How much “branded desktop presence” will you put up with?

We saw a lot of AIR applications at this morning’s keynote here at Adobe MAX Europe. AIR lets you take either Flash applications, or Javascript/HTML applications, out of the browser and onto the desktop. The additional richness you get from running outside the browser is currently rather limited – we saw lots of drag-and-drop, because that is one of the few additional things you can do. However, AIR has a huge advantage for web vendors, because it puts their application and/or their content onto the user’s desktop. A great example is an Allurent-developed online shopping catalog called Anthropologie, which we saw this morning. Here’s a quote from the case study, headed “Branded desktop presence”:

“The idea underlying our Adobe AIR applications is to enable retailers to push relevant content to the consumer and let the consumer consider it from the comfort of their desktop,” says Victoria Glickman Hodgkins, vice president of marketing at Allurent. “The retailer avoids mailing a circular or catalog to promote special items, and the consumer can interact with digital catalog information in highly engaging ways.”

Right. Now we realize how the web browser has actually protected us from intrusive commercial presence on our desktop. The beauty of browser-based applications is that they completely disappear when you navigate away from the page, with only perhaps a Favorites shortcut to take us back there when we choose. An AIR application by contrast installs into our machine, probably puts an icon on the desktop, can run minimized and fire system notifications.

This isn’t a bad thing in itself, provided the user remains in control. But how many such applications will you want to install?

Put another way, AIR developers will need to exercise restraint in their efforts to inflict branded desktop presence on hapless users.

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What’s in Flash 10?

At the keynote here at Adobe MAX Europe we were shown some of the upcoming features in Flash 10, codenamed Astro. First up is a new text engine which supports bidirectional script. This is great if you want to, errrm, embed some right-to-left text within some left-to-right text; it will all word-wrap correctly. The next feature was more interesting to me: editable multi-column text which flows correctly and allows sane text selection across the columns. Does Adobe plan to take over more and more of the role of HTML within our browsers?

The other Astro feature we saw was new 3D imaging APIs. You will be able to rotate and transform live video – now where have I seen that before? Astro will also support a graphics programming language called Hydra, which you can use to create custom effects, transformations and blends. You can try out Hydra by downloading the Adobe Image Foundation Toolkit, available as a technology preview. The same technology is used in After Effects.

It seems that  the Flash team is determined not to be outdone by, you know, those other guys.

Mark Anders remembers Blackbird, and other Microsoft hits and misses

Here at Adobe MAX Europe I had an enjoyable chat with Adobe’s Mark Anders about his time at Microsoft. Anders is well known as one of the inventors of ASP.NET, along with his colleague Scott Guthrie. However, when he joined Microsoft in the mid nineties he worked initially on the project codenamed Blackbird. This was a kind of Windows-specific internet, and was surfaced to some extent as the MSN client in Windows 95. Although the World Wide Web was already beginning to take off, Blackbird’s advocates within Microsoft considered that its superior layout capabilities would ensure its success versus HTTP-based web browsing. It was also a way to keep users hooked on Windows. Anders told me that he never believed in Blackbird and argued that Microsoft should support HTTP instead. According to him, the executives at the time did not want to listen at first, but Blackbird had severe performance problems because of an over-complex architecture which made excessive use of multi-threading. Another colleague came up with the first prototypes of the Trident rendering engine, which we now know as MSHTML, and showed that in principle Blackbird’s layout goals could also be achieved with HTTP. In consequence Blackbird was scrapped before it was released.

What would have happened had Blackbird performed better? The momentum behind the World Wide Web would have ensured the eventual death of Blackbird, but Microsoft would have been further behind in the web server and web browser market. In retrospect, the slowness of Blackbird was the best possible thing for the company, because it enabled an earlier move to HTTP.

According to Anders – and bear in mind that he now works for a competitor – the tendency to over-complicate its software is one of Microsoft’s biggest problems. The projects that work best tend to be those which simplify what already exists, rather than those which make it more complex. Thus, the success of C# and the .NET Framework came about because of its ease of use in comparison to C++ and MFC. Anders recalls the 2000 PDC, when C# and the .NET Framework was introduced to the world, as a great success. By contrast, at the Longhorn PDC in 2003 Microsoft introduced new technology that was not fully thought-through. These were the “three pillars of Longhorn”: Avalon (now Windows Presentation Foundation), Indigo (now Windows Communication Foundation) and WinFS (now scrapped). Although WPF and WCF have been shipped, they are not in any sense pillars of Windows Vista, which is largely native code. The Longhorn Alpha that was given to PDC attendees (I still have my copy somewhere) was worked on for another year, and then much of the code was scrapped in favour of a conservative upgrade from Windows 2003 – the famous reset that became Windows Vista. Like Blackbird, the original Longhorn had performance issues. I put it to Anders that the failure of Longhorn cost Microsoft two years of momentum; he replied that it was even more than that.

When Anders was working on ASP.NET he says there was always an element of disapproval from others at Microsoft who wanted to tie users more closely to Windows. Although ASP.NET runs on Windows, it supports cross-platform browser clients. There are parallels today with what the Silverlight team is doing. Silverlight is the right direction for Microsoft, but not everyone will like the idea of a rich cross-platform client and the Silverlight team may be under that same kind of pressure. Of course Anders would say that, because he now works on Flash, but I suspect there is truth in it. Microsoft does at times lurch back into Windows-only mode, as it is did when it ceased development of Windows Media Player for the Mac. That was an extraordinary decision when you consider the wider context of the multimedia and DRM wars. With Silverlight Microsoft is once again on the cross-platform track, not just for multimedia but for .NET code. It seems to be serious about it, but it will take a lot to convince long-term Microsoft watchers that cross-platform Silverlight will endure. Personally I hope it stays the course; competition is good.

Adobe MAX Europe and its annoying web site

I’m heading out to Barcelona for Adobe Max Europe, for what I hope will be some in-depth presentations on what I guess we should call the Adobe Platform – Flash, Flex, AIR, Livecycle etc.

I wish Adobe would fix its Max Europe web site though. Follow the link, and a Flash movie plays automatically – with sound. I’ve learned to hit the stop button ASAP, but it is truly irritating. Worse, the web page has no memory of your preference, so I have to repeat this exercise every time I visit. This is the kind of thing that earned Flash a bad reputation in its early days. Imagine the embarrassment if you are working in an open plan office and hit this kind of problem. OK, so you have the sound turned down at work. So do I, normally, but I then I have to transcribe an interview or something, turn the sound back on, and get caught out.

Still, the event is apparently sold out so perhaps there are people out there who actually like this kind of thing. Alternatively, they realize that there is good technology underneath that is worth investigating despite this example of how not to do it.

I’ve also got some interviews lined up at MAX, of which more later.

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Matt Mullenweg’s less-is-better approach to software quality

Interview with Matt Mullenweg in the Guardian today. This was done at the Future of Web Apps conference. I enjoyed meeting him. He is open and articulate. I had not appreciated until now that took the opposite decision from Google over the issue of being blocked in countries such as China which are less permissive than the USA about what can be published. He found out that by blocking certain words and tracking certain people the site could be unblocked:

Google had the same decision, and they decided that being there was less evil than not being there, ultimately. For us, we decided that being there under those circumstances isn’t worth it. We’d rather not be there.

A blogging site is not the same as a search engine. It’s arguable that both sites made the right decision. Not easy.

I was also struck by Mullenweg’s espousal of an Apple-like minimalism in software design. He says WordPress has too many options. He was particularly critical of Open Office:

If you open up Open Office, look at the preference screen, there are like 30 or 40 pages of preferences. Stuff that you and I will never care about and should never care about.

I accept the main premise – software should just work. I understand the further implicit argument, that adding options tends to diminish software quality, by adding complexity to the code. But it would be interesting to analyze some of the options in, say, Open Office, and find out why they are there and who is using them. Is having all these options tucked away really a bad thing, or this really more about user interface design?

Ian Rogers at Yahoo! Music says no to DRM

Great and impassioned article from Ian Rogers, who works for Yahoo! Music, on why he is not accepting any more customer-unfriendly schemes from the music industry. He’s an interesting guy who used to run Now he is reflecting on the failure of Yahoo! Music:

I’m here to tell you today that I for one am no longer going to fall into this trap. If the licensing labels offer their content to Yahoo! put more barriers in front of the users, I’m not interested. Do what you feel you need to do for your business, I’ll be polite, say thank you, and decline to sign. I won’t let Yahoo! invest any more money in consumer inconvenience.

For a little historical perspective, see here for the same author’s more positive view, on the launch of Yahoo! Music in May 2005.

I feel I played my own small part in this. When I tried the Yahoo! Music service two and a half years ago, I was appalled by the way it installed and posted a blog article about it, which still gets occasional comments from frustrated users.

DRM is actually only part of the problem here. The other part is that apparently nobody other than Apple can write software that makes dealing with DRM-ed music half-way tolerable. Given how much is at stake, I find this extraordinary. It’s not clear to me how many of the issues are Microsoft’s fault, and how many down to third parties like Yahoo! or the BBC (see my comments on iPlayer, which also uses Microsoft DRM).

The point of interest now is whether the inherent disadvantages of DRM will be enough to unseat Apple from its market dominance with iTunes.

Charles Fitzgerald: Oracle will buy

I enjoyed this thoughtful post on Fitzgerald’s Platformonomics blog. I am personally guilty of thinking too much about technology and not enough about the bottom line; this kind of analysis is a useful corrective, though bear in mind that it comes from a competitor to both companies.

It is true that is an Oracle company at heart, a point that has been made to me several times when I have talked to its spokespeople. It is a platform for database applications, and the database is … you guessed.

Hosted platforms and the risk of lock-in

Two interesting posts for anyone considering building an application on a hosted platform like (Salesforce). Onstartups has a thoughtful article about what it would be like to succeed on such a platform, and how much money and control you might end up ceding to the hosting vendor. Bob Warfield’s Smoothspan blog takes up the theme with a response that is longer than the original. What does it all boil down to? This, I think (from Smoothspan):

First, it has to be possible for you to move your software in a reasonable amount of time to new lodging if it gets too ugly.

As Smoothspan notes, this is what makes a service like Amazon S3, which you can easily switch out for another service, more attractive from this point of view than, with its proprietary Apex language and forms.

That does not mean is necessarily a bad deal. It means there has to be a lot of added value – such as productivity, high-level components, rich services – before it makes business sense to accept the lock-in.

New Silverlight book with live web coding examples

Adam Nathan is supporting his new book on Silverlight 1.0 with live code examples. This means you can modify the code in the browser and see the Silverlight canvas immediately update. It is a excellent way to get an idea of how the XAML works.

Of course you can easily invalidate the code, in which case you get a parser error.

Works on FireFox; not tried it on the Mac.

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Radiohead’s pay-what-you-like download: 160kbps MP3

Radiohead’s distribution experiment, in which customers are invited to pay what they like for the band’s latest album, In Rainbows, in digital form, will be available from tomorrow as 160kbps DRM-free MP3s.

That bitrate is likely to be sufficient for most listeners. 128kbps is sometimes considered the minimum acceptable for reasonable fidelity in MP3. Audiophiles will prefer to purchase the “discbox” which includes a CD, a bonus CD, and vinyl formats, or wait in the hope that a conventional CD release will appear, as it probably will.

My earlier comment is here.

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