A happy “accident”

Andy Plesser and the folks at Beet.tv do a lot of great interviews with people in technology… if they’re not on your reading list, I’d recommend adding them. But today they had an interview with Adobe’s Jen Taylor, which ended up on Techmeme with the title “The Vidoe Revolution Happened by ‘Accident’”. News to me! ;-)

If you watch the interview, at about 1:20, Jen says “It’s funny, I don’t think we ever anticipated the success we see today with online video. I often tell the story of how video got into the Flash Player, and it was a complete accident… I don’t think we ever understood what we had seeded [?] in that.”

True enough — Jen was saying that we hadn’t foreseen the explosion of digital video on the web, where everyone expects parallel over-the-air and over-the-web viewing of all types of realtime experiences, where people routinely upload videos of their own for people the world over to watch. That part was indeed a happy surprise.

But the capability itself wasn’t an accident. Jon Gay and Robert Tatsumi brought FutureSplash to Macromedia, and stayed on the combined Player/Authoring team for a few years. Jon took a sabbatical, and came back with a vision of two-way video communications, all implemented by a single tiny codec inside the Player.

To get an idea on the emphasis on two-way video communication back at that time, check out Tim Anderson’s interview with Jeremy Allaire, back in April 2002, during the introduction of the term “Rich Internet Applications”:

“We’re introducing a new technology for communications applications… The Flash player that was recently released includes within it all the client capabilities needed for these communications applications. It allows you to deliver real-time, peer-to-peer or one-to-many or many-to-many real-time communications applications, with shared data, audio and video. All that is built into the client today. We’ll be introducing a new communications server later this year. It’s codenamed Tin Can, and it allows you to build these communications applications… .. You can do real-time shared audio and video.”

I spoke with Paul Betlem in the kitchen here on Townsend St today, and he said that his big memories from the time were the emphasis on two-way communication, the integration with a webpage instead of being a branded video “player” (like those from Real, Microsoft, Apple), and the concern that the addition of a codec, however small, might slow consumer adoption rates. It was a controversial decision internally — a premeditated gamble — and we all sort of held our breath on how it would turn out.

To get an idea of how advanced Flash developers saw it at the time, check out these notes from Mike Chambers, of a July 2002 session by Danny Mavromatis and Mike Davidson of ESPN.com. While Flash video may not have had all the features and options of existing video architectures, it had some unique, no-hassle, audience-inclusive benefits which helped bring about the situation we see today.

It took a few years for people to understand that video was now much easier to deliver… back in 2006 I noted that Flash video was a “voice in the wilderness” for its first few years. I think it was a few far-sighted Flash-savvy content developers who really proved to the world what could be done.

But I don’t think anyone at Macromedia had a clear vision of how user-generated content would take off, and how there would soon be giant video sites and live-streaming of public events and such — the technology was a very deliberate decision, and it was the global popularity which was the “happy accident”.