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Macromedia gets chatty

Want to talk? Macromedia's Flash Communications Server MX allows Web developers to add chat, interactive video and other communications features to sites.

Macromedia's quest to make the Web work better enters new and uncharted territory Tuesday with the release of server software for adding communications functions to Web sites.

Flash Communications Server MX, a new addition to the MX family of Web development and server products Macromedia has built this year, is meant to further encourage Web developers to add chat, interactive video and other communications features to their sites, said Kevin Lynch, chief software architect for Macromedia.

"There are other technologies that are delivering parts of this experience, but it tends to be very segmented," Lynch said. "You've got a video conferencing application, a collaboration application, an instant messaging application, and everything happens in a separate silo...We've been working on creating a single way to bring that all together. Instant messaging as it works now is cool, but you can't really build anything on top of it."

Tools for creating such applications with pre-built components are already a part of Flash MX, the new version of Macromedia's suite of tools for developing applications for the company's Flash animation player. As its name suggests, the Communications Server is meant to make delivering such features easier on the server side.

For consumers, the ability to run communication features through the tiny Flash client means those experiences happen seamlessly within the browser window, without complex downloads and installation hassles.

"I think we're on the edge of another breakthrough in terms of how people think about the Internet," Lynch said. He envisioned interactive whiteboard presentations, instant messaging features built into a site and customer service pages that include options to speak with a live person via text-, voice- or video-chat. Flash includes built-in support for Webcams and microphones.

Next big thing or Flash in the pan?
Analysts and Flash developers say Lynch's vision has promise, but it's likely to be a while before it takes off. Other enhancements in Flash MX products have focused on improving functions already offered by Web sites, particularly e-commerce operations, allowing Macromedia to make a strong return-on-investment argument for upgrading. Communication features would be new add-ons with unproven returns.

In the current economic climate, such new ideas are unlikely to find an immediately friendly audience, said Rikki Kirzner, an analyst for research firm IDC.

"I think there are some major opportunities here, but the biggest problem is that you have to wait for the market to catch up--nobody's really looking for this kind of capability," Kirzner said. "And a lot of people got burned before by jumping on the latest, greatest Web thing. Once the profits come back, then they'll begin to look at new tools and new capabilities."

Given Macromedia's status as the leading provider of professional Web development tools, the company can afford to wait, Kirzner added.

"The chances of somebody stepping up to the plate and offering a competing product is pretty slim," Kirzner said. "I have no doubt they will lead with this capability as soon as the market wakes up to it. They have a really strong developer community; you give them something good, and they adopt it and suck it up fast."

But it will take more than developer support to make Web pages do new tricks. Web design, including Flash work, has become increasingly specialized, said Chris MacGregor, a Web designer and creator of Flash critique site Flazoom. Decisions about adding new functions to a site are typically made at the executive level.

"I think most designers will know the technology is available," MacGregor said, "but I can't see many people who are just designers...saying 'I'm going to learn how to build a chat room and put that on the site.' Those kind of decisions are much more for strategists, people who are at the higher end of deciding how a Web site works.

"I can see clients starting to ask for this kind of technology," MacGregor added. "And the developers will tell them Flash can handle chat room and messaging technology a lot better and more compatibly with the different kinds of browsers that are out there."

Aral Balkan, a London-based Flash developer, said it won't be too tough to convince developers of the benefits of adding communication features to their site. But getting businesses to cover the extra costs associated with maintaining servers for such applications is likely to be a tough sell.

"There is no doubt much enthusiasm on the part of the developer community surrounding the Communications Server," Balkan said. "But it may be too optimistic at this point to assume that this will come to pass in the very near future."

Lynch acknowledged that adding communication features to sites will require rethinking the way the Web works.

"I'd say it's the most experimental of the MX products," Lynch said. "The radical thing (is) it's based on the small Flash player 200 million people already have. The capability is already there."

Lynch is confident Web users will start to demand communication-enabled sites, however, once they see the benefits.

"Part of it is the emotional element of communications," Lynch said. "Today, about the most you can do is add a smiley face to your e-mail. But think about when you can actually see or hear the person you're communicating with...We think this is a completely radical, disruptive technology."