Archive for March, 2009

Fact-checking a reporter

Sorry, low-info post here… I’m just annoyed enough to correct some of the errors in Ben Charny’s most recent DowJones/CNN article. Here’s a snippet:

“Though a big hit on PCs, Adobe’s video player isn’t yet compatible with devices from Research In Motion, Apple’s iPhone and phones based on Google Android software. The Palm Pre, due in June in the U.S., also isn’t Flash compatible. Microsoft continued the pile-on last week, when it said an upcoming mobile version of its Windows operating system software won’t be compatible in the short term, and that its Windows Marketplace for Mobile online software bazaar won’t offer any Flash-based products. Apple is to update its iPhone software on Tuesday, and by all appearances, it still won’t be compatible with the Adobe feature. The one success has been No. 1 cell phone maker Nokia. While it says a billion Nokia cell phones are now Flash-compatible, many are cell phones, rather than their souped-up cousins the smart phone.”

Just off the top of my head:

Adobe Flash Player is more than “a video player”.

Blackberry doesn’t yet seem to have the oomph for rich-media type of applications, although there’s hope that future generations will.

Apple is a weird case — you’ve got to get them to talk about what they’ll be doing. Adobe has stated we’re working on making it run, but Apple’s got to provide a plugin mechanism to do so. It’s Apple’s story.

Google Android isn’t shipping yet, but they’re Flash-happy.

Microsoft is on board with Flash Lite, although I have no idea when they’re shipping. Puts a different spin on his Silverlight quote.

Palm Pre isn’t shipping yet, but they’ve also announced.

The “only hit is Nokia” bit is wacky… Nokia’s a great partner, and so are others. Flash Lite has been de-facto standard in Japan and Korea for years. We’ve shipped about a billion Flash Lite installations, not a billion Nokia Flash Lite installations. And that line about “Flash works only on the lower-end phones” collides straight with the blather about “Flash is too demanding for iPhone”.

Sorry I’m so cranky to correct — this off-kilter Ars Technica piece set it up, I guess — but technology is complicated enough, why add to the confusion?

CANVAS, accessibility, appropriateness

It’s good to have Web content available to the widest range of people — to not turn people away because of their operating system or browser brand, or because of physical differences such as visual acuity or motor-skill difficulties.

In the Flash world we’ve been dealing with this inclusiveness issue for a long time — figuring out how to improve the economics of providing a multi-modal experience — and recently there have been exciting improvements in tasks such as captioning video. Still, the objection “but Flash isn’t accessible” is often used when someone wants to nix your project.

Here’s a different perspective on that “must be accessible” priority… David Baron of Mozilla, in “Web Accessibility as a Political Movement” responds to those who wonder why so many of the projects labeled as “HTML5″ do not seem to be attending to the needs of diverse audiences. This is part of a lengthier conversation on the CANVAS tag and its use.

Here’s one argument, which you may have seen in different form before: “Existing disability law, for example, might require installation of wheelchair ramps in places of ‘public accommodation,’ but doesn’t require them to be installed in everybody’s houses. Likewise, I would expect an online form on a government Web site that is required to visit the United States to be usable by blind people, and likewise expect good alternative text for an image on a government Web site describing how a bill becomes law. Yet I would not expect a bunch of photos that John Smith shares with a few friends on a Web site to be required to have reasonable alternative text. In other words, content on the Web varies widely in importance and amount of use. Yet some accessibility advocates insist that even John Smith posting a few photos online must be forced to provide equivalent alternative text to replace the photos.”

There’s also acknowledgment that purely idealistic positions may be difficult when brought into reality in the world: “Web accessibility involves tradeoffs, such as between burdens on those who send information and burdens on those who receive it. Sensible choices along this spectrum can vary depending on how the Web is being used; there’s a big difference between publishing to an audience of five (that might be larger later, if you happen to succeed) and publishing to an audience already known to be in the millions.”

Both of these emphasize the need to look at the total situation, and that a particular stance may not apply to every case… far from the usual absolutism of “but it’s ‘proprietary’“.

I’m not sure I agree with his entire position though… sections like these seem to go too far: “I think the attitude that evil Web authors need to be forced to care about accessibility leads to technically worse solutions that require more work for authors and leave the Web less accessible to disabled users as a result… I think this community is in significant danger of being taken over by, or at least best known by, those within it who espouse such extreme positions that they risk causing the entire community to be ignored.”

Read it yourself, figure out how you feel about it… accessibility is definitely an area in which we need to encourage better practices, but bringing that about is the hard part. I just found it refreshing that someone at Mozilla emphasized how pragmatism and idealism must necessarily balance each other.

There’s one more wrinkle about “accessibility”: the concept applies not just to differences in physical capability, but also intellectual capability, language, and cultural differences. Text itself imposes cognitive and language-skill restrictions (my own text here is discriminatory!). But imagery, animation and video all reach a wider range of people in the world than text alone can. It’s hard to craft a message which reaches every potential audience member, but “rich media” should definitely be one tool in our toolbox when attempting to do so.

Friction-free audiences

Sometimes, application development is its own reward. But application distribution is harder, because you have to support people trying to use your application.

Last week MLB.tv started testing a new streaming video architecture for live baseball games. Comments in the forums are rather remarkable. I snipped out some while reading to give you a flavor.

(Background: MLB.TV has provided online viewing for years, and each season they try to improve the service. While their Gameday apps and many interface elements are delivered as SWF, their video production system (capture, editing, titling, compressing, streaming) has been Windows Media. Last year MLB.TV added support for Microsoft’s Silverlight browser plugin, in addition to the prior support for the standalone Windows Media Player. This year they’ve converted their entire video ecosystem over to Flash.)

These quotes come from the MLB.TV weblog and support forum. (I haven’t formally quoted each because most were pseudonymous, but if you wrote a quote and want it removed, just let me know and I will, thanks.) They’re quite positive, but are also representative of the whole.

“I must say, after being a sub since day 1 of mlb.tv, this is BY FAR the best player yet. Very fast, beautiful interface, perfect layout of multi viewing frames.”

“Loved it. Only problem that I saw was the scoreboard was too close to the center of the screen. It should have been more down to the bottom right corner. It got in the way too often. Fantasic picture and coverage. This is exactly what I paid my hard earned money for. Awsome. I can’t wait for the full player. Great job so far.”

“I had some concerns that Flash might be worse than Silverlight, but this is a definite improvement. This looks like its going to be great way to watch the season. Running on Firefox 3.0.7 on Vista 64-bit.”

“Are some occasional glitches, but looks fantastic! Great interface, outstanding quality image. A very welcome change after the 2008 Silverlight/Mosaic disaster!”

“I like the New MLB.com MLB.TV Beta Media player. It’s a nice layout and the video playback is smooth and not grany and jumpy like last year. I hope also the media player is going to be a standard on MLB.com’s main media player.”

“This is looking great! Thanks for all the improvements since last year. I’m having jumpy video problems too, but no worse than it’s been in other years.”

“Agree that the quality is a big step forward – even for non-premium users like me!”

“This looks as if it is going to be a great improvement on last year.”

“Today is my first chance to see the new player and I kind a like it. It works pretty fast, for instance it doesn’t even take a second for the control panel to vanish once you move the mouse out of the window. And although it is only 800k right now, the picture looks better than comparable sources on WMP which is a bit surprising to me.”

“All in all, you guys are doing a tremendous job this year. Even in BETA-stages, this product looks ridiculously cool.”

“I just tried again with IE 7 and it worked. Currently watching on my 50″ with svideo connection on a wireless network. Excellent quality, probably as good as you can get with svideo. very little stuttering, but some of the best streaming video I’ve seen.”

“Probably the best internet video I’ve seen.”

“Hey guys, the new player is incredible. I’m excited!”

The tenor of the forums is quite a bit nicer than last year. The biggest problems are the installation of MLB.com’s optional proxy manager NexDef, the expected streaming tweeks, the desire to work on one monitor while the same computer shows “fullscreen” on a second. But mostly, it just works — the developers can concentrate on new features, not try to fix old issues.

This isn’t a “sis-boom-bah, rah-Flash-rah” kind of affair. It shows a financial calculation which every business must perform.

What is the cost to your audience to hear your message, to use your service?

How many are excluded outright? How many are asked to install something new? How many are then asked to troubleshoot that installation? What are your support costs, your goodwill costs?

It’s true for video publishing, and it’s true for application publishing. How much does it cost your audience to use it?

At a hobbyist level, techblogs can argue about “which syntax is better” or “how many 3D polys” and so on. Those are important issues when you’re making something.

But when you’re trying to distribute something — to make something which is actually used by different people — then removing obstacles from your audience’s path becomes more important.

It’s much easier this year at MLB.TV. Consumer media playback is not an issue. There’s nothing to install for regular viewing, and fewer people are excluded. They can concentrate on actual development, and don’t have to do low-level support.

Audiences come easier when you remove obstacles from their participation. They seek friction-free use.

Two security notes

Adobe Reader 9.1 is now available. It addresses a type of “malformed PDF can crash” exploit which was heavily blogged two weeks ago. I’d recommend installing it… although I haven’t seen much discussion of actual exploits, the hack itself was promoted enough that it might spur people to try. (Those early press accounts also had a good deal of inaccurate information… the Adobe Security team is circumspect in what they say, and remains the best resource on issues like this.)

If you’re on a locked machine where you must use Reader 8.x or 7.x, we expect the updaters for those versions online next week.

Also, last week’s Flash Player update did have auto-update turned on… I checked after reading this article at The Register which wondered. You can set your own Player preferences for how frequently to check for updates — the default is checking every 30 days. If you use both IE and some other browser on a PC, then you’ll indeed need to update both wrappers for the common Adobe Flash Player — that’s the way the browsermakers have set it up. (The article at The Register invited comments, but it’s hard to justify a site-specific password which doesn’t edit anonymous comments.)

A happy “accident”

Andy Plesser and the folks at Beet.tv do a lot of great interviews with people in technology… if they’re not on your reading list, I’d recommend adding them. But today they had an interview with Adobe’s Jen Taylor, which ended up on Techmeme with the title “The Vidoe Revolution Happened by ‘Accident’”. News to me! ;-)

If you watch the interview, at about 1:20, Jen says “It’s funny, I don’t think we ever anticipated the success we see today with online video. I often tell the story of how video got into the Flash Player, and it was a complete accident… I don’t think we ever understood what we had seeded [?] in that.”

True enough — Jen was saying that we hadn’t foreseen the explosion of digital video on the web, where everyone expects parallel over-the-air and over-the-web viewing of all types of realtime experiences, where people routinely upload videos of their own for people the world over to watch. That part was indeed a happy surprise.

But the capability itself wasn’t an accident. Jon Gay and Robert Tatsumi brought FutureSplash to Macromedia, and stayed on the combined Player/Authoring team for a few years. Jon took a sabbatical, and came back with a vision of two-way video communications, all implemented by a single tiny codec inside the Player.

To get an idea on the emphasis on two-way video communication back at that time, check out Tim Anderson’s interview with Jeremy Allaire, back in April 2002, during the introduction of the term “Rich Internet Applications”:

“We’re introducing a new technology for communications applications… The Flash player that was recently released includes within it all the client capabilities needed for these communications applications. It allows you to deliver real-time, peer-to-peer or one-to-many or many-to-many real-time communications applications, with shared data, audio and video. All that is built into the client today. We’ll be introducing a new communications server later this year. It’s codenamed Tin Can, and it allows you to build these communications applications… .. You can do real-time shared audio and video.”

I spoke with Paul Betlem in the kitchen here on Townsend St today, and he said that his big memories from the time were the emphasis on two-way communication, the integration with a webpage instead of being a branded video “player” (like those from Real, Microsoft, Apple), and the concern that the addition of a codec, however small, might slow consumer adoption rates. It was a controversial decision internally — a premeditated gamble — and we all sort of held our breath on how it would turn out.

To get an idea of how advanced Flash developers saw it at the time, check out these notes from Mike Chambers, of a July 2002 session by Danny Mavromatis and Mike Davidson of ESPN.com. While Flash video may not have had all the features and options of existing video architectures, it had some unique, no-hassle, audience-inclusive benefits which helped bring about the situation we see today.

It took a few years for people to understand that video was now much easier to deliver… back in 2006 I noted that Flash video was a “voice in the wilderness” for its first few years. I think it was a few far-sighted Flash-savvy content developers who really proved to the world what could be done.

But I don’t think anyone at Macromedia had a clear vision of how user-generated content would take off, and how there would soon be giant video sites and live-streaming of public events and such — the technology was a very deliberate decision, and it was the global popularity which was the “happy accident”.

Platforms: How wide? How deep? How chunky? How durable?

Just a simple thought here, one you’ve probably thought of before, but not one that we hear a lot of talk about.

When you’re choosing a platform to build upon, you can compare them along four axes:

  • How wide? How many people can you reach? If you’re in Windows Presentation Framework or ObjectiveC, you can reach people using each distinct operating system. There are cross-OS platforms, but that still limits you to desktops and laptop — there’s work going on now for cross-devicetype platforms to reach mobile, but lowly paper and film can reach those who cannot afford a smartphone. The potential audience for your work is one criterion in determing a platform.

  • How deep? What can you do in that development environment? Apple’s iPhone offers both Ajax development and native development. The latter gives you deeper capabilities. For .NET developers, using Silverlight offers a deeper experience than using Ajax as the presentation layer. Digital displays give you more possibilities than linear video or a paper delivery. No-brainer here… judge platforms by what you can do atop them.
  • How chunky? How homogenous is the platform? Java Micro Edition and Flash Lite both suffer versioning fragmentation on mobile, but even so, the differing implementations of J2ME across different phone brands resulted in 5:1 efficiencies for Flash Lite. A similar situation exists with trying to do vector-charts in desktop web browsers… much easier to do this in Flash than special-case each browser brand, version, and OS.
  • How durable? How long will your work remain viable? Some people use this as an argument for things labeled “open” — “Suppose Adobe starts to charge for Flash Player?” is one popular objection. Sudden shifts beneath you are not fun. Me, I don’t much care about the decision process for a platform, whether it’s a bigger multi-company committee or a smaller single-company committee… I’m looking more at the final result than the process. Still, things that become de-facto standards tend to become de-jure standards with time, as the history of PostScript, PDF, and Flash attest. If you’re betting on a platform, you need to trust it’ll stay around.

How many people can you reach? What can you do once you reach them? How much does it cost to reach them? And how long can you enjoy the benefits of your work?

Four simple questions that seem to slice through a lot of the discussion out there. How wide? How deep? How chunky? How durable?

Adobe, Time-Warner

Last night Adobe and Time-Warner announced “a strategic alliance to foster collaboration on the development of next generation video and rich media experiences.” There has been much discussion already.

I don’t have any privileged information on the details. Here are some of the points I’ve been left with, after reading coverage and interviews today.

  • There are some big properties involved here… Time-Warner includes Turner Broadcasting System (CNN, Headline News, TBS, Turner Network Television, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Boomerang, NBA TV, TruTV, Turner Classic Movies, more), Warner Bros. Entertainment (studios, movie, TV, animation, interactive, thewb.com, more), and Home Box Office. It’s a big deal.
  • There’s not much information yet on which properties will do what. One of the few quotes I read was here: “Of the three properties, the initial one to witness a real benefit will be Home Box Office. Time Warner said that HBO.com would soon be relaunched ‘making extensive use of the Adobe Flash Platform’… The alliance is worth noticing in part because the three Time Warner divisions in question pose three very different technology use cases and possible revenue models.” That’s Time-Warner’s story to tell.
  • There are three particular areas of collaboration noted in the press release: “As part of the alliance, these companies will also collaborate to accelerate the development of digital rights management for the Web and desktop, and metadata and audience measurement solutions to improve the discovery and monetization of content.” Rights-management, analytics, and metadata… improvement is needed in all three areas.
  • Why is metadata important? Here’s an example. One CS4 feature which has been flying under-the-radar so far has been the speech-to-text capabilities in Adobe Premiere Pro CS4, and how this text metadata can then be manipulated by Adobe Flash Player. The result is similar to what Reuters has described for a new project: “The Thomson Reuters service has features that allow especially fast access to specific pieces of video, whether produced in a studio or recorded at a conference or a hearing. Each video is accompanied on screen by a searchable transcript, with a set of key words highlighted at the top. Clicking anywhere on the transcript causes the video to jump to that point.” Video-with-metadata becomes “rich video”, enabling “Rich Video Applications” in a way that cannot be approached by flat, atomistic video files alone.
  • I got some perspective into Time-Warner’s possible priorities from Saul Hansell at New York Times, based on an interview with CEO Jeff Bewkes: “Here’s how ‘TV Everywhere’ would work: an individual, or a member of a household that subscribes to cable, satellite or any of telco’s TV offerings, would be able to have online access to the programming included in their pay-TV package. With broad industry buy-in, it wouldn’t matter if your TV provider is Verizon FiOS, Time Warner Cable, or DirecTV. You log in, put in some subscriber information for a pay-TV operator, and unlock a host of shows not currently on the web, such as HBO’s ‘The Wire’ or TNT’s ‘The Closer.’ For 85% of U.S. households, the added access would be, essentially, free. Mr. Bewkes said he anticipates there will be a web-only option for those who don’t have pay-TV service.”
  • This is bigger than Flash. As Fritz Nelson mentions: “These three divisions are going to use pretty much every piece of Adobe’s Flash and video platforms (as Adobe touts it: ‘from planning to playback’).” Take a fresh look at CS4 Production Premium… it’s not just video-editing and effects, but goes all the way from pre-production and shooting tools like OnLocation through distribution packaging with Adobe Encore… with XMP metadata accompanying the assets every step of the way. The “Flash video ecology” has a whole back-channel of production support in the world today. (See video primers for more info.) This is about much more than a browser plugin.

What Time-Warner seems to be doing is to make it your subscription to their production, regardless of device, regardless of pipe. They’re trying to find a sustainable way to create big-budget entertainment.

The flashy details of how a webpage looks or the functionality in a cross-OS desktop app are interesting, but it’s really the realworld production pipeline behind it that makes the whole thing possible.

Interesting news. Will be fascinating how it turns out.

Encouraging Better Practices

I’ve got a problem, and I’m not sure how to address it. If you’ve got ideas then I’d love to hear, but mainly I think I just need to rant and whine a little. ;-)

I’m trying to find ways to improve public choices in topics such as accessibility, redaction, security, and user-experience. People get hurt, unnecessarily. But it’s a hard thing to solve.

Here are some recent examples:

  • Redaction: “Redaction” means to remove information from a document. This is an old problem, but we still see fresh cases like Facebook’s $6 billion redaction error (which was done with non-Adobe PDF creation tools). Adobe can publish instructions on best-practices, but we can’t force people to follow them… even if we could, it might seem a little creepy for us to do so. How can we help people use PDF and other technologies in ways that would benefit them? Hard problem.
  • Accessibility: Last month WebAIM published a study with the troubling pullquote “71.5% of screen reader users reported that Flash is difficult”. I don’t put much faith in the study as it’s worded — any video would likely be “difficult” to turn into a stream of spoken text — and using the word “accessibility” as a synonym for “text-enabled” misses the wider issues implied by accessibility as a whole (language differences, cognition differences, emotional vs abstract communication, etc). As the continuing conversation at Adobe Accessibility blog points out, authoring tools can make certain choices default choices, but the implementor still needs to pay attention to diverse needs. How to make rich-experiences easier to experience as text-only? This too is a hard problem.
  • Security: It is, unfortunately, very easy to make insecure projects, even with secure tooling. HTML injection, cross-site permissions, third-party content and more… all require a lot of learning before they can be successfully avoided. Aftermarket tools such as IBM Rational AppScan can help, as can studying best-practices guides. I’d like to see Adobe make secure-authoring much easier, but I’m not sure how to best bring this about. Another hard problem.
  • Installation: A disheartening note this week… the Koobface exploit has re-appeared on Facebook. In this, some untrustworthy third-party content is included in a trusted webpage, throwing up a dialog which urges an installation of something calling itself “Adobe Flash Player” — another case of software impersonation. Even though mainstream reporters urge people to get their updates from legitimate sources, so long as ad-networks and social-sites cannot vet the content they broker, it seems like more consumers will be exposed to such exploits. Hard, hard, hard.

During early Flash days, some of us joked about putting an Easter Egg in the tool to detect the typing of “Skip Intro” and pop up a little dialog box asking “Are you *sure* you want to do that? Try this link for alternatives.”

Even back during earlier Adobe days, audiences complained about designers going too wild with filters and channel operations, and back before that the “ransom note” style of Desktop Publishing could be seen as something that an authoring tool might be able to mitigate. I’ve got mixed feelings about toolmakers injecting “taste controls” into tooling, but this seems one of the few choices we have to improve such hard situations.

All of us have a stake in bad usage… lingering doubts about security or search-engine results or whatever do add up, and make a difference in our daily lives. It would be useful if Adobe could help improve designers’ appropriateness. But even just typing that phrase, my stomach snarls in ambivalence… it’s a very narrow road to walk between suggesting improvements and preaching on taste.

Anyway, that’s my rant, thanks for listening. ;-) If you’ve got thoughts, perspectives on this whole set of issues, I’d be interested in hearing, thanks.