Archive for January, 2011

Non-standard bodies

Neil McAllister’s Infoworld article yesterday about WhatWG and how it differs from W3C is worth reading… the headline is rather linkbait-y about the markup spec, but it’s the dynamics of the “standard” groups themselves that’s most important in this essay.

The W3C reaches group decisions with a large variety of participants, and ends up producing something which works for all. The WhatWG is four browser vendors (intentionally omitting the most important one) and tends to reach decisions which benefit those members (as shown by the eventual progress of VIDEO, which in practice just let Apple protect its proprietary business model). Neil makes clear the difference better than I… worth the reading time.

You might want to skip the headline and implications about “HTML5″… markup will always progress, at the pace that consumers accept new runtime engines which agree on new functionality. HTML will work out fine. The W3C may be slower, but it includes a wider variety of viewpoints, that’s the main point.

(Addenda: Slashdot was one of the few venues to pick up on Neil’s article yesterday. The WhatWG’s acceptance of alternative viewpoints seems less open than Adobe’s community process for Flash. And a disclaimer, currently I’m a bit annoyed at apparent war by other means, complete with plausible deniability.)

Balancing diverse needs

Some heat around video features today… browser vendors’ VIDEO plans don’t include a doorlock, and rebuttal… not all content providers can afford to provide for less-capable audiences, and rebuttals.

Made me think of a quote from Adobe co-founder Charles Geschke a few years ago, at a Kendall Whitehouse interview for Knowledge@Wharton:

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.

Sustainable technological solutions work for more people… balancing the needs of consumers, AND creators, AND investors, AND all the other diverse groups which are affected. If any constituency feels slighted or oppressed, then things won’t move forward as easily.

Asking video creators to create multiple interfaces for intentionally-hobbled devices, or telling creators that they can’t even install a lock on their front door… that’s as unfriendly as saying “use another browser” or “install this new plugin to watch” would be to consumers. Finding solutions which work for diverse groups is harder, but, in the long run, more fun.

Blends of native and global

Saw a few blogposts this week asserting “mobile apps must be native-code for each device”… went back and re-read them seeking the “why?” without much success. The most concrete reasons seemed to be that cross-platform work is “an uncanny valley between a web page and app” and remarks such as “I think 80% of our customers use only native”.

Not much of a case, and so not worth the fisking, but it did make me think about various angles to cross-platform work, about trying to get a good connection with a wide audience.

  • Is there often an “uncanny valley” when people encounter a new interface? Sure… lots of them. We’re all using devices which didn’t exist a year ago, new form-factors, new tasks, new operating systems and UI conventions. Whether one app chooses to make its UI “uncanny” to single-OS new users, or to make it “uncanny” to customers already using their app on a different device, that’s one of many such decisions best reserved to the developer and their audience. Their choice, but I think we humans have proven our flexibility by now.
  • Development costs are only the initial upfront costs. If you don’t add significant testing expenses, then your support costs will likely be higher later on. And projects incur ongoing update and maintenance costs as well. “It took only four weeks to port” describes just one small part of the project’s total cost. What will it cost for the version 2.0? the version 2.01? What will it cost to do consumer support for multiple system-level codebases? Much of the “go native” conversation out there seems to talk only about the increase in development time, but not the total costs of the entire project.
  • These “native or global” discussions are reminiscent of the mid-90s multimedia-authoring forums, where some insisted that CD-ROMs made using OS-specific tooling & runtimes, such as Microsoft Visual Basic or Apple Media Tool, would be more readily accepted by audiences than cross-platform Macromedia Director work. The evidence didn’t seem to bear this out.
  • Does localizing to OS-style UI conventions help make things friendlier for people stuck in that OS? Sure. But localizing “color” to “colour” makes things friendlier to those in the UK… localizing the interface’s colors themselves can make things friendlier for those in different cultures… every little bit helps. Not as import as optimizing for accessibility, but in similar vein.

You should do what you find best, to reach different audiences, accomplish your own goals. Watch out for people who take a long time to say that they think you should do what they chose.

VIDEO debate, cutting to the chase

Earlier this week Google’s Chrome team announced that they’d no longer be including an H.264 video decoder in their browser. I haven’t seen any updates from them responding to the massive third-party conversation following their use of the fluffy and prone-to-dispute “because it’s open” explanation.

But that massive conversation seems to hide more than it reveals — burying us all under word fatigue. Here are some simple basics:

  • The VIDEO tag was simply not well-considered at the outset. Its original rationale was: “You don’t require a plug-in to view images… video is the next natural evolution of that.” But from the very start the practical questions about use were swept under the rug… at least until the rug started piling up too high. It wasn’t sustainable.
  • The VIDEO tag serves two different constituencies: those with an “Open Web” banner who wanted to expand their own scope (lookin’ at ya, Mozilla), and those who have invested in Apple and their devices. These two groups have had different needs. The original proponents from Mozilla and Opera saw their desires for a royalty-free codec (for royalty-free tooling) hijacked by Apple fans’ needs for an H.264-baseline implementation. It wasn’t sustainable.
  • Video publishers need the VIDEO tag for one purpose only: to support Apple’s non-standard HTML browser and its denial of third-party extensibility via APPLET, OBJECT, and EMBED. [I’m copying that linked comment below, because TechCrunch’s Disqus commenting system doesn’t seem very web-friendly.] Flash’s popularization of H.264 meant that much video did not need to be re-worked for Apple’s standard-breaking devices, just the tagging and — significantly — the interactive and adjunctive features of anything beyond plain linear video playback. This may have been endurable, but the demand from the start was not sustainable.
  • Does Chrome’s H.264 move affect Chrome users? I don’t know of any (non-ideological, non-Apple-only) video which uses only VIDEO/H.264. The only real effect it seems to have is to blunt Apple’s campaigning by removing a nominal incentive. iPad users may be most affected, but impact on Chrome users seems minimal. Its removal does not seem unsustainable.
  • In this week when we’ve seen Arizona shootings and the easy (and incorrect) apportionment of blame, it’s quite unsettling to see how techblogs go on about the “war” and “blood feud” and other speech which is meant to incite, and earn more ad revenue. For goshsakes, consider how you’re speaking. Reflexive hatred is not sustainable.

Beyond the pettifoggery of This Week’s Blog Outrage, a simple truth remains: We humans are now witnessing a migration of video interactivity to pocket device. People all around the world, from varied economic strata, can now capture what they see and share it with others. It’s right up there with the invention of printing and the invention of the Internet. Instead of arguing about branding issues we should be thinking of how people will want to use video, how they will need to use video. This would be more sustainable. Would be more useful, and kinder, too.