Archive for September, 2009

“… free as in ‘Freedom’….”

A consequence of diversity, as described by Matt Asay today:

The problem I have with free-software advocates like Richard Stallman is that they think freedom is the primary reason to use open-source software. It’s not. Utility is.

After all, we’re not talking about essential human rights here. We’re talking about getting work done with software.

Over the past 10 years I and the companies with which I’ve worked have sold hundreds of millions of dollars in open-source software/services. Not once have I been asked about “freedom.” For that matter, I’ve also never heard a customer gush about reduced vendor lock-in.

To the contrary, I’ve met with CIOs and CTOs who have explicitly told me that this isn’t a top consideration for them. Just last week, in fact, I moderated a panel at LinuxCon in which I asked senior IT executives from leading media companies if vendor lock-in is a primary motivation for using open source. Nope.

They have work to do. They want software that helps them get their work done and gets out of the way. That’s what open source does.

(Go to the original article to get the links Matt uses to document this section.)

The above will be spun by some as “Business is Anti-Freedom”, but I think a more apt description is “Different strokes for different folks”. People are seeking solutions to their own problems… their judgments may be very different than your own.

It’s finding ways to accommodate all those differences — developing multiple options to satisfy diverse needs — that’s a trickier problem than assuming everyone shares the same values.

Advanced Support, from Diverse Audiences

Google did an interesting thing yesterday… they extended the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser to dramatic degree, offering Google’s own Chrome browser as an alternative renderer within Internet Explorer’s windows. Here’s where to download the “early-stage open source plug-in”, and many opinions are collected at Techmeme.

I haven’t investigated the hack’s details, and know nowhere near enough to speculate how the project might evolve. But it’s significant, to me, for being the first comprehensive attempt to address bringing the “HTML5″ ideas to realworld audiences.

A person’s browser becomes their habit — they’re loathe to give up surfing efficiency, not quite willing to risk the expense of exploring a new interface. The global surfing public has diverse choice in browsers, and Microsoft Internet Explorer has proven to be a very strong habit for many.

Google Chrome Frame is (from what I understand) respectful of the current user experience… people don’t need to risk their existing browser habits and efficiencies, yet can still explore something new.

I like that. It’s like the Adobe Flash Player… a capability which can be invoked across a wide range of HTML engines… an invisible addition, uniting browser choices.

There’s a wry aspect to the news too, of course… in 140 characters: “So Google’s using a browser plugin, to advance WhatWG’s ‘HTML5′, which tries to do what plugins already do, coz plugins are bad. Is that it?” Seemed to have struck a chord.

There’s no need to seek direct conflict. People have been improving browsers for fifteen years, and while growth is slow, it is steady. No need to bash plugins when announcing new feature sets.

Plugins enfranchise minority browsers… the De Facto Web is a more accessible scene than If Plugins Never Were. Objecting “because it is a Plug-in” is as empty a phrase as objecting “because it ‘IS’ proprietary.” No need to be a hater or a killer. It’s too weird to hear closedness coming from those evangelizing openness.

So, welcome Google, to the challenge of cross-browser plugins — improving the capability of diverse consumer installations, by cooperating with their choice of browser configurations. Glad you’re here, it’s a little less lonely now. ;-)

(Hmm, matter of fact, why isn’t there much talk yet about making an Ogg Theora set of plugins? Seems to make sense, so that sites which prefer opensource codecs can accommodate diverse audiences without making content developers sweat the multi-encoding. Here’s a request from May 2009: “If you’re actually seeking browser support for patent-unencumbered codecs, expanded local storage, drawing engines and such, then why aren’t you making plugins for other browsers? If it’s because ‘plugins are not first-class citizens in the browser’, then [please] improve your plugin support and cross-browser homogeneity so that they are.” Why shouldn’t “open codec” people make cross-browser plugins too?)

Comments are turned off on this entry, due to past history on the topic. If you’d like to do your own blogpost, then including the phrase “Advanced Support, from Diverse Audiences” in the text will let me find it find it fastest in the search engines, thanks!

World Wide Web… legacy content?

We’re familiar with workstation display screens, and are coming to grips with pocket-sized display screens, and next year we’ll start seeing “digital home” screens.

What types of interactions will we have through The Internet, sitting back a few feet away from a large entertainment screen, remote control in hand?

Take a look the photo in Jessica Hodgson’s WSJ article on upcoming Internet TV models. It shows a future TV with a slide-out tool bar, little application widgets available. The looks don’t matter at this point — think of the function.

You’d want to customize the types of info you can call up. Probably a notification system of some type, IM presence, caller ID, a webcam to the front door, various personal services. You probably wouldn’t want to dig into a big document on that big screen — more like quickly monitoring changing world conditions, connecting to others.

Would you want to use a web browser? to surf the Web? to pull up pages which were designed to fit a certain laptop sized screen? to have the ads and the sidebars and the third-party widgets that today’s WWW pages possess? Take a look again at that photo… would you want browser panes and all up on that screen?

I don’t think so. It would be good to have access to a WWW browsing tool, but the numberless millions of today’s WWW pages were explicitly designed for laptop display screens. The very network effects which led to the fast growth of WWW content over the past decade make the viewing not quite satisfactory with other types of digital display screens.

Your mobile phone has a WWW browser. It’s indeed handy. But if you have the choice of a fullsize screen, this is much handier. Or if the site has a parallel version designed for a small screen, then that’s handier too. It’s useful to be able to Surf the Web on a small screen, but the bulk of the content on today’s WWW is not very friendly to unexpected display devices.

Now, the web tech itself can make the crossover across devices, I think… shouldn’t be any reason why hypertext markup and JavaScript couldn’t drive a good TV display too. But the World Wide Web of content, all those pages, all those sites… it’s hard for me to picture that as being as much fun eight feet away from the screen with a keypad.

Web tech… that’s a different subject than WWW content. That content was tuned for one screen. In a multiscreen world, we have to figure out how to migrate the useful parts of this legacy content.

If you’ve got a work screen, a pocket screen, and a home screen, it would be strange if they all showed the same thing. The World Wide Web’s current content is largely designed to be displayed upon a workstation screen. It’s legacy content.

Animation for accessibility

Google Street View has a wonderful little animation which shows how the service works, from capture, to scan, to detail-removal.

Looking at it, you wouldn’t know it was made by the Google Maps team in Japan, which has had particular privacy concerns with the service. Aside from the credits there is no Japanese, no English, no Russian or Romanian — no spoken language, just sequential visual imagery.

Yet the meaning of the message comes across, without text. More importantly, the affective content of the message comes across too — it’s cute, compelling, leaves you with a good feeling.

We’d still need a textual representation, for people with low visual acuity or who use devices which don’t have adequate display screens… it’s hard to get away from the need for multiple representations of a message.

But this Google Street View animation may be one of the clearest examples of how motion graphics assist understanding, in a way that text alone cannot. We humans do learn visually. That’s why animation aids access.

[Thanks to Veronique Brossier for the link!]

Newsgroups considered harmful?

Gavin O. Gorman of Symantec offers readable research into the Trojan.grups vulnerability, in which zombie computers receive updated commands by parsing instructions found in newsgroup postings. Here’s the gist:

When successfully logged in, the Trojan requests a page from a private newsgroup, escape2sun. The page contains commands for the Trojan to carry out. The command consists of an index number, a command line to execute, and optionally, a file to download. Responses are uploaded as posts to the newsgroup using the index number as a subject. The post and page contents are encrypted using the RC4 stream cipher and then base64 encoded. The attacker can thus issue confidential commands and read responses.

This is a handy layer of indirection for a zombie master, because public message boards are harder to blacklist than known-compromised servers. But this public command-and-control method also allows security researchers to study message content, replies, and overall volume levels — ironically, the zombie masters are publicly “opening up the source” of their network’s communications.

In this particular case, debug strings and low posting volumes indicate preliminary testing — but if this turns out to be a useful attack, it seems like it could be adopted fairly quickly.

So, should newsgroups be considered harmful? I don’t see how they could be, considering their proven history of improving global communication. But this article shows that even innocuous network technology is vulnerable to being parasitized by those who don’t yet deal honestly with each other.

When a shadow network is operating on citizens’ machines without their knowledge, and when public communication methods are used to transmit exploitative commands, how should our networks evolve in response? What’s the next step?

The third screen approaches

The International Broadcasters Convention in Amsterdam this week produced much news relevant to broadcasters, but a different press release showed a step towards something important for developers… hardware Flash support integrated into a “System on a Chip” which manufacturers can use for different types of televisions.

Implications? Here are two paragraphs from the press release by NXP Semiconductors, a chip manufacturer and an Open Screen Project partner:

“NXP Semiconductors today unveiled a new family of highly integrated system-on-chip products enabling a complete range of high-performance solutions for mainstream HD DVRs and set-top box platforms in global satellite, cable and IPTV networks. Representing the world’s first fully integrated 45nm set-top box SoC platform incorporating multi-channel broadcast receivers, the NXP PNX847x/8x/9x delivers advanced broadcast decoding, media processing and graphics rendering technologies. This comprehensive feature set provides an optimized system that significantly reduces manufacturer bill-of-materials costs and power consumption and also ensures advanced picture quality for an improved home entertainment experience.

“Based on a powerful 1250DMIPS ARM Cortex-A9 Superscalar applications CPU architecture, the PNX847x/8x/9x delivers advanced system level performance for secure, multi-room DVR video streaming on home networks and for fast execution of Java-based STB middleware engines. . Combined with a rich set of hardware and DSP based content decoding resources, the ARM Cortex-A9 CPU’s internet software technology eco-system delivers industry leading performance for user interface environments based on Adobe Flash and web browser technologies. Dedicated hardare for flexible content format decoding along side ARM architecture optimizations for Javascript and Flash components ensures that the PNX847x/8x/9x can deliver the most responsive and robust user experience for on-line VOD and other content delivered via the internet.”

Timeline? They expect to provide device manufacturers with “sample quantities in Q4 2009″, so we’re still a ways off from having a sizable home audience. But groups like Intel, Broadcom, and Sigma Designs are also working on Flash/SoC integration too… seems a strong trend, like how flat screens eventually replaced cathode screens.

It may be too early to plan a business around Social TV, but it’s not too early to think of the social applications they’ll need. Some TV/connectivity contracts may end up being walled gardens, but the sheer diversity of chip manufacturers implies multiple business models, and I’m betting we’ll see open models emerge as well.

Bottom line? We already use workstations, and handhelds, and we’re getting closer to sitback screens too. Three screens, all expected to access those services we need, but all three accessing those services in different manners — work at a workstation, fast facts on the go, and notifications and networking while watching a movie.

(There’s a fourth screen too — ambient display screens accessed by personal mobile, such as interactive wallmaps at a transit station or message-boards at a convention. Flash is already well-established in environmental signage, and the screens themselves are prevalent in many public places these days, but I don’t know when we’ll make the social jump to accessing and interacting with ambient displays in public places.)

The notebook-only world of applications will still be useful. But just as with desktop publishing, or CD-ROM, or World Wide Web, or RIAs, the newer areas will grow faster than the old. You’ll still be able to design for a single screen, but the action will be in serving audiences across the different types of screens they own.

Just one small press release this week, one manufacturer disclosing chip and schedule details for the next generation of TV. But to me it seemed a significant marker. That third screen is finally becoming real.

More on NXP and Flash… more on Open Screen Project.

“Papervision3D Essentials”

Realtime 3D on the Web, today, without installing anything new.

There are many people innovating in 3D via Flash today, but I’d like to make sure you’re aware of a new book, “Papervision3D Essentials”, from Paul Tondeur and Jeff Winder. Amazing new things are possible now, and the book shows you how to achieve it.

For more context, see Ralph Hauwert and Carlos Ulloa, two of the folks contributing to the larger Papervision3D effort.

I’m not usually comfortable plugging a book, or raising one project among others, but what convinced me to join Macromedia was seeing a demo of the “Smart3D” work of Young Harvill, back before VRML… it makes me very happy to see what people are doing with 3D today, so I’d encourage you to check into it too, thanks.