Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Why Flash Must Die

The clash between Steve Jobs and Adobe was for the most part manufactured by those covering the news. Jobs said that the iPhone, iPad and any other iOS devices wouldn't support Flash. Adobe responded by saying bad things about Apple. The press loves a good fight, even when it is a fight created purely in the minds of the writers.

The reality is that the decline of Flash started a couple of years ago, and is now gathering momentum. It began when it became apparent that things that designers had used Flash for could be done with code that was based on open standards. It was at that point more about good development tools and new skill sets.

This has been driven home to me in a parallel experience I have had over the last year with a web site a friend relies on for his work. It is a multiple listing service web application for real estate. Two years ago I was chagrined to find out that this site would only work with Internet Explorer, locking out the Mac and any other platform that did not have Internet Explorer. My friend told me that this was not a big deal since everyone in his office had a "PC".

Now, two years later, this same friend has a netbook, but keeps borrowing my iPad. He loves it. He claims it is actually easier for him to type on (he is a hunt and peck typist). He loves the pinch zooming. He loves the size and general sexiness of the device.

But it won't work with his MLS web application, which still only supports Internet Explorer. The company just released a "Mac Solution", which is nothing more Internet Explorer inside a runtime WINE (crossdos) container. It works, but is a kludge. It doesn't behave like a normal Mac application, so doesn't use any of the standard file requestors, drag and drop, etc. It is ugly looking but works.

I use this example to show why Flash must die. It is a similar thing. Instead of simply using open standards that can work across browsers on a variety of platforms, this MLS application is tied to a proprietary framework that can only work in browsers that Microsoft wants it to work in.

And this is a big problem with Flash. It only works in devices that Adobe develops the flash plugin for. If something new comes out, developers have to wait.....and may have to wait for a long time. Android is getting Flash, but it has taken a while, and some reports are that it isn't great shakes in the performance department.

For me, the other point of inflection was when Adobe began promoting Flash as a total solution for web development. This is at the end of the day quite insane. While these sites do look pretty cool, they break on anything other than a traditional desktop or laptop. Settop boxes, game systems, mobile devices - it doesn't work on any of these. Adding accessibility to the mix - and you have a world of hurt. It is possible to make flash sites accessible, but many developers don't bother. A company that hires developers to create their new web site in Flash now has to use these same developers to maintain it. As we move away from the paradigm of the traditional computer and towards the computing appliance, Flash is going to struggle to keep up.

Anyone who actually follows what has been happening in rich media development for the web already had a clue that Flash would eventually be challenged by open standards. I figured this out two years ago at Apple's developer conference when there was demo after demo of HTML 5 rich media, including clean vector animation - which was how Flash got it's start. I sat next to a friend who is a flash developer, and he told me that he would keep developing in flash because it would take too long for him to learn another development environment. I bet at this point he is reevaluating that position.

The good news for Flash developers is that they will be able to continue to develop flash applications for the near future. There will still be demand. But this is also the bad news as well; there is no "the house is on fire" scenario that will force entrenched Flash developers to change, which will set them up for a scenario similar to the company mentioned above that makes the IE specific MLS system. At some point, these developers will look up from their code, and realize the world has changed underneath them, and now they are in a situation where they have to either adapt quickly, or get left in the dust.

So - the point here is that the Flash issue is not an Adobe versus Apple thing; it is another example based on historical precedent where we are moving away from proprietary code and plugins towards open standards that can work across devices. It is what the web has always been about.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

iPad, Kindle, etc.....

This article does a good job of summing up the dilemma both Amazon and Barnes and Noble face in selling ebooks - both have dropped the price of their readers today.

I've written in the past about e-books and the problems they face. The argument that would be given today for something like the Kindle would be the extraordinary battery life, and crisp display. The iPad's display is decent, but average (around 95 dpi I would guess). But wait......Apple has just started selling the iPhone 4, which has a much nicer display. It is really just a matter of time before this display technology shows up on the iPad, and at that point it becomes an even harder choice for those trying to decide between the iPad, Kindle and other ereaders.

I am not saying that Amazon's Kindle is doomed,  just that their reader's sales growth will slope downwards. Where they will make their money is on their ebook publication, since there is Kindle software for the iPad and other devices.

The Android tablets are already here, and pricing is bound to drop. They will be the iPad's biggest competitor, and unlike the iPhone/Android Phone, they have a very good chance of dominating the tablet market. Apple will have to move quickly with better display technology and more aggressive pricing. As always, the difference will be content, whether it be in textual content or applications. The Kindle lags far behind in the latter.

One final aspect that is worth considering is the book or magazine remediated in digital form. At the end of the day, static books on the Kindle and Nook are a bit more than just a book itself on a device, but on the iPad and other devices publication can be something quite more. Content can be dynamic; it can have interactivity that the Kindle and Nook can't really provide well. These new devices offer the dimension of color, which makes digital magazines much more like their analog equivalents. This is, in my opinion, the overarching reason that e-ink devices are going to suffer. It is akin to the move from black and white to color film. Suddenly, black and white looked dated. It is even more of a problem here in that color publication has been available for centuries.

What is HTML 5 good for? Emulating a Vectrex!

I have been switching back and forth lately between Firefox and Safari as my default browser. The main motivation has been Apple's announcement of (finally) supporting extensions in Safari, which is the one last thing that kept me using Firefox.

The speed difference in Javascript of Firefox versus Chrome or Safari has been noted by others, but it really becomes apparent with a good HTML 5 demo.

There have been a lot of amazing things I have seen lately using HTML 5. How about emulating an semi-obscure game system that is now about 30 years old?

The Vectrex was a self-contrained vector based game system that sold for around $200.00. It was the first game system I owned. I was still in college and miraculously managed to scrape the money together to buy one. I ended up owning a bunch of cartridges because Milton Bradley went out of business, and systems and cartridges were dumped for pennies on the dollar. As part of the fallout, rights for the games and system returned to the original inventor, who in turn put all this stuff in the public domain.'s the game system emulated in a browser. It is notably faster in Safari and Chrome, and in a way it again illustrates why Flash may really be in trouble. The only thing lacking now are good visually oriented development tools designed more for artists and graphic designers, and less for programmers. Flash almost strikes this balance, which is why it is so popular. I think it is just a matter of time.

Adobe is not out of luck, though. I imagine they are busy at work on just what I described.....not necessarily Dreamweaver, not necessarily Flash....but perhaps something new.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Handheld 3D

Nintendo is showing off it's new handheld game system that uses a 3D display that doesn't use glasses. Is it a bell-weather moment? I think it is because it shows how rapidly 3D displays are becoming mainstream. Nintendo's implementation is not perfect, but still compelling - the reviewer in the linked article complained about eye fatigue.

I follow Nintendo more closely than any other game company because they have a lot of interesting ideas about how innovation can take place in a company. In a nutshell, they use small teams to develop ideas to the point where they hit critical mass, and if they pass scrutiny, Nintendo then commits resources to moving it forward. This is in opposition to how Microsoft works, and it shows in their products. The 360 is not a bad platform (in fact, their menuing system is quite good - very un-Microsoft like), but they are typically trailing in development.

But clearly - Nintendo is the one to watch. The fact that it can play back 3D movies as well is particularly interesting. And....Nintendo has an online store for purchasing games....ala Apple.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

One Last Thing about the iPad

The inclination was to take both the Macbook Pro and the iPad to Apple's World Wide Developer's conference, but I still went back and forth on this, and finally decided to take just the iPad for the week.

PDF support was a big snag in that acrobat forms simply wouldn't work on the iPad. My co-worker said that it was Adobe's fault in that they purposely made it that forms created with Acrobat form wouldn't work with anything other than Adobe's products. I can't verify this, but the two pdf forms I got via email attachments simply gave me a message that I needed to upgrade Acrobat 9. I ended up using a friend's netbook running Windows XP.  However, I wrote my signature on the iPad using a Pogo stylus and Autodesk Sketch, exported it an image and mailed it to myself.

Other than that, and the stray web site that relied on Flash for all or most of their navigation, or the one web site where their embedded window with scrolling didn't work at all, it was as I expected in that it met my needs just fine.

While the Apple bluetooth keyboard I carried along was welcome for writing long emails, the onscreen keyboard ended up being used more overall. I think I could just leave the physical keyboard a home and probably will do that next time.

I bought Autodesk Sketch and Korg iElectribe. Both are great applications that show off the iPad in different ways. I bought iElectribe because I have admittedly experience with beatboxes and want to learn about them. Sketch is very nice and intuitive. However, Brushes won an Apple Design award at this conference.

In the end, the iPad is so almost, almost there. My friend with the netbook is selling his and getting an iPad, even though there is one web site he relies on for work that only works with Internet Explorer (they even warned people to not upgrade with IE 8 when it was first released). He's betting this will change and I think he is right. I think we are witnessing a big, rapid transition to HTML5, which all the major browser manufacturers are behind - including Microsoft. It is not that the iPad will singularly force this change, it is that it illustrates why this change needs to take place.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Smart Camera

Apple's new iPhone has an improved camera, which is great. Underneath the hood, developers can get access to the camera to use in their own applications, which will lead to some neat stuff beyond just taking pictures. But what I thought about while watching the keynote was that while cameras on phones continue to improve, cameras themselves are still bound to a closed operating system bundled with the camera. Occasionally there are firmware updates, and in the past there have been hacked versions of firmware for cameras that unlocked features that manufacturers chose not to include.

Having a development platform that gives access to the camera allows for such things as custom processing (aka Camerabag) or more sophisticated stuff such as follow focus for video recording. Thinking of a camera as a development platform is an intriguing idea that has been explored in the past - both Kodak and Apple shipped cameras that developers could write apps for (such as the DC265 etc), but that idea never really caught on. It may be a neat trick to be able to run Doom on a phone, but really - is that really that compelling? Evidentially not.

I think that is about to change. Again - the gap between point and shoot cameras and cell phones is closing - and it won't be much longer before many people will simply not buy a new point and shoot, since their phone will do as good a job - and can get new features via the App store. This is certainly the case with me - I love my Fuji point and shoot with it's great EXR mode (instant HDR photography) but I am expecting that my new iPhone will do much the same thing - and much more. Sure - I will halve the number of pixels of my camera - but at least 70% of the pictures I take now are with my old iPhone 3G.

I am not predicting the demise of point and shoots - there are always compelling reasons to have devices optimized for tasks - but it going to be a challenge to make buying that new sub-$200 camera a compelling choice. The maxim is true - the best camera is the one you have with you. Indeed.