Under-promise and over-deliver

The Firefox 3.5 roadshow is producing some remarkable press… reporters so far seem credulous and gee-whiz, while comments from readers usually bring things back to earth. Raising expectations which cannot be satisfied makes for a high buzz level, yet risks sustainability.

Here’s the intro to a demo after-report at The Standard:

Firefox 3.5, which is due out in final release at the end of the month, will allow people to edit digital images from within the browser without need for a third-party application, thanks to a new Javascript engine Mozilla has built for the browser, said Mike Beltzner, director of Firefox at Mozilla, during an interview in New York.

The software also will include the ability to run videos directly in the browser without the need for a third-party viewer or player, and will allow other elements of a Web page to interact with that video content, he said.

That part’s pretty much okay — it’s just a reporter’s paraphrase and summary — but think of the effect of those words on a reader, particularly the “run videos directly” part, and what people are likely to expect as a result.

More troublesome paraphrases start to appear a little further in:

The new Javascript engine, called TraceMonkey, is twice as fast as the one in Firefox 3.0, and allows for image editing from within the browser without need for software such as Adobe Photoshop, Beltzner said. Javascript is a standard scripting language for Web applications.

“We can do this just as well with an online Web application as well as you could on a local application,” he said, thanks to TraceMonkey.

It’s hard to tell Mike’s intent without the full quote context, but direct comparisons to Adobe Photoshop CS4 can set naive readers’ expectations ‘way too high. Perhaps FF3.5 comparisons to existing in-browser image-editing of the last few years (photoshop.com, Aviary, Picnik, Fotoflexer etc) risk underwhelming the reporter, but “do it just as well as desktop” seems counterproductive.

(And, of course, you’re welcome for the Adobe-donated nanojit which keeps your JavaScript implementation competitive with Google and Apple. It would be good to lay grounds for similar cooperation in the future.)

“Video written for the Ogg codec can be played within Firefox 3.5 without a separate media player, Beltzner said. Moreover, to develop video to be played within the browser, developers don’t have to license proprietary codecs from the vendors that own them, as they do with Flash Player or other proprietary-player content, Beltzner said.”

That first phrase, qualifying video as Ogg Theora video, is an important one. Up to that point the impression given was that any video on today’s Web would be viewable… even if a naive Firefox user had Adobe Flash Player installed, they’d still run across the occasional .WMV, .MOV or .RM file.

But that key constraint is underplayed. If you’re on the Web, and want to watch video, Firefox 3.5 will not do it. Firefox needs Flash in order to view the real Web.

The second part would contain some objectionable disinfo, were it a straight quote, but right now it’s still possible to ascribe it to a transcription error. The only people who would license modern high-performance codecs would be those creating their own video export tools. For everyone else, codec licensing is included in the cost of whichever video editor they use.

Firefox 3.5 also allows developers to build applications for other parts of a Web page that can interact with the video playing, which has potential for enhancing next-generation Web-based applications such as advertising campaigns as well as enterprise applications, he said.

Currently, video technology is coded separately from other Web-site assets and there is no interaction between them, he added. For example, if someone is watching a television program on Hulu.com that is written to the Ogg codec and likes a shirt a character is wearing, Firefox 3.5 will allow that person to click on the shirt and see links to sites where it can be purchased, Beltzner said.

People who actually work with web video know this as errant speech, embarrassing to the speaker. I like the part about Hulu using Theora though, that’s cute.

Any time you put work and attention into something, it’s natural to want to shout it out to the world. It’s easy for me to forgive marketing flacks who spit out straight misinfo, because I know that savvy readers will spot it and question their whole rap.

But what’s a little more dangerous is to set consumer expectations too high. This can produce ugly scenes when the truth is learned.

The relevant marketing phrase is “under-promise and over-deliver” — peer-to-peer recommendations take longer to form, but are stronger than setting very high expectations which cannot be fulfilled.

… and just imagine the marketing claims they could have made, had they devoted that engineering time to improving browser/plugin cooperation….