Category Archives: flash

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RIA means … not much

Ryan Stewart has a go at nailing what the term Rich Internet Application means.

I think he’s coming at this from the wrong end. It’s better to look at the history.

As far as I’m aware – and based partly on my own recollection, and partly on what Adobe’s Kevin Lynch told the press at last year’s MAX Europe – the story begins around 2001, when WebVertising Inc created an online booking application for the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. It was an HTML application redone in Flash. A PDF describing what was done is still online, and discusses some of the differences between the HTML and Flash approach, though bear in mind this is Flash evangelism.

They created iHotelier, a fully interactive, data-driven reservation application that reduces the entire reservation process down to a single screen. Users looking for information on available rooms for specific dates highlight their preferred dates in a calendar. With one click of the mouse, the Flash application displays the available (and unavailable) rooms, and their cost. (Figure 10) As a result, users do not feel like they’ve wasted a lot of time and effort if their first room choice is not available.

This case study seemed to trigger a new awareness at Macromedia concerning the potential of Flash for complete applications. I don’t mean that it had never been thought of before; after all, it was Macromedia that put powerful scripting capabilities into Flash, and I’m sure there were Flash projects before this that were applications. Nevertheless, it was a landmark example; and it was around then that I started hearing the term Rich Internet Application from Macromedia. Wikipedia claims that this paper [PDF] is the first use; it’s by Jeremy Allaire and dated March 2002. I’m sure Allaire himself could provide more background.

The problem with the term, as you can see from Allaire’s paper, is that Macromedia (now Adobe) tends to define it pretty much as whatever their latest Flash technology happens to be. This shifts around; so if you are at an AIR event, it’s AIR; if you are at a Flash event, it’s Flash; if you are at a Live Cycle event, it’s apps that use Live Cycle.

Microsoft muddied the waters a little. Realising that RIAs were attracting attention, it started using the term to describe its own technology too, though in the spirit of “embrace and extend” it changed it to mean “rich interactive application”. As I recall, Microsoft used it mainly to describe internet-connected desktop client applications such as those built with Windows Forms. Something like iTunes is a great example (even though it is from Apple), since it runs on the client but gets much of its data from the Internet, especially when you are in the iTunes store.

Now it remains a buzzword but honestly has little meaning, other than “something a bit richer than plain HTML”. If you were doing the Broadmoor Hotel app today, you could do it with AJAX and get similar results.

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Ubuntu Hardy Heron – very cool

I had a spare desktop after upgrading my Vista box – at least, I popped my old motherboard in a spare case and added a hard drive. It seemed a good opportunity to try Ubuntu Hardy Heron. Ubuntu has a policy of  upgrading its Linux distribution every six months, in April and October, and Hardy Heron is this year’s April release. I tried a late beta, since final release is not until the end of the month. Burned a CD, stuck it in the drive, and installed it.

The install went smoothly. The main hassle with Ubuntu, and most other Linux distros, is that there are a few add-ons which you can’t easily do without, but which are excluded from the main release either for legal reasons, or because they are proprietary. For example, I tried to play a DVD, but the Totem movie player said it did not have the right GStreamer plugin. It would be nice if Ubuntu had a one-click install, something like “OK, I give in, give me libdvdcss2, give me Flash, give me Java, and I’ll take the consequences.” I fiddled around with Medibuntu, then realised you can get something close to a one-click install if you add ubuntu-restricted-extras to the repository. It didn’t actually take too long before I was up and running: DVDs played, YouTube worked, Java worked. I also added the NVIDIA proprietary driver which is needed to enable the Compiz Fusion 3D desktop. That one was easy: Ubuntu prompted me to do it.

The “what’s new” list includes Linux kernel 2.6.24, Firefox 3 (although still in beta), and better virtualization support with KVM. Gnome is updated to 2.22. Think incremental rather than dramatic changes.

Subjectively, Ubuntu performs better on the same hardware than Vista. There is just less waiting around. I had some fun connecting to my Vista desktop using the Terminal Server client. Then I pressed Windows-Tab to cycle between applications (note the cool reflections):

The key factor for Ubuntu is not features, but usability. In this respect, it seems to get better every time I look.

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Mono on the iPhone

Unlocked iPhone, of course. Miguel de Icaza has the details and some video links.

Flash, Silverlight, Mono, Java: surely Jobs won’t keep all these runtimes officially forbidden for ever? It strikes me that Flash has the best chance of getting there, simply because without it the Web is a little bit broken for iPhone users. It’s an influential device and its runtime support (or lack thereof) will be a factor in web development trends.

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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 – 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 – 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.