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Designing Macromedia's recovery

After his company suffered through a lousy 2001, CEO Rob Burgess pins his hopes for a turnaround on a string of major product upgrades, including a new version of Flash.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
5 min read
Macromedia suffered through a rough patch in 2001, a year marked by a string of money-losing quarters and a dearth of major new products. Hoping for a turnaround in 2002, the San Francisco-based designer of Web authoring and development tools this month begins a string of major product upgrades, starting with a new version of its Flash software.

Installed in more than 98 percent of Internet-connected PCs, Flash, the leading Web plug-in, has evolved from a simple animation player into a general-purpose foundation for creating Web pages and applications.

The new Flash will be followed in coming months by other major product updates, including Dreamweaver, the company's market-leading application for professional Web authoring, and ColdFusion, server software that Macromedia acquired when it snapped up Allaire last year.

Macromedia CEO Rob Burgess talked with CNET News.com about the new Flash MX, announced Monday, and his plans for engineering a rebound.

Q: It seems like there's a lot of focus with the new Flash MX on improving the user experience, eliminating page refreshes and things like that.
A: That's a driving force for us, as a consumer of the Internet and a provider of the weaponry to make it better. The Web experience works for some small class of things now, but mostly it doesn't work very effectively for a lot of things that people are trying to do.

The experience you have now on the Internet is mostly governed by the frailties of the formats that are up there now. Why is it that when you're filling out a credit card form and you miss a field, you have to go back to square one? That's not a design decision.

You've standardized Web page elements such as scrollbars in this version of Flash. Is it tough to find the right combination of component-based design and customization, so pages have some individuality?

"A consumer does not want a thousand different ways of navigating through a site."
Left to our own devices, Macromedia has focused on giving developers the maximum number of choices...What's happening is our technologies have evolved from being interesting multimedia things for a limited market to real fundamental, meat-and-potatoes technology. So here, consistency is really important. A consumer does not want a thousand different ways of navigating through a site.

The creators still have all the creative power, but we're just doing a lot more in terms of guidelines and best practices to ensure consistency in the experience.

Will this eliminate the potential for Flash abuse?
Oh, no. A perfect metaphor is film. You invent film, there's going to be some people who make bad pictures; there's going to be some people who make pornography.

We're not taking away anything. But for the people who are in business, we're going to have the guidelines to ensure consistency.

Flash MX includes a video player. Are you going after RealNetworks and Windows Media Player?
Ours is really a different approach than they have taken. We are taking an integrated approach. Rather than have silos of different kinds of experiences on your desktop, this will allow you to incorporate video graphics in the overall experience...We're much more interested in interactivity, so it's not just a batch video experience.

We imagine the kind of applications people will be doing with our technology will be fundamentally different from what they're doing with QuickTime and Real. The thrust of our video effort is really completely different.

It seems like Flash accomplished a lot of things Java set out to do, as far as providing a reliable, ubiquitous foundation for a lot of Web functions. Why is that?

"A perfect metaphor is film. You invent film, there's going to be some people who make bad pictures; there's going to be some people who make pornography."
Because Flash was a product that didn't try to do too much. It tried to do a specific set of things, and the design team had a lot of rigor around that.

People don't like plug-ins. People don't like things they have to download, and they especially don't like them if they're a few megabytes.

So Flash was about 150 (kilobytes), and it has stayed really low-weight. To get 5 (kilobytes) out of this engineering team, you've got to pull teeth. It's why most of the players out there have failed--they tried to do too much, or they got too big.

You've kept the Flash player quite slim (less than 500 kilobytes), even as broadband has proliferated and other folks figure they can shove as much code as they want through the pipeline.
We just think that as everybody gets fast computers and fast pipes at home and at work, they've got wireless devices that are going to have fast connections. We think there's going to be a wide range of performance and bandwidth for the next decade at least...so having an efficient language like Flash will continue to pay benefits.

Is there any concern about Dreamweaver (Macromedia's Web authoring application) becoming a poor stepchild as the role of Flash keeps expanding?
No, we think HTML is going to be with us for a long time. Flash is great for some things, but it's not good for everything. We see people wanting to use a variety of technologies.

You've said that Macromedia's main products will all support Microsoft's .Net. Are you hedging your bets in the Web services race?
Most people want to be able to develop and deploy in whatever environment works best. We've worked on that across the board. A few years ago, it was developers wanting to write for Netscape and (Internet Explorer)--we built tools that made that easy and practical. Now the next big one is .Net and J2EE (Sun Microsystems' Java 2 Enterprise Edition). People want to go both ways on that, and we'll give them the tools to do that.

The past year was rough for you financially. Is there any way for Macromedia to insulate itself from the cyclical nature of being in an Internet-centered business?
I don't know if the Internet is old enough to call it cyclical. It did have a big cycle. We think most of the market is having a sort of Internet hangover right now. It got way overinvested, and we were the beneficiaries of that. Now there's a snapback. If you look at it over a four- or five-year time frame, we've accomplished a lot; we've quadrupled in revenue over the last four years. I don't think you can just look at it quarter to quarter.