“Looks Best in Browser X”

Folks on Techmeme are talking about browser-specific sites. The trigger here is a Microsoft showcase page, but it applies just a well to “HTML5 VIDEO” sites which use H.264 codecs, stiffing the most popular “HTML5″-branded browser.

Worse, the increasing complexity and patent costs of the WhatWG’s “HTML5″ spec raises a barrier-to-entry for new software… a One-Laptop-Per-Child or $35 Tablet project can no longer afford to create grassroots HTML readers themselves, and will have to go with one of the big, established, and deep-pocketed browser vendors.

Browser-specific features truly Fork the Web.

It’s smarter to add advanced functionality through a common extension to any browser. Even if Adobe cannot quickly create Players for every possible environment, this would still let more people enjoy more functionality more quickly, while still retaining the basic markup which every browser should be able to read.

As a bedrock technology, HTML should be accessible to all. This requires resisting the pressure to make wordly webpages which discriminate against existing and satisfactory browsers.

Bedrock Adobe

Want to understand Adobe? Look to its past. Adobe bridges different silos… whether that’s connecting any computer program to any printer, or making it nearly as easy to design for one screen as dozens. Adobe has a history of advancing new platforms atop which it hopes to out-innovate in services. Adobe can be clumsy and slow — very consensus-driven internally — but also tends to do the right thing.

I’ve been re-reading this Sept08 Knowledge-on-Wharton interview with Adobe founder Charles Geschke, conducted and transcribed by Kendall Whitehouse… worth reading in full, or you can skim through my prior excerpts on how the business has evolved. A lot of Adobe’s success has been when it has developed new technology platforms to help reconcile the needs of different groups of people.

If you have the time, I’d really recommend reading through that interview on how Adobe was formed… both warts and beautymarks, shows you a lot of how Adobe is put together.

Just one quote to give a flavor:

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think is the biggest challenge Adobe is facing going forward?

Geschke: Inventing the future. We’ll never succeed unless we continue to open up new vistas.

Uniting silos, making it easier for creative people to reach their audiences… that’s pretty much the long & short of how the business works.

“Same Markup” makes sense

For what it’s worth, I deeply agree with Microsoft’s insistence on “same markup“, and appreciate their work in conformance testing. Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch has an overview of how this applies to a particular “HTML5″ showcase example.

Why is this important? Because every instance of willful fragmentation increases content development costs, increases content support costs, and increases content maintenance costs.

This is also why it’s so counterproductive to natter on about “HTML5″. It’s really HTML. We know how to work it, with fifteen years of experience. The dynamic hasn’t changed. You figure out what rendering engines your audience has, and design a good experience for all of them. Consider the emotion the past two years about designing for IE6. Every extra bit of fragmentation hurts.

From a browser vendor’s point of view they can conduct campaigns around “HTML5″ because their concern is only their own browser, sometimes even their own device. But that’s distinct from what creative professionals need to think about.

Talking about “HTML” unifies. Talking about “HTML5″ divides. Think it through. It’s true.

Adobe’s about bridging the different silos. But even if you don’t use the Adobe work, you shouldn’t have to pay a “developers tax” to reach different devices.

Microsoft is to be commended for their “same markup” initiative.

(btw, I think TechCrunch comment sections would greatly benefit from weeding out the anonymous stuff more heavily… if they won’t own their words, why should we?)

Evaluating device choices

We’re entering a period of high change, high choice in new types of devices… phones, tablets, readers, televisions, computers in various form-factors. Things will change even quicker as more operating systems make their Flash-enabled releases. I don’t know enough to offer a model-by-model buying guide, but here are a few quick questions which can help classify device choices.

One of the tricky incentives is that nearly every manufacturer wants to highlight the world’s creative SWF content… they want Flash. This leads to differences between various Player 10.1 and Flash Lite offerings… between devices which have worked with Adobe for mutual optimization and those which haven’t… even between Adobe runtimes and non-Adobe SWF renderers (whether JavaScript or native code or third-party ports).

Fastest shortcut is to check the devices Adobe has tested, in the Player 10.1 System Requirements page. [Update: New device page now available, more models.] These are known quantities, where both parties have worked together for a highlighted release. I don’t know how frequently this list will be updated as device shipments swell this autumn, but if you see a model on this list, then you know Adobe has confirmed the results.

Next, check the partner list at OpenScreenProject.org. These are manufacturers who are working with Adobe to bring a consistent high-performance interface layer across any screen. If they’re on this list then check more into particular models, but if they’re not a partner, then it’s good to check more into their particular SWF support.

Those are the big two differentiators — look for a known quantity, whether a model or a vendor. Here are some other tips, based on current online conversations.

  • Whose code? If an unexpected site offers an installation called “Adobe Flash Player”, then please really check into what it really is. There are some legit non-adobe.com installations (OS partners, some high-profile download aggregators, a few) but if a download doesn’t come from adobe.com, then it’s good to wonder why. Same goes for the operating system. Mainstream configurations are more predictable. (The history of early PostScript has some parallels, but on today’s Web there are additional security concerns.)
  • Flash Lite or Player 10.1? Up to you. Each is a different era, will do different things. There have been a billion or two devices shipped with Flash Lite through the world, and they’ll continue to play a role for some time to come. You may want your own high-end most-current device, but it’s really vital to know how your potential audience may experience things too. If you’re developing creative work for realworld audiences, then experiencing their experience is vital. Up to you.
  • Will my model play Flash later? Will it update? The manufacturer will be the best source of info. The general goal is for all devices to just automatically auto-update as time goes on, but it will take awhile to achieve that.
  • Will it all be totally groovy? Groovier than without, but the World Wide Web’s graphics & video haven’t always anticipated being displayed on itty-bitty screens (or great-big screens either, for that matter). It will take a few years before the Web is equally happy on all types of displays. High-resolution video files will particularly strain a connection. Set your expectation against prior reality, not idealized reality. It’s a big step forward.
  • How to troubleshoot? First step is to identify the actual problem, whether it’s stability, or performance, making the problem happen on-demand. On customizable devices it’s particularly necessary to get back to a known configuration. Adobe has info on general support, but for a new device, your manufacturer’s support area would likely have more pertinent and timely info.
  • Player vs AIR: The Adobe Flash Player works within browsers, and there’s a lot of existing web content, whether that’s one-third, two-thirds, whatever. AIR is applications, where the interface logic and data remain on your personal machine. Whether the app code itself is “in the cloud” or “on the desktop” is your own choice, and most people find both are necessary. First AIR/mobile deliveries are expected to appear on Android later this year. Do what makes sense for you now.

Bottom line: Try lots. Not just one form factor either. The devices you’ll use daily eighteen months from now likely don’t even exist yet. Experiment. Figure out how applications should work in daily life, how these devices should bend to your will. Watch young kids, to see how they naturally want to use it. Even if you can’t purchase one soon, then you’re still free to think, to imagine, to figure out what would be really useful, in a world where any screen communicate with any other. Now’s the time. Go for it.

.

[Comments: Platform Wars elsewhere -- and personal attacks from anonymous accounts, no way. Creating the future is bigger and more important than any investment in a brand.]

What’s the point?

Odd… long unhappy writing of trying to install Player on an Android device got pushed up to Techmeme with hot title and no linking blogs… author finally approved a comment offering help with getting it to work… but the only reply was to another comment:

That said, the point of my article is that mobile Flash is a huge disappointment so far b/c it doesn’t work as advertised.

Wouldn’t it be better for “the point” to be “I just want to get on with my work?”

.

Resources: Main Player Support page… troubleshooting Windows, Macintosh, Linux
quick guide for desktops… for mobile, check for best links provided on your product’s official support pages.

For what it’s worth, biggest Android problem I’ve been running into online is when people had installed some type of hack into the system in hopes of getting Flash earlier than their manufacturer deemed prudent. If you’re having problems where you shouldn’t, then please get the device back to a known state first.

If you see other people enjoying performance which you are not, then that’s an indication that you might be able to change something, improve things. You can expect to achieve the performance others do.

Better questions

“The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions.”Claude Levi-Strauss

Augusts online are usually the time of scandal and high emotion, all based on little real news. It has gotten a little more dire now that many websites are paid by the click. “Is the Web dead? Is Net Neutrality dead? Did Privacy kill it? And what does Apple think of all this?” You know the drill.

But what’s going on around us, nearly unnoticed besides the pretty shiny drama, is the great advance humanity is making.

We’ve got the first universal translatorsdisplay screens big as six football fields… early control of external devices through handheld control panels… assistive technology which can turn anyone into Superman. It’s no longer sitting at a desk, staring at a screen.

Good progress, but we humans don’t know how to architect this stuff well. We made Usenet open to all, and forgot about spammers. Then made the same mistake with email. The World Wide Web of hyperlinked documents got buzzworded by “Web 2.0″ for third-party tracking. We yak yak yak and miss the big picture.

You’re living at a time in human history where, within two years, most everyone everywhere will have the world in the palm of their hand. And also, you’re one of the relatively few who sees this future coming and can do something about it, can influence its course.

It doesn’t really matter at all what brand of device is in their hand. The big question is, how will they use it, and how will we change as a result? How can we design things now to bring about a better result later?

You have the opportunity to change this, just by your day-to-day awareness… just by the questions you ask each day. The techblogs are a distraction, with the same dynamics as celebrity TV shows. You have to choose the questions you ask, else others will choose them for you.

With such massive disruptive opportunity arising in day-to-day life through multiple screens, what’s most important to you in the way they will be used? And what can you do to bring about the type of future you’d like? That’s really a much more valuable question to ask.

.

Like to close out with some of the quotes from Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen which were in that interview in The Telegraph, almost hidden beneath the “But what about Apple” veneer.

“We’re really filling out the entire chain of what we can deliver to our customers,” he says.

“One of our key objectives was continuing to help our customers with the ability to have this content and application displayed on multiple devices. We’ve seen the explosion of smartphones and TV. It’s very exciting.”

“We’re delivering on our promise of enabling people to author once and deploy multiple times,” he says.

“It’s so early in the entire mobile revolution. People are going to use mobile devices to do more and more in terms of accessing content and applications on the web.

“Digital publishers are undergoing a massive transformation in terms of the business model and the emergence of the tablet devices as well as smartphones is a new opportunity for them to monetise their content.

“We’re a significant part of helping them make that transformation. Marketing firms around the world are all moving their businesses online.

“There have been so many naysayers about our ability to take Flash and all its power and make it run and sing on mobile devices and we’ve proved that can be done. We’re mission-critical to the companies we work with.”

“Around the world, when I tell people that I work for Adobe it’s amazing to see their faces light up when they talk about Photoshop and how it’s changed their world, or Acrobat and PDF and how they’ve helped them be more effective.”

(Adobe, I think, is a reasonable bet in all this… the company has had the good fortune to be oriented from its start around expanding the possibilities of human communication. Creative tooling has also sensitized Adobe early on to solving real human needs, and reconciling diverse desires. Adobe’s business is relatively transparent. I think it’s a trustworthy endeavor.)

Adobe stance on local storage

Notice WIRED has coverage of a legal challenge to various websites which use Local Shared Objects in Adobe Flash Player to complement browser cookies in identifying return visitors… got picked up by Slashdot and Techmeme.

I don’t know details of the individual websites or the particular concern, but I do know that Adobe has expressed its position on this… see the February “Adobe condemns cookie respawning in comments to FTC” and “My Interview with Adobe Chief Privacy Officer”. Adobe is also working with the major browser vendors to integrate with their recent “private browsing” modes.

(For me personally, the bigger issue is any such storage and identification done by third-parties across websites… the WIRED article’s webpage itself requests assets from nearly a dozen third-party domains: “web beacons” which notify a service when you visit a page. Details of local storage or IP tracking only seem to matter once such third-party notification systems are in place.)

Now’s The Time

I’d like to highlight a blogpost by Adobe staffer Mihai Corlan this week, “Unlocking the true potential of smartphones”… not for its answers, but for its questions.

Mihai starts by noting that “my first four computers were less powerful than the current smartphone I’m using these days”, and goes on to describe some things he’d like to do with it… controlling his television, house temperature, managing his music system, collaborating on to-do lists.

It makes sense. You’re carrying around a few ounces of electronics anyway. It should be able to communicate with other devices around you… should be, quite literally, “a control panel to the world”. It seems an inevitable future.

But it’s under-discussed. All the recent techblog psychodrama is just distraction. The reality is that there are entire new classes of affordable devices arriving this year. And unlike PCs or The Internet, these devices will be both globally adopted, and explosively adopted. The world in three years will be quite different from today.

We need to imagine now how people will want to use these personal, always-handy communication devices. A decade or two ago some sages surmised the potential of The Web, but even with its relatively slow growth we were all surprised by what we discovered we could do. Mobile potential was even more fragmented, but early adopters like Japan and Korea showed the potential, while texting showed the universal popularity. The next year will blow past those previous disruptions.

Please, take a minute, read Mihai’s post, see what problems he’s trying to address. Then visualize such scenarios in your own life, how such devices might be used, how they should be used.

We’re at a unique point in time right now — we can see the disruptive change ahead, even though we cannot readily see its form. But it’s too easy to turn away and let it fall upon us. I believe that the more we visualize and choose among possible futures now, the more quickly things will improve for everyone.

What kind of application would you use to control this, for instance…?

Snippets from Adobe Quarterly Call

Adobe reported its quarterly results yesterday, and as usual offered an open question-and-answer session with financial analysts.

I’d like to thank SeekingAlpha.com once again for transcribing both the presentation and the discussion section. They allow bloggers to copy up to 400 words, and I pulled some snippets out of the Q&A. These are heavily edited to turn transcribed speech into written speech… if in doubt, please go back to the transcript or the audio.

“2010 is clearly off to a great start. Adobe’s long term opportunity has been sometimes overlooked in this recent Flash controversy… When you talk about the explosion of digital content, the movement towards devices, the businesses which are moving online, it’s just a really massive opportunity, and an opportunity where Adobe is uniquely positioned.”

“The number of Flash users is now up to 3.5 million designers and developers, a 59% increase. In terms of the revenue of products that contain Flash, there has been a 22% increase in revenue.”

How does Adobe’s investment in Flash Platform generate a return-on-investment? Authoring tools are the obvious way, and multi-screen authoring is rapidly increasing in demand. Servers are another, whether through consumer video or enterprise application servers. Player downloads offer third-party software, and this helps pay for Player development. Analytics are another emerging area, so that creators can see how well their content suits their audiences’ needs.

“We really have not seen any impact of the HTML and Flash debate on our authoring business. Instead we’re seeing more and more fragmented workflows as people have to author to different standards. The need to deal with all these disparate workflows is actually causing more attention to be paid to the Creative Suite 5 features. We’ve said this multiple times, that ‘Flash *and* HTML’ is really going to be the solution for the web. Both of them have benefits. And Adobe has had a long history of supporting both formats.”

“I’d say one of the reasons Creative Suite 5 has been so strong across the board is authoring for multiple screens. It’s a painpoint now for all customers, and between now and holiday season you’ll see probably another ten tablet style devices that come out with different resolutions. This will increase the demand further. The need for customers to be able to get their content out to multiple devices… we’ve certainly seen an uptick in those requests.”

“With respect to your question on the content servers, the amount of video served or streamed using the Flash format has actually exceeded our expectations from the beginning of the year. The big reason is that more and more video is been streamed over the internet. The fact that some devices don’t support Flash just means that there may be additional workflows. But if you think about sporting events or when you think about television, all of that’s also being streamed on the Internet and practically all of that is in Flash.”

Tip: Keep an eye on OSMF

Summary: If you help people make choices in web technology, then it would likely be profitable to get the new Open Source Media Framework onto your personal radar now. OSMF is an industry-wide collaborative effort to make it easier, faster, cheaper and more reliable to developer advanced video interfaces for desktop and mobile.

How we got here: Real Networks started web video in 1997, before Apple and Microsoft expanded The First Codec Wars from CD-ROM to Web… in 2002 the ubiquitous Macromedia Flash cross-browser extension added video, and although fragmentation remained an issue for awhile, people like Jens Brynildsen clearly saw the trend… by 2005 phenomena like YouTube started showing how useful and popular play-on-demand video could be.

Popularity of web video has exploded since then… demand has gone viral. Meanwhile feature requests have increased too, from download-and-play to progressive streaming to live streaming to adaptive streaming to rights-management to advertising revenue to analytics to DVR functions to multi-feed to social annotations to… the list goes on. Content providers needed to continually reduce their increasing delivery costs, while the complexity of serving the video also increased.

How to reconcile delivery costs and feature costs? One tack has been to move to ordinary HTTP servers, rather than dedicated media servers. But this requires that much of the “smarts” in a dedicated media server be replicated in the client for a cheaper HTTP server. This increases development costs. But the Open Source Media Framework is designed to slash those development costs — tapping into the whole industry for best practices for a clientside presentation layer, making a framework which all stakeholders can expand.

Check out this June 10 post from Kevin Towes… he gives a deeper overview of the feature requirements and the trends. Then read Greg Hamer’s Devnet article on how to approach OSMF. Click on some of the links that interest you. After reading both these essays you’ll have a much clearer view of where video growth is going than will most of the other people who might advise your friends.

I think OSMF will be very useful in the real world. Lots of producers are now figuring how to minimize “The iPad Tax” of multiple deployment paths, and OSMF workflows will naturally integrate with the most efficient solutions. When large numbers of browsers start supporting the VIDEO/H.264 and VIDEO/VP8 approaches, the “HTML5″ UIs will likely integrate or parallel the OSMF methodologies to tap into its broader ecology. Mobile delivery adds multiple complexities, and OSMF efforts are explicitly designed to deal with them. And, at the leading edge, the community approach of OSMF will just make it easier to deliver better features, cheaper. Just as with Jens’ piece back in 2003, the trends are clear if you look at them.

Anyway, that’s my pitch… if you ever advise people about video at all, then spending a few minutes now examining the full release of the Open Source Media Framework will guarantee your video expertise into the future…. ;-)