Happy Birthday, “HTML5″

Five years ago today I first blogged about Ian Hickson’s use of the term: “‘HTML5′ is the name we’ve been using as the catch-all term for our various proposals.”

Odd trivia: this label was invented only three months after Jesse James Garrett coined “AJAX”. The difference in momentum is explained by Ajax using abilities already available in deployed browsers — Internet Explorer was the first to support asynchronous XML requests, and “Ajax” became popular only after Firefox started supporting it too. “HTML5″ is the other way around… marketing occurs on features to be found in current and future versions of minority browsers, and there’s little provision for reaching the masses. “HTML5″ definitely has bigger buzz than “Ajax” here in 2010, though.

JavaScript was added the same time as third-party plugins, in 1995’s Netscape 2. Dreamweaver arrived with “DHTML” in 1998, when browsers could first do sprite animation and handle user events. Flash developers use HTML as part of their own work. Most of the “‘HTML5′ vs Flash” stuff comes from people who don’t use both… sort of like debating whether the knife is better than the fork when slicing and eating birthday cake.

Happy birthday, little marketing label, you’re now five years old. Grow up and do good things.

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.

The Road To The Pocket (or: Vive Flash Lite!)

Been thinking about posts last week from Dan Rayburn and Matt Voerman. I saw parts of that history too, and don’t agree with all of the views expressed (particularly those from anonymous accounts ;-) but the blogposts made me think.

Big takeaway: A road may not always be straight and linear, but it does tend to bring you to the destination.

Lots of bright minds at lots of firms have been working toward personal connected interactivity for well over a decade. The path has not been straight, but what matters now is that we have nearly arrived — a world full of new economical devices, with a common presentation layer, and with a new set of tooling for today’s design/development tasks. Most importantly, we have already seen strong consumer receptivity to such new devices.

Tinder and kindling, awaiting a spark… the dawn of a new design.

Adobe Creative Suite 5, the Flex 4 ecology, and the cross-device Adobe Flash Player 10.1 will all help many more designers and developers reach these new devices more easily… sort of like when railroads first united frontier towns. But I believe the domain knowledge acquired over the past few years by the pioneers — Flash Lite developers — will give them a unique edge in this upcoming surge of growth.

Flash Lite developers know about smaller interfaces and more constrained devices viscerally, first-hand… they have experiential knowledge which Device Central alone cannot convey. Flash Lite developers are also experienced in figuring out how to create a business serving device owners — the hustle and scuffle of making things work in novel arrangement. They’ve also watched more, learned more from the experiments of others. For these new devices, Flash Lite developers will have more knowledge, richer context.

And, of course, atop those skills applied to newer smartphones and tablets, there’s also the entire population of existing devices, and new non-smartphone sales… those existing code skills will remain valuable for a good while to come. In a world where selling 50,000,000 of a particular device is considered revolutionary, an audience of 1,200,000,000 isn’t really inconsequential either.

Here’s my point: Creative Suite 5 and Player 10.1 make it easier for more people to reach this new generation of devices. I think it will really open the floodgates. But the early innovators who have grown Flash Lite skills over the decade — they have an intangible edge. They have great domain knowledge, they know how to make things work.

Doesn’t matter how we got here, how you’d do things differently with hindsight. What matters now is that humankind is finally at the point of being able to carry around a connected, interactive screen through daily life.

And you will be the person to design, develop, deliver that screen.

This is where we’re at right now. Doesn’t matter how we got here. What really matters is the road ahead.

I think it’ll be fun, fun, fun. :)

[Comments: Software wars elsewhere, and please “own your words”, thanks.]

Beijing Flex

You likely already know that Flex is the fastest way to create advanced data-driven interfaces which will play nearly anywhere — combines multi-aspect XML workflows, efficient frameworks and sophisticated controls to create screens which will work for the majority of the planet.

But what’s less well-known is the torrid pace of Flex adoption in China. The country has the largest number of Internet users, which also implies a very high number of Internet developers. And these developers have indeed driven many, many downloads of prior Flex SDKs.

This week is the Adobe Flash Platform Summit in Beijing [machine-English]. Attendence blew past expectations… we were hoping to fill a thousand-seat hall, but also filled standing-room only, with many left outside waiting to get in. China and India both have a much larger interest in Flex than most people in North America might suspect.

Ben Forta is already there, as is Deepa Subramaniam… Adobe’s Jack Kang [English] and Xue Wei [English] are also blogging about the event.

Here’s an early article [English] of the event… I believe that’s Adobe’s Alfred Nanning in clasped-hands photo with Ed Rowe and Ben Forta. CNET [English] has a similar article, as do many other syndicated sources. (There are two types of certification noted in there… CESI confirms that software is on the country’s supported list, while certification of developers particularly helps with the hiring market.)

Even better coverage, with many photos, is from a participant with handle of “migsr” at RIAMeeting.com [English] … this RIAMeeting.com site, by the way, is a fascinating community-translation project, and if you look on the main page [English] you’ll see how real people are banding together to make English-language resources more globally accessible.

And in similar vein, Aaron Houston has been collecting photos of recent events… if you’re in the worldwide Adobe User Group program then you already know Aaron, and how to get in touch.

Anyway, I’m particularly excited by how well Flex is being received worldwide… such tooling has not existed before and the demand is great, as the exceptionally strong attendence at the Flash summit in Beijing proves.

Questions about 2012

Trying to think through some trends, would appreciate your thoughts, thanks.

I believe we’re on the verge of tremendous changepocket screens, universal, all communicating… tooling, already familiar, tuned to the change… the Dawn of a New Design.

The first screen was custom-fitted to its content… a book, a painting, another artifact… moveable type and desktop publishing, movie screens and recordings, all kept lowering the costs to make new artifacts to hold new content.

The second screen was dynamic, the PC which could display any content, even content which did not previously exist elsewhere. The third screen was when these PCs could communicate with each other, the Internet and its most familiar application, the World Wide Web.

Now we’re on the verge of the biggest of them all, the ever-handy personal screen of nearly every human, and the larger social screens these personal devices can control. It’s coming, massive as a freight train, faster adoption than print or PCs or Web.

By 2012 we won’t have seen the full scope of this change, but we will have much clearer evidence of its directions. What do you think we might have seen by then?

Adoption

It’s a safe bet these screens will become part of daily life quicker than PCs did, quicker than the WWW did. They’re far less expensive and will reach far more people. We’ve already seen how explosively people in any region adopt pocket voice or pocket text. And pocket screens are simply better toys.

But what will “adoption” mean? It can’t mean just “smartphone or featurephone”, because different brands and lines will have different abilities… that’s too simplistic a metric. Should we measure audience support by particular features, such as multitouch or device orientation (GPS, magnetometer, accelerometer)? But what then when two machines of similar capability are on different networks, and are permitted different experiences?

Illusions of inevitability aside, just how will this whole ecology grow?

How will we measure “adoption”? And how fast do you think people will carry around good, functional pocket screens? How are you planning on making decisions in this area… what will be the trigger for you? Thanks in advance for any anecdotes, perspectives.

Regionalism

PCs started in affluent pockets of North America and other urban centers. The Web started from more locations, but was still centered early-on in North America and Europe. Mobile voice and text, on the other hand, grew up in Japan, Korea, Australia, Norway, while North America was the laggard.

But this next generation of devices… it’s not just a local thing. Capability will be available everywhere in the world where the economies and networks can support them. Some even think it will grow much faster in depressed economies such as Africa, because phone-sharing can unite neighborhoods of people with the world. We’ll deal with global markets much sooner than we did with PCs or the Internet and Web.

How do you think you’ll approach strictly local markets, or multiple local markets, or global markets? Will you make more use of imagery and video, less of text and audio? Will you make your projects with external language assets which can be readily translated into other languages later, or just hardcode English into the app? Will regional development styles emerge?

What are you thinking about how regional, how global, your future work will be? If you looked back to today from the year 2012, what type of advice do you think you might be giving yourself?

Cost per action

What makes a project worthwhile to do? Usually how much it costs, compared to how much it accomplishes.

Every communication has a goal, whether to persuade someone to push the “Order” button, or to seek out a certain brand in a store or election, or even just to watch the next episode of a creative work. Audience reach is an important metric, but the real key is audience conversion, getting them to do the thing that you hope to persuade them to do.

(That’s one of the reasons “rich media interactivity” works… it has a higher conversion rate than just text.)

So… to get one desired action to occur, how much does it cost you? It’s not just initial development costs, “I coded that in only 20 hours”. There are also support costs, maintainence costs, and, at the end of a project’s lifecycle, the migration costs to get the data and user habits into a more modern setting. Smarter projects use analytics of some sort, to test and refine how well the project works for its intended audience. The total cost of development is much bigger than just the cost to develop.

For some of us these calculations are easy — a developer for hire just needs one client to sign a contract, and they’re good to go. But what makes the client sign the contract? Some don’t think of one or the other of the above costs, but most savvy ones do.

Some clients will be satisfied with a small attractive market which requires custom coding. Other clients, like governments, will need to satisfy diverse audiences. Different equations will fit different situations.

How are you looking at your full development costs, the total costs of a project, compared to how many people it reaches, and how well it reaches them? If you could put yourself in your 2012 shoes for a moment, what type of advice might you give your self of today?

Broader effects

This is the fun one… imagining the unexpected. ;-)

I’m already keen on ARAs, BSIs, VEAs… whether you’re in Vegas or Beijing you can already see stupefyingly big shared screens, which could handle interactivity from pocket screens just as well as they can handle today’s linear video. And using handhelds as, not just a “window to the world” with remote experiences, but a “mirror to the world” with location-aware interactions… don’t get me started, it’s very exciting.

If you would, I’d appreciate hearing outlandish visions you may have, of how we just might be using these devices in 2012. If this transition is as rapid as logic seems to dictate, then what types of surprises might we, somehow, quite reasonably expect…?

If I could ask you to daydream for a moment, and try to put yourself in 2012 looking back, what types of things do you think might be good for us 2010-lings to know? Silly question, I know, but what types of things come to mind for you…?

[Comments: Software wars elsewhere, thanks.]

The Gradual Disappearance Of Flash Bashing

… likely won’t occur until the incentives disappear, unfortunately.

I’m linking to this article mostly because it just popped up on Techmeme unlinked, and I’d like to help out Gabe…. ;-)

If you read the article itself the author takes the title as a given, and then extrapolates upon what a world would be like were this so. But many will read only the headline, and assume that it was substantiated. Whether the writing and its promotion had this as a premeditated goal is difficult to accurately guess.

Even though Brad is a self-described “Flash hater”, I agree with him that “In the end, we’re all just trying to create websites that can be accessed and used, regardless of the tools we use to deliver them.” I also like that he links to HTML-based work he likes, down towards the end… if you can do something good, it’s to everyone’s benefit… no real need for one to fail for another to succeed.

What drives Adobe is removing the barriers to publishing. Just as every manufacturer is releasing a dizzying range of new personal digital screens (almost all of which are being optimized for Flash work) the new Creative Suite aims to become the most practical way to publish to whichever forms and brands of screens you and your audience choose.

There’s a remarkable consistency in that drive…. ;-)

Update: After a few hours there are many comments there, with a very firm sentiment of “use the best tool; don’t trash Flash”. Sounds like many web workers just want to get on with their work, with a lower level of divisive hype…?