Netwrok: The Flash of inspiration

While Flash Gordon saved the universe, Macromedia's dynamic software duo is saving an industry. By Stephen Pritchard

Flash Gordon was science fiction's saviour of the universe. Flash, the software package, saved the software publisher Macromedia. Along with a clutch of other companies developing software for the print, publishing and design industries, Macromedia was having a tough few years. The company's share price fell to record lows and it seemed that the bottom was falling out of its core market, as recession forced companies across the world to cut their spend on advertising and printing.

Then Macromedia set out on a path that was to turn it into one of the Internet's leading software providers. Its technologies, principally Flash and Shockwave, work behind the scenes to bring animation and sound to web pages, and are used by organisations as diverse as banks and cartoon makers. Some 77 per cent of net users have Flash-enabled browsers, though the majority probably don't realise it.

Macromedia's CEO, Rob Burgess, is a quiet-spoken Canadian with a reputation for turning round ailing businesses. He is credited with saving Alias Research, a graphics software company, in the early 1990s. He then oversaw the merger of Alias with Silicon Graphics, and went on to become a senior vice-president at the workstation and graphics computer company. He moved to Macromedia in 1996, where he has been the driving force behind the move to exploit the potential of the web.

"I came to Macromedia because of the world-class engineering it had," Burgess explains. "I kept looking at the web. On the one hand the web had so much more power than anything prior to it. On the other hand, it was mostly a slow, static, silent experience. I didn't think it would stay that way."

Macromedia had established itself in the multimedia market with Director, a tool popular with designers creating CD-Roms. Burgess was interested in delivering at least some of a CD-Rom's interactivity over the Net. "Now we have focussed nearly all of the attention of the company on the Internet, and we are really just at the beginning in our mission of adding life to the web," he says.

If, as Burgess says, it is still early days for Macromedia's web efforts, then the company has had more than its share of beginner's luck. Last year, the company set up an online showcase, Shockrave.com, which surpassed all expectations and became the fourth most popular site on the web for animation, and number three for downloaded games. Shockrave has now been absorbed into a new site, Shockwave.com, which Macromedia has set up as a separate company. Here, users and developers will be able to see the latest content using Shockwave technology, as well as download the players themselves.

Currently, some 17 million people download a Macromedia player each month. As Burgess acknowledges, having the technology alone is not enough. It has to be distributed as widely as possible. Putting the Macromedia players in the hands of millions of Internet users is one of Burgess' most significant achievements.

Net users, Burgess points out, dislike downloading browser plug-ins. As a result, Macromedia has made deals with Microsoft, Netscape and AOL to distribute its players with the main web browsers. The company is working with companies outside the PC software arena, too. In the US, Macromedia now distributes Flash to subscribers to the @home Network, a company using cable modems and set-top boxes to deliver interactive entertainment. At the other end of the scale, Macromedia engineers have just converted Flash to run on 3Com's PalmPilot personal digital assistants.

"The way I think of Flash is as a television set," says Burgess. "If there are five television sets out there, there will not be a whole lot of programming because the audience is so small. Now the audience is 100 million consumers, and so businesses are buying into products like Flash at a rapidly accelerating rate."

The success of Flash and Shockwave has put Macromedia's name in front of ordinary computer users in a way that its original design software never did. Like many companies which have moved into the Internet arena, though, it has had to do so by giving its product away for free.

For Burgess, this poses few problems. Distributing more players means more companies will create Shockwave and Flash sites, so Macromedia will sell more development tools. Already, its web authoring package, Dreamweaver, has half the professional web creation market.

Macromedia has also developed a premium version of its player, Shock Machine. Shock Machine adds functions such as cataloguing content, and vitally, the ability to play animations off-line. In the US, the player will sell for pounds 20 and come with some content, including the game Real Pool. Real Pool is a good example of why Shock Machine matters. The application is an 800k download: feasible over a modem but unrealistic every time you want to pot a few balls. Shock Machine lets players download and keep it on their hard drives.

Burgess sees low- to mid-power games, animated film and even training materials as the sort of content suited to downloading in Shockwave over existing Internet connections. But he acknowledges that it will be some time yet before feature films will lend themselves to broadcast or downloading over the Net.

"Flash is small, so you have richness of expression," Burgess says. "But it is also bandwidth-friendly. The kind of things you can do with Flash today, such as a cartoon, are just so much smaller, orders of magnitude smaller than video. We are seeing good uses of video on the web, but they are different to TV. If you want to watch a half-hour episode of a sitcom, you will be better off for some time with a TV set."

With more than 100 million people using Flash-compatible browsers, Macromedia already has a business with a TV-style audience. For Burgess, though, the way forward is to convince businesses, rather than just entertainment or games companies, to adopt interactive technologies.

Creating a cutting-edge website is one thing. Persuading Internet users to come back to it again and again is quite a different challenge. Burgess talks of creating "sticky" websites, where the design and content are compelling enough to bring users back. Burgess firmly believes entertaining, graphics-rich sites will do the trick. He points to examples such as Gap, which has an interactive dressing-up game for kids on its site. This is the sort of innovation corporate suits once dismissed as a gimmick but now realise are the key to building up a brand online.

"We are multi-sensory creatures, and human beings prefer a multi-sensory experience for whatever they are doing. If you engage ever more of the senses, cognition occurs more quickly. We like it more, and we get it better," Burgess says.

Macromedia: www.macromedia.com

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