Storefront, catalog, or technology platform?

Adobe Media Player had a new release yesterday, with performance, interface, and publishing improvements. Pundits covered the press release. Most of them focused on which shows to watch. Some spoke of “competitors like Apple’s iTunes and Windows Media Player.” Seems to me like they’re only seeing one small part of the picture.

I’m not putting down the pundits… they’re entitled to view anything anyway they see fit, and it’s likely that Adobe hasn’t done the strongest job in insisting on understanding of its goals.

But this isn’t a story like competing cable or satellite providers, and which company secures the rights to a given title in a given region. It’s not one of those earlier zero-sum games about which movie theatre chains can show the fancy MGM films, and which chains shows the quicker RKO titles. It’s more like designing the first cathode-ray tubes, or discovering the business models for the first TV stations. We know we have to achieve something, but still have to figure out its final form.

Off the top of my head, Adobe Media Player 1.0 delivered three significant things: a local Rich Internet Application for viewing video from diverse sources, replacing the page-refresh video experience where your viewing history is stored on some company’s server and then data-mined… a subscription-based, “video comes to you” experience, laying the groundwork for future decentralized social viewing recommendations… and a policy-file system which lets content creators determine where they grant viewing rights, to whom, and when.

There’s a whole lot more technology understructure yet to test and develop. We need better creation, integration, and analysis of video metadata, a coherent pipeline for including information along with the visuals. More work needs to be done on the overall production workflow, from planning to asset tracking to editing to compression to distribution to analytics. We need to analyze and expose video content (speech-to-text, object recognition) and social metadata (recommendations and tagging from friends), so that advertising (the main revenue generator) can be more tuned to the viewing audience’s current needs. We need to make the video experience more customizable to the content producer’s experiential design, and more responsive to the enduser’s desires. AMP 1.x did accomplish a lot, but there’s much more work yet to done.

Within Adobe I don’t hear people talk of competing with particular video sites and distributors… such initiatives are uniformly seen as partners, or as potential partners, who have technology needs which are not yet met, perhaps not yet even recognized.

Everything I see points towards Adobe Media Player as being a technology platform, where new publishing capabilities can be explored and refined. “How will the viewing public want to experience video in 2010, 2015, 2020?” seems more the spirit than “What’s the marketshare for the catalog this month?” That’s the reality I see within Adobe, from the product team to the Dynamic Media organization to the top executive level. We need to bring about the next generation of internet video publishing.

Back when Adobe PostScript first provided a more predictable digital printing capability than the maze of competing printer drivers and application exporters, Adobe Systems did not open a publishing house or try to monopolize book distribution. Adobe achieved its financial goals by opening up the publishing process to universal access, earning money on sales of enabling technology.

To confirm this cultural DNA, see this recent interview with Charles Geschke, co-founder of Adobe. He was a math professor who found computers personally interesting, found great satisfaction in making the written word more accessible to more people than anyone since Gutenberg, and now stresses the importance of the new integrated runtime for networked application development. It’s a longterm view, not about controlling content, but about profiting by helping others sustainably create and use content. This cultural orientation was one of the most striking things I learned about Adobe, coming in from the cowboy/interactivity/shrinkwrap culture at Macromedia.

Other companies have different business models, whether it’s to sell a range of consumer electronic devices, or to develop an advertising network, or to increase the range of proprietary personalization databases. But Adobe makes its money selling neutral publishing technology. The more people who find video useful, the better. These core orientations determine the different paths each group will take.

The AMP marketing materials do emphasize significant partners, but there seem to be two main reasons for that: (a) we need a goodsized audience to provide reliable feedback on how people will really want things to work; and (b) creators are actively seeking ways to maintain a connection with their big-budget work, beyond just letting an .MPG run wild throughout the Web in hope that money will somehow flow in. Sony, CBS, Showtime, MTV and all the rest are validating that they find potential within AMP, and those big titles help draw useful audiences during development.

(There’s an interesting angle on big-budget video… YouTube became famous during the Web 2.0 age for “User Generated Content” (UGC). That’s great, I love it, it’s valuable, we need it. But audiences tend to obsess on professional, big-budget entertainment… that’s they stuff they hunt for. And to afford those professional budgets, creators need a real return-on-investment. Finding ways to support video-creation businesses is the real way to support video-viewing audiences.)

Anyway, when I see the daily commentary focus on Ghostbusters or The Love Boat, I can understand how someone fresh to it may just see what’s personally relevant for them. But I see bigger goals within Adobe, focused far more on new technology than commercial properties.

The Adobe video pipeline is undergoing startling rapid evolution. I’m betting the Techmeme stories from Summer 2009 will likely be quite a bit different…. ;-)