Media Tips, Tricks, and Hints
This Month's Top Question:
Flash or Windows Media - Which is better?
Flash vs Windows Media: Choosing the Right Format
July 22, 2006
Written By Dan Rayburn - Executive Vice President of StreamingMedia.com
Video quality shouldn't be the only--or even the most important--factor when it comes to selecting a format. Scalability, rights management, user experience, and other considerations are just as crucial to your decision.
It’s been about 14 years since streaming media technology was first used on the internet and, like it or not, after 14 years no single format is considered the standard for video delivery today. Competing formats from Adobe, Apple, Microsoft, and Real all still vie for market share across various business verticals and playback devices. For many content creators, confusion still reigns over which format or formats content providers should encode and deliver their content in.
Though Real and Apple's QuickTime both have their fans, Microsoft and Macromedia/Adobe have won the bulk of both the B2B and consumer-content format market share. Which means people ask me all the time, “Which format is better, Flash or Windows Media?” With that question in mind, lets look at some of the differences between Flash and Windows Media that will assist you in making that decision. Compression specialists and engineers all have their opinions when it comes to comparing things like codecs, server options, and the hard-core technical details of each platform, but for the purpose of this article I am going to cover basic facts, not opinions.
Crucial to this discussion is that the format makes no difference if you don’t know who your audience is, what they want to see, how they want to see it, and how your business model works for delivering those things to viewers. Knowing your customer is the most important aspect of any business, especially when you are delivering content via streaming or downloading. If you don’t know your audience, you have bigger problems to worry about than which format(s) to choose.
With that in mind, let’s look at some differences between Flash and Windows Media and the strengths and weaknesses of each format. For starters, it’s impossible to compare one format to another unless you are comparing them in specific verticals. Adoption rates and usage vary greatly among the enterprise, media/entertainment, broadcast, education, and government markets, as well as among geographic regions.
Yes, there is no question Flash has been one of the hottest topics in the industry the past 12 months and each day we continue to see more and more content on the web in the Flash format, for specific content markets. But most of that adoption for Flash has been in the media and entertainment vertical as well as the video advertising market. No one would argue that in the video adverting market, Flash has Windows Media beat hands-down. But in the enterprise market, which I classify as Fortune 1000 as well as internal streaming communications users, Windows Media still reigns supreme. Flash is typically used for short-form content (under 30 minutes in length) whereas Windows Media is still generally used for any long-form content. Different industry verticals have different adoption rates.
Look on the web; how many live events do you see in the Flash format? Live streaming (webcasting) is primarily done in the Windows Media format, not Flash. Microsoft has a free Windows Media encoder tool for this purpose. Adobe does not yet have its own live Flash encoder and requires you to build your own or use one from a third party.
As of today, Flash has no digital rights management component and does not give users the ability to download videos to their desktops. Windows Media has digital rights management and is widely used for content models that let users download video or audio content while limiting their ability to copy it.
When it comes to audio-only streaming or downloading, Windows Media is still the dominant format. Typically, the Flash format is not used without some sort of video component involved. So for content such as music, or porting content to portable devices and mobile hardware, Windows Media is still the winner. Adobe has done some deals in the handset and carrier markets porting the Flash platform over to wireless devices, but its primary use is for Flash-based design and content services like games, not video. So far, Windows Media still has Flash beat in terms of carrier and handset adoption for actual video.
Windows Media also supports multi-bit-rate encoding and the ability to scale the video playback window without problems. Flash does not support any multiple bit rate encoding at this time, and scaling the Flash video window greatly reduces the quality of the video. [Editor's note--The originally posted version of this story included the word "variable" instead of "multiple" in the previous sentence. We regret any confusion this may have caused.] As for the cost to stream content via a content delivery network (CDN), Windows Media is cheaper than Flash, as CDNs have to charge a platform license fee imposed by Adobe to use a Flash Media Server. This fee is small, but it can add up quickly for anyone delivering large amounts of streaming videos, and these days, delivering videos is a volume business.
At this point you might be saying, “Hmm. Sounds like Windows Media wins.” Maybe it does for your particular business or content need, but there are some strengths of Flash you should know about as well.
When it comes right down to it, most people I speak to who use Flash say they do so because the browser plug-in has a higher penetration rate than the Windows Media Player. Does it? No one really knows. Adobe has third-party metrics that say 97.7% of web users have the Flash Player installed, but these numbers vary based on region and player version. Also, just because someone has the player installed doesn’t mean that they use it. For you, the most reliable data on player install numbers is what you see from your customers. That’s all that matters.
The biggest advantage the Flash format has over Windows Media is the end-user experience. When it comes to Flash Video, users don’t think about whether they have a player installed, what version it is, what codecs are installed, or any of the technical details. You go to a website and the video just works. It’s seamless, it’s part of the content experience, and it takes the technical questions out of the picture. That’s what consumers like: ease of use. Many content creators want to make it as simple as possible for viewers to consume as much content as possible.
When people describe Flash Video, the terms they often use are immersive and interactive, like the ability to roll your cursor over a Flash Video and interact with that content. When it comes to customizing the video player, adding additional video data, and designing a website around that video, Flash beats Windows Media. The huge benefit for Adobe is that web developers already develop in the Flash format. Flash is considered the standard for web developers in terms of adding interactivity to websites, so it’s natural for them to develop websites with added video components in the Flash development environment.
That being said, Flash loses to Windows Media when it comes to tools that allow you to edit video that has already been encoded, as Adobe does not make any tools that allow you to edit an FLV file. Windows Media toolkits are far more robust than Flash, and Microsoft provides a player, something Adobe lacks, forcing you to have to build your own or get one from a third party.
Embedding video into a web page is easier in the Flash format and does not require a stand-alone player like some sites do for Windows Media-based content. Websites that include Flash Video make the video seem like part of the overall experience of the site, as opposed to treating it like a separate component from the site, the way many sites do with Windows Media Video. Flash also tends to work better across multiple browsers than does Windows Media, not to mention across PC platforms. Yes, Windows Media video does work on Macs, but it is not a seamless experience. The Mac player does not support digital rights management functionality, some of the newest audio and video codecs are not supported with the Mac player, and the new Intel-based Macs require a plug-in called Flip4Mac (www.Flip4Mac.com) in order to play Windows Media videos at all.
For some content creators, the extra cost involved in delivering Flash is worth it if they can provide a better end-user experience, while for others, Windows Media suits their goals just fine. The whole point is that this is not about one platform being better than another. It's about using the best platform or combination of platforms based on your type of content, the device(s) you are delivering it to, and the end users you want to reach. Only you can decide which platform(s) to use based on the answers to those questions, and many times, content creators use multiple platforms to reach the widest numbers of users.
As the debate over the Flash and Windows Media formats continues to rage on in the industry, so does the battle between Adobe and Microsoft over which platform will reign supreme. Adobe is hard at work on Flash 9 (it shipped the player in late June) while Microsoft, not to be outdone, has announced it is working on a competing product, now called Microsoft Expression Interactive Designer, the release of which would coincide with that of their next-generation Windows operating system, Windows Vista. Although the target audiences of Expression Interactive Designer and Flash overlap somewhat, Microsoft is targeting its product towards creating user interfaces for Windows Presentation Foundation programs, while Flash focuses on user interfaces that run on many platforms, primarily over the web. And you know Microsoft—when they want to win something, you can never count them out.
It’s been a long time since the early days (circa 1999) when we saw the last good format battle in the industry. Some may disagree, but Adobe and Microsoft aggressively competing with one another is great for everyone. As we have seen in the past, competition between the platforms helps drive new and improved video quality, scalability, and functionality to the market a lot sooner. Good technology is not the savior of any industry--adoption is the key—but any platform that is going to make video consumption over any device smoother and easier will be adopted over time.
Come Q4 of this year and the beginning of next, we’ll see both companies really stepping up to the plate with new announcements and product offerings. And with Microsoft and Adobe both possessing plenty of resources for both product development and marketing, it’s going to shape up to be a real platform battle. Round two is just getting underway.