Flexing Some Muscle


Rob Burgess, the CEO of Macromedia, is the most unlikely revolutionary. And yet it may very well be this mild mannered Canadian that may ultimately prove to be the biggest threat to Microsoft on the planet today.

This is because for the last few years Macromedia has quietly been pursuing a product development strategy that hopes to make the Flash media player the foundation for a new user interface paradigm.

While that may sound overly ambitious, the stars continue to slowly align in favor of Macromedia. The macro trend that Macromedia is trying to tap into is a nascent sense of dissatisfaction with the browser interface used for Web applications. Once upon a time, there existed a number of rich client interfaces that were developed by companies that created commercial packaged software. But in the name of created a standardized method for writing Web-based applications, the world took two collective steps back in terms of user interface design by embracing the browser.

In terms of user interface design, the browser was a necessary evil. But as we get ready to embrace the second half of the first decade of the 21st century, the time to move the state of the art for user interfaces beyond the browser is at hand.

And the two most notable efforts to accomplish that are the Flex development environment built on top of Flash by Macromedia and the Avalon framework that Microsoft expects to roll out with the delivery of the Longhorn upgrade to Windows that is due out in 2006.

Given Microsoft's timeline and the multi-platform nature Flash, Macromedia has a unique opportunity to create the first real universal container for executing applications across Windows, Linux and Unix, assuming they can get their collective act together before Microsoft overwhelms them with marketing beginning with a run up to Longhorn that will begin in earnest sometime in the middle of 2005.

This is where the naivet, some lingering doubts about their technical ability to accomplish the job given previous fits and starts and a general lack of business and channel development experience at Macromedia, may prove to be a significant problem. In the last year, Macromedia has made a lot of progress getting companies that make mobile phones and other consumer devices to include support for Flash in their devices, but the company is a long way from creating a movement around Flash and Flex. And without a grass roots movement behind Flex, Macromedia will likely join the litany of companies that could have been a contender.

This is shame because the one place Macromedia could make an immediate impact is by tapping into the general discontent that exists among the power users of Corporate America. Over the past several years, this most influential class of users has continually seen its ability to create exciting new departmental applications hamstrung by corporate IT department edicts. Once upon a time, this group of people could rely on their own Lotus Notes or dBase knowledge to work around IT, but as those tools were either annexed by IT or simply couldn't keep up with the time, the power users of the world have been left with rudimentary HTML tools at best.

With Flash and Flex, Macromedia could step into that void to create a movement, most notably by copying the approach to channel development that Lotus used to start a movement in the 1980s. Most departments and divisions in Corporate America already have basic Web skills and a rudimentary understanding of Flash. For example, a power user could in a few months create a rich business intelligence application using tool based on Flex without having to get in a corporate IT queue that would result in that application being delivered in 2006. Unleashing that potential is where the Macromedia opportunity lies.

Burgess says he understands this issue, but Canadian frugality and a general skepticism derived from watching other companies waste millions of dollars on frivolous marketing, results in a go slow approach to the market. In addition, it's not at all clear that, beyond Burgess, the rest of the company really understands how to talk to anybody except professional developers.

It's pivotal for Macromedia to mature as a company to reach the next level of its development, especially when you consider that Macromedia may have the most potential of any company entering 2005. The unanswered question is whether Macromedia can flex enough muscle to actually realize that potential.