Shumway

From Mozilla Research:

Shumway is an experimental web-native runtime implementation of the SWF file format. It is developed as a free and open source project sponsored by Mozilla Research…

I’m pretty amazed by this one. In 2009 JS was emulating the NES. In 2012 it’s running SWF. That’s really impressive if you think about it. JavaScript is slowly taking over the world.

On H.264 Revisited

Once again the debate over H.264 has come up in the Mozilla community. I’ve been a strong advocate of the WebM/VP8 codec given its liberal license and abilities and still am, but agree H.264 needs to be supported. It’s a requirement for mobile (B2G), and becoming necessary on the desktop.

A little over a year ago Chrome talked about dropping support for H.264. To date they have not done so, or given any indication that is even still in the plans as far as I know. In 2010 Adobe said they would be supporting WebM (link in that same blog post). They too have failed to live up to their promises. In either case I’ve found no indication on the internet they ever plan to go forward with those plans.

I suspect in Google’s case they were pressured by various providers and mobile partners who don’t want to encode or support another encoding. Google’s been trying to woo anyone/everyone for the purposes of Google TV and presumably YouTube. It’s likely just not worth it for them to push. There are various theories floating around about Adobe including a lack of clear Flash strategy in an HTML5 world. Adobe does however have a “tools” strategy. Perhaps time will tell.

Furthermore Apple and Microsoft are fundamentally opposed to WebM as they are both licensors for H.264. The odds of them supporting something that hurts their bottom line unless the rest of the web is threatening to leave them behind is nearly 0.

I question however if it should be bundled vs. using system codecs. Windows XP aside, system codecs mean that Microsoft and Apple are essentially responsible for making it work as well as the expense. Plugins could be used for OS’s that don’t ship with the appropriate codecs.

It’s time to put some effort into a JavaScript player for WebM and make that liberally licensed. Browsers still aren’t quite there, but eventually the day will come when that’s workable. The web will then gain the ability to have video play on any (modern) device. Just not natively. That is the backdoor for an open codec.

The real issue is larger than the <video/> element. It’s software patents and their ability to undermine innovation and progress. It’s important to keep this in mind. Just look at mobile. It’s completely possible that the entire mobile industry could come to a halt over patent lawsuits and fear of lawsuits. All it takes is a company willing to press the button. Google spent $12.5 billion in what is essentially the patent equivalent of nuclear proliferation. That’s how real the threat is perceived. H.264 is arguably a fart in a hurricane.

Mac Finally Gets H.264 Decoding In Flash

Adobe today pushed an update that enabled H.264 hardware decoding in Flash 10.1. It only works on certain newer Mac’s and there are an assortment of caveats in which Flash will revert to software decoding according to a Flash Engineer.

I’ve only played with it for a few minutes on my Core i7 MacBook Pro, and things seem very speedy and my CPU didn’t see much of a spike. Hopefully enough videos will take advantage of hardware decoding that this will be a nice improvement.

I still believe WebM is the better future, but H.264 hardware decoding does make Flash less painful for the moment.

Steve Jobs: Thoughts On Flash

Apple today published a letter from Steve Jobs aptly title “Thoughts on Flash“. What’s interesting isn’t so much what he said, but what he alluded to. This letter is about Flash, but it’s also about the future if the iPhone platform strategy. It also alludes to the future importance of WebKit and the open web. Lets walk through this. From his points:

First, there’s “Open”.

Steve is right. Flash isn’t really “open”. The iPhone isn’t either by any means. In fact it’s the most restricted computing platform in the world as far as I know. What he did note is that the iPhone uses WebKit and by proxy the web is the most open platform on the planet. That’s very noteworthy.

Second, there’s the “full web”.

Flash video itself isn’t that great by todays standards. That’s why sites like YouTube are serving HD video in H.264 rather than VP6. H.264, VP8 and Theora are the future. If all 3 or just one will survive remains to be seen. Regardless any of them can be played outside of Flash. The dependency on Flash to build a player is going away more and more each day.

Regarding games, this is a silly point. Almost all Flash games need a keyboard or mouse to work. They would never work with a touch screen. Nor would they scale to fit the screen. They would need to be significantly reworked/rewritten.

This is yet more alluding to WebKit and HTML5 where there are solutions already in place.

Third, there’s reliability, security and performance.

It’s pretty hard to dispute the reliability of Flash. It’s by far the driving force behind things like out of process plugins (OOPP) in Firefox among other browsers. It’s also been subject to lots of security vulnerabilities.

Fourth, there’s battery life.

The WSJ quotes Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen as saying the claims of Flash being battery draining are “patently false” but if you look at a CPU monitor while browsing a page with Flash, you can see the load increase quite a bit. Blocking flash on your browser does speed things up and keep your system cooler. I’m very suspect that Adobe has solved this in cell phones when they don’t even seem to have it under control in Windows.

Fifth, there’s Touch.

I already mentioned that mouse/keyboard interfaces just don’t work on the iPhone. No need to rehash that.

Sixth, the most important reason.

That’s actually a vague header. The reason is that they don’t want a third-party sitting between the iPhone API’s and developers. If that happens, developers are limited to what that third-party decides to implement. At the very most developers on the Flash platform get whatever is supported on all Flash platform (greatest common denominator).

That leaves Apple in a stupid position. They could implement killer features in the iPhone and create amazing API’s to take advantage of the features. But if Adobe doesn’t see a way to support things across platforms, or just doesn’t see the cost/benefit of implementing that feature, developers can’t use it. That marginalizes the product for Apple as well as developers.

Conclusion

I found this very interesting that he closed it like this:

New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

In February of 2007 Steve Jobs wrote another letter on DRM. It’s noteworthy because in January 2009 Apple launched the ability to buy non-DRM protected music. The letter was really a hint at where things were going. He’s repeating the PR strategy that he used then, make no mistake of it.

I have a feeling the day will come where the App Store is deprecated in favor of promoting HTML5 based Applications either directly off the web or packed similar to how Dashboard Widgets are done now on Mac OS X. The App Store will be around for quite some time, but it will eventually morph.

That is why WebKit is so important to Apple. They want to abstract their OS to the point where they can provide very high level hooks into features they want developers to be able to use. The current iPhone App SDK was a solution created by Apple as a way to let developers put applications on the iPhone as an afterthought. The moderation is so that they can keep their security record intact and could shut down a malicious app before trouble becomes rampant. That puts them in the position where they can either approve all content and be viewed as sleazy by more conservative folks, or they can let everything go and accept that reputation. They obviously made their decision. Developers and some geeks hate it, but 99% of the rest of the world doesn’t even know about the process. Nobody wants to know how sausage is made.

The App Store will likely morph to feature Dashboard Widget like applications (not to different from Palm’s WebOS). Apple will still be able to cash in via that distribution point since they can use DRM giving them the only way to actually sell a protected application. You can view them online via you’re browser.

That’s my prediction. The day will come when the iPhone SDK that we know today will be deprecated. WebKit and HTML5 aren’t there today, but the day will come when they will be the tier 1 development platform for the iPhone. Steve Jobs is just laying the groundwork today.

For desktops, other platforms and browsers it’s worth noting that there’s a lot to gain here.

Apple, Adobe, Flash, and MPEG LA

John Gruber has a great post explaining why Apple has been so adamant about the keeping Flash off of the iPhone and presumably the upcoming tablet device. He’s right that Flash performance is sub par and most people just want video. 99% of the other Flash experiences you see are just ads that suck precious battery life and CPU.

He is also right that third-party plug-ins do cause architectural issues for browser vendors. As of 10/2009 plug-ins accounted for at least 30% of Firefox crashes, a motivating factor for the new plug-in checker.

I will however object to a sentence:

Why? At the core, because Flash is the only de facto web standard based on a proprietary technology. There are numerous proprietary web content plugins — including Apple’s QuickTime — but Flash is the only one that’s so ubiquitous that it’s a de facto standard. Flash is the way video is delivered over the web, and Adobe completely controls Flash. No other aspect of the web works like this. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are all open standards, with numerous implementations, including several that are open source.

Apple isn’t trying to replace Flash with its own proprietary thing. They’re replacing it with H.264 and HTML5. This is good for everyone but Adobe.

I included an earlier paragraph since I think the context is important. H.264 is not like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It’s patent-encumbered much like GIF was. Your trading Adobe for MPEG LA. The difference between H.264 and Flash is browser/OS vendors can control the implementation. It’s still proprietary technology.

I should note that I’m not a fan of Flash either, as a result there’s none on this blog. Even videos I link to are static images for performance and aesthetic reasons.

Microsoft Joins W3C SVG Working Group

Microsoft is joining the W3C SVG Working Group. Presumably that means there’s some interest in SVG for IE or Silverlight or both. I wonder what led to the change of heart.

I pretty much wrote off any chance of SVG being mainstream in 2005 when Adobe bought Macromedia. Adobe was previously somewhat of a SVG pusher, but Macromedia obviously is the home of Flash. As expected the SVG love dried up. The gap that Adobe filled was adding support for SVG to IE. If IE supports it natively that’s a game changer.

Gecko already has decent support for SVG. WebKit has support for a while. Opera has support as well. Without analyzing in too much detail there should be a subset that’s usable across current browsers and hopefully IE by the time IE 9.0 ships.

I must admit given the choice I’m still more interested in Microsoft supporting <canvas/>, but no word on that as of yet. I’m still hopeful.

Hooray for web standards!

Rebreaking The Web

It’s happening again. Once upon a time, browser vendors started adding their own features without consulting with each other and agreeing upon standards. What they created was a giant mess of inconsistencies across browsers and platforms that is still in effect today. Ask any web developer and they can tell you of the pains that they have suffered trying to make seemingly trivial things work everywhere consistently. It’s no easy task. Before IE 7, even an ajax required something along the lines of:

var httpRequest;
if (window.XMLHttpRequest) { // Mozilla, Safari, …
    httpRequest = new XMLHttpRequest();
} else if (window.ActiveXObject) { // IE
    httpRequest = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");
}

That’s right, IE 6 didn’t support the native xmlHttpRequest object (more here). This is just one of many examples in JavaScript and CSS. document.all anyone?

The end result of this problem became to be known as the “Web Standards” movement. Simply put it’s an idea that code should follow a standard that results in consistent output across all browsers on various platforms. Write once, run anywhere. While it’s taken years for this to manifest, it’s slowly become a reality. Firefox, Safari, Opera have fairly consistent rendering (at least in comparison to the mess of just a few years ago on the browser scene. IE 6 was fairly poor in terms of modern web development, but IE 7 made progress, and IE 8 is Microsoft’s greatest effort to date to bring their browser up to speed.

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No Flash For The iPhone

Via TechCrunch I noticed that there won’t be flash player for the iPhone anytime soon. I’m not surprised. I said this before.

Apple doesn’t want the iPhone to get the reputation of having poor battery life. Apple is said to have avoided 3G thus far because of power consumption reasons, instead opting for a lower powered EDGE chip. When Apple moves to 3G later this year, they will want to at a minimum keep the same battery life. Having Flash on the iPhone will mean a likely drop in battery life. Something they don’t want.

I suspect in 12-18 months when H.264/AAC is a more common encoding scheme, I think we’ll see a Flash component for QuickTime that can take advantage of the hardware on the iPhone. Right now there’s too much vc6 stuff out there.

Apple doesn’t want anything released to drain battery life or it will be accused of misleading consumers about average battery life. Keeping the CPU idle will help keep that time up.

I suspect the SDK will have some limitations on CPU cycles an app built can consume before it’s throttled in some way. For the exact same purpose. That’s fine for most things, most users won’t notice, but for video, any slowdown or bottleneck becomes very visible.

The Winner For Most Embedded Is: SQLite

So the format war of Blue-ray vs. HD-DVD is over. There are still several other rather significant battles going on in the tech world right now that aren’t Microsoft vs. Apple or Yahoo vs. Google. For example:

Adobe Air vs. Mozilla Prism vs. Microsoft Silverlight

Google Gears vs. HTML5 Offline support

Android vs. iPhone SDK vs. Symbian

Ruby On Rails vs. PHP

Not every case will have a true “winner”. That’s not really a bad thing. Choice is good. In some cases they will merge to form one standard, such as what’s likely for offline web applications.

What is interesting is that SQLite really dominates right now. Adobe Air, Mozilla Prism, Google Gears, Android, iPhone SDK (likely through Core Data API), Symbian, Ruby On Rails (default DB in 2.0), PHP 5 (bundled but disabled in php.ini by default). It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore that SQL survived the transition from mainframe to server, and now is going from server to client.

No longer is the term “database” purely referring to an expensive RAID5 machine in a datacenter running Oracle, MySQL, DB2 or Microsoft SQL Server. It can now refer to someone’s web browser, or mobile phone.

This has really just begun to have an impact on things. The availability of good information storage, retrieval, and sorting means much less of these poorly concocted solutions and much better applications. Client side databases are the next AJAX.

Edit [2/27/2008 9:14 AM EST]: Added Symbian, since they also use SQLite. Thanks Chris.