Open Screen Project, iPad, and buzzwords

A buzzword (also fashion word and vogue word) is a term of art or technical jargon that has begun to see use in the wider society outside of its originally narrow technical context by nonspecialists who use the term vaguely or imprecisely.

We are deluged with buzzwords on a daily basis, especially because we are working in the IT industry. Though, I think it has become more of an issue lately. I’m too young to know what ‘70 or ‘80 looked like, but I’d bet they were not even close to what we experience today.

I remember the late ’90s and early 2000 years. Everybody was talking about XML. And shortly after that, about his best friends XPath and SAX. It looked like the closest thing to the Holy Grail that humanity ever created. The lesson I learned? It seems we are far better at marketing or PR than applied sciences. We can convince a lot of people about a particular subject, although there is no “scientific” proof to backup our statements.

We are assaulted by new “things”. Some of these things are just buzzwords, while others are the real deal. And they have the potential to change your life for the better. The question is how do you pick up the right ones? When you are a developer or entrepreneur, you can look at these novelties as opportunities. An opportunity to do new kinds of projects (maybe you’ve gotten bored by doing the same thing over and over), an opportunity to create new products, or an opportunity to get rich :D. Unfortunately you are limited by time. You cannot pursue all of them; you have to pick a few.

How can you increase your chances of making a sound decision? I will tell you one method I use: when something new appears I try to look behind the marketing talk. One way to do this is to see if that “thing” is starting to deliver on its promises.

Let’s have a look at the Open Screen Project. When it was first announced, back in 2008, it looked like something extremely cool. At the same time, I bet many people thought it couldn’t possibly be a success. I mean its mission is to “enable consumers to engage with rich Internet experiences seamlessly across any device, anywhere”, but in order to do this, Adobe needed to work with companies from different industries (chipset manufacturers, telco companies, publishers, networks, and so on) and most likely with companies that otherwise compete against each other.

osp_partners

A little more than a year after the launch, the partners list looks amazing and the project is delivering on the promises: we have demoed a prerelease version of Flash Player 10.1 running on Net PCs and on a number of smartphones (Nokia, Motorola, Google, Toshiba, HTC, Palm). By working close with our partners we were able to tweak the Flash Player to make the most out of the hardware platform and at the same time increase battery life and decrease memory usage (early tests showed an improvement by 87% of rendering performance and a 55% reduction in memory consumption). This means you can watch video for 3.4 hours and play games for 6.5 hours on mobiles.

I think the key element to take away is this: all these partners realized that the Flash Platform can help their platforms to bring more value to consumers. And they realized that by working with Adobe they can be sure they will provide great experience to their users. Needless to say that Apple is not a partner of Open Screen Project and it doesn’t look like it wants to be anytime soon.

And this brings me to Apple’s latest device, iPad. Apple claims that iPad is “the best way to experience the web”. I think this is, to say the least, a big overstatement. Like it or not, plug-ins are part of the today’s web. Java, Flash Player, Silverlight, Unity 3D are examples of plug-ins that move the web forward and are used by millions of people out there. And what it happens when you surf to any of the web sites that depend on these plug-ins on an iPad? Nothing. Literally. Because iPad doesn’t support plug-ins. In fact you can’t even install another web browser. Apple is acting like a guardian or a “benevolent” dictator and decides for you what is good or bad for you. I said it before but I will say it again. Maybe because I was born and raised in a communist country I’m extremely sensitive to products or companies who “think” for me by limiting my liberty. And because I’m free, I can choose to buy or not. Thus, I am the proud user of a MacBook, but I don’t own an iPhone nor do I want to buy an iPad in its current incarnation.

PS. You can see here an illustration of how a big part of the web is seen on iPad.

Later Edit: Mike Chambers has a great take on another fear I have, fueled by the moves Apple has made lately.

Thoughts on RIA and user experience

Last December I presented the Flash Platform to a group of students. And much to my surprise they didn’t know what RIA is or what the common challenges are when developing web applications.

After the event, I spent some time thinking of a better way to explain RIA to people. I came up with this: imagine you are in a restaurant in a foreign country and you want to order something to eat. You get the menu and you see the first dish like this:

Dish #1
Water 150 ml, salt 2 gr, sugar 2 gr, 1 onion, 6 tomatoes, 1 red pepper, 1 spoon of olive oil, 1 spoon of vinegar

I bet you’d have a very hard time “understanding” this dish. But what’s the problem? You have all the ingredients, it’s plain English, so it should be easy. Or not?

Now imagine the same restaurant, with the same food, but this time the menu looks like this:

Gazpacho Soup
Ingredients: Tomatoes, Onion, Red Pepper, Olive Oil, Vinegar, Salt

Now we are getting somewhere! You know it is a soup. But still, you may have problems making up your mind, especially if it is your first time eating gazpacho. Maybe you could find additional info by asking the waiter.

Let’s see a third menu. The soup is listed like this:

Gazpacho (traditional Spanish tomato soup) – served cold
Ingredients: Tomatoes, Onion, Red Pepper, Olive Oil, Vinegar, Salt
Note: You can see this dish below or have a taste at the bar.

I think this time the menu is pretty much perfect. You know what it looks like, you know it is served cold, you can see the ingredients and you can even taste the dish before ordering.

Now, if I go back to my initial challenge, explaining what RIA is to newbie, I’d say that from all the web apps out there, RIA apps are the closest to the last menu.

I think this is happening a lot. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, it helps to design the UI and workflows from the point of a view of a chef. Of course a chef would know pretty well what a dish looks like even just by looking at the ingredients. But most people  are not chefs. More likely we are like a tourist in a foreign country trying to figure out what the meal looks like. And making people ask a “waiter” to find their way around is simply a bad practice. They will run to another restaurant/country and stop buying your poorly presented food even if you have top quality ingredients.

We have come a long way from the beginning of the IT era. The hardware is amazing, the software is more powerful than ever. But still, when I look at applications around me I am surprised when I find myself thinking “Is this the best we can do?” I suspect that the constraints of the smartphone platforms coupled with the increasing demand for applications for them will lead us to better user experiences, especially for simple applications. And this experience will be “ported” back to desktop/web applications.

What does your perfect menu look like?

Mark Anders in da house

Next Wednesday (January 27th) at our office we will have a cool event. It will not be a typical technical event with slides because the host will be none other than Mark Anders. He has many stories about Flex, Flash Catalyst and Flash Builder.  So, if you are in Bucharest next week and you want to know more about the Flash Platform, especially internal stuff from one of the people who started the whole Platform, be there. The event is free, though you have to register here.

Mark Anders led the creation of .NET, Flex Builder, and Flash Catalyst (yes, before joining Adobe he used to work for Microsoft).

WorkflowLab Beta is out

Last week we launched WorkflowLab Beta. This AIR application can help you to learn about workflows used by designers, developers, and program managers to create applications. You can build your own workflows and you can share them with others.

These are the new features:

  • Custom Tool Support: Author workflows using customized tools from a selection of types including applications, frameworks, libraries, services, vendors, people or resources
  • Categories: Classify workflow tasks or activities using color coded customizable categories
  • Duration Grid: Overlay tasks on a customizable duration grid to add temporal context to workflows
  • Completion Status: Monitor and track your workflow progress by applying completion statuses to your workflow tasks
  • Rich Text Editing: Enhance your workflow task annotations with rich text editing capabilities and inline web links
  • Command Bar: Improve your efficiency in creating workflows using the new command bar for point and click authoring capabilities
  • Associated Link: Associate web links with workflow tasks for additional task background or to associate with related content on the Internet or internal networks
  • Search for Tool: Search within the Adobe tool list for fast selection of related tools to associate to tasks
  • Updated Workflow Starting Points: Revised workflow starting points that take advantage of new Beta features
  • Status Bar: Get additional feedback within the application through the new status bar
  • Collapsible Details Panel: Maximize your workflow authoring workspace by hiding the detail panel.
  • Duplicate Task: Quickly take an existing task and duplicate its associated tools, categories and annotation to speed up task authoring

The application was built using Flash Catalyst, Flash Builder 4, and Flex.

5 Flash applications

The latest issue of the Edge newsletter has a bunch of interesting articles (Data-centric development in Adobe Flash Builder 4, Object relational mapping for the Adobe AIR developer, An easy way to bring 3D content into your Adobe Flash projects). But the one that caught my attention was The edge of Flash by Rob Ford. Rob presents seven Flash projects ranging from personal sites to corporate sites. All these sites are great examples of what a talented designer/developer can achieve today using the Adobe Flash Platform. Out of these seven projects, the closest to my heart was one called Machinarium. It is an adventure game and it is so beautifully crafted that my wife couldn’t resist and made me buy the game as a small Christmas gift. For me it was an excuse to remember the Monkey Island 1 days. The scenes are designed with attention to detail, and it feels almost like a Japanese anime (Tekkon Kinkreet ;) ). If adventure games are your thing and you want to kill some time then I recommend this little gem. The game is created by a Czech company.

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InfoDome is a browser based online database solution. You can create a database visually from scratch or you can import an existing one. You can build reports and share live data with remote users. You can integrate the reports and forms with your website. Almost forgot to tell you, the front-end is created with Flex.

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Express is an Agile project management tool built with Flex, BlazeDS, and Spring. It includes features such as backlog management, iteration management, and a virtual wall. It is built by some smart Aussies.

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Air Analytics is a complete analytics solution for Adobe AIR applications. It works online/offline and it is very easy to integrate with your application. You can use the application to track custom numbers and types, OSes, error, app installs,  usage and more. At this is time it is still in beta but it looks promising (on November 5th they reached 1 million items tracked). I think I’m gonna try it myself on my next AIR project.

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OpenZoom offers an SDK for the Flash Platform that enables you to create Zoomable User Interfaces by using high resolution bitmaps. You can use this framework for demos, introductions, presentations and more.

 

 

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Preview of Flash Player 10.1 running on Google’s Nexus One phone

As you all know by now, Google recently launched their first mobile phone: Nexus One. It is built by HTC and it is running the latest Android version, 2.1.

I saw the demos, and to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind at all having one of these as my primary phone. Especially because this phone will run Flash Player 10.1 pretty soon. Until then you can watch Adrian Ludwig demoing a couple of web sites that use Flash (just to be clear Flash Player 10.1 for mobiles is not available yet).