Category Archives: adobe

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Ugly Flash: auto-play audio with no stop button

Today I was transcribing parts of an interview when the phone rang. It was a call about Dreamforce Europe, the Salesforce.com conference in early May. I navigated to the event site to check out the agenda. Suddenly there was a cacophony of noise. At first I thought my interview, which I’d paused in order to take the call, had somehow restarted; but then I realised it wasn’t that, it was a Flash video (with sound) on the Dreamforce site. I can see no pause or stop button; and the right-click menu doesn’t have one either. The problem was made worse by a bandwidth issue; the audio was breaking up, making it unintelligible.

A horrible user experience and poor web design. Audio is even more intrusive than video. Personally I dislike any audio that auto-starts when you visit a page; if there is no obvious way to stop it, other than by leaving, it is inexpressibly ugly.

Update

I received an email from Salesforce.com PR, saying that there is now both a pause and a mute button on the Flash movie. It’s true: bottom right of the panel. Well done Salesforce.com for fixing this.

BBC standardizing on Flash for web video

I’m at Qcon London listening to John O’Donovan, Chief Architect, and Kevin Hinde, Head of Software Development, both from the BBC.

They are talking about video on bbc.co.uk. Previously this has been handled through pop-up pages that give a choice between Windows Media Player and Real Media. The BBC will now be standardising on Adobe Flash video, embedded in the page rather than in a pop-up. Their research has found that embedded video has a much better click-through than the pop-up style. It also has editorial implications, because it is better integrated into the page. In due course, Flash will be the sole public format (an archive is also kept in some other format).

There is going to be increasing video on the site. Apparently the BBC is getting better at negotiating rights to video content, and we can expect lots of video from this year’s Olympics, for example.

As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with iPlayer, the service which offers the last 7 days of broadcasting online. This is mainly about short videos of news content.

Incidentally, I’m disappointed that we are not getting more detail on the rebuilding of the web platform about which I posted earlier, though it has been mentioned in passing as a move to dynamic publishing. That was more interesting to me, and perhaps more in tune with what Qcon is about. Still, this is worthwhile as well.

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Thoughts on Mix08 Day One

So how was the Mix08 keynote? Let’s start with the good stuff. It went without a hitch; it was engaging; we saw some terrific Silverlight demos; and Internet Explorer 8 looks like a compelling upgrade. Not all Microsoft’s keynotes are this good.

Did Ray Ozzie make sense of Microsoft’s overall Internet strategy? I’m not sure. He was too visionary for my taste. That said, he made some interesting remarks. He says that “all our software will be significantly refactored” to better integrate with cloud-based services. He says that businesses will be able to choose between on-premise and cloud-based services. He says that virtualization is the key to a rise in utility computing. He also spoke of advertising as the commercial engine behind the next generation Internet.

Scott Guthrie, now Corporate Vice President of Developer Division, gave an impressive tour of what is happening with ASP.NET and Silverlight, with the latter the main focus. He says that Silverlight is now getting 1.5 million downloads daily. As expected, he announced the beta of Silverlight 2.0, which you can download now. He also announced Nokia’s support for Silverlight on Symbian, though this news actually broke on Monday. It is still significant, though getting any runtime deployed on mobiles is an arduous task: carriers as well as manufacturers have to be convinced of the value. He also mentioned that Sharepoint is getting Silverlight web parts.

Silverlight demos included Aston Martin, Hard Rock Cafe, and NBC’s site for the 2008 Olympics. Highlighted features included Silverlight’s zooming ability, which is the technology formerly known as Seadragon and now called DeepZoom, and HD video. The Olympic demos were engaging, with features like the ability to do instant, user-controlled replay of live video. Aston Martin’s demo showed how well Silverlight works for exploring an online showroom, inspecting and customizing your chosen vehicle in a virtual environment (I saw a similar Flash-based demo at Adobe’s Flex and Air launch a couple of weeks ago).

Dean Hachamovitch showed off IE8; I blogged about this yesterday.

Now, the tough questions. Silverlight looks great; but we saw similar demos here last year. Silverlight 2.0, which is the one most people care about, is now closer to release; but equally Adobe has moved forward with Flash, in particular improving its video capabilities, and the question hanging in the air is: what does Silverlight offer that Flash does not? In this respect, one of the more interesting remarks in the keynote came from a guy from Weatherbug, who demoed a Silverlight app which he said was running on Symbian. He observed that their developers had also tried to develop in Flash Lite, but it has proved costly (in development time) and “didn’t really work”. The Silverlight app by contrast had been done in three weeks. This is Flash Lite of course, not the full desktop Flash, but it would be fascinating to know what the critical differences were.

As for IE8, it is a huge step forward in standards support, but if you subtract what is arguably catch-up to FireFox, what are we left with? Activities and Web Slices look handy, but these are not major pieces. IE8 is not done yet, and apparently there will be more user-centric features before it ships – but when will that be? Microsoft’s Chris Wilson told me last year that it would be around two years after IE7, which would be autumn 2008, but that looks optimistic to me.

Overall my feelings are appropriately mixed. There is plenty of good stuff here, and Silverlight will be great for Microsoft platform developers who can integrate it seamlessly into their ASP.NET web applications. Whether it can mount a serious challenge to Flash in the wider Internet remains an open question.

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Latest stats: Video web growing fast

Nielsen Online has released statistics about the most popular social networking sites in the UK and their growth year-on-year:

Rank
Jan 08

Rank Jan 07

Website

UK Unique Audience (000s) Jan 08

UK Unique Audience (000s) Jan 07

Change in UA Jan 07 ā€“ Jan 08

Social media type

1

2

YouTube

10,426

6,667

56%

Video

2

1

Wikipedia

9,557

7,758

23%

Information

3

18

Facebook

8,513

1,048

712%

Network

4

4

Blogger

5,145

3,697

39%

Blogging

5

3

MySpace

5,026

5,513

-9%

Network

6

8

Bebo

4,090

2,670

53%

Network

7

16

Slide

3,355

1,092

207%

Add-on tool

8

10

Yahoo! Answers

3,319

2,111

57%

Information

9

6

Windows Live Spaces

3,127

2,716

15%

Network

10

9

TripAdvisor

2,364

2,186

8%

Travel reviews

Source: Nielsen Online, UK NetView, home & work data, including applications, Jan 2007 ā€“ Jan 2008
E.g. YouTube was visited by 10.4 million Britons in Jan 08, 56% more than in Jan 07

Three things I found interesting. First, huge growth for Facebook and a decline for MySpace – but this is a volatile market and Facebook may the the next site to beome less fashionable.

Second, the huge reach of these sites. Neilsen reckons that 20.8 million Brits visited at least one of these sites in January, representing 63% of those online.

Third, the growth of video. I think this is the most reliable long-term trend. You can see it more clearly in Neilsen’s figures for the fastest growing sites, five of which are video sites (vidShadow, Veoh, Youku (Chinese site), Tudou (Chinese site) and Video Jug), as well as in the rise of YouTube to first place.

Is the Internet moving towards video in the same way as traditional media (print -> radio -> TV)? Possibly.

There is a technical story here too. I’m at Mix08 this week, where Microsoft is promoting its Silverlight plug-in for video and rich visual content. However, all these sites currently use Adobe’s Flash plug-in, which will be hard to shift. Without the ubiquity and ease of installation which Adobe has achieved with Flash, I doubt we would be seeing this growth in video content.

Adobe AIR now available; not just consumer fluff

Adobe has released AIR and you can download the runtime and SDK now, as well as FlexBuilder 3, the official IDE for AIR. Just to remind you, AIR is a way of running Flash applications on the desktop, supplemented by SQLite, a fast local database manager.

Among the most interesting case studies I’ve seen is from LMG, which runs loyalty schemes including the Nectar card and Air Miles. The big deal for the retailers is that using your loyalty card lets them identify who is buying what, providing mountains of data which can be mined for trends and the like. I do mean mountains. Nectar is used by Sainsburys. Between 25 and 40 million “basket items” are added to the database each day, and the database holds 2 years of data.

LMG’s Self-serve is an app in development which enables Sainsburys and its suppliers to analyze this data; it could potentially be used by other retailers too. “The application answers questions like how’s my brand performing, who’s buying my brand, what else are they buying,” says Garth Ralston, LMG’s Business Intelligence Development Manager.

Self-Serve is built with AIR and Flex. “Excel spreadsheets, which some of our competitors use, and the pie charts than you can create within them, are so 1990’s”, says Ralston. “We’re looking for a little bit more of the Wow factor.”

A couple of things particularly interested me. One is that SQLite is critical for the app, which works by downloading large chunks of data and manipulating it on the client. This means that Self-Serve would not work as a browser application, unless possibly with Google Gears, which also uses SQLLite. Another is the importance of offline working. “The ability to have a user run the app, run a report, download the data to their system, take the laptop on the train and continue to work is an absolute business requirement”, says Ralston.

James Governor, Redmonk analyst, told the press that BMC will be using AIR as a front-end to integrate its mainframe management offerings, and SAP will be using it. “Frankly, I think this will be the front-end for all SAP business applications,” he said. In other words, AIR is not just consumer fluff.

Governor is just back from Sun, as I am, and while I was there I picked up some anxiety at the way Flash and now AIR are doing what Java was intended to do – provide a rich cross-platform client. Has Adobe stolen Sun’s market? “Sun is quite capable of stealing its own market”, he said. “Java just hasn’t delivered the kind of rich desktop experiences that we would expect and hope.” That said, note that FlexBuilder is a Java application, Adobe’s server-side LiveCycle data services are Java, and Adobe’s ColdFusion runs on Java, so there are pros and cons here for Sun’s technology.

Actually, I suspect you could build Self-Serve in Java without much difficulty. The big win for AIR is that it’s home territory for multitudes of Flash designers. This is as much about designer and developer communities as it is about technology. The same applies to Microsoft’s Silverlight, which is ideal for Visual Studio developers to whom Flash is foreign.

I still have reservations about AIR, though there is also much to like. It’s early days of course; I’m looking forward to trying it for real. I also love the way these new initiatives are making us rethink the design of essential applications that have remained essentially unchanged for years.