Easily one of the most interesting developments in technology from this past week was the release of the beta version of Flash 10.1. What makes this version of the almost ubiquitous, and often annoying, browser plug-in so earth-shaking? The latest iteration of Flash promises to make a huge leap in the technology’s usability by enabling hardware acceleration of Flash video decoding. Prior to this beta release, all Flash video had had to be decoded by the CPU, a task that was very processor intensive, to the point that it made high definition and/or full screen Flash video essentially unwatchable because of poor quality, but also stuttering, crashes, etc. So even as Flash video has become the de-facto standard for online video streaming, powering such dominating sites as YouTube and Hulu, it has retained an almost fatal flaw for large format viewing. Flash’s weakness in this area was especially ironic as so many technologies and devices are striving today to bring Internet video precisely to large HDTVs in living rooms, as the next evolution of media distribution. Hardware acceleration of video on PCs is not new, however, and in fact, both nVidia and ATI have enabled hardware acceleration of h.264 video on their more recent video cards and GPU’s. In addition, integrated graphics solutions like nVidia’s Ion platform have been designed specifically to create compact, low wattage HTPCs with very modest CPUs capable of easily playing back 1080p h.264 content at high bit-rates. A glaring weakness for these video capable HTPCs and nettops, however, was their obvious inability to display Flash video well, even when the underlying codec in the video was h.264, because of how Flash functioned in all versions prior to 10.1. Finally, Adobe has addressed the problem and the 10.1 beta does in fact offload much of the video decoding processing from the CPU to the GPU, and based on my own tests, now lets HTPCs successfully show full screen and HD Flash based video. Prior to 10.1 I would never attempt to watch services like Hulu in full screen via my mini-ITX Ion-based HTPC, but now that is essentially not a problem any longer. Merely uninstalling Flash 10 and then installing the 10.1 beta made an obvious and crucial difference.
It will likely be a few months before Adobe rolls out 10.1 to everyone, but the impact of this move will likely be felt both in the short and long terms. Short term, hardware decoded Flash video could be a real boost tonettop PC’s and netbooks, allowing them to really become cheap and easy media playback devices. In the longer view, however, Flash’s innovation here could really cement its central role as they delivery avenue for video of all kinds over the Internet, dealing serious blows to both Microsoft’s Quicksilver, but also any other competitors still out there. Unknown is what Flash video’s dominance will mean for the file-sharing and downloading communities. Will video pirates move away from downloading entire shows via Bittorrent to instead watch free streaming episodes on Hulu -like services if quality differences disappear? Will more cable customers ditch their TV services in favor of going completely for over-the-top video? Such suppositions may be quite speculative at this point, but with the changes to Flash on the horizon, they are becoming more plausible every day.