Posts in Category "Devices"

“Everybody knows” vs “Let’s test it!”

“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”Will Rogers

Sean Christmann of EffectiveUI benchmarks Flash and HTML drawing and video on various current devices. Flash drawing performance is usually a multiple of each of the “HTML5″ engines, save for video where the availability of hardware acceleration controls all. (Jan Ozer had more on video acceleration last year.)

Background: Rich-media performance is hard. Even simple audio-mixing is hard, when you figure in latency and switching… HTML5 audio problems today are reminiscent of the first cross-OS media runtimes in the mid-1990s. Realworld video isn’t as simple as just adding a VIDEO tag… you need to make it work. Most runtime engines can’t afford to go as deeply into optimization issues as those who write engines for a wider base. Even when one runtime increases its JavaScript performance or its drawing performance, that doesn’t help when you need to run on more than one runtime.

Will the HTML runtimes continue to improve? Of course. Will Flash continue to improve and further diversify its support? Of course. Will commercial social-media accounts assert that Flash is slow and a battery hog, despite evidence to the contrary? That is, of course, possible. But here’s how Sean wrapped up his testing:

“The Flash VM performs really well on mobile chipsets and I don’t see any evidence here to support the idea that Flash is slow on smartphones and tablets.”

Thoughts on “Thoughts on Flash”

April 29, 2010, a year ago today, Apple published a document titled “Thoughts on Flash”. Although weird, it was welcome… for over three years people had been asking about iPhone’s Flash capabilities, and up through the iPad’s “little blue lego of gloom” launch the only guidance offered was some unclaimed “lazy & evil” hearsay. Thanks to Joseph Labrecque for pulling together a few of the contemporaneous reactions to that response… with a year’s hindsight, you can make your own evaluations on the speech of that time.

The bigger issue is how we humans will adapt to our new technology capabilities… how we’ll actually end up using handheld displays, rich and interactive, always in connection with other machines, other people. Developers need to go where their audiences are, where their clients’ audiences are. Publishing workflows must traverse the silos.

Macromedia Director did early work bridging devices, with its Portable Player running on Iris, Scientific Atlanta, 3D0 and other devices, and authoring done on either Mac or Windows. Flash Lite was a bigger success, on billions of devices, but mainly regionally in Japan, Korea, and emerging markets. Today we’ve got a uniform Flash Player which runs the same across laptops and smartphones… a remarkable engineering achievement, requiring great cooperation among scores of industry titans.

The branding wars of today won’t matter much in a year or two’s time. Better to look 5, 10, 20 years out, and see how we humans will need and want to use these various devices. Unlike the PC era, handhelds will have a global reach, be affordable to many more people. Many voices will speak. The implausible Open Screen Project may have been proven a success, but the more important work is yet to come.

Got acne? Blame Flash!

This device too late! That device too different! This one too big, that one too small, this OS too free, that OS too closed, ohmygosh run run run!

There’s a rare layer of hysteria in much of the techblogging today. The nuttiness has been around forever, but now seems to be reaching a fever pitch.

Some ask if we’re in a bubble. I don’t know. But for every person who sells a share of stock above $300, there’s a person who paid that steep a price for it. That’s a lot of people, with lots of self-interest floating around out there. And the financial message boards have never been among the most civil examples of online discussion….

It’s hot. But it won’t persist. We’re already seeing the patterns.

Connected interactive screens are coming in all sizes, with all types of operating systems and native-code environments, in all types of languages, with all types of business models connected to their use. No single brand dominates.

Everyday people in both Palo Alto and Peru, both San Francisco and Singapore, both Cupertino and Hyderabad — and everywhere else! — are all adopting these devices at torrid pace. No single social group dominates.

The technology to publish applications and content across all these devices will vary with device needs, audience needs and content needs. We usually need to blend technologies to reach wider audiences. No single technology dominates.

People delivering their ideas through such devices want a real connection with their audience, and not be intermediated by gatekeepers — few wish to be a mere sharecropper. Cross-device markets, cross-device analytics, cross-device frameworks, cross-device toolchains are the pickaxes and hardware of this gold rush.

In such an expansive world, those who see themselves as the only true path will likely fare not all that well. They’ll rail at competition, scream and shout. Listen to what they say, but confirm the truth for yourself.

Cooperation and mutual benefit are, realistically, a better long-term approach. Just gotta deal with some of the screaming in the meantime…. ;-)

Comb Over Charlie vs the Web-Beacon’d Pundits of Doom

Short video worth watching… single game running across multiple screens… more info from Charlie Schulze and Jens Loeffler.

Simple story — delivering to a new form of device should require minimal redrawing/layout/interaction work, and delivering to a new brand of device should require even less work than that. It’s still early days, but Charlie’s experience shows that this is a reasonable and attainable goal.

Is this the story in the popular press? No… the goal of techpress is to earn revenue, and attracting the clicks is the main need. They don’t disclose their private communications with companies, and feature pseudonymous comments which could well be from marketing-agency personas. When they write of privacy their own pages will usually call assets from Google, Facebook, and other cross-site trackers. Even when the New York Times writes of a superquake and mega-tsunami in Japan, they’ll sensationalize the nuclear angle despite all science to the contrary. The chattering-class is often offbase in what they choose to discuss.

Please take a look at the video yourself. That cross-device delivery is the way things should be, and is increasingly the way things really are. And in the end, this reality will trump lame talk.

Recent news, steady progress

Funny news day — lots of little things popping, some drawing much more attention than others, hard to get perspective. There’s a common theme among them, however. Even though there’s lots of growth in new types of environments, there’s a lot of work in bridging them, too.

One example is how browsers are starting to expose Flash Player local storage… from the FAQ:

“Integration with browser privacy controls for managing local storage — Users now have a simpler way to clear local storage from the browser settings interface, similar to how users clear their browser cookies today. Flash Player 10.3 integrates control of local storage with the browser’s privacy settings in Mozilla Firefox 4, Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 and higher, and future releases of Apple Safari and Google Chrome.”

Letting webpages store more-than-cookie-sized data is a good idea, as recent HTML5 local-storage work shows. But as cross-site tracking and personality databases become more worrisome, it makes sense to expose integrated local-storage to public control however people wish to control it. The good news is that different parties can (and do) work together to bring this about. Progress.

Another example is the Wallaby project… not as dramatic as Techmeme may paint it, but it’s still useful to be able to bring basic SWF assets into a different delivery environment. Fragmentation is natural during fast evolution, but connecting such silos is natural too. Progress.

A subtler example is from the Dreamweaver team this week, about the differences in touch events across different WebKit-based browsers. Touchscreens and scrolling forms, or preventing doubled events when there’s also a trackball controller… natural for fragmentation to occur, and natural to bridge that fragmentation too.

More obvious is the work that Adobe’s Digital Publishing group has been doing… working with major publishers to bridge across all the various islands of new devices rapidly appearing. This will soon help smaller publishers too.

Screaming headlines may clash and obscure significa, but the real pattern underlaying the news is easier to see: we’re rapidly gaining a wide variety of connected digital screens, and the big work is in helping anyone to write to them. There’s daily, incremental progress towards that goal… connecting those silos, bridging those islands.

“Like sands through the hourglass….”

Big Techmeme cluster today, prompting headlines of “What’s Going On, Adobe?”… seem to be triggered by this Engadget blurb: “Verizon’s webpage dedicated to the Xoom has just gone up and one of our eagle-eyed readers has already spotted a disquieting bit of small print: ‘Adobe Flash expected Spring 2011.’”

I don’t know Motorola’s schedule myself, but it’s usually better to wait for actual news than to get all excited about a partner’s little snippet.

The important thing is that humanity is now on the verge of universal connectivity through personal displays. The trend is for common high-performance among them — with hardware, OS, engines, distribution, and business models all evolving simultaneously to attain this. Hot “Brand X vs Brand Y’ debating may bring in click-revenue from early adopters, but is less important in the long run than how we’ll end up using these new communication abilities. That’s the real priority for attention now.

Update: Matt Rozen has more on how the early Honeycomb releases will go: “Adobe will offer Flash Player 10.2 pre-installed on some tablets and as an OTA download on others within a few weeks of Android 3 (Honeycomb) devices becoming available, the first of which is expected to be the Motorola Xoom.” Estimates for 2011 total shipments have risen recently, too.

Blends of native and global

It’s not as simple today as it was when applications were developed for Windows, sometimes considering a Mac port, and wondering how Linux could recoup development costs. Now we have not only different form-factors (big multiscreen desktops, little pocket phones, in-between tablets and looming TVs) but we’re split on mobile between Apple OS, Google OS, Microsoft OS and other options. Fragmentation is big.

Some say the choices are “web apps vs native apps”. Some of the more enlightened also mention bridging technologies (AIR or other cross-device frameworks/compilers/runtimes). I don’t think it’s so cut-and-dried as “completely global” versus “completely native”.

For direct OS coding, unless you’re planning to deliver to only one brand of device, you’re going to divide up the work with both portable and native aspects… you’re going to make it easy to port to other environments later. You’ve got your core data structure, media assets and business logic, and then will handle specific devices in a separate layer.

Same when using the browser as your runtime, although inverted… here the instructions are mostly portable, but you’ll still have to build switches for slightly different runtime behaviors, or very different permitted services. The great variance in mobile HTML/JS/CSS performance pushes its promise of full-functioned cross-device compatibility off into the hazy future… you’ll have to handle the edge-cases.

That’s what I think it’s not “all native” or “all universal”. There’s always a blend between portable aspects and idiosyncratic aspects. People who argue polarities may not provide the best investment in listening time.

(Adobe’s role? To make it easier for creators to reach their audiences, however they choose to do so. Adobe tooling is used in even Microsoft-only development or Apple-only native-code development… used in most every webpage in the world… and Adobe also creates great runtimes for those seeking a more portable codebase with lower testing and support costs. Adobe supports varying blends of native and global — your choice.)

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.

Device notes

Subjective high-level patterns, along with random low-level detail, about ways I saw people using various devices in Hong Kong and Yunnan last month.

Omnipresent devices: mobile phones, cameras, bigscreen TVs, cars and lesser vehicles. Before 1978 the great goals were a bicycle, a radio and a wristwatch. The children six years old today will have much greater expectations than ours… their change will accelerate even more rapidly than ours. Mobile phones will be as exciting to them as electric lights are to us.

Television: Still the big device… phones have the greater growth, but more people are affected by video experiences.

At least in mainland China, though, this still seems a constrained experience. Hotels in Yunnan offered dozens of channels, but (at least in the places I stayed this trip) were all national or regional networks. I’ve seen CNN and other global channels in Beijing and Shanghai. This trip, all CCTV, Yunnan TV, Hunan TV, etc. Much of the content seemed formulaic to me… historical dramas, soap operas, news, sports. But such content was prevalent in street stall disc sales, too.

Big wildcard here may be disc sales and Internet video. I’ve no idea of the distribution channels or content types here. This could be an important sector… many of the “Internet Bars” are used to watch video on demand, and there were many pocket televisions on sale. The overall video scene is growing beyond the broadcast channel.

Hong Kong hotel TV seemed quite a bit more open, with more foreign stations, a bit more risque late-night content (although still tame). On the other hand, street stalls along Temple Street offered a lot more adult discs than what I’d seen before.

Department stores this year uniformly carried flatscreen displays. Even three years ago it was 50/50 flatscreen and cathode-ray screens. This year the only CRTs I saw were in used-good markets.

One oddity: few gigantic environmental displays. In Beijing and Shanghai you’ll readily see multi-story external displays in certain districts. Even Chongqing in central China boasts impressive outdoor displays. I did see one four-story tall video screen in Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei district, but that’s all. Still haven’t seen any giant displays with handheld interactivity.

I did see one set of touchscreens in use, in Lijiang’s main square, Sifangjie. But these weren’t always working, and when they did, the level of interactivity seemed like a Macromedia Director kiosk circa 1999.

Striking sight: Back alley in Jinghong, gated windows with clothes drying, big 72″ flatscreen showing behind. Across the alley, in the opposite gated window, a large rooster surveying his domain.

Phones: Everywhere. But these are still simple mobile phones, used mostly for voice.

China Mobile and Unicom had the biggest number of storefronts… a staggering number of storefronts, more than seemed financially plausible. They held many models, but all seemed to be similar types of featurephones, similar size of displays. Nokia shops came next, then a few Samsung.

Saw phones among all age groups. Don’t recall seeing anyone in tribal attire with a phone.

About 70% were held to the ear, about 30% held to the eyes… more texting than I’ve seen on previous trips. Looking at screens seemed disproportionately strong among under-30 females. Yelling into phones was still more common among over-40 males.

Saw a few iPhones in use in Hong Kong… some seemed authentic, some seemed inauthentic, but mostly it was hard to tell. Saw a few people using Android interfaces on their larger phones in Hong Kong too. But these were dwarfed by featurephone use.

In Yunnan many convenience stores offered landline services. Hadn’t seen that for awhile, where you go down to the local store to make a call. Feels like a transition between communal phones and personal phones.

Tablets: Striking for their scarcity. Most of what seemed to be tablets in Hong Kong stores were actually pocket televisions, in 5″ and 7″ sizes. Signage for Samsung Galaxy Tab was noticeable in Shenzhen, and many shops in Shenzhen and Hong Kong did offer tablets for sale. Only tablets I saw for sale in Yunnan were some iPads of dubious authenticity in a university shop in Kunming.

Believe I saw a small Android tablet in Kunming… just caught a glimpse of the UI, couldn’t get a make, suspect it would have been older Android. Never saw the word “Google” anywhere (nor Baidu, for that matter). People were using digital technology, but it didn’t have the same type of branding emphasis I see in San Francisco.

Computers: These aren’t the most common consumer electronics goods. Shops usually cluster together, and do offer a good selection. Most usage seem to occur indoors.

Most of the computer screens I saw in use were part of retail operations, for cash registers. In Yunnan, a large portion of the computers I saw used were in CAD storefronts, usually connected to a plotter for printing building plans… striking. Did see a few young-professional appearing folks actually working with laptops in public.

Netbooks surprised me by their popularity… maybe 30% of the total portable-computer offerings, particularly in the larger department stores.

The Internet Bars I saw usually had a Windows 7 homescreen on their displays, although many homescreens seemed to be set to particular games.

Striking sight, in Kunming: Streetside news/juice kiosks, with the proprietor using a webcam for live video communication with another vendor elsewhere… saw this a few times. Drove home how technology adoption is driven by local social networks.

Cameras: This was the sleeper item for me… didn’t expect it to be so big, probably because I saw more domestic tourists than ever before. Many had way-big cameras, zoom lenses, multiple cameras, tripods. A personal status symbol, similar to how big your automobile is?

Also saw recurring TV infomercials comparing the results of different models, how much better a photo can look with a bigger investment.

A common small business near ethnic tourist spots: photo stations, with tribal costumes, digital cameras, a computer for light editing & selection (more Microsoft Photo than Photoshop), and a printer, perhaps some digital transfer to a personal device. Some of these stations were used to play Microsoft Solitaire.

Biggest impressions: Ready adoption of technology, as it becomes available. Tablets have not yet gained popular awareness. Phones have not yet matured. Faster adoption in urban east than rural west. And people really respond to cameras….

Two markets near Hong Kong

I spent most of November in China. Here are some notes on two electronics markets near Hong Kong, the Apliu St. “Thieves Market” in Kowloon, and the HuaQiangBei electronics district just north of Hong Kong, in Shenzhen. Nothing definitive; just anecdotal.

Hong Kong has long been known for its retail consumer electronics… one of the world’s freest economies, Southeast Asia’s gateway to mainland China. Most tourists say that the better bargains are just north of Hong Kong Island, in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui. But a few miles further north of that, in Sham Shui Po, is the Apliu Thieves Market [map].

Like the Wikipedia entry above says, the diversity of goods on Apliu St. is astounding… all types of current tools, not just boxed consumer electronics. There were dozens of kinds of digital meters and calipers, which alone gives an idea of the range of tools. Prices are more reasonable too: I picked up an 18″ keychain (US$3), a pocket AM/FM radio for baseball (US$7), and a mini-screwdriver from Japan (US$3). If you’re buying bigger items, be prepared to bargain from the listed price, and doublecheck what you actually receive.

Mobile phones were still the big thing by far… dozens and dozens in each storefront, mostly Nokia and Motorola and Samsung and various PRC brands. I wasn’t savvy enough to evaluate the list prices, but it was easy to see that this was the major portion of many stores’ offerings. For every smartphone there were a hundred or more feature phones, at least in the street-level displays.

Smartphones were present, but in low volume. I saw a few iPhones, usually highlighted in the front window of a shop, but very few. And of those, most seemed to be in boxes with suspect printjobs. Android phones were spread throughout the displays, but usually with Android 2.1… some of these were global brands, but most Android handsets were from mainland brands which I did not recognize. Feature phones were in abundance… higher-power phones were available, but not yet popular.

Tablets were also few, at least at first. Most of the tablet form-factors were actually GPS displays or, in much greater volume, pocket televisions. (These pocket TVs seemed to use broadcast signal rather than digital storage, but I didn’t check for sure… surprising how many there were for sale.)

Later, towards the north end of Apliu Street I saw more Apple-branded and Android 1.6 or 2.1 tablets, and variants like “aPad” and more. The iPad boxes seemed poorly printed and did not really mention Apple… slogans like “This changes everything, Again” and “FaceTime”, but not what I’d expect from legit packaging.

No Samsung Galaxy Tabs, no Dell Streaks, no obvious Android 2.2 tablets. The vast majority of tablets felt like Shenzhen products. At the higher-end Apliu places tablets had a meaningful presence but still didn’t seem to be volume sellers.

I saw a lot of other wonderful items… dog-bark silencers, loudspeakers-on-belts, great hardware tooling like personal mini-torches and precision screwdriver keychains, laser globes, digital calipers… more than my mind could retain. Felt like Radio Shack during Tandy’s prime, just updated for 2010. Prices were cheap enough that I could easily have busted my luggage limits had I wished. If you’re in Hong Kong, the Sham Shui Po Metro station lets you off right in the middle of the action.

Big takeaway: People have rapidly adopted pocket devices. Phones for voice and text are already immensely popular, and pocket TVs are big. But personal screens with peer-to-peer interactivity are only just starting to arrive, and have not yet been socially adopted.

If Apliu St. had more detail than my mind could organize, then Shenzhen’s HuaQiangBei district just totally blew my mind apart. Shenzhen is immediately north of Hong Kong. Thirty years ago it was rice paddies and fishing boats, and was opened as China’s first Special Economics Region. Now it’s now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Here’s the Flickr tag for Huaqiangbei, although this blogpost may give a more coherent view of what’s happening there. See model for scale.

The Huiqiangbei electronics district is breath-taking. Fast-paced and hectic like an early-morning wholesale produce market… top-level consumer brands down to motherboards, sheets of silicon chips, grosses of plastic cases… buyers walking briskly, comparing the day’s prices, chatting up competitors, scouting for news… shopkeepers assembling handsets in volume for custom orders, snapping chips into chassis, keyboards scattered among noodle bowls… handcarts overloaded with bubblewrap and spools, hauling boxes throughout warrens of interconnected, multi-level buildings… dozens of street huskers chanting “you piao, you piao” for discount phonecards… wide range of electronic goods, sensors, recreational, GPS components, appliances, low-level mechanical parts, toys & tools.

Overwhelming fun, and more than my brain could process, more than my words could describe. The most impressive thing for me was the range of scales of goods and activities — not just finished big-ticket goods, but the entire ecology of components beneath those finished items. The sheer level of entrepreneurial vitality went beyond any electronics scene I’ve seen, anywhere else.

Detailed notes were impossible… too big an experience. Walking out of the giant SEG Electronics Market I salaamed three times in respect, and the door guards grinned, knowing what I meant. If you could chart the daily pulse of this enormous electronics market, then you’d have a good handle on the progress of technology throughout the world.

Anecdotally, I did see a startling amount of street-level signage for the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which I think was just about to become available there. First iPad advertisements were a couple of blocks in. I was approached multiple times by street touts wanting to sell me “authentic” iPhones… funniest was an American tourist who was proud of his new iPad, with the Apple logo on the back of its (very purple) casing. I saw every global brand I could imagine, and many national brands I didn’t recognize. Impossible for me to estimate pricing… “advertised prices” are merely that, a starting point for negotiations.

Like the Hunts Point Market at 3am, mixed with Akihabara and Yongsan electronics districts, a little bit of Macy’s on Christmas eve, and strongly seasoned with the Homebrew Robotics Club… just plain awesome.

If you’re a gadget-head, and have a PRC visa, then ride Hong Kong’s East Rail Line to LoWu Station, cross immigration, take Shenzhen subway two stops north, transfer and go two stations east, then take Exit A. The Huaqiangbei electronics district extends to the northeast.

The Silicon Valley techblog scene can seem a bit of an insular hothouse, with many voices repeating what is fed to them through “planned leaks”. But if you want to see the vitality of street-level growth in the field, then Hong Kong’s Apliu St. market, and the Huaqiangbei district in nearby Shenzhen, will well repay a visit. Exhilarating.