Rob Burgess: Macromedia's own Flash Gordon

If its recent acquisitions, new products and sharp rise in share price are any indication, Macromedia, creator of the popular Flash technology, is showing that there's still plenty of money to be made developing software for the Internet. Today, Macromedia's Flash technology is used on more than 95 percent of all computers linked to the Internet.

Over the past few months a flurry of announcements has come from the San Francisco company. For instance, Macromedia acquired Presedia Inc., which produces online presentation, and folded these tools into its new Breeze product, allowing users to add narration to a PowerPoint presentation and combine the two in a streaming application based on the Flash format. The company also launched Central, which enables users run applications on their desktops without using browsers.

Rob Burgess, chief executive officer (CEO) of Macromedia, took a break on Wednesday from his trip around Europe, where he spent a week meeting with customers and partners, to talk with IDG News Service in Dusseldorf, Germany. Burgess, who switched the company's initial focus on CD-ROMs to multimedia software, talked about Macromedia's new products, plans for the future and intention to stay independent.

Q: So why have you guys survived the Internet blowout when so many haven't?

RB: Ours isn't so much a successful business story as it is a successful consumer story. Our goal all along has been to make the Web more usable for people. We're now seeing thousands of Web sites based on our technology that are fundamentally better. And this is causing growth in our business.

Q: Could you give me some examples of these "fundamentally better" Web sites?

RB: You bet. Just go to the homepage of the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. (www.thewatergatehotel.com) and click reservations. What we've done there is to create one page to replace multiple HTML (Hypertext Markup Language ) pages, which you had to click through in order to view, reserve and pay for a room in the past. The site is fast because new pages don't have to be rerendered every time you click a link. Some other good examples are the Austin Mini Web site (www.miniusa.com), which allows you to build your own car online and send your order to a dealer electronically, or the digital camera finder site operated by the Internet start-up Iokio in London (www.ikio.com). The site, which is still under development, helps you select a camera by selecting a number of parameters, such as price, resolution and memory.

Q: So you're saying speed is a factor to create a better user experience.

RB: Definitely. Take the quote widget on the E*TRADE Web site. Before the company introduced Flash, the entire page was is in HTML and had to be entirely rerendered when you wanted to get just one quote, a process that took up to 20 seconds with a modem connection. With Flash, only the quote data is now supplied, a process that takes one second. Not only do users have to wait considerably less, but E*TRADE has also been able to reduce its bandwidth requirements by around 98 percent.

Q: You've made some announcements about "rich" applications. What are these all about?

RB: Our new MX line of products make rich applications possible. Part of what makes these possible is the ability to run applications in Flash player. Before Flash player was mostly animation; now it also includes the ability to process logic. Video is another component we've added. Our video isn't a stand-alone application; it's an integrated part of graphics and text. A beautiful example of what we're doing on this front is the online learning solution (www.macromedia.com/go/vitle and www.ilearn.com.hk) we've supplied to the Hong Kong Baptist University, to help keep classes open during the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic.

Q: How is the advertising community responding to your new direction?

RB: Let the numbers speak for themselves. The use of Flash technology for advertising has grown in the past five quarters from 3 billion Flash-ad impressions to 30 billion impressions in a flat market.

Q: There has been some criticism of text in Flash files not showing up on search engines. What are you doing to resolve this issue?

RB: We're working on this. Alta Vista now supports Flash, and we're hopeful that some of the other search engine companies will support Flash in the future. We have no plans to develop our own search engine. This isn't our core business.

Q: Some experts think you'd like to turn Flash into a language to rival Java. Any truth to this?

RB: Java is a good language. We love it and embrace it in many ways. We're not trying to do what Java does. With Flash, we've architected a ubiquitous, reliable software product for PCs. Java isn't widely used in the PC world but rather on the back-end. In the mobile world, however, we're seeing almost everyone putting Java and Flash on the client side. This is an interesting development.

Q: Is mobile a new priority?

RB: It's a huge market. We're already supplying Flash technology to several key players, such as Microsoft and Sony on the handset side and, most recently, NTT DoCoMo on the carrier side. The deal with DoCoMo, which launched the world's first 3G (third-generation) network, is very important.

Q: What are all these murmurings about a new product, with the code name Royale?

RB: Royale is a new product still under development. It's essentially Flash for programmers. Currently, the Flash authoring tool is widely used by creative people. It has a visual interface, allowing these people to draw, move things around and do all this in a time-line. This interface is something that is very natural for an artist. If you're a hardcore programmer, you really want a tool to use in a server environment, especially as content merges with logic in next-generation applications, like the Watergate Hotel application I mentioned earlier. To put it another way, programmers aren't visual; they want code. We hope to deliver Royale later this year.

Q: And now to wrap up with a question pundits and analysts like to ask companies with cutting-edge technology: When is Microsoft going to acquire you?

RB: We're good partners; we're not up for sale. There are millions of customers out there who want us to remain independent.

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