Archive for May, 2010

Smokescreen, formats, runtimes

SWF file format has had a public specification, like HTML, for over a decade. As browsers’ script-execution improves it becomes possible to read SWF files and render parts of them. As a coding effort, impressive work. As a publishing solution, look at its efficiency.

Folks on Techmeme picked up on Chris Smoak’s Smokescreen a SWF-consuming JavaScript application in similar vein to Tobias Schneider’s Gordon project.

My close to that January essay on Gordon still stands: “There are differences between HTML and SWF, but even a JavaScript engine can understand simple SWF files… nothing mysterious or alien about it.”

The logical error in Techmeme headlines right now is that because some files work, many files work, and work well enough to be practical, if not preferable. Technologies are only tools… you use each where each works best.

Some people do seem to harvest their news mostly from quick newspaper headlines. They’ll pay the cost. But it would be good if the news writers did a little more digging, a little more original thought, before promoting such headlines to their readers. Please, read around a little more… think things through for yourself.

… and, after aftereffects, reality….

The biggest part of the problem described in my last post is that it distracts attention from reality. We’re on the cusp of something quite extraordinary here, of historical scale… nearly all humans will soon have pocket-sized communication and control screens. We need to think through these implications now.

Datapoint: “May 24 (Bloomberg) — Via Technologies Inc., the Taiwanese computer-processor company, expects $100 tablet devices containing its chips to reach the U.S. in the second half of 2010… About five different models, ranging in price from $100 to $150, will be available….”

The hardware is coming, complete with a predictable cross-device runtime. Creation tools have been rev’d to synch with this release. The network communications have already been explored. We’ve had a few years now of cloud-based experience. Humans quickly adopted the mobile phone, and so will likely flock to new, more fun devices.

All the pieces are in place. In three years everyone you know will be using handheld interfaces.

What will those interfaces accomplish… what techniques will work on-the-go… what surprising new types of uses will we find? The people who ask these questions now will be able to take faster advantage of these changes.

Of all the damage done by that branding-based baloney, those teasing techblog theatrics, the worst may be is that it distracts attention from what is truly going on. The brands are but a pimple on the trends.

Everyone you meet will soon communicate with the world, even control parts of their world, from a device they can hold right in their hand. What do you want this world to become?

Not just “What can I code?”, but “What are the real needs, and how best to satisfy them?”

In three years people will be famous and successful for having asked these questions early. You can join them, by imagining this future now.

PocketNow aftereffects

Big furor yesterday over one particular first-blush report on mobile Flash… Brandon Miniman of PocketNow.com tried a few random sites on his updated Google Nexus One, and made two videos of his surfing.

The worst problems he found were nominal… if you load a page with rich content, this takes longer to load than the same page without rich content… if you’re decompressing video in the central processor, then this competes with other uses of the CPU, such as scrolling… if you’re multitasking with background apps, that’s more of a load than if the browser runs alone. Nothing unexpected here.

But the furor… that was something else. After a weekend of great reports on mobile Flash in the wild, some of the Monday morning headlines on Techmeme were horrid: “Flash Kills Browsing”, “Flash Bogs Down Android”, “It Is Terrible” and more. This cluster was started by the usual set of Apple-oriented sites crosslinking to push something into Techmeme, and then once this cluster was established, Monday morning commercial blogwriters linked into it for the hits.

Damaging in the short term, but negligible in the long term… once large numbers of people actually start viewing today’s web on pocket devices, they’ll put such alarmism in its place.

I don’t hold Brandon responsible for this — he’s enthusiastic and just said what he saw, which is legit. I can understand the need for Apple sites to link to it with negative headlines — they’ve seen the central part of their business knocked out by superior performance and need to compensate somehow (even if foully). And I can also understand the clickbloggers making dramatic headlines — “if it bleeds it leads” still fits. They’ve brought about needless and useless perception damage to Flash, but I can understand the motives that drove it.

This issue was particularly difficult to counter, in large part due to the format… the original commentary was a pair of videos, ten minutes each… no text abstract of the findings, just watching someone click among sites. This gave subsequent headline writers carte blanche to give us their feelings of the story, without needing to back that up with data. No “there” there, nothing to grab onto.

But Brandon’s initial tests showed that the more content you load, the longer it takes — certainly true. A device that cannot play today’s web video won’t have to download and render it. And software-based decoding does remain a tax upon the processor. This will likely have bigger implications for Apple-style video than for web video, at least until advocates tack and recommend a “Click-to-HTML5″ application.

There are some other implications of these quick tests. Most desktop-style webpages are too piggy. Much of today’s web will likely cause needless strain to new pocket-sized devices. PocketNow.com’s own front page has over 250 HTTP requests, notifying over a dozen different web-beacon domains when you arrive. Even abnormal Flash use will only be just one more challenge in porting today’s web to smaller devices.

The bigger and more important challenge may be for us readers, to discount bogus stories which are pushed repeatedly at us. Particularly after recent elections, there are proven techniques to gain short-term advantage in mass belief. But as George Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”… and truth does out in the end.

Bi Sheng’s Big Night

“During the reign of Chingli, about the year 1040 of the Common Era, Bi Sheng of Bianliang, a man of unofficial position, invented moveable type…

“His method was as follows: he took sticky clay and cut in it characters, as thin as the edge of a coin. Each character formed, as it were, a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard.

“He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered his plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes.

“When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together.

“When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste at the back was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone.

“For each character there were several types, and for certain common characters there were twenty or more types each, in order to be prepared for the repetition of characters on the same page.

“When the characters were not in use he had them arranged with paper labels, one label for each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases….”

— via Wikipedia, via Shen Kuo

One night, just shy of a thousand years ago, one of us had an idea. A complex, multi-step idea. An audacious idea that he would carry out the next day. Would it work? There were so many steps, all untried. Would people accept it? People misunderstood when he tried to tell them about it. Would it make a difference? Even though Bi Sheng had belief in his work, he must have thought this over and over, wrestling with anticipation, that whole night through.

It’s a similar night tonight. Except there are more of us now. Bi Sheng’s work let any printer compose any book without the need for custom woodblocks. Now we’re on the verge of any creative person being able to reach nearly any device.

Any person, any experience, any screen.

I bet Bi Sheng was excited, on that last night before his first real test. I know I sure am. There’s tons more work yet to do, but it’s truly exhilarating to see the first results.

Straight talk on Flash

At Cold Hard Flash, Aaron Simpson and Sean McKenzie have an excellent interview, “Flash Co-Creator Jonathan Gay Responds to Steve Jobs”… cuts through the last few months’ worth of fluff on touchscreen mouseovers, “bloated CPU hog”, “H.264 killing Flash”, and their ilk. I’m pulling out some striking quotes here, but only to whet your appetite for reading the full interview.

(By the way, if you’re not familiar with the work Aaron and friends do at Cold Hard Flash, then I’d really recommend the site… focuses not on technology capabilities, nor on technology marketing, but on how real people around the world are using technology to accomplish their personal goals, and to satisfy their audiences… a realworld tonic to phony blogospheric controversies.)

Top-level takeaway:

“In general, I think getting bogged down in discussing the details of Apple’s criticisms of Flash misses the point. The technical and performance problems are solvable and there would be real value to Apple’s customers to be able to view web sites that use Flash content.”

And what’s really driving the controversy:

“It’s disappointing to me that the media is letting Steve get away with dinging Flash on its openness while Apple advocates a much more closed model of application development. The fact that Steve wrote a letter explaining their position suggests how powerful the demand for Flash is from their partners and customers.”

He notes that Flash’s usefulness was first demonstrated on early desktop computers which were primitive and underpowered compared to today’s top pocket devices, and concludes:

“I think the iPhone should have plenty of processing power to run existing Flash content with reasonable performance. It’s always important when building media content to keep in mind the constraints of the delivery platform and I think that even without much performance work, Flash Player could deliver a good experience on the iPhone.”

Elaborating on this a bit further on:

“I don’t think there is any technical basis for Steve’s assertion that Flash is stuck in the PC world. Note that the Unix technology in the iPhone OS is a mini computer technology but it works well in the iPhone. Since Flash was developed, the two fundamental innovations in multimedia technology have been the development of sophisticated scripting engines and the availability of powerful graphics hardware acceleration. Flash has a state of the art scripting engine and Adobe is working on supporting graphics hardware. I think multimedia support in HTML5 will be less capable and lower performance than what Flash offers today. When Steve says Flash is stuck in the PC era he must mean that the Flash business model of free players, open content and affordable technology has been eclipsed by the closed, highly-profitable mobile platform of censored applications that Apple is building with the iPhone.”

How has Adobe handled it?

“With any technology, like Flash, the web or the Internet, where there are millions of people who have invested money and energy into making it part of their lives and their businesses, it’s important for there to be a good steward of that technology. The open source and standards body approach is one way for that stewardship to happen but having a good corporate steward of the technology is also a successful model. I believe that Macromedia, followed by Adobe, have done a good job of being stewards of Flash.”

Browser stability? After noting that browsers are having an increasingly hard time with ambitious HTML, he comes back to the commonsense approach of actually fixing problems rather than going all exclusionary on parts of today’s real web:

“My main thought here is that any problems that are present can easily be solved by Apple and Adobe working together to make web multimedia reliable for their customers.”

In response to “Jobs also jabbed Flash for having a bad security record. Do you think that’s warranted?”

“I don’t think so. I think Adobe has done a good job on security with Flash. Any Internet software written in C++ is going to have security challenges. It’s inherent in the complexity of the technology.”

For HTML, he itemizes many of the costs for delivering atop multiple runtimes rather than a single runtime, then concludes:

“It will be good for simpler content but the more sophisticated media content will still be Flash… it will take time to work through these issues and, in many cases, it will be significantly more expensive to develop HTML5 content than Flash content… This is an expensive multi-year process and its not really clear what benefit site owners would gain from this transition. It will cost them more money than Flash content. There will be uneven customer experiences until developers get it all figured out and the browser implementations mature.”

Further:

“My rule of thumb is that if you want to displace an incumbent technology, you need to offer a very large benefit. HTML5 will offer better integration of media if you just want to add media to a web application you are already building in HTML, but if your goal is to build media content for the Internet, I think it will be more expensive to build and a worse experience for your customers. How many sites want that?”

And finally:

“Flash is well established and has survived lots of competitors over the years. Years ago, we were afraid that DHTML, VRML, Java and other technologies would displace Flash but it’s actually hard to build a good multimedia platform and it takes a long time for developers to build skills in a new platform. In many ways, all the talents, skills and techniques in the millions of Flash developers are a more important asset than the technology in the player and tools.

Apple did innovate in opening up the North America mobile market to diverse business plans, and in “writing developers a check” through their App Store:

“On one hand, I think it’s fantastic how the App Store has created opportunity for lots of developers but ultimately, I don’t think a closed system like Apple is building can own the mobile applications market. There is simply too much diversity in the marketplace. People buy lots of non iPhone/iPad mobile devices and Apple’s resistance to Flash will probably actually accelerate opportunities for Flash developers on these other devices. Ultimately, I think Apple will be forced by competitive pressure to open up the App Store but it might take a couple of years.”

Long-term prognosis for the controlling approach?

“Personally, I think that Flash content will probably outlive iPhone and iPad apps because Flash is designed to deliver media content while the iPhone/iPad development tools are designed to build applications for a specific hardware platform that will be obsolete in 5 or 10 years.”

And:

“It’s up to consumers to embrace Apple’s model or to push back against it and decide that they want a more open model like Android provides. Ultimately, I suspect the cell phone carriers will decide that it’s OK for Apple to have a high-end niche, but that they will not give control over their customers to Apple for a really large numbers of devices. For Flash developers, this whole conflict will probably lead to a better Flash implementation on the non-Apple smart phones and more opportunities for delivering Flash content to mobile devices. Apple has momentum in the mobile application market right now, but I think they may lose their mindshare leadership position as consumers and carriers see the benefits of more open models. At the end of the day, the world benefits if there is a way to create multimedia content that is viewable on a wide variety of devices.

What’s more important: a technology platform, or what people have created atop that technology platform?

“I think Steve Jobs is willfully missing a key point with his arguments against Flash. The important reason to put Flash on the iPhone is that millions of developers have invested millions of hours building Flash content in Flash. The Flash content out there in the world is an asset of our society and the people who created it.

We’re at the end of a long hype cycle, now that the significant work of uniting desktop and mobile codebases is about to ship. Phony controversies will fade away, now that we’re at the dawn of a new design. Thanks again to Jonathan, Aaron and Sean for showing where the true priorities are.