Can Adobe's Flash Take TV to the Next Level?

Cable Companies, Web Publishers Among Those Its New Version Could Benefit

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Adobe's Flash video and animation platform fueled the Web video boom. Can it finally bridge the TV-internet divide in your living room?

Today, Adobe is launching a new push into the television industry: It's making a version of Flash -- the technology that powers most Web video, interactive advertising, and many other Web applications -- for TV sets, set-top boxes, Blu-ray players, etc. Initial partners include Comcast, Disney, Intel, Netflix, Broadcom, NXP Semi, The New York Times, etc.

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What's the point? Now that most people have broadband Internet at home, it makes sense that people might want to do more with their fancy flat-panel TVs than just watch TV on them. But no one is doing a good job adding the Internet to any part of the TV experience. So a good, Flash-based platform with broad participation could potentially help a lot of companies:

  • It could help sell more TVs, set-top boxes, Blu-ray players, etc. (The way the Apple iPhone app store is helping sell more iPhones and iPod touches.)
  • It could also help the cable industry -- which has been offering crappy set-top box forever -- get with the times and start offering user interfaces that are actually compelling, including seamless access to Internet content. That's one way to convince more people that $80 per month for digital cable isn't a ripoff in the era of Hulu and iTunes
  • It could help Web publishers and video services -- from the NYT and Facebook to YouTube and Netflix -- extend their reach.
  • It could help interactive agencies reach people in their living rooms who already fast-forward through TV commercials.
  • And lastly, it could help Adobe sell more copies of Flash authoring tools, server tools, etc.

One benefit of Flash over other platforms is that many designers and developers already know how to do cool stuff with Flash because of its popularity on the Web. So unlike other platforms, there's a large, built-in audience.

But there is a huge hurdle: Unlike on computers, Flash doesn't have the benefit of near-universal adoption on TV sets. People don't replace their TVs, set-top boxes, or other living-room gadgets very often. So there's the risk that whatever Comcast, Intel, or a TV maker orders today might not be in enough living rooms to matter for several years. By then, who knows what will be popular -- or if anyone will still use Flash.

Will Adobe's bet pay off? Too early to tell, of course. It could easily flop. But if priced right -- Adobe says it will charge a license fee now, but a free version is on its way -- it's possible that TV makers, consumer electronics makers, and cable companies' set-top box vendors will want to include Flash-based applications in their offerings. (Getting them to share control over widget distribution -- or even decide who has control over it -- is a different hurdle, and could sink the whole ship.) 

The next step will be to see who actually does something with this after today's press release. Adobe, while successful on the PC, hasn't had much luck with other platforms. Its efforts in the mobile industry have recently improved after years of little progress, but the company still has a long way to go on cellphones before it's relevant outside of Japan. We'll have a better sense of Adobe's chances in the TV business once Flash is actually getting built into devices, on store shelves, and in our living room.

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Dan Frommer is a senior editor at Business Insider.

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