Archive for December, 2008

Things should just work

The BBC has released a new desktop player for downloaded videos. I was struck by the headlines on Techmeme: “Now Install BBC iPlayer for Mac, Linux Computers”, “BBC releases iPlayer for Mac and Linux”, “BBC introduces CBBC iPlayer, plus beta Mac and Linux downloads”, “BBC iPlayer download feature available on Linux & Macs”, “BBC announces iPlayer Desktop for Mac and Linux”, “BBC iPlayer for Mac arrives”, “BBC iPlayer now available for Mac”, “BBC iPlayer finally available for Mac, Linux”, “iPlayer Released for Mac, Linux; Adobe Announces AIR for Linux”.

Isn’t that the way things should be? If you have a computer, it should just work.

It shouldn’t be just “an Apple computer” or “a Windows OS” or whatever. They’re computers; they should just work.

With AIR, you can publish an application to any popular type of computer. All it takes is some JavaScript, or some Flash.

We need to get to the same place on other devices too.

I liked reading over those headlines. No drama… Windows, Macintosh and Linux are coming to parity.

One more thing, in that original BBC article. They mention the need to time-restrict and geo-restrict the video. They can’t invest in video production unless they can rationalize their ability to tax UK citizens for support. Rights-management is a vital key in making rational business decisions. But at the same time it can’t inconvenience the intended audience. Things aren’t perfect and invisible yet, but there’s steady improvement in making doorlocks.

(Tip: On Linux, please be sure to uninstall old versions and update Player before installing AIR 1.5… more here.)

Anyway… good stuff. We’re making progress. :)

Opera’s MAMA on plugins

Opera’s MAMA is a “Metadata Analysis and Mining Application” from staffer Brian Wilson. It’s a project to explore the nature of HTML tags on today’s web, via a sample of 3.5 million URLs. There were some early reports in October, and recently they’ve released additional data on tags used for cross-browser plug-ins.

A few surprising things about plug-in tagging jumped out at me:

  • The study found more EMBED tags than OBJECT tags. The difference was small — only 2% — but it indicates there are still some very old sites out there which specify media only in Netscape format.
  • Their sample of 3.5 million pages had about a half-million OBJECT/EMBED pairs, but they found just over a half-million additional sites using external JavaScript to add these tags. This sounds a little strange to me… on the sites I visit I see much more external-JS use than in-page tagging, partly as a response to Microsoft’s pre-Silverlight handling of the EOLAS patent, partly as a by-product of advertising network requirements. Anyway, these results seem to imply that 50% of SWF use is via external scripting, which feels low to me.
  • The APPLET tag, used by Java, is found on just over 50,000 of those pages… about 1.5% of the sample. (SWF is found on 34% of the sample set.) These numbers feel right to me, but it’s the first time in recent memory that someone has attempted to rigorously test the evidence, as Opera has done here.
  • This MAMA study is the same one which ran the world’s webpages through the W3C Validators and found that “145,009 out of 3,509,180 URLs passed validation -— only 4.13%!” (My takeaway from that is that there’s a significant difference between idealism and realism… telling people what they “should” do isn’t usually as straightforward as watching what they themselves choose to do.)

Some history on EMBED vs OBJECT: Netscape 2.0 introduced browser extensions in mid-1995… a half-year before JavaScript, by the way. These were embedded within the page via the EMBED tag. The next year Microsoft announced similar capability within Internet Explorer 3.0, by ActiveX via the OBJECT tag, although early versions of IE could also invoke Netscape Plugins via EMBED. In the later 1990s HTML 4.0 went with the Microsoft tag and forbade the Netscape tag, but offered no hints as to how the real world might reach such a purified state. Realistically, almost everyone followed the early Shockwave approach and nested OBJECT & EMBED to make the various browsers happy.

Brian Wilson has tons more MAMA data on the Opera site… really valuable in understanding the tagging structure of the real web today, and I appreciate that they made this info public!

Silverlight stat quotes

Wall Street Journal had an article today, and it has already been picked up at Seeking Alpha and other sites. Here is the line which sounded strange to me:

“Adobe’s Flash player is installed on about 98% of Internet-connected PCs, and Silverlight is only installed on about 25%, according to Adobe and Microsoft.”

The first part is okay — it’s a rare computer which doesn’t have Adobe Flash Player 9 or better already installed, and almost everybody already has H.264 support — it’s the “SL at 25%” which was news to me, particularly when attributed to Adobe.

Closest match I’ve seen was the equivocal “Over 1 in 4 computers on the Internet now have some version of Silverlight installed” quote from Scott Guthrie last month. RIAstats.com shows SL2 support at 10% on the general sites they sample.

I checked with my partners here this morning, and the Adobe speakers apparently did not offer such a Silverlight quote. Best guess is that the sentence would be more clearly phrased as “Adobe’s Flash Player 9 is installed on about 98% of Internet-connected PCs, according to Adobe, and some version of Silverlight is only installed on about 25%, according to Microsoft.”

Whether 10% or 25% doesn’t matter much in the larger scheme of things — the core question is “What does it cost your audience to use?”, and we’ve only seen new Player apps start to spontaneously appear when up above 80% existing consumer support. In case you were wondering about the WSJ quote or its echoes, it seems to be a typo.

There’s also an interesting bit on the pay-for-play angles of trophy-site adoption: “When CBS Corp.’s college sports group decided to build its Web site using Silverlight earlier this year, Microsoft chipped in free development and support that ‘reduced our costs tremendously,’ said Tom Buffolano, the CBS business unit’s former chief. A CBS spokesman declined to comment.”

Summary: No big thing, but we didn’t say it was such a big thing, in case you were wondering…. ;-)

Adobe Earning Call, F4Q08

Adobe announced quarterly financial results today, and there was the regular financial analyst call this afternoon. Seeking Alpha has the transcript (thanks!), and I’ve pulled out some technology-oriented points below.

To get an overall feeling of the piece, start with Shantanu’s conclusion:

“So thank you all again for joining us today. I mean, in summary, when we look at 2008, we think that in a tough economic environment, we achieved both our revenue as well as our profitability goals and more important, we put the company in a very strong position as it relates to the focus on Flash platform, the Creative Suite and Acrobat business. And as we said, we think 2009 will be a tough market. We’ve already taken the actions in place to help us through this tough economic climate and we continue to be really positive about the long-term prospects for the company and we are confident that as we emerge from this economic climate, that Adobe will be in a stronger position than ever before. And we look forward to sharing more at our next earnings call.”

A line about Creative Suite:

“Industry and press response to CS4 has been excellent… We believe CS4 is a stellar release, with new product innovations, time-saving features, and workflow enhancements that will improve productivity… While customer feedback has been positive, given the current economic climate, we believe CS4 adoption in the short-term will be muted when compared to prior cycles.”

Dynamic Media, which builds atop Flash Platform:

“Dynamic media continues to be a key growth focus for Adobe… Recent high profile wins include Disney.com, the number one ranked kids entertainment and family community destination on the web [which] has experienced record online traffic levels, as viewers logged on to watch full-length movies delivered via the Adobe Flash platform… Telecom Italia [with] live television channels and on-demand content through its web portal… And MLB.com [is using] Flash Platform to deliver all of its live and on-demand video offerings for two years [and] will provide a downloadable rich Internet application built using Adobe Air.”

Shantanu closes his prepared remarks:

“In closing, as we enter fiscal 2009, we will continue to make strategic investments that will position us well for the future while managing our business to ensure consistent profitability. Our strategic priorities are advancing the Adobe Flash platform as the preferred solution for how the world engages with ideas and information; investing in our core businesses, including Creative Suite and Acrobat, to maintain our leadership position through innovation and continue our expansion into new customer segments and geographical markets; and focusing on our growth businesses, which include LiveCycle, Connect Pro, Scene 7, and Dynamic Media as areas we believe have significant potential for future growth.

“While 2009 will be a challenging year because of the macroeconomic environment, we believe the key market trends driving our business remain intact. By continuing to innovate and deliver through solid execution, we believe Adobe is well-positioned for future growth.”

Question and answer session… I’ll paraphrase some parts, so look for quotemarks to signify direct quotations from the text:

(Q) Why did mobile revenue drop?
(A) “The reason for the drop is, like we’ve been talking about for quite some time, the move to the Open Screen Project will ultimately make the royalty revenue that we have for mobile go away, and you are starting to see that in 2009 as we anticipated.”

(Q) Future guidance?
(A) “We’re not providing ’09 guidance, primarily because of the limited visibility that most companies have right now.”

(Q) What about CS4 sales?
(A) “I have gone out and talked to a bunch of customers and frankly the response to CS4 in terms of the innovation that we’ve done and productivity features that we have added in addition to the workflow actually remains as strong as it’s ever been. CS4, as I said earlier, was our strongest product ever. There’s just a tremendous amount of innovation but there’s no question that the economic uncertainty is playing into the adoption rate we’ve seen and that’s why we thought it would be muted in the short-run… We just saw some research that Omni had produced which stated that CS4 actually can save over 18% of the productivity versus CS3… But we are definitely seeing some impact due to the financial situation.”

(I’ll echo that one. I’ve never seen as positive a reception to a release, and I know the timesaving stuff in there makes it a sound economic value. I think CS4 will have a slow start and a long tail. And the wild thing is that there’s more stuff brewing in the labs for CS5. There’s a whole lot of new things yet to accomplish. But many businesses are, sensibly, being cautious right now.)

(Q) “You’ve made a swift move here with an 8% headcount reduction. How much through the year will you continue to look to keep costs very tight and preserve the margins, even if the demand continues to track, you know, maybe even worse than what we are seeing right now?”
(A) “Based on what we saw in the economic climate, as you point out, we took fairly quick action. We’ve already restructured and that was actually done on the day that we announced it, so I think rather than have that linger or there be uncertainty within the organization, we were able to get that all behind us… And it’s not just the restructuring that we’ve done. We’ve also taken a number of other internal measures to make sure that there’s a very significant scrutiny on expenses, whether it’s travel where we are not doing really any travel that’s not related to customers. We use Acrobat Connect and so that’s a good use of travel. Every single external expense as it relates to contractors is being scrutinized by Mark. We’ve also made some decisions as it relates to the salary structure for employees, so we will continue to monitor all of that and balance investing in our strategic directions versus returning to shareholders.”

(Q) How come you’re still reporting mobile revenue? Wasn’t the Open Screen Project announced awhile ago?
(A) “As it relates to mobile, you’re right — we did anticipate it starting to drop a little sooner. What happened is a lot of the OEMs burned through some of their prepaids faster than we thought. Flash Lite has done extremely well and they just couldn’t wait for the OSP version of Flash to come out later in 2009, so we did some renewals with them earlier and larger than we thought we would do.”

(Q) Wow, LiveCycle and enterprise is growing fast, at 46%!
(A) Yes, but we want to grow the business appropriately, “rather than investing too much ahead of the curve… I think moving people from inefficient, paper-based processes to automated processes is resonating with our customers.”

(Q) Yadda yadda Silverlight?
(A) Look at the entire ecosystem around Flash. It gives you access to every computer, and already nearly a billion devices. Every creative tool now offers a Flash workflow. Every manufacturer wants to offer it. And there’s an entire server system, as well as CDN support, hosting support, third-party tools. That ecosystem — including the millions of creative professionals already earning their living through Flash — is what makes Flash Platform work. And: “We will be very aggressive about making sure that we continue to innovate in the entire media space to keep our lead.”

(I didn’t really paraphrase the above text from the transcript, but made the case as I would make it, based on the ideas in the text.)

(Q) What about magazine and newspaper publishers, the print market?
(A) “The way I would characterize that entire business, frankly, is that as you look at employment, if employment exists in those publishing markets and they are spending, the Creative Suite tends to be the top of the list. I’ve met a number of customers who say if they are going to buy a piece of software, to increase their productivity, it’s going to be Creative Suite 4. But I think the economic impact certainly weighs on them as well. So from our perspective, we’ve been focused on making sure that as they migrate from print to web to video to wireless, that Creative Suite is ahead of where they want to be. ”

(Q) Flex Builder?
(A) “We are continuing to see a fairly good demand for Flex Builder and in addition to the Flex Builder, we are actually also pretty excited about the possibilities associated with Flash Catalyst, Steve, that as you know, we showed at our recent MAX conference. So clearly the number of people who have been downloading the Air SDK and who have been looking at Flex Builder and our other development tools to create these engaging applications, is going up.”

(Q) And hey, what about that iPhone I keep hearing about?
(A) “Sure. So smartphones continues to be a category that we are focused on. We have clearly streamlined our strategic intent to make sure that we have both web browsing as well as Air support on these smartphones. We actually already deliver Flash for smartphones, such as those powered by either the series 60 from Nokia, running the [Symbian] operating system and/or running Windows Mobile, as well as in Japan we certainly have a lot of support. So I would say that already today we have a lot of smartphone category phones that are supported with Flash. That’s why we’ve shipped over 800 million and we say we expect to reach our one billion mark sooner than anticipated… At MAX recently, we also showed a prototype of Flash running on the Android operating system that’s powered by Google, and now we have also said that we are only going to focus on Flash 10 rather than Flash Lite, which is why it’s taking a little time. But we fully expect to see versions running for smartphones in the middle of next year.”

(Yes, I know he didn’t even mention the name this time… twice burned and all that, I guess…. ;-)

My takeaways: Adobe is committed to making this Flash Platform thing work. It’s a core part of the business — the next publishing platform that the entire company can build atop. It’s not a tangent or a me-too effort… establishing predictable interactive screen publishing atop any device is what Adobe must provide over the next few years. And there’s an entire ecosystem — including millions of creative professionals already earning their living through Flash every day — working alongside Adobe to bring this capability to fruition.

Do you have thoughts, opinions, follow-ups or bounce-offs to the above…?

Sayings from Chairman Jeffrey

Helen Walker published a fascinating interview with Jeffrey Zeldman at designinterviews.com. I’ve been enjoying his Twitter account, particularly as he’s been dealing with winter colds in NYC.

I realize it’s unfair of me to cherrypick, particularly without asking his consent first, but I’ve pulled together a bunch of fun zingers from both sources here below. No rhyme or reason, but I like the way he puts a sentence together.

From the interview:

“Browsers are continually improving their compliance with standards that are now 10 and 15 years old.”

“No browser will ever be ‘completely’ standards compliant because no software is perfect, and because the specifications themselves have flaws, chiefly vagueness.”

“Indeed, the more you look into these subjects — and I work with Eric Meyer, who is always investigating such arcana — the deeper you fall into the Twilight Zone, and the more amazed you are that anything on the web actually works.”

“As far as I can tell, the web’s future will be driven by the same thing that drove its past: good ideas, good writing, good design. And the surprises that communities spring on the makers of sites and applications that serve them.”

“I’m attracted to talented people who are also nice people… Listening is important… Curiosity counts.”

“Be excited! You’re inventing something new on the planet. Imitate to get started, sure, but don’t settle for copying any master, because nobody has really figured this out yet, and the person who figures it out best just might be you.”

From Twitter:

“With great power come high electric bills.”

“Your tweet that linked to the exact same tweet on FriendFeed that linked to a two word post by Kottke linking to actual content was awesome.”

“It’s like a hoagie of bad user experience.”

“We’re reliably informed that Steve Jobs decides whether or not his employees may marry, and Jeff Bozos reserves the droit de seigneur.”

“Judging by his tunes, this Beethoven dude seems to have listened to a *lot* of Kraftwerk.”

“If the economy sticks to its present course, I’m going to have to lay myself off.”

“Wonderful, winking Christmas lights do everything for New York Penn Station that a Glade scented candle does for a latrine.”

“You had me at collapse onblur.”

“I love how NY State disqualifies your jury duty form if you fail to use a No 2 pencil. Like not being called to serve is a punishment.”

“Last night I cleaned feces out of a bathtub and woke drowning in my own phlegm. Now what was it you wanted to discuss about these web pages?”

“Ava’s return to preschool went over like a triumph of Caesar, her schoolmates spontaneously shouting her name as we entered, late.”

“My women friends on Facebook have stopped poking me. Trying not to read too much into that.”

“Emergency Room visit verdict: No antibiotics, it’s viral. Suck it up and try not to die.”

“If it takes 17 tweets to make your point, you ain’t twitterin’, you’s bloggin’.”

“Taking advantage of our weakness, a spider bit my thumb and the dog fearlessly soils the hall. Helm’s Deep has been breached.”

“How very O. Henry: after we uninvited Thanksgiving dinner guests due to daughter’s illness, the kid recovered. #thankful #leftovers”

“Is it possible for a dog to develop amnesia? Mine keeps forgetting I just fed him.”

“When we call these brutes ‘terrorists,’ we boost their self esteem. From now on let’s agree to call them baby killing coward fucks.”

“The puckered corpse of a oversized bird, its head and feathers removed by some butcher, is taking up space in my refrigerator.”

“I never understood the Amish until I had a daughter.”

“A sick, mean, miserable man has taken up residence in my head. And he’s not even paying rent.”

“Why yes, thank you, Adobe Updater. I would love to install an updated version of the Adobe Updater every time I open any Adobe application.” [Okay, I’ll stop copying here…. ;-) ]

Please don’t trust me

… or anything else you read on the internet, too.

Forrester Research has a report today. They asked 5000 North American consumers “On a scale of 1 to 5, how much do you trust the following 18 information sources?” The lowest number of “generally trust” and “trust completely” votes went to “corporate blogs”, and the conclusion on Techmeme was “corporate blogs are not trusted”.

I don’t want you to take anything I write on trust. I try to lay out novel facts, interesting hypotheses, useful tests, unusual perspectives. News. If you believe something just because I say so, then you’re not reading hard enough. I suspect the world will be better off if you’re more skeptical.

I do agree that a lot of “corporate blogs” are not conversational, and that they echo unsubstantiated statements made by others. A lot of techblogs are the same way, as are news sources. Salinger Syndrome is a real problem.

If Forrester asked me “which websites do you trust?”, I’d have to ask them to clarify the question before I could answer. If a site provides links to source information, then there’s no trust required. If a site reprints rumors, or makes unsubstantiated assertions, then their claims are indeterminate without proof. A website isn’t some guru or messiah that you should follow with a papercup of Grape Flavorade in hand. A website is just someone talking, no more, no less.

Please, don’t issue blanket trust to “corporate bloggers”. Don’t blindly trust other types of bloggers or reporters either. No need to automatically disbelieve, and no need to automatically believe. Check to see whether what someone said can be verified and survives critical questioning, instead.

Lead times, from speech to ship

Adobe had a long lead time, talking about AIR. There was some talk of “a universal runtime” when Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia was announced back in April 2005… a first Apollo public build arrived in March 2007… it wasn’t finalized into a usable 1.0 release until February 2008.

That’s about two-and-a-half years between announcement and delivery… a long time in this case, because “universal runtime” and “Apollo” and “AIR” was a new type of application, an old way of developing but a new way of delivering. Took a lot of conversation along the way to make sure we all understood this new thing. But Adobe was betting the company on this new publishing platform, and such a level of commitment requires a corresponding level of care. Adobe took 2.5 years between the first talk of AIR and its 1.0 delivery.

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about “desktop applets” and “Acme’s answer to Flash” and so on. There isn’t so much a need to talk about it in advance these days… lots of people already understand photo-editing in your current browser, or when it’s more useful to have a desktop app than browser. It’s real already. You don’t need a long lead time to prepare people anymore.

For something new, it’s good to talk about it beforehand, sound out people on the new ideas, reality-check the concepts. But if there’s an existing realworld model, like Flash or AIR, then such a long lead time isn’t necessary, and it’s usually better to just deliver.

An actual new choice can be useful, but a new set of speculative debates, not so much. Better to ship.

Netflix, Flash, Silverlight, support

Weird item at Motley Fool today: “This year, movie rental maven Netflix rewrote its streaming video service under a new toolset. Microsoft’s SilverLight has replaced the old Adobe Flash interface, and there was much rejoicing as the service became easier to use in a flash (pun intended). Some Netflix employees probably think it’s too good, even. Over the weekend, company spokesman Steve Swasey announced that Netflix doesn’t need 50 of its 300-odd customer support people anymore, because the SilverLight application simply doesn’t need a whole lot of support.”

This got picked up at Wall Street Journal and NewTeeVee, which referenced a source Netflix blogpost which doesn’t mention Flash.

I don’t recall that Netflix ever used Flash video. Searching their site shows few SWF, and searching on “adobe” shows only requests to move over to Flash video.

Looks like the Motley Fool conclusion may be based on an error in observation.

My best guess is that Netflix found it was easier to support Mac users for Silverlight than to try to help Mac and Linux users use Windows Media Player or Flip4Mac or other cross-platform video solutions from Microsoft. But it looks like Flash got mentioned only as a journalistic artifact, without discoverable relation to reality.

The Motley Fool writer concludes: “Microsoft seems to have hit a home run with SilverLight and is currently rounding the bases. If the product really is that much smoother and easier to support, then Adobe has a true challenge on its hands.” I assume from this assertion, that if he sees the reverse relation in support costs — that Silverlight imposes greater support costs than Flash, as we see in the forums — that he would then conclude that Microsoft’s challenges are even larger than they might first appear.

(If folks from Motley Fool stop by here, then thanks for visiting, and if you’de open up your comments and drop the registration bar, then such questions would be simpler to resolve, thanks.)

Twitter on Adobe

Adobe changed its economic guidance and restructured today. The press release has info.

I ran a Twitter search on “adobe” and pulled out relevant comments, oldest-first, starting from about 9am Pacific today. It misses some of the earliest ones, and any which didn’t include the word “adobe”.

These are all in the public record already, just aggregated and reformatted for readability, but please drop a comment here if you’d like any removed, and I’ll delete both it and the comment, thanks.

Continue reading…

Encryption perversity

As computing continually becomes cheaper, and as encryption becomes more efficient, it also becomes easier to guess passwords. That’s the takeaway from this security note by John Landwehr of Adobe.

Acrobat 9 features stronger passwords — longer passwords, Unicode characters — yet opens encrypted documents much more quickly than before. That’s a good thing.

But the speed increase also means it takes hackers less time to scan through a dictionary of common passwords… the faster decryption helps crack marketers. That’s not a good thing.

The implications for us?

  • If you’re choosing a password, it should be more secure than a few years ago. It’s getting cheaper to guess simple passwords.

  • And if you’re creating a system which requires a password, and if you can’t use server-based authentication for that local file, then requiring some complexity in the reader’s password can help protect that document from unauthorized reuse.

A self-contained file which is distributed is difficult to completely protect. Digital encryption helps make it more expensive to crack, but can’t protect to the same degree as if that file communicates with your servers before opening. Standalone files can’t offer the same security as server-connected files.

But even the difference between an eight-character password and a nine-character password can determine whether it’s worth the time of someone to attempt to guess the password which the file includes.

Some tips on password strategy:

  • Choose longer passwords, or even entire pass-phrases. (Reader 9 can use up to 127 7-bit characters.)

  • Avoid words found in dictionaries, common names, etc.
  • Mix alphabetics with numerics and punctuation.
  • Remember longer passwords by using a long phrase, interspersed with other characters in a memorable pattern.
  • Writing passwords on paper is safer with some kind of coding: something you can understand, but which someone who finds the paper cannot.
  • CERT has more tips, as do others.

It makes sense that faster decryption of documents would be used by hackers too. The passwords we used ten years ago aren’t as secure as they were. Perverse, but that’s the way it is.