Category Archives: Web

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Virtual meetings: as good as the real thing?

Last night I participated in an unusual event: a virtual wine-tasting laid on by Citrix for a few journalists, to demonstrate the capabilities of its GoToMeeting online conferencing software.

Sommelier Akos Hervai at Clusters to Wine talked us through the serious business of how to taste wine and we discussed the merits of four selected bottles – taking the driest first, which I now know is the proper thing to do.

Most meetings are less palatable; but if you can successfully conduct a wine tasting online, does the same apply to most business meetings?

Here are a few observations. First, we were strongly encouraged to use webcams for this event; and yes, it does make a difference. Suddenly, like a real meeting, everyone can tell if you have fallen asleep, left the room, or started talking to someone outside the meeting on your mobile. Of course you also have to think about your surroundings, how you are dressed, and the impression you are making. It substantially changes the dynamics and increases engagement.

I am not sure how many businesses have a policy of webcam use for online meetings, but I could understand such a policy, even though it is hard to enforce; GoToMeeting, like most such software, makes it easy to switch off your webcam or mute your microphone. There is also a limitation of six video feeds (640×480) on-screen, so this will not work for larger meetings.

Despite the general value of the webcams, we found them of little use for visual demonstration. Someone tried to show the label on an interesting bottle of wine they had; none of us could see it beyond a blurry blob.

Second, the flow of conversation is harder than in a real meeting. Bear in mind that there is no real eye contact, no ability to clear your throat or make one of those subtle indications that you would like to get a word in please. Of course the software has a “Raise hand” feature but it is so crude, a binary flag whereas in person we have a million tiny signals.

In practice the online text chat is often a better way to make a comment – if participants remember to keep an eye on it.

Third, in my long experience of online meetings, there are always things that go slightly wrong. Extraneous noise is always a problem. Sitting in a real meeting you would think twice before making banging or crashing noises or slamming a door; yet get a group together online with unmuted microphones and you always hear all sorts of sounds. Depending on where the microphone is situated, typing noises or loud breathing can also be a problem. Personally I favour muting all microphones other than when you need to speak, and in a meeting beyond a certain size – about six? – that becomes essential.

We also had a participant who could not get his webcam working. Then, towards the end, I started to speak and GoToMeeting just quit unexpectedly. Bang. Re-launched and all was fine.

Still, let’s not forget the advantages. Simply, many meetings are possible online which otherwise could not take place, other than perhaps as old-fashioned conference voice calls; and the benefit of screen sharing, online text chat and so on is significant.

Can the software get better? I think so. As hardware and bandwidth improves, there is scope for better video and more intelligent software; for example, GoToMeeting knows who is speaking (it shows this in the control panel); could it not expand the webcam image of the speaker and increase its resolution (hardware allowing) automatically? In general, the goal should be to reduce the friction in online meetings and make it harder for things to go wrong.

That said, no, it will never be a complete substitute for face to face meeting. Human communication is too sophisticated for that.

Browser monoculture draws nearer as Opera adopts WebKit, Google Chromium

Browser company Opera is abandoning development of its own browser engine and adopting WebKit.

To provide a leading browser on Android and iOS, this year Opera will make a gradual transition to the WebKit engine, as well as Chromium, for most of its upcoming versions of browsers for smartphones and computers.

Note that Opera is not only adopting WebKit but also the Google-sponsored Chromium engine, which is the open source portion of the Google Chrome browser.

What are the implications?

The obvious one, from Opera’s perspective, is that the work involved in keeping a browser engine up to date is large and the benefit, small, given that WebKit and Chromium are both capable and also close to de facto standards in mobile.

This last point is key though. If everyone uses WebKit, then instead of the W3C being the authority on which web standards are supported, then the WebKit community becomes that authority. In the case of Chromium, that means Google in particular.

On the desktop Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox both have substantial market share, but in mobile both iOS and Android, which dominate, use WebKit-derived browsers. BlackBerry is also using WebKit in its new BlackBerry 10 OS.

There is already a debate about web pages and applications which make use of webkit-specific tags, which often implies a degraded experience for users of other browsers, even if those other browsers support the same features. A year agao, Daniel Glazman, co-chairman of the W3C CSS working group, wrote a strongly-worded post on this issue:

Without your help, without a strong reaction, this can lead to one thing only and we’re dangerously not far from there: other browsers will start supporting/implementing themselves the -webkit-* prefix, turning one single implementation into a new world-wide standard. It will turn a market share into a de facto standard, a single implementation into a world-wide monopoly. Again. It will kill our standardization process. That’s not a question of if, that’s a question of when.

Therefore, Opera’s decision is probably bad for open web standards; though web developers may not mind since one fewer browser variation to worry about makes their life easier.

People commonly raise the spectre of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 and the way it effectively froze web standards for several years, thanks to its dominance. Might WebKit’s dominance repeat this? It is doubtful, since the IE6 problem would not have been so great, except that Microsoft decided it would rather promote its own platform (Windows) rather than the web platform. The WebKit community will not do that.

On the other hand, for rivals like Microsoft and Mozilla this is a concern. Something as important as web standards should ideally be vendor-neutral, so that big companies do not use standards as a means of promoting their own platforms and making other platforms work less well. In practice, it is rare that standards are truly vendor-neutral; the big vendors dominate standards groups like the W3C for exactly this reason. That said, it would be true to say that the W3C is more vendor-neutral than WebKit or Chromium.

Leaving all that aside, another question is what value Opera can add if it is building on the same core as Google and Apple. That is a matter I hope to clarify at the Mobile World Congress later this month.

Microsoft scraps Expression Web and Design, blends Blend with Visual Studio

Microsoft is giving up its long effort to compete with Adobe in the design tools space. The Expression range of products is being discontinued, in favour of enhanced design capabilities in its developer-focused Visual Studio. Blend for Visual Studio continues, as a design tool for Windows Store apps and Windows Phone apps. A future edition of Blend for Visual Studio, currently in preview, will add WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation), Silverlight, and SketchFlow support. The release version of this upgraded edition is promised for Visual Studio 2012 Update 2.

The new product plans are announced here:

Microsoft is consolidating our lead design and development offerings — Expression and Visual Studio — to offer all of our customers a unified solution that brings together the best of Web and modern development patterns.

Expression Web, the web design tool which evolved out of FrontPage, and Expression Design, a vector drawing tool, will be discontinued completely. Microsoft’s web design tool will now be Visual Studio.

One consequence of this decision is that Expression Web 4 and Expression Design 4 are now free downloads, though unsupported.

Expression Encoder, for converting media for streaming, is also being discontinued, though Expression Encoder Pro will remain on sale throughout 2013. Microsoft says it is still investing in format conversion as part of Windows Azure Media Services.

Is this a good decision? In one sense it is a shame, since Expression Web is a decent product. At least one longstanding user of the product is disappointed:

For Microsoft, the web is dying and the future lies in Windows 8 apps. When asked what we web developers should be doing the answer was the same: Make Windows 8 apps. Which is about as useful as telling a contractor to start erecting tents instead of houses because houses are no longer relevant. Anyone outside the reach of whatever reality distorting force field they have running at the Redmond campus can see how idiotic this is, but that hasn’t stopped the people in charge for pulling the plug on one of the few applications from the company that had something new to offer.

That said, Expression Web has been available for a number of years and made little impression on the market, so how much value is there in continuing with a tool that few use, irrespective of its merits?

The decision makes sense in that Microsoft is shutting down an unsuccessful product line in order to focus on a successful one, Visual Studio.

Further, the end of Expression illustrates the difficulty Microsoft has had in attracting designers to its platform, despite high hopes in the early days of WPF and Mix conferences in Las Vegas.

The Windows 8 app platform: how is it going? A few clues from developers

One way of looking at Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy is as an attempt to establish a new tablet platform. By welding the tablet platform to the desktop platform, Microsoft ensured that every customer who wanted the latest Windows release would also get the tablet release, though some are stuck with keyboard and mouse to control it. The downside is that some users who would have upgraded to Windows 8 if it had been less radical will stick with Windows 7. Microsoft is betting that despite the controversy, the hybrid operating system is a better bet for the difficult task of creating a new ecosystem than building a completely new tablet operating system that few would have purchased.

So how is the new platform doing? I asked on Twitter for developers with apps on both Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 to let me know how the rate of sales or downloads compare.

One was the maker of Cineworld, a cinema listing app for the UK and Ireland. He reported:

my cineworld app has about 1.8K downloads a month on WP.. on #win its a few hundred

The other was an app for fans of Manchester United football club called 1st4Fans:

Windows 8 is 70/day. Windows Phone is 130/day

Another was the maker of Barcode Generator:

Barcode Generator stats say 32K download since Aug and several hundreds dwn/day. Looks pretty good, isn’t it?

The author of TweeterLight says that he has “more downloads of W8 app in 1 month than WP7 app in 1 year”, showing that not everyone is finding the phone platform bigger than the tablet platform, though a key factor is that there is an official Twitter client for the phone but not for new-style Windows 8:

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TweeterLight is also a paid-for app, which means fewer downloads and perhaps avoidance of the Twitter throttling that has afflicted the free clients.

Others are reporting a boom in Windows Phone downloads, like Lestyn Jones who says:

I’m finding that my #win8 app downloads are slowly growing where as my #wp8 have skyrocketed.

Put that together with the Cineworld stats – 1.8K per month for an app that is only relevant in the UK and Ireland. It does look as if Windows Phone has been considerably reinvigorated by the launch of Windows Phone 8.

Returning to Windows 8 though, my initial reaction was that these responses are not an impressive start for Microsoft’s new platform, considering the wide usage of Windows on the desktop.

My further reflection though is this. I find myself more willing to try out new-style apps on Windows 8 than desktop apps either on Windows 8 or previous versions, thanks to the ease of installation and removal, discovery through the store, and the additional security of the app sandbox. An interesting question to ask then: if Microsoft had not created this new app platform, how many of these niche apps would have been downloaded as desktop applications?

Despite its imperfections and mixed reception, at least Windows 8 now has an app platform.

This is a small sample and other reports would be welcome.

Slow JavaScript performance in Microsoft Surface RT

Outlook Web Access is useful on Microsoft’s Surface RT, since the built-in mail client is only basic. However I noticed sluggish performance, which made me wonder if Microsoft’s “Chakra” JavaScript engine is slow on Windows RT.

I ran the Sunspider JavaScript performance test on the Samsung Slate 7 I bought back in February, which has a 1.6Ghz Core i5, and compared it to the same test on Surface RT, which has a 1.3 Ghz NVidia Tegra 3 chipset.

The Samsung slate was 5.11 times as fast. Question: how much of that is down to the Core i5 being a faster CPU, and how much is down to a less well optimized Chakra engine?

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Incidentally, the Apple iPad 2 which has an Apple A5 processors running at around 890 Mhz is approximately 33% slower on the SunSpider test. Since the CPU is clocked 45% slower that is a good result for the iPad 2 and Safari.

A Google Nexus 7 on the other hand which has the same Tegra 3 chipset as the Surface is about 55% slower than the Surface, which is poor.

How Adobe turned on a pin to embrace the web (and Google)

Adobe’s Create the Web world tour – which came to London yesterday – is in the public unveiling of of Adobe’s new wave of tools, the first since it turned away from Flash and towards open web standard, hardly a year ago.

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Michael Chaize is a developer evangelist at Adobe. I asked him when it became clear to him personally that Adobe was no longer a Flash platform company.

“The main shift happened November last year [2011]” he told me. “It happened when we, for the Flash part, decided to just focus on video games and premium video, and invest in HTML tooling and specifications with a team of engineers. It was synced with the decision to stop developing Flash in mobile just to focus on apps with Adobe AIR.

“Now we are almost a year later, and Create the Web is an opportunity to showcase the work that has been done. All the product that have been launched, the Edge tools and service, just started in November of last year.”

The timing was confirmed by Adam Lehman, product manager for Edge Code, a tool built on Bracket, which is an open source project created by Adobe to provide a lightweight, code-centric editor for HTML 5 technologies. I asked him when work on Brackets started. Research started in mid-2011, he said, but “we got the team together in December 2011 and started coding.”

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Adam Lehman

The Edge tools are intended as focused, lightweight product each targeting a specific small part of web design, in contrast to typical Creative Suite products such as Dreamweaver which encompass a large area of functionality; a valid approach but one which inevitably leads to huge tools that take an age to load and a lifetime to learn. Edge is also being used as a not-to-subtle way to promote Adobe’s subscription-based Creative Cloud, since the tools are only available by that route. As a further sweetener, you can get some of the tools as part of the free subscription tier.

It is remarkable that Adobe has navigated the difficult transition from Flash to HTML, and the difficult transition from shrink-wrap to subscription, with so little pain.

That said, perhaps the transition from Flash to HTML is not as profound as it first appears. The Flash runtime was always free, while Adobe made its money from design tools, and as the web become more capable, designing for the Web looks increasingly similar to designing for Flash.

Even the community is the same. “When it deals with expressive web, motion design, we feel that the Flash community can reuse their skills,” said Chaize.  “Being a Flash developer is not just about the language, it’s a knowledge, it’s a culture. Agencies tell me, ‘When I need to hire a motion designer for HTML, I hire a Flash guy.’

That said, HTML 5 is still inferior to Flash in some respects. I watched a slightly jerky animation showing off HTML 5 capabilities and could not help thinking that it would run more smoothly in Flash (of course it was all preview software). It will get there though. This is why Adobe is working to bring specifications like CSS shaders and CSS regions to the official standards.

There is another thing I noticed at Create the Web, which is the extent to which Adobe’s new tools are built on Google’s platform. Many of the Edge tools are made with the Chrome Embedded Framework; the browser used for demonstrations is Chrome Canary, a preview build implementing the newest standards, and if you look at the code you see abundant use of the WebKit prefix which designates features currently specific to the WebKit browser engine used by Apple, Google and others. There is also extensive use of WebGL, popular with designer but contentious because some browser vendors consider it a security risk and it is not an official web standard.

Lehman insists that there is no intention to go down a Google-specific route. “It was more of a technology stack we went with,” he says, explaining that the intent for Brackets is that it will one day run in the browser, in which case it will have to support Mozilla, Opera and Microsoft browsers as well.

The reason for adopting so much Google stuff is partly the excellent fit with what Adobe needed, and partly the low friction. “We didn’t have to go to a meeting, it was just published” said Lehman, referring to the Chromium Embedded Framework which let you run HTML5 applications on the desktop.

Brackets looks great, has real community adoption already, and Adobe has interesting plan for its future. Along with browser hosting, Lehman talks about proper debugging support with breakpoint, JavaScript macros, an embedded node.js engine, and more.

When Apple rejected Flash in iOS it put Adobe in a difficult spot – another reason for the company’s warmth towards Google and Android – but since then the transition has been remarkable.

Adobe Creating the Web, offers Edge animation tool for free

It is less than a year ago that Adobe pivoted wholeheartedly from Flash to HTML, a moment that to mind was marked by the acquisition of Nitobi, the PhoneGap company, announced at MAX in October 2011.

Yesterday Adobe clarified its plans for its new wave of web design tools branded Edge. These are as follows:

Edge Animate

A motion and interactive design tool for animating web content with HTML, JavaScript and CSS.

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Edge Inspect

Preview HTML content on mobile devices for test and debug.

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Edge Code

This is a commercial product based on the open source Brackets project – a similar relationship to the one that exists between Adobe PhoneGap and the open source Cordova project.

Edge Code adds Adobe integrations such as with Edge web fonts and Typekit, and with PhoneGap Build.

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Edge Reflow

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Design tools for CSS, preview expected by end of 2012.

Edge Web Fonts

Free web font service for open source fonts.

TypeKit

Commercial font library service.

PhoneGap Build

Package web apps as native apps for mobile platforms, without needing to install SDKs on your own machine.

PhoneGap Build is free for open source apps, or costs $9.99 per month for up to 25 private app builds.

The Edge tools are only available through Creative Cloud, Adobe’s subscription service, cementing the company’s move to a subscription model for its products. As a tempter, Edge Animate is currently available even to those with the base, free subscription – though you have to agree to be on a marketing list for email, mail and telephone.

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Will the Edge tools replace Dreamweaver, the web design tool in Creative Suite? I was told not, and that an update for Dreamweaver is in preparation. Dreamweaver is the “one production tool” as opposed to the Edge tools each of which focus on one narrow area of features. Adobe describes this as task-focused tools.

More information in yesterday’s San Francisco keynote here.

Adobe results: 200,000 Creative Cloud subscribers and an impressive transition

Adobe has released its quarterly figures for its third financial quarter 2012. The figures show the success of Creative Cloud, Adobe’s subscription-based model for purchasing the Creative Suite applications, including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Acrobat and Flash. Total revenue is fractionally up on the same period in 2011, from $1013.2M to $1080.6M.

Adobe reports over 200,000 paid subscribers and 8,000 new subscriptions per week, compared to its projections of only 5,000 per week.

The Creative Cloud model has several advantages for Adobe. First, it gives assurance of a steady continuing income rather than the pain of driving a 2 year upgrade cycle. Second, it forms a platform from which to sell other products and services.

Adobe also says that its publishing platform, the Digital Publishing Suite, now has 1,100 customers distributing on average 125,000 publications daily, mainly to the iPad, with over 40 million delivered to date. This is good business for Adobe since it generally charges a fee per download.

The slight downside for Adobe is that the launch of Creative Suite 6 delivered lower initial revenue than is usual for a new launch, because customers are transitioning to the subscription model. That is not really a downside, but rather a sign that the strategy is working.

What impresses me about Adobe is how well the company has survived the decline of Flash and the relative failure of its efforts in enterprise applications (the digital enterprise segment is now subsumed in the figures into “Digital Marketing”). The segment breakdown for the third quarter looks like this:

$millions

  • Digital Media (Creative Cloud) 769.1 (71%)
  • Digital Marketing (analytics etc) 257.1 (24%)
  • Print and Publishing 54.4 (5%)

Think back a couple of years. Adobe was dependent on sales of shrink-wrap software and had a range of products which pivoted around Flash as the universal runtime and rendering engine. Now it has some claim to being a cloud company – though of course the primary benefit of Creative Cloud is in desktop software applications that you download – and in place of Flash it it betting on HTML5, together with its ability to compile Flash-based content into native applications.

The transition is not so easy for developers who invested in the Flash platform, coding applications in Flex and ActionScript. Adobe has stopped developing Flash for mobile, even on Android and other mobile platforms where it is not blocked. Still, if that has pushed developers into targeting HTML5 earlier than they would otherwise have considered, it may not be a bad thing.

BBC web site has a Metro look

The BBC redesigned its web site last year borrowing elements of Microsoft’s Metro design language, as seen in Windows 8, Windows Phone, and Office 2013. Note the tiles, the typography, the horizontal scrolling, the way elements stand out against a pale background.

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The BBC site is the 5th most popular in the UK and 47th in the world according to Alexa.

This strikes me as a significant design win for Microsoft. One of the goals of redesigns is to make your stuff look fresh and modern, while other stuff looks dated, and it helps drive an upgrade cycle. 

Update: amended to clarify that the design update was last year. Details here and here. Also interesting to note considerable hostility from users. Another point of similarity with Windows 8!

Access Web App: at last a simple web database app builder from Microsoft

One thing hardly mentioned in the press materials for Office 2013, and therefore mostly ignored in the immediate publicity, is Microsoft Access 2013. It is included though, and its most interesting new feature is a thing called an Access Web app.

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To make one of these, you click the big “Custom web app” button on the opening screen. The first thing you are asked is where to put it. It is looking for a SkyDrive or Office 365 team site – essentially, online SharePoint 2013 I imagine. If you are not signed in, this screen appears blank.

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I selected Skydrive at my Office 365 preview site.

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Hit Create and you can select an app from a template. I chose a Music Collection app. Access generated several tables and forms for me and opened the design environment.

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The template app is a bit daft – Artists and Labels are based on a People template, so you get Labels with a Job Title field – but that does not bother me. What interests me is that Access generates a relational database that you can edit as you like. The template UI offers either a list/detail view called a List, or a Datasheet which shows rows in a grid format. There is also a Blank view which you can design from scratch.

I had a quick poke around. Access Web Apps do too good a job of hiding their innards for my taste, but what you get is a SharePoint app with data stored in SQL Server Azure. You can also use on-premise SharePoint and SQL Server 2012.

Programmability in Access Web Apps is limited, but you do get macros which let you combine multiple actions. There are two kinds of macros, UI macros and Data macros. UI macros support a range of actions including SetVariableif and else statements. The only loop functions I can see are in Data macros, which include a ForEachRecord action. You can call Data macros from other macros and a Data macro includes a SetReturnVar statement, so I guess with a bit of ingenuity you can do many kinds of automated operations. Macros are described here.

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In my quick test, I put a button on a view and had it show a message. Apologies.

The application files are all stored on SharePoint, rather than locally, so I presume you could easily edit the app on any machine with Access 2013 installed.

Click Launch App and the web app opens in the browser. Everything worked, including my MessageBox.

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I also tried it on the Google Nexus 7 Android device. Again it seems to work fine, though I did get some odd behaviour returning to the app. There are possibly some authentication issues.

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An Access Web App is just another SharePoint app, as explained here, so you can publish it to selected groups via the built-in store.

There is no way that I can see to craft your own SQL, which to me is a disadvantage, but maybe we will discover how to bypass the UI and open a database in SQL Management Studio, or access it programmatically from other environments.

It seems to me that what Microsoft is offering here is what it tried, but failed, to offer in Visual Studio Lightswitch: database programming for the non-specialist. Access has always done this, though unfortunately it is easy to make rather a mess if you do not know what you are doing. An Access Web App gives the developer/user fewer ways to go wrong, and builds cross-browser web apps. It is not yet possible to judge whether Microsoft has got the feature set right, but fundamentally this looks useful for simple custom business database applications of the kind that many small organisations and departments find they need. It is a big advance on MDB files stuck on a file share, fits with the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) concept by working on iPads and the like, and makes it easy to get started and experiment. Good work.