web experience. All of these media elements exist somewhere on the Web, but wide deployment has been very hard to achieve.

Part of the problem is simply bandwidth. Until people can get free of the dial-up modem crawl, it will continue to be difficult to deliver effective multimedia. Lack of bandwidth is certainly the killer for bulk media downloading, such as movies. However, effective multimedia doesn’t need to be two hours of moving pictures. This is where FlashCom comes in.

Delivering options and opportunities

FlashCom is part of a system designed by Macromedia to deliver both rich media (a Gatesian term for video and audio) and various forms of Internet communication such as chat, whiteboard interaction, and virtual conference rooms. At its core, this is a messaging system–it can package various kinds of data into discrete messages–and expeditiously send them across the Internet. The server portion, FlashCom, handles the synchronization of many users with the data and controls how such bandwidth-intensive streams such as video clips are sent down the line. At the moment it’s a unique product because of all the different forms of communication and media it can handle.

The FlashCom server provides the content for the other part of the Macromedia system, which is the client or user interface called the Macromedia Flash Player. Many of you already have this software on your computer and running with your browser. (You might recall times when a program requested that you download a new or updated copy of Flash Player.) Among other things, the Flash Player connects FlashCom applications with hardware on your computer such as microphones, speakers, and video boards. It also contains the software to display the streams of media (video and audio) sent to it by the FlashCom server and interact with the user.

Over the years Macromedia has acquired a favored position among Web developers without most of the controversy and fanfare that has accompanied some other multimedia efforts (especially Microsoft and RealPlayer). The new FlashCom system will continue this track record because of, to use a fancy term, its granularity. It provides the software developer with many little pieces of functionality that can be put together in all kinds of ways–some of them quite novel. FlashCom and Flash Player can do a lot of different things: Send messages, collect data, stream movies, interact with the user, display database information, play a song, record your voice–and more. The new FlashCom server provides the muscle to move lots of bits and keep the whole show together. The Flash Player gives the user an easy interface and an automatic use of the computer’s media and communication capabilities.

Bits and pieces add up

With software sometimes the best way to get what everybody wants is to offer a good set of tools with a lot of tantalizing options and let the developers come up with ideas. Let software designers and programmers experiment, repackage things, try crazy ideas, and combine pieces of functionality into new products (like combining a chat room, movie clips, and a whiteboard for a movie forum). Then users get a crack at what is produced and their reactions will bury, modify, or augment the products. Eventually, with perhaps a lot of messy encounters, we begin to get something that is truly acceptable–useful, cool, and easy.

Maybe a movie on demand isn’t such a hot idea, especially with today’s Internet technology. But there might be–and probably are–other rich-media and communications ideas that could become immensely popular. Internet chat is already a good example; just think how far that’s gone almost totally by word of mouth.

It’s not that you’re going to see all kinds of innovative or revolutionary communications and media applications pop up like mushrooms in the spring. The FlashCom approach won’t work that way. It takes time and a lot of trial and error to find effective ways to communicate, but given enough small building blocks, the effects will be noticeable on a cumulative basis. Maybe a couple of years from now we’ll see a new look and feel on the Web because of many new combinations of communications and multimedia (I’m sure Macromedia hopes so).

I liken the current situation with multimedia to what happened with artificial intelligence software. AI was given an enormous amount of hoopla–typical computer industry hype. Promises were made about all the amazing things AI would do for people and all the problems it would solve. AI didn’t keep many of those promises. Most of the companies involved in the first wave of AI went bust.

However that failure didn’t mean the ideas and techniques involved with artificial intelligence where totally bogus. The failure forced the practitioners to break up their AI projects into much less ambitious pieces and start using AI off camera, so to speak. The new focus was to get artificial intelligence out of the limelight and bury it within other software; use it for numerous practical but less glamorous purposes. That’s where AI is today, and you’d be surprised at how many places AI technology pops up (your car, pop machines, cell phones).

Upstream, downstream

I don’t know if there’s a killer app in what will come from Macromedia Flash Communication Server. I don’t know if there’s a new wave of streaming media and Internet communications about to happen. In this industry there are always caveats. In this case, Macromedia may have come up with a stimulating new product, but it’s based almost entirely on proprietary technology (a relatively closed system between FlashCom, Flash Player, and other Macromedia products). Though Macromedia Flash Player is popular, it doesn’t cover everybody; it isn’t based on open standards; and, in fact, it runs only on Windows systems. As a result, it’s not going to be universally deployed or universally loved.

I am convinced, however, that the approach provided by FlashCom and Flash Player is more likely to find important new applications than all the hype and Big Company maneuvering. It gets innovation down to the nitty-gritty and puts the outcome into the court of consumer opinion. I’m hoping a lot of developers beat on this new server and show us what it can do.

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