All 12 entries tagged Adobemax2007

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October 04, 2007

Max 2007: Post–show thoughts

Well, the show’s now over and having been to more sessions than I can count, had a bunch of interesting conversations and seen some impressive applications, it’s time to try and wrap up and summarise what I’ve learned or concluded. It’s important to remember, I guess, that this is a vendor show. It’s not like ETech, where nobody’s trying to sell anything; the objective of this show is to persuade people to use Adobe technologies in preference to other tools. So one needs at least a pinch of the cynicism most elegantly expressed by, was it Paxman?, when he famously said “What I have to ask myself all the time, is, Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”. I don’t think anyone lied to me as such, but inconvenient questions (AIR on Linux, anyone?) were somewhat glossed over.

My previous entries have mostly been “live” from a session, so they’ve been short and factual about what I was seeing at the time; now it’s time to reflect a bit more. There are several topics I’ve been thinking about, some based on what I wanted to learn about before I set off, some arising from the sessions I saw and the emphasis that Adobe themselves and other presenters were putting on different products, technologies or applications.


A no-brainer. I thought before I even came to the conference, and I feel even more strongly now, that video (and audio) playback through the Flash player is the right choice for us to make. At the first day’s keynote, Kevin Lynch mentioned the statistic that over 70% of web video is now in Flash (FLV) format (driven largely by Youtube and the other video sharing sites, presumably). The move to support H.264 video just makes it all the more obvious that this is the best way to deliver video compared with Windows (WMV) or Mac (MOV) formats. We may even be approaching the holy grail of one format to rule them all – H264 video playing back in the browser, on consumer devices such as iPods or set-top boxes, on mobile phones, everywhere. There would still be questions and challenges relating to multiple encodings for different bandwidths and resolutions, but it’s a lot easier to contemplate multiple encodings all in the same format than multiple file formats.

Flex applications

Here the news is mixed. I saw some outstandingly rich and attractive applications, and I have invites to a couple of the ones I considered to be amongst the best – Buzzword and SlideRocket – which I look forward to demoing to people when I get back into the office. But, in completely unsurprising news, there were plenty of other applications which were clunky or slow or hard to figure out. Why should Flex be any different, right? And there are behavioural quirks with even the best of the apps; keyboard support is unpredictable, with even apparently basic things such as arrow up and down to scroll a block of text working in some places and some apps, but not others. Ctrl-Plus to make your text bigger (something my aging eyes are coming to depend on more and more) comes for free in HTML pages, but doesn’t work in Flex apps. None of these things are insurmountable, I expect, and I do think that if you were planning to build an app which you wanted to look and feel as much as possible like a desktop app, Flex would certainly be a tool to consider. But I didn’t come away with the feeling that there would be a big win to be had by converting parts of our existing apps into Flex-based interfaces, or doing any of our near-term planned work (video recording / playback / conferencing excepted) in Flex.

Software engineering

Having spent some time time talking to developers working on relatively largescale projects, I’ve come away reassured that there are plenty of people developing in Flex in ways that we would recognise, using Subversion or something similar, writing unit tests and build scripts, sharing development across a team. Should we decide one day that we wanted to make something in Flex, I see no reason why we shouldn’t be able to develop applications in exactly the same way as we currently do in Java.

Disconnected working

A big theme of the conference was the usefulness of disconnected working; the idea that by using an appropriately designed AIR app, you could have your data both on the internet for ubiquitous access, but also on your desktop for when you aren’t connected. It’s not just Adobe who are pushing this idea, either; Google Gears and Firefox 3 both do similar things. But what I’m not sure about is how useful this would be for Warwick. The example that was invariably given in the sessions which talked about this is that of a company with a salesforce, who need to able to take their presentations and spreadsheets and whatever out on the road with them so that even when internet access is unavailable or unreliable, they still have everything they need to annoy people with. But are we like that? I would guess that 95% of our people are connected 95% of the time. And when they’re not connected, how much of the data we can make available would be useful to them? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make data available offline where it’s quick and easy for us to do so (and we do already, I guess, with Pages-to-go). But I don’t know whether it’s as big a win for us as it might be for other organisations.

Playing nice

A theme which came out quite strongly across a number of sessions was the importance of your application playing nice with other peoples’ applications. Plenty of people talked about how it would be possible to, say, send your data to everyone on your SalesForce contacts list, or get notifications on your Google home page or whatever. It’s not an especially Flash-focussed question, but I do think it’s an important issue which we need to keep in mind. We do a little bit of it already, with SiteBuilder news and calendars being viewable within Google. But looking beyond just web-dev and thinking about all the tools and data which IT Services manages, there’s a long way to go: students can’t get their timetables into Google or on to their phone; staff can’t expose their Exchange calendars to anyone except other staff, and so on. It’ll be interesting to see whether we get pushed by increasing demand from staff and students for more interoperabiliity, or whether we’re enough of a closed eco-system that this won’t happen to us as much as it seems to be happening in the wider world.

Desktop apps

I did like what I saw of AIR, the tool to let you convert Flash or HTML applications into Windows or Mac desktop applications. It seems fairly well thought out and although the lack of Linux for now is a bit of a bummer, I do think that it will arrive within twelve months. I think desktop applications to let you interact with our web applications in new ways – upload and download files, write content and then publish it, manage your sites / pages / users with a richer UI than the web one, perhaps – is potentially fertile ground for us to look into (can you look into the ground? Wouldn’t you just see the surface?).

Productivity apps on the internet

A big theme throughout the conference and elsewhere is the idea of moving productivity applications on to the internet. It’s clear that several large companies – Adobe, Google and others – are putting pretty big bets on the idea that having both your application and its data stored and running not on your PC but on a server on the internet, is Going To Be Big. One presentation asserted that this is a change comparable with the way that PCs killed typewriters and then Windows killed DOS; soon the idea that your apps and documents live just on one PC will seem archaic, is the argument. It’s an interesting idea, and there seem to be four distinct benefits being asserted:-

  1. Ubiquitous access for you to your data. No more not being able to continue working on your draft because it’s on your work PC when you’re at home, or vice versa.
  2. Easier publication. No longer will publication involve spawning many copies for distribution by email; just open up the permissions, send out an invite and away you go; you’ve published but there’s still a single canonical instance, and you can revoke publication later if you want to.
  3. More and better collaboration. If you want to work with several people on a document, the model of sending it round by email is clumsy and inefficient. Better to let everyone work on a single copy.
  4. Easier application upgrades. If the application is on somebody else’s server then upgrades can happen frequently and easily, without the end user needing to download or install or indeed do anything at all.

Against this are concerns about what happens when you’re not connected (but how big a deal is this going to be in the coming years?) and questions of privacy and security; would you be happy with all your documents being on Adobe’s or Google’s servers? Would your employer? But one could see that companies who want to offer this kind of service might be able to find ways around these problems, perhaps at a policy level by committing strongly to privacy and security, or perhaps technically by introducing ways for users to encrypt their data or choose where to store it (nothing to say that the application provider also has to be the storage provider), or even, as Google does with its search appliances, by giving you your own private instance of the application, running in your machine room, but managed by the supplier. But whatever happens, this does seem to be the coming thing; one has only to look at all the people already in this space, or pushing to get into it – Google, Adobe, Microsoft, plus a host of smaller players such as Zoho, Zimbra, Buzzword (until recently), SlideRocket, etc. – to see that there’s a lot of time and effort being invested into this space.

One last thing: if there’s one thing that came across more strongly than anything else throughout the whole conference, it’s that black is the new UI colour of choice. Every damn thing I saw used a black background, with optional accents in graphite or charcoal or carbon. Black, it would seem, is not just the new white, it’s the new any-colour-you-care-to-name.

October 03, 2007

Flash, Flex & Video: Overview & resources

Writing about web page

This morning’s session was a useful overview of video in Flash and, in particular, how to incorporate video content and functions into Flex applications. The presenter provided a link to his slides, which in their turn contain lots of links to articles and other resources relating to video in Flash/Flex.

Eric Natzke

Writing about web page

After a long day of presentations about technologies and how to use them I felt a little bit burned out on the idea of yet another “How to do X with Y” session, so I changed my plans on the spur of the moment and ducked in to see a session which I had no pre-conceptions about. Boy, am I glad I did. The session was called “The Art of Playing” and it was given by a guy called Eric Natzke who I hadn’t previously heard of.

It’s slightly hard to describe what Eric does. His own blog says:-

Erik Natzke is an interactive designer who is constantly trying to blur the lines between design and technology.

and that certainly seems right to me, but I’d also suggest that he’s an interesting kind of mathematical animator. His slides – well, they weren’t exactly slides, they were the actual animations he created – had my jaw consistently hanging open as time after time he showed how a simple starting point involving particles or lines could evolve into something so amazing looking that I’d happily take a print of it and hang it on my wall.

Describing all the examples Erik showed would be time consuming and ultimately rather pointless because they’re the sort of things which need to be seen rather than described, but luckily Erik has put the whole presentation online and, if you have any interest in animation or art, I urge you to take a look:

October 02, 2007

Adobe Thermo: It's the new VB3!

Well, not really, but the whole “Draw things on the canvas, then flip over to see the source code that represents what you drew” thing is so reminiscent of VB or Delphi.

But it’s cleverer than that; in particular, it understands PhotoShop PSD files and can import them, using the layer information to create objects within Thermo. In a fairly impressive demo, a PSD of a music browser was imported into Thermo, and a layer representing a text field was converted into an actual text field, then a set of images was converted into a list object with behaviours and (extensible) properties associated with the list; our old friend, the event handler dialog box reappears, with some clever graphical representations of things like transitions and effects. There’s also a cute lorem ipsum pseudo-data generator which allows you to pretend that you have a data source even though you don’t at design time.

The “Convert Artwork To…” trickery seems quite smart; Thermo seems to have quite a lot of ability to take bits of graphics from a layer and convert them to a functional control, tying different graphics to different parts of the control (eg. the thumb and the track of a scrollbar). Coders can also design their own controls and their own rules for how graphics should be converted to an instance of their control. You can also visually wire objects together such as a list of objects and a scrollbar so that one of them controls or affects the other. (Didn’t Delphi do that once upon a time?)

Easily the best demo of ths show so far; the crowd went pretty wild for it. Nothing shipping until 2008, though.

Pleasure in the UI

I very much enjoyed the session I attended from the BuzzWord team. It’s an outstandingly good-looking application, and it’s refreshing to hear a design and development team talk explicitly about how making a beautiful interface is one of their goals. I also very much liked their idea of trying to create small moments of pleasure within their interface; they gave four examples:-

  1. In Buzzword’s document sorter screen, when you change the sort order (from, eg. Title to Author), the document names fly around the screen into their new order. It’s immensely visually appealing, but also has the useful effect of conveying something about the underlying model of what’s happening.
  2. Buzzword times out your session if there’s no activity from your client for a while. The dialog box that you see when you return to your PC says “Buzzword fell asleep while you were away” (plus a randomly selected picture of an enormously cute sleeping baby / cat / gorilla), and then “Please click to reactivate”.
  3. Their spell checker dialog box has a checkbox for “Flag mispelled words”. Misspelled is, well, misspelled, with a wavy red underline. This makes everyone who sees it, me included, smile.
  4. The icon for “Document History” is the Venus de Milo.

To me, interface touches like this are the hallmark of a team which really, really cares about their product, and you can see this same attention to detail everywhere within the application and the Buzzword web site. Even their “Visit our support forum” text has this same feel about it:-

Our mice are poised over the Refresh key, waiting for your comments. Head on over to our Forum.

Flashy FormsBuilder

I went to a session where the application being demonstrated was a Flash app which did something very similar to our own FormsBuilder app; it let users create their own forms with checkboxes and radio buttons and forth. The only material difference was that the whole creation process took place on a single screen and took place without any round trips to the server. So you could add a new question anywhere on the form by clicking on the divider/button between two existing questions, a little popup menu let you choose the type of question, you could drag whole questions or elements within questions around to re-order them, and you edited individual questions right there on the same screen which showed you the whole form.

What surprised me is how much slicker this felt in use than our FormsBuilder version, where you go to a separate screen to edit each question, a separate screen for form properties, and a separate screen to re-order questions. I don’t think of FormsBuilder as being especially clunky, and if you’d asked me to predict how much difference doing everything on one screen would make, I would have said not much. But when I came to try it, I found that it was a substantially nicer, slicker experience.

There’s nothing intrinsically Flash-centric about this, of course; single screen interfaces can be done in HTML just as well as in Flash nowadays. Biut it’s interesting how much difference to the (or at least, my) user experience it makes.

Adobe AIR

I went to a session giving an overview of Adobe’s AIR platform for delivering applications that run outside of the browser. Most of it I knew already, but there were a few interesting nuggets:-

  • AIR is available (though still in beta) for Windows and Mac. Linux is expected to follow “soon” (though the definition of soon is at best weak, since Linux support won’t be available until after v1.0 of AIR ships, and no date for that has yet been announced) and mobile devices (phones, presumably) still later after that. As you’d expect, it abstracts away the OS so that you don’t have to care which version of Windows you’re running on, or whether it’s a Mac rather than Windows. You get some access to native functionality – clipboard, drag and drop on to AIR windows, file system access, etc. but there’s no way to extend the functionality, and you can’t make arbitrary calls to the OS.
  • There’s no sandbox. AIR apps are just like EXEs; if you don’t trust the source, don’t download the app. (Some people seemed to think that this was a problem, but it seems sensible to me; AIR apps are meant to be like EXEs, so sandboxing them wouldn’t be necessary or appropriate.
  • There’s some database functionality built into the runtime, but you can’t make private spaces within the DB; all AIR apps can see the whole DB. Again, by analogy with an EXE file being able to see the whole file system, even bits of it belonging to other programs, this doesn’t seem to matter to me.
  • The runtime is intended to weigh in between about 6 and 10MB.
  • You can display PDF documents within the AIR environment, but PDF rendering is not built into the runtime; the user needs the Acrobat Reader on their machine as well. This is to keep the AIR runtime size down.
  • You can write Flash code for it, or HTML plus javascript plus CSS. The HTML rendering engine is WebKit, and the Flash engine is derived from Flash 9, so it’ll support the same things that that version of Flash does – Actionscript 3, filters, blending, H264 video (though that’s not yet in the beta).
  • Interestingly, HTML is rendered on the Flash canvas so Flash effects such as rotate or alpha transparency or blur can be applied to HTML elements, and the HTML elements remain functional post-transform.
  • AIR apps can have an OS-appropriate window with controls, or no window at all and transparency, so you can do odd-shaped apps like Clippy or whatever.
  • Beta 2, out today, adds support for a synchronous DB API, OS-native menus, double-click and scroll wheel support, XSLT support, etc.

Update: Today’s session enumerates a short list of advantages to AIR:-

  1. File system access
  2. Windows & chrome; no browser cruft, make your own, app-specific toolbars and menus
  3. Drag and drop support, into and out of
  4. Better copy and paste; can pass more complex objects such as a range of cells or a video clip or whatever
  5. Offline working
  6. Background processing
  7. Notifications; can display messages to the user better than in a browser
  8. Keyboard shortcuts; don’t have to worry about clashing with the browser’s shortcuts (eg. you can’t use Ctrl-B for Bold in a browser because it’s reserved for “Show bookmarks”, tab and enter already do stuff)

October 01, 2007

Flex 3: Four new features

The Flex team demoed four new features in the upcoming Flex 3:-

  1. A profiler for memory usage and performance.
  2. More language intelligence, especially including refactoring. Apparently refactoring support was the number one requested feature, which I find interesting,
  3. New data visualisation tools; richer styling and graphics support for charts, and a new advanced data grid with hierarchical elements, sorting, filtering, etc.
  4. Support for framework caching; the framework for your app can go into the Flash player cache on the client side, making subsequent loads faster. It wasn’t clear what distinguishes frameworkable elements from the rest of your app, though.

Adobe buys Buzzword

One interesting application demoed during Kevin Lynch’s keynote was the online word processor called Buzzword. It’s a Flash/Flex application which can run either on the web or as a desktop application using Adobe’s AIR runtime. When run as a desktop application it can open files from the web or from your own PC, and it understands at least some sub-set of Microsoft Word documents. It looks like a nice word processor, with a simple, elegant UI, and the combination of being able to work locally or over the internet according to circumstance could make it quite attractive.

Evidently Adobe liked the application a lot, since Kevin also announced that they’ve bought the company (Virtual Ubiquity) who created Buzzword.

Astro: Flash player 10

Three new features were demod for the next release of the Flash player, version 10, code-named Astro:-

  • Advanced text layout support; multiple languages, multiple columns, tables, live editing, reflowing. In the demos, the focus was on support for multiple languages including right-to-left languages, all drawn on the same canvas. But it looks also as though it might make for a really good WYSIWYG editing tool, free of the constraints of ContentEditable and the problems of cross-browser support.
  • Perspective transforms for 3D effects for all display objects including video and all other components and controls. Everything continues working while it’s being transformed in 3D, so controls are still clickable, video keeps playing, etc. Additional functions will appear in ActionScript – rotationx, y, and z as well as the existing rotation functions.
  • It’ll be possible for Flash developers to create their own custom filters, blend modes and fills using a new processing language called Hydra.

Restroom reversal

More on the sessions in a little while, but as I rush from one room to the next I notice one amusing thing: the overwhelming majority of attendees here are male, and that’s had the side effect of creating long queues for the men’s restrooms but no queue at all for the women’s. Since I don’t actually need the loo right now, I can see how that might seem karmically satisfying to some.

September 30, 2007

Adobe Max 2007

Writing about web page

Why go to an Adobe conference? The conference covers all Adobe products including PhotoShop, Acrobat and everything else that they make, but I’m really only interested in their Flash product (and associated tools such as Flex, LiveCycle, FMS and so on). I’ve got three things I’m hoping to get out of it:-

  1. To find out more about the areas where Flash is strong and might be a better choice than HTML and javascript user interfaces, which is what we currently use for most things. Time was that received wisdom said that Flash was the best/only way to do any kind of dynamic UI, but then along came Ajax and people started pushing the limits of how interfaces could behave and what could be done without Flash. A few years ago, if you’d seen apps like this gallery you’d have assumed that they were Flash, but not any more. So where does Flash excel? Audio and video streaming, maybe. Slideshows and so on. Widgets outside of the browser, perhaps. (Maybe the win is guaranteed cross-platform compatibility with no per-browser work-arounds. But then we get by with the work-arounds right now.)
  2. To find out more about whether we could develop in Flash to the same standards of software engineering practice as we currently do in java. Being able to achieve certain things very quickly in Flash or Flex is certainly nice, but it doesn’t matter to us as much as our ability to develop “properly”. Most of our applications have quite a long lifespan so speed of development matters less to us than, if you like, management of development – our ability to build, test, deploy, roll back, check in, check out, etc. our applications. Can all this be done in the same way for Flash as we’re already comfortable with for java?
  3. Perhaps most interestingly for me at least, what kind of applications are other people building? When Chris and I went to ETech a couple of years ago, one of the most useful things I got from it was just seeing what kind of things other people were working on. If you spend too much time just looking at your own applications, you run the risk of starting to see your apps as a giant hammer, and every problem or requirement as some kind of nail. It’ll be interesting, I hope, to see what a wide range of other developers are building for their customers.

I’ll be tagging all the entries I do while at the conference with the tag “AdobeMax2007” so there’ll be a URL just for those entries for anyone strange enough to want to follow along.

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