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….

6 Responses to Under-promise and over-deliver

  1. Asa Dotzler says:

    Thanks for your deep and clearly genuine concern there, JD. Really appreciate it.
    [jd sez: As usual, focusing on personalities brings less progress than focusing on issues. There were several ambiguities in your partner’s speech that could have been clarified. Instead, sarcasm. Not a recipe for success.]

  2. Free the Web says:

    Did you see what Bertrand Serlet, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering said at WWDC 2009? Number 1 cause of crashes in Safari is due to plugins, sound familiar doesn’t it. Why yes, a certain plugin is also the number 1 cause of crashes in Firefox.
    Wanna guess which crappy plugin would that be? No prizes for guessing it right though. No wonder Apple added plugins running in a separate process like Chrome in OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard for Safari 4.
    Apple still refuses to allow unstable Flash on the Iphone. The truth really hurts, doesn’t it?
    [jd sez: Why don’t you stand up for what you believe in, and post with real name & reputation? Yes, I had seen some unsubstantiated statement from Apple to justify their position. I know that their browser, and FF/Mac, both regularly beachball without any Flash, and I wish they’d let plugins play freely, without timing constraints. But you, like Asa, are ignoring the inconvenient questions above, attempting to divert elsewhere. This says more.]

  3. Mike Beltzner says:

    Hi JD. A little nervous commenting here as you seem to add a little editorial comment on each one, hopefully you’ll be gentle since it’s my first time and give me the benefit of the doubt.
    Talking with technology press is always interesting, and as you point out, there are some nuances that get missed. I certainly wasn’t saying that web applications can offer the rich functionality of Adobe CS4 as of this moment; what I was saying was that the reason why focusing on the speed of JS execution in a browser is important is to get the web platform to a point where it can do so. This, I think, is the same reason Adobe focuses on the speed of code execution in Flash, too, yes? Where we differ is that I think that the web is the platform that we should all of us be investing in (open, collaborative, visible) and your investment is in Adobe’s technology. “A chacun son dentifrice,” as Berkeley Breathed would have Opus say. That’s totally fine; we can disagree on the mechanism for providing more awesome web experiences, as long as we can agree that awesome web experiences is the goal!
    You asked me to imagine what things would be like if we invested in better integration with plugins. I would very much like to imagine that, and to see improvements there. Whom at Adobe do we talk to about that? Our development processes are open, and as we discover problems and incompatibilities we’ve had a pretty good experience getting people at Adobe to look at producing fixes with us, but I don’t think we’ve discussed improvements and what Adobe would like to see there on our behalf.
    I would be eager to have that conversation with someone at Adobe. Please feel free to direct my call.
    (note: I don’t think I’ll be checking back on your blog too often – it’s a little hostile at times, and I’m killer-busy at the moment, so feel free to email me directly!)

  4. John Dowdell says:

    Thanks for the visit, Mike, sorry for the delay, hope you see it. 😉
    For “how can browsers work with plugins better?”, I know there are people within Adobe putting together a cross-plugin list — earlier this year I wanted to see things like easier direct-scripting of plugins, conformance on CPU choking, integration of privacy dialogs, more predictable WMODE integration — but the formal proposal process is taking a little longer.
    I think Firefox and Flash have a natural role to play together — currently-encoded H.264 plays fine right now, and better integration could provide Firefox advantages over the larger-pocketed browsers. But I’d defer to my off-weblog partners who are working on that “better integration” list.

  5. James says:

    From my experience with Flash video in 64-bit Linux, all I’ve got to say is good riddance.
    No other application or plugin on my desktop crashes with the regularity that Flash does.
    [jd sez: If you haven’t logged your config info already at the 64-bit Preview, then please do so, thanks. Meanwhile, do you have any thoughts on the topic being discussed here instead?]

  6. Jep says:

    Ow, and please don’t forget that they’re open source versions of Flash player to play flash video (e.g. on YouTube), like Swfdec (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swfdec) and Gnash (http://www.gnashdev.org/)
    [jd sez: Again, the relevance to the topic at hand is notable, as is the loose knowledge of the facts contained within the digression itself.]