Flash's challenges: Microsoft, mobile phones and markups

Adobe claims that 70 percent of Web video today is in the Flash (.flv) format.

MLB.com, the official Web site of Major League Baseball, is one of the high-profile destinations that Microsoft likes to trot out as a user of its new high-definition media player, Silverlight.

The problem with this picture? Apart from the video downloads, virtually all of the site's other interactive multimedia -- including its streaming video -- is still provided using Silverlight's competitor, Flash from Adobe Systems.

Once used mostly to deliver cartoon-style animations, Flash has suddenly become the choice of Web video broadcasters, leapfrogging formats such as Apple's QuickTime Movie (.mov) and Microsoft's Windows Media Video (.wmv).

Adobe claims that 70 percent of Web video today is in the Flash (.flv) format. Major users include YouTube and its parent company, Google, Yahoo Video, and MySpace.com.

The only people not using Flash video are "media companies that are being bought, paid and bribed to go to another solution," said Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen during a group interview last week at the company's MAX user conference.

The future of Flash

But behind the bold words, acknowledge Adobe executives, is real concern about the future of Flash. Though Flash is dominant on PCs -- the Flash Player is installed on more than 90 percent of Web-connected computers, according to Adobe -- it has failed to make much headway yet in the key cell phone market.

Moreover, Microsoft's Silverlight poses a serious technical and marketing challenge to Flash.

"Is there any moment that I am not worried about Microsoft?" said John Loiacono, senior vice president for creative solutions at Adobe. "I always treat them as a formidable foe, if only because they have a huge checkbook and are a monopoly."

Released officially in September, Silverlight trumps Flash in two key areas: video quality and the digital rights management (DRM) technology desired by advertisers and content providers.

Moreover, Microsoft is offering some of the necessary Silverlight server software cheaper than Adobe or, in the case of Expression Encoder, for free. Adobe's equivalent, the Flash Media Server, costs over US$4,000.

Rather than automatically distributing Silverlight to Windows users via Windows Updates, Microsoft has inked almost 10 deals with broadcast partners -- enough, it believes, to get Silverlight onto 80 percent of Internet-connected PCs within a short time.

The adoption of Silverlight "has been great so far," according to an e-mail from a Microsoft spokeswoman, with "downloads right in line with expectations to date."

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Eric Lai

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