Archive for March, 2010

New Dreamweaver, amazing HTML4 support!!

True story. I got hold of the specs for a secret Kevin Lynch project. As JavaScript improves more can be done with it — even though the company is famous for its browser plugins, that’s only one type of technology. This project’s been designed to bring full rich-media interactivity and authoring support to HTML.

If you’ve used Flash Pro you’re familiar with timelines, which can set up straight ahead animated presentations, or branching interactive paths triggered by user events or system events. In these internal Dreamweaver plans I saw timelines and encapsulated behaviors ripped out from existing motion-graphics tools and applied directly to the new abilities offered by upcoming browsers.

“But don’t all the different browser brands have different capabilities, while a plugin adds predictable capability to any browser?” I objected. Another set of specs held the answer: Dreamweaver was to include its own conformance-testing database, and would alert you whenever a feature was not offered by one of your target browsers. Matter of fact, you could specify the minimum browser you needed to support, and the authoring interface would conform itself to display only those possibilities supported by your chosen audience… you could make an experimental site which required a particular recent browser, or build for a general realworld audience… your choice, Dreamweaver would handle the browser-variance details for you.

I was flummoxed. Giving similar visual timelines and development amenities to HTML tooling, what effect would that have on plugin adoption? Weren’t we cannibalizing our own business? If JavaScript added rich-media interactivity, wouldn’t it kill off plugins?

Ripping off timelines and property panels and the rest… why would Macromedia introduce an authoring tool which would compete directly with Director and its Shockwave plugin…?

… yup, this all happened a dozen years ago, when HTML 4.0 was but a gentle rising glow upon the eastern horizon, back in the days when one browser vendor did things one way while another browser vendor did things another way and you still had to deal with all those dumb hicks out there who didn’t use your own favorite browser. It’s from a time very much like today, just a bit more historical.

Macromedia already had Backstage Designer, an HTML editor which interacted with serverside CGI components, whose native database files could export out as HTML. Adobe had Pagemill, very popular… Microsoft had bought Vermeer. None of them addressed the new rich-interactivity support in HTML4, much less the browser variance which went along with it.

It was pretty gutsy for Macromedia to build an HTML authoring tool with standard multimedia authoring features. The timelines and behaviors were particularly controversial inside the shop, because they directly paralleled existing Director authoring conventions, as well as those of the nascent Flash. There was a special Macromedia site, dhtmlzone.com, which showcased pages using the new browser technologies.

In a sense, Dreamweaver provided the first cross-browser JavaScript framework, uniting all the competing browser brands and conflicting versions, with behaviors which were themselves written in JavaScript and were inherently extensible by anyone.

The oddest thing, though, was that the timelines and behaviors and extensibility and what-all good stuff ended up not mattering as much as how “Dreamweaver just leaves your code alone”. This turned out to be the big feature which drove adoption. Dreamweaver was the first HTML authoring tool to use HTML itself as its native file format — the first to respect that an author might overrule the program. This made the difference.

Those glitzy animation timelines were eventually removed from Dreamweaver, and JavaScript extensibility has always had a hard time developing a market… good thing we never tried to refactor for later rich-media specifications like SMIL and HTML+TIME and such. The fancy features weren’t the real draw for using Dreamweaver 1.0 for HTML4… it was the respect for a creator’s workflow which eventually made Dreamweaver the closest thing to a “standard” HTML authoring tool.

The relevance? Even back before Macromedia joined Adobe, there was implicit acceptance that changes in customer needs overruled existing investments — even though Dreamweaver could “kill” Shockwave, the project went forward. And Adobe has a lot more emphasis on cross-channel publishing than Macromedia ever did.

DHTML seemed like a good bet to make. The flashy multimedia features were heavily hyped, yet never really proved practical for most content developers. Macromedia also continued to invest in providing all browsers with predictable advanced capability, by plugging into their various extensibility architectures. Both Dreamweaver and Flash were very successful, fulfilling complementary jobs.

But I still remember how gut-wrenchingly shocking it was, reading David George’s secret timeline specs while on CalTrain to the Redwood Shores office, back towards 1996, looking at timelines and behaviors and stuff coming out of Director… people were saying that HTML4 would kill Shockwave, and here we were helping it along…. ;-)

Highlights of Adobe Q1FY10 analyst call

Along with posting financial results, Adobe hosts an analyst question-and-answer session each quarter. Thanks to Seeking Alpha for the transcript… within its constraint of quoting 400 words, here are two sections which you may find particularly interesting.

First, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen gave an overview of the entire business, including the Platform initiatives. I’m quoting his Platform description in full, because it’s carefully crafted to be concise and yet show the company’s main priorities… a good way to understand Player, OSP, and AIR.

“With general availability expected beginning in Q2, Adobe Flash Player 10.1 is the first runtime release of the Open Screen Project enabling uncompromised web browsing of expressive content, high definition video and rich applications across multiple screens including desktops, smart phones, net books, internet connected DVD, new tablet devices and other consumer electronics.

“The Open Screen project in an industry wide initiative led by Adobe that now includes 70 ecosystem partners. We’ve been working closely with our OSB partners to enable the deployment of Flash Players on Google Android, the Blackberry OS, the Simbian OS, the Palm Web OS and Windows Phone Series 7 devices.

“You can expect to see some of these devices starting to ship with Flash Player in the first half of this year and quickly ramping through this year and next.

“We also unveiled Adobe AIR 2.0 for mobile devices, consistent run time for delivery of standalone mobile device applications. AIR leverages mobile specific features from Flash Player 10.1, is optimized for high performance on mobile screens, and designed to take advantage of native device capabilities for a richer and more immersive music experience. We expect to roll out AIR support for mobile platforms later this year.”

This second section was in response to a question about HTML. I’ve done more editing here to fit within the word-limit, but it shows clearly that HTML support will continue to advance at Adobe.

We already support HTML in all its different flavors that exist today. Whether you’re using Dreamweaver or any of our other tools, if you want to output we will definitely support it.

We will support any format that takes stock in the marketplace, and we’ve done that right through the existence of the company. So standards that exist, whether PDF, Flash, HTML, new imaging and video standards like H264, dynamic image resolutions… we’re going to support all of that in our Creative Tools.

And as there are new devices emerging, such as the smartphone form-factor the tablet category, our customers would like to leverage their assets so they don’t have multiple stovepipe workflows.

While none of these customers want to create multiple websites, some of them will have to do it because of the different formats that are supported by each of these different vendors. We will support HTML out of the gate.

The reality is, it’s a fragmented standard, but we will continue to support it within our authoring applications. We think the benefits for our customers, when they use our tools with our runtime and now with the Omniture Suite, is a more comprehensive solution.

There are other interesting parts in the transcript, including how Creative, Video and Enterprise segments see the new opportunities… the need of publishers to use one workflow to target multiple delivery channels… the use of Omniture analytics to “close the loop” of knowing how the application is used… answering an Apple question by emphasizing “We are committed to bringing Flash to any platform on which there is a screen”… lots more on the rest of the business too.

But the two quotes above show two key items: how the Flash Platform is perceived by the company leaders, and the continued commitment to all formats and deliverables that creative professionals find important.

“… the fundamental things apply….”

Some recent commentary on Twitter sounded worrisome… “If I read one more piece of FUD my brain will explode!” and such. Online debate has indeed been pretty tempestuous the past few months. But even accounting for surprising disruptions, the basic realities will still play out in predictable patterns, as time goes by.

Adobe’s business drivers and corporate culture revolve around helping creative communicators reach their audiences, no matter where they may be. Adobe has a history of investing in bedrock “platform” technology to create new markets, and also has a history of cooperation and inclusiveness with other businesses in the field. In the words of John Nack, “Adobe makes nearly all its money selling authoring tools that target great runtimes.” We’re making one ourselves, but Dreamweaver traditionally outsold Flash. The goal is to enable publishing.

There’s really no “HTML vs Flash” war. There are sure people inciting to create such a war, and individual developers may have strong practical reasons to choose one technology over another, but at corporate levels that drive strategy, all delivery channels are important Adobe territory, whether SWF or HTML or video or documents or paper or ebook or e-mag or film or packaging or whatever. Adobe profits by making it easier for creatives to reach their audiences.

We’re on the verge of a disruptive change that, I think, will dwarf that of the World Wide Web fifteen years ago. It was great back then when any wealthy person with a workstation in a wired environment could easily reach any creative’s webpage. With these cheaper devices we’ll be reaching far more people, and with pocket devices we’ll be reaching them throughout the day instead of just when “logged-on”. The WWW was merely a pale precursor of the excitement we’re going to see, I think.

For online discussion, I’ve seen a big change in techblog commentary since then last US presidential election — the types of arguments make less sense than before, and there are ‘way too many personal comments made by pseudonymous accounts with the same list of flawed talking points. Original reporting has a harder time finding funding, and meantime tabloid sensationalism does pull in the clicks. It would be interesting to know how many stories on Techmeme are not deliberately placed there by marketing campaigns. If reading techblogs sometimes seem nuts, it’s often because it is nuts… the dynamics in online debate are very different than three years ago. Don’t let it get you down.

The reality is that many, many manufacturers are bringing many, many new types of communication devices to market. They’re (almost) unanimously insisting on Flash support in order to entice the creative innovators who have been delivering with it over the past decade, as well as to satisfy the audiences that love this content. The birth of the PC proved what digital communications could do, but we’re about to hurtle past that, as we start to develop for a continuously connected worldful of people.

Technology is important, but so is developing sustainable business models. The WWW had a contingent of people insisting “content must be free”, who left creative incentive to the side, as T-shirt sales and such. But since then we’ve seen that the public will indeed compensate creators for music and application delivery to their device. I think we need to develop a variety of possible contracts between creators and their audiences, so that each business service can find terms acceptable to both parties. The technology understructure has almost reached delivery, but now comes the more complicated work of making it easy to develop successful businesses atop that technology.

I’m rambling among topics here, but I hope you see what I’m trying to get across… the dramas we’re told to believe in are not the dramas that really matter. We’re near the end of the beginning, and will now start to really work with “digital design for the hand”.

To get an idea of Adobe’s role in this, here’s Charles Geschke, co-founder of Adobe:

“One of the things I talk a lot about is the necessity to juggle all of the constituencies that have an interest in the business: shareholders, customers, employees, vendors, and the communities in which we operate. Those constituencies are all mildly in conflict with one another in terms of what’s best for them. Your job as a leader in a company is to find an appropriate way to juggle those conflicting interests so everybody feels like they’re getting a fair deal, without letting any one dominate the others because they’ll drag your company down.”

Finding ways for differing groups to get along, work together, achieve new goals… that’s Adobe’s corporate DNA. That’s why I’m confident of Flash’s future, excited about it, despite whatever Internet Inexactitude may occur along the way.

Please don’t let your brain explode… it’s messy to clean up, and you’re needed to help design, develop this big revolution now…. ;-)

(Title comes from the tune “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 film “Casablanca”: “You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.” Always seemed to emphasize the inevitabilities of things, even when facing apparent chaos. Bet Herman Hupfeld and Dooley Wilson couldn’t have predicted such a future…! ;-)

Establishing stats

Headlines today say “Silverlight now on 60% of Internet-connected devices” and “MIX10: Microsoft Silverlight lands on 60 percent of Internet devices” and such.

But the sourcing is left blank… some guy on a stage said so, and so newspapers are repeating it. That’s not good journalism. Anytime you read any story, you have to ask yourself “How do I know what I think I know?”

I know of two services which measure Silverlight: Travis Collins’ riastats.com, and StatOwl.com. RIAStats went through a significant sampling shift towards the end of last year, roughly doubling its baseline levels, and now reports SL3 at 53%. StatOwl shows SL3 at 38%. (Because of default auto-upgrades, I’m assuming any remaining SL1 or SL2 installations are broken.)

If an exec stands on a stage and gives you numbers to repeat, that exec has a responsibility to show why you should believe those numbers, and how you can defend them from challenges. Repeating those numbers without curiosity does not do the planet any favors….

If they can get Silverlight up into Shockwave/QuickTime levels of consumer support, then mazel tov… now that all this “Flash-killer!” adversarial jive is behind us it’s easier to just wish them success in their goal of helping skilled .NET coders deliver to wider audiences.

But — the newspapers need to source their info. Otherwise they’re just giving us beliefs. “How do you know what you say you know?” must be asked.

Dawn of a new design

Summary: Website design was a big area of growth fifteen years ago. I suspect evolution in mobile screen design will be dramatically more explosive. And, as RIAs were the poster-child for communication between smart servers and smart clients, I suspect experiences like ARAs, BSIs, and VEAs will be areas of startling growth.

We’ve seen a lot of video this week, of recent builds of Adobe Flash Player 10.1 on various recent devices…. see James Ward, Thibault Imbert, Michael Chaize, Aaron Filner among others. Performance looks shockingly good, as does power.

We’ve also heard of commitments to AIR on pocket devices, the shortest path to making native apps.

Seeing such innovation is more convincing than hearing announcements about it. Using such tools will be more convincing still. And once we’re creating upon such a platform, well….

Fifteen years ago the world went through a revolution in interface design, after a website made it easy to quickly reach anyone with up-to-date information. The page-browsing model has stayed popular as more people could afford computers and connectivity.

But these new pocket devices will reach many times more people, many times more economically, and for many more interactions during daily life. They will become more important, faster, than Internet-enabled computers ever did.

And instead of sitting and reading pages, we’ll more likely use pocket devices to accomplish tasks while out and about, doing other things. Doing, not just looking. The interface priorities must evolve.

That’s why I think the next five years will bring very rapid changes to interface design — quick adoption of a new class of displays, combined with usage requirements quite different from previous interaction models.

I believe the fast growth of websites fifteen years ago will soon be dramatically surpassed, by an era of even-faster growth in interaction design for mobile screens. We’re at the start of a new age for design.

How might usage expectations evolve?

Think back eight years ago, when Rich Internet Applications combined ColdFusion’s easy server programmability with Flash’s rich interactive displays. There has been an incredible amount of evolution since then, but even in 2002 RIAs signified a sharp break from classic web apps serving static pages.

I suspect we’ll soon see ARAs, or Augmented Reality Applications. These would bear the same relation to augmented-reality displays as a JPEG photo bears to an interactive application, or a video stream bears to a an interactive video application. The device will draw on remote data and locally enrich the world around you. You’ll want to know if your friends are around. You might want to know how old that building is.

An ARA wouldn’t be just an AR display. It would be a software tool that can query the local environment, and perhaps even control the local environment. It may use AR display techniques, just as you might use a JPEG. But it’s a tool, a handheld control panel, for the world around us.

BSIs are Big Screen Interactivity — shared screens with individual controls. We’re already comfortable with console gameplay, whether in the same room or remote. What happens when you apply that to a movie theatre, to a concert, to a shopping mall kiosk, to a sporting event, to the ads in a subway?

These new mobile screens are not just a small screen in isolation… they are small screens in communication with nearby screens, whether another personal screen or a room-sized screen.

VEAs are Video-Enhanced Applications. From the broadcast/movietheatre era we’re used to “video” as one big linear stream. This influenced the last five years’ rapid growth of video websites. But video isn’t one special format as much as it is a basic way we see — we humans are accomplished at rapidly resolving the meaning of big sequential image displays. Video is a more direct story-telling medium than text. New devices will make it easier to capture and transmit live video data too. I think we’ll continue to see movie-style video, but will also be increasingly using video captures as just another media element in the page, a “first-class citizen” of the full screen experience.

The social sphere will become a bigger component of any on-screen experience. We’ve seen how humans adapt to talking or texting while walking down the street or driving. We haven’t yet seen common use of live outbound feeds, so that a friend can accompany you vicariously.

Today we’ve got social websites we visit, each with their own interface, each a different way of following your friends. But when you’re out on the town and trying to catch up with people, it would be better if the device just let you communicate directly, in your current context, without fiddling across interfaces. A good mobile interface will integrate pertinent aspects of your social sphere, instead of leaving those interactions for another webpage to provide.

Interface customization seems like it will increase too. Webpages served up a similar interface to all visitors, with personalized data flowing into interface templates. That makes sense when you’re serving the interface to each visitor, as well as their data. But native applications offer lower transmission costs by using their own presentation and interaction layers, stored locally, only calling the server for data requests. It’s your interface, not theirs.

This opens the door for interfaces which skin and refactor remote services in various ways. Interfaces will vary with different device form-factors, and seem like they’ll vary by individual sense of style and individual task-requirements as well. When it’s as easy to use a native app as a webpage app, we’ll likely see increased sensitivity to different audience needs by offering greater customization of interfaces.

Will the webpage go away? No, it’s a proven medium, one that new devices must support. But just as Usenet or Email isn’t the only way to use the Internet, neither is the World Wide Web. With new types of devices and usage requirements, we’ll need to add new experiences to the mix.

Sometimes we’ll be using these personal portable screens for presentations. Sometimes for interactions. Sometimes for communications.

The screen shouldn’t be a page, shouldn’t be an application… the screen should be an experience, something well-integrated with user’s current world and habits.

The handset will become the interface to, not just the infosphere, not just the socialsphere, but also the nearby physical environment. We need to develop patterns which abstract the nearby world, so that our devices can question and influence the world.

The new devices will be, literally, a control panel to the world. It’s a time for new design.