Published Fall IT/AV 2007

At War Over Flash
The Digital Signage segment may be benefiting.
By Neal Weinstock

Adobe Flash is the common format for most digital signage. Back at NAB 2007, Microsoft declared war on Adobe by coming out with a competitor to Flash, called Silverlight. It will be a pretty good war for us.

A fun war...a profitable war...because digital signage is an early battlefield for the two fighting software companies, and there are lots of goodies for us among the warriors’ weapons.

The main battlefield is clearly internet delivery of video and multimedia. But digital signage is low-hanging fruit for Micro- soft. Let’s see what the company offers us for our fruit.

Setting The Stage

Let’s set the stage. Flash is the de facto standard for distribution of advertising video and video-like media on the web and in digital signage. It came to this position largely by accident. There were lots of contenders. And, if you had asked most knowledgeable observers a few years ago which one would become king, few would have suggested it would have been Flash. Most, probably, would have assumed one of the straightforward video codecs would have taken the lead. These include Apple’s QuickTime, Microsoft’s Windows Media, Real Networks’ eponymous software or, especially, MPEG4, after Apple’s donation of much of the intellectual property of QuickTime allowed it to become a widely deployed international standard (as the guts of H.264).

Flash came out of a relatively small company called Macromedia, which had little marketing power but gave big chunks of its software away. This was not terribly different from most of its competitors: The playbook for them all was written by Netscape, which gave its browser away so it could make money on servers. This worked about as well for all these video codec guys as it did for Netscape, which flamed out after Microsoft started giving away its browser, too.

No surprises when Microsoft killed Netscape, right? So, how come Macromedia made such a huge success of Flash, in the face of competition from Microsoft and others, that it was able to sell out for gazillions to Adobe and live happily ever after?

Hard To Say

It’s hard to say. Programmers don’t like it very much; it’s kludgy and inconsistent. Its video quality, after incorporating the excellent On2 codec, is pretty good for low-bandwidth stuff on the internet, but not very good for HD quality and beyond. Flash is better, though, by far, than the other video codecs at carrying multimedia information besides video. This was supposed to be something that MPEG4 would do well, but the multimedia extensions of MPEG4 have never been finished.

In the early days of moving pictures over the internet, most people had slow connections; Flash provided a way to get them animated movement without too much of a wait over a skinny pipe. Other software did this, too, but not quite as well, not quite as cheaply, or not incorporating true video.

On the “cheaply” front: Flash starts out pretty inexpensive but, as numbers of users rise, license fees get pretty steep. Which is, no doubt, why Adobe bought it, and how it makes scads of money on it. But this does tend to burn budgets.

From the user’s point of view most of all, at this point, Flash is accepted widely because it’s accepted widely.

Microsoft To The Rescue

From one angle, Microsoft’s attack on Flash looks kind of like its serial attacks on a long line of best-in-class applications. The Borg serially wrapped into its ever-more bloated operating system and applications packages word processing, spreadsheets, database, browser, fax, voice recognition, video streaming, and on and on. And now, something Flash-like. Even from this typically anti-Microsoft point of view, many users must admit this integration has benefited the company tremendously. And here, with Flash, we have a perfect case where the category-leading software under attack could use some competition to make it better.

By the Fall, Microsoft had already announced Silverlight 1.1, but it won’t be released until 2008. Adobe had released two new products that are not, strictly speaking, part of Flash, but that do compete with some of what Silverlight does. These are AIR and Flex.

Let’s begin by comparing Flash and Silverlight. Here are some things they have in common as of the release of Silverlight 1.1 and Flash 9.0 used with Flex and AIR:

• Cross-platform runtime on Windows, Mac and Linux

• XML language to define the GUI

• Embedded video capability

• Timeline for animations

• Strongly typed, object-oriented language with just-in-time compilation

• Easy access to XML web services

• Dedicated design tools (Expression Blend for Silverlight, Flash IDE for Flex and AIR)

• Dedicated developer tools (Visual Studio for Silverlight, FlexBuilder for Flex and AIR).

Differences

So what are the differences? Obviously, Flash is already out in the world. If you are developing animations, multimedia or video for the internet, you can count on almost every consumer having a Flash client in his PC. But this advantage is not quite so important to commercial AV.

It is somewhat important. You might get some Flash movies to load into signage that were made with the web in mind (and, therefore, paid for by somebody else). But commercial AV often is about closed systems with unique content. We probably care more about things such as ease of programming and easily met hardware requirements so we can run the software on inexpensive devices, than on compatibility with millions of PC users.
On the hardware compatibility front, Flash 9.0 and Flex run on Windows 98. Silverlight 1.1 only supports Win 2000, Win XP and Win Vista, in the Windows family. Points for Flash. You can save money running Flash on older boxes. But not big points: Windows 98 is buggier than XP and Vista, it’s not fully supported anymore by Microsoft and, if you want to use lighter hardware, both Flash and Silverlight also run on Linux.

(The Microsoft haters in the audience are now surely muttering, “Silverlight won’t run on Linux anymore after they kill Flash.” Maybe…but Word and Excel do still run on the Macintosh.)

Programming Front

On the programming front, Silverlight makes much bigger points. It can be programmed in Visual Basic, C#, Python or Ruby. Flex has only Actionscript 3.0. Most software developers are familiar with Visual Studio and C#; these are very powerful, and FlexBuilder is nowhere near as versatile or easy to use…and besides, not so many developers know it.

Compounding this advantage, there are loads of software developers who are experienced in creating code for Microsoft platforms. They may be mostly experienced in code for games or for business apps. Digital signage falls somewhere in between those worlds.

Adobe’s cultural strength is precisely in this middle ground of developers for advertising and other artsy design work. If you are getting content from an agency or a production company, that supplier is likely to be comfortable providing it in Flash.

Silverlight is less expensive, according to the Microsoft people. But in the low numbers of clients used in signage (as compared with the web), this won’t matter much.

Blue Panties

Other issues: Microsoft has given Silverlight a logo that looks like a pair of blue women’s underpants. Sorry, Microsoft, I have to be brutally honest here. Actually, it looks a bit more like the absorbent panties increasingly advertised on TV shows aimed at baby boomers than like something sexy. This logo is continuing proof that Microsoft may know software, but doesn’t know jack about groovy design. Are groovy designers going to buy something with this kind of logo? This writer, not being a groovy design guy himself, cannot say. Maybe absorbent panties are now very “with it.”

More issues: Silverlight supports full-screen 720p video. Flash doesn’t come close. For signage that must be as high-res as possible, the choice is clear.

Yet more issues: Mobile phones, says Adobe, bring in a huge amount of revenue from Flash licenses. The big kahuna market for Flash and Silverlight has been the internet, but mobile may quickly become just as big. Even if commercial AV is low-hanging fruit for Microsoft, even if our market can allow Silverlight to establish a foothold on the way up to the big markets, the big markets are now a vast amount bigger than our little world. Therefore, neither Adobe nor Microsoft may notice signage all that much. We may be lost in the bigger battle.

Still, virtually every digital signage software set now embeds Flash. It will be nice to see it get some competition.



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