Archive for March, 2007

Missed the Flickr Birthday Party…

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

Argh! I am disappointed that I missed Flickr’s 3rd birthday celebration. From the tagged photos it looked like great fun…

Ambient Intimacy – I love it.

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

[ via Cote ]

Leisa Reichelt has coined the term Ambient Intimacy to describe the value of Twittter. For some reason, this turn of phrase really resonates with me. [So, yet another RedMonk recommended blogger enters the 30 day evaluation folder in NetNewsWire…]

I’ve definitely benefitted from the Twitter experience — it feels a bit like my early days of blogging and feed reading: discovering new people and getting to know them through a new medium. The RIA flap of the last week or so introduced me to Ryan Stewart via Twitter. Well, actually via a combination of a RedMonk recommendation via the Twitter backchannel at Engage, but I think it’s true that I probably would have spent a bunch more time ignorant of Ryan without the events of the last week. Even more, I learned via a stray Twitter @message that Ryan is located somewhere in the Seattle area, which makes us neighbors, and outside the lush tech/social environment of the Bay Area, that’s a precious thing. Doubly so when you work at home.

Leisa thinks that the simplicity of Twitter is what has made it successful. But you can sort of imagine a Twitter-like situation coalescing via existing channels of communiations, IRC (via bots),, IM of various flavors, and the cell text messaging network. One thing that attracted me to Twitter was that it was a one stop shop. Web view, RSS view, IM integration, Text Message integration, and a REST based API for additional integration (I can’t wait until Bear gets done hacking Twitter support into supybot). There’s going to be a bunch more experimentation with Twitter, both via technology hacks, but also via social hacks. I think that this is going to be an interested playground to be a part of. The top thing on my list is the ability to have subgroups (both dynamically and statically) formed inside Twitter.

Following up on “The Microsoft of the Web”

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

My post “Adobe wants to be the Microsoft of the Web” attracted enough feedback that I think it’s worth a follow up.

I’m going to begin by trying to clarify two aspects of what I said in the post, and then try to treat blog posts and comments in light of those clarifications.

What do I mean by the Microsoft of the Web?

When I say this, I mean that a single company determines the direction of a technology. Input from other parties might be considered but the company has the final say. I don’t mean this to be a comment on avariciousness of the company, or about the use of monopolistic business practices. It is a statement about having a huge degree of control over an important technology area, not the manner in which control was obtained.

The Flex/Flash stack has many things going for it. Very broad distribution. Users who are somewhat accustomed to upgrading the Flash plugin. Excellent development tools. This gives the stack a powerful position in the market and a good launching point to gain an even stronger position in the new RIA space. There actually is an RIA space, and the problems of incompatible multi-vendor technology in the HTML/CSS/Javascript stack are real and bigger than the problems of plugin version detection and upgrade. OpenLazslo is the only other competitor on my radar, and they have a very good technology, but businesswise they are at a disadvantage when stacked up against Adobe name recognition, tooling, marketing etc. Because the Flex tools story is so compelling to so many developers, they are going to choose Flex. So unless something else happens, when the web is RIAs (which I think is the direction) Flex will be the web, and thus Adobe will be in a Microsoft like dominant position.

What are the properties of a sufficiently open technology?

I don’t think that all software must be free or open source. I don’t begrudge companies who want to charge money for software. I do think that the many properties of the “open source” model result in big benefits to certain classes of technologies, and things like RIA foundations for the web fall into that category. My thinking on this has been shaped by my participation in the Apache Software Foundation, and by books like Democratizing Innovation, The Future of Work, The Success of Open Source, and Benkler’s paper “Coase’s Penguin” (I want to include “The Wealth of Networks” here, but I’m stuck at page 272). In short, Democratizing Innovation is the goal.

  • Interested parties willing to make actual contributions an empowered seat in determining the future of the technology. Let’s break this down. “Interested parties” — anybody who is interested. Corporations or Individuals. “Willing to make actual contributions” – People hanging out throwing rocks but not providing proposals and/or code don’t count. “Empowered seat” – being at the table means having a vote, and not having to pony up money to participate, unlike, say, the W3C. Votes not being overridable at the whim of a single person, unlike, say, JCP 2.6. “determining the future of the technology” – this should be self evident. I am not saying this will be easy. Sun has yet to define the governance model for OpenJDK, and how they handle the governance issue will be of huge importance.
  • Compatibility is important – a significant part of the value (to me) of the Flash/Flex stack is portability/compatibility. It is self defeating to allow compatibility to go out the window. Properly handled, I think that compatibility suites of some kind coupled with trademark usage could go a long way here. Also, distribution of the Flash plugin has a huge impact on compatibility. While people can and do download plugin upgrades, it is also the case that the plugin that gets included in the browsers has a significant advantage, in the same way as the browser that is bundled in the operating system. Adobe already has that relationship with the browser folks. If they were to steward an opened Flash/Flex responsibly, I would think that relationship would be secure.
  • Availability of source code enables parties working on an open technology to collaborate whenever possible, including bugfixes and enhancements. It allows an interested party to show up with a working prototype for a new feature rather than just a paper design, for example. Because of the way that open source and free software have been defined, people think that it’s all about the licensing and availability of source. But all that stuff is just a facilitator for the collaboration. But more on that in a forthcoming post.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere

Ryan Stewart doesn’t want an open source Flash because he is concerned about compatibility. Just because Flash opens up doesn’t not guarantee that it will fragment into a billion versions, or even 5 (existing versions notwithstanding). The value of Flash is in the cross platform compatibility. If people are stupid enough to try gratuitous forking, they are not going to get adopted. This is what Sun has always been afraid of with Java, and I am happy to see that they finally got over it. When the value of your technology is portability/compatibility, the will be very strong pressure to remain compatible. Not only that, there is the distribution issue that I mentioned above.

Andrew Shebanow had several issues:

  • He took issue with the “sensationalistic title” — the title came as a direct quote of something I said in the Twitter backchannel, and I hope the paragraphs above on the meaning of “The Microsoft of the Web” expose more of the reasoning behind the statement.
  • He invokes “the web will route around ‘bad’ players” as an argument for why this will not happen. Perhaps the web will route around. Then again, people could have routed around Windows by buying Macintoshes. It’s a lot harder to route around when your business critical application has already been built.
  • He makes an emotional argument about the ethicality of Adobe, which I wouldn’t presume to dispute. Yet, corporations must answer to their shareholders demands for profits, and I think that the path I outlined about doesn’t require Adobe to be avaricious or have monopolistic tendencies. The only thing stopping it is whether the Flex adoption curve hits an inflection point. Which it hasn’t yet – otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered to post.

Jay Pullor, one of the founders of Pramati, posted about Dekoh, ther Java based RIA technology. I have to confess to a large degree of skepticism regarding Java based RIA technology, mostly due to the Java plugin distribution problem. Yes, I know there is Java Web Start, but my personal experience with Web Start based apps has been hit or miss and disappointing. There’s also the process/governance issues, which his post didn’t address.

The comments

Via the comments I found James Ward’s piece “How I overcame my fear of flash” from a few weeks ago. He basically admits that he is hoping Adobe will do the right thing on the openness front. I’m pointing out that hoping may just be that, due to all the forces in play around the technology and in the market. This is too important to me to leave to hope.

David Temkin from LazsloSystems weighed in on some of my comments about OpenLazslo. He pointed out that:

  • OpenLazslo does have an open public process for defining things like APIs, and that the process is open to non Laszlo contributors
  • Lazslo Systems has hired a community manager to accelerate the development of a community around OpenLazslo
  • He agreed that their community is at a very early stage, which means that there hasn’t been a lot of testing of the public process

(Disclosure: David is an old friend, and I have been a fan of the OpenLazslo technology for some time. I would really like to see them get a chance to compete in the marketplace of ideas for the RIA space.)

John Dowdell and David ? from Adobe also responded in the comments, and I was very pleased that they wanted to engage in conversation around the post. John was trying to suss out what my real requirements were for opennes around the Flash file format. I hope that the second section above provides the insight that he was looking for. (if not, there’s always the comments again). David provided some additional facts about the openness of various parts of Flex and the Flex dev tools. I think his position is that the only part of Flex that isn’t open source is the Flex framework (which sits on top of ECMAScript). The framework ships with source, and apparently, the licensing allows modification and integration. I think that a full story includes both Flash and Flex, since Flash is subsumed into the Flex story. In regard to the Flex framework David said:

Now, all of that said, we haven’t open sourced the Flex framework itself, just the underlying engine it runs on. We haven’t standardized the Flex framework, but we have standardized the language it in (in addition to ECMAScript, we leverage CSS). Given all this, how important is it to you that we open source the framework itself? What would this change for you?

Again, I would point to the second section above, which describes my conception of an appropriately open environment, but which goes beyond some people’s notion’s of open source (although no-one else involved with Apache would be surprised by my list, with the possible exception of the compatibility stuff). What it would change for me is that it would give me the assurance that your “good behavior” regarding Flex wouldn’t suddenly change when there was a management or other change at Adobe. It would demonstrate your trust and regard for a decently sized community of people that feel these issues are important, and who would reward that demonstration of trust with the fruits of their intellects.

There were a few other comments/trackbacks which I plan to address in the comments or in additional posts.

Summation

I see two leading contenders for RIA foundation technologies. OpenLazslo and Flex/Flash/Apollo. OpenLazslo is the underdog, with a really good technology and the basics of a good governance system, but with a fledgling community. Adobe has the advantage as the bigger player, with deeper pockets, more recognition, a better tools story, but no real story on governance/openness. Some components of Flex are source available, but as I mentioned above, source availability is an enabler, not the end goal.

Adobe wants to be the Microsoft of the Web

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

I suppose this will be the one “technical” post about the whole Adobe Engage thing.

Background
For several years, I worked on Chandler, a cross platform desktop app which uses the open source wxWidgets toolkit to hide platform differences from an application. I am currently managing the Cosmo engineering team, which is developing a web UI for Chandler data which is stored in the Cosmo server. In a previous life, during 2000, I built a rich internet app (RIA) using Flash and Java.

The problem as I see it
I think that a lot (but not all) apps will become RIA’s, and the base platform technology for RIA’s is very important. Too important to be controlled, or designed by any single party. The current vogue toolchain, AJAX, has this property. It also has the property of being a cross platform development nightmare. On the desktop, you commit yourself to a single cross platform library/technology, and then you spend the rest of your time wrestling with it. In AJAX, you have multiple browsers on each platform that you want to support. Not only that, you have multiple versions of each browser. If your use of AJAX is limited to simple animation and so forth, that’s not that big a deal. But when you want to build something that has rich interaction, all those versions are a compatibility nightmare. There are also the performance problems with Javascript. Firefox partisans will be shouting “Tamarin“. Only problem with Tamarin is that it doesn’t help IE or Safari or any other browser. So much for platform independence.

Flash/Flex
Enter Flash/Flex. Flash has a great cross platform story. One runtime, any platform. Penetration of the Flash Player is basically the same as penetration of browsers capable of supporting big AJAX apps. There are nice development tools. This is highly appealing.

What is not appealing is going back to a technology which is single sourced and controlled by a single vendor. If web applications liberated us from the domination of a single company on the desktop, why would we be eager to be dominated by a different company on the web? Yet, this is what Adobe would have us do, as would the many who are (understandably, along some dimensions, anyway) excited about Flex? Read Anne Zelenka’s post on Open Flash if you don’t think that Flash has an openness problem. I’m not eager to go from being beholden to Microsoft to being beholden to Adobe.

What to do?
Unfortunately, there don’t really seem to be many alternatives. There’s OpenLaszlo, but much as I like the Laszlo folks, perusing the mailing lists shows that it’s still pretty much a Laszlo show. So while the licensing is better, the community development part doesn’t seem to be much better. There’s also the possibility of Adobe having a change of heart regarding the openness of Flash and Flex. But it’s hard for me to see why they would do that. I guess we can only hope that Adobe’s experience with Tamarind warms it to the benefits of a more open model for the future of Flash. Sun has finally woken up, so maybe it’s not impossible for Adobe to either.

[Update: see my followup]

On gender and blogging frequency

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

One other point that Anne Zelenka made while reflecting on the Adobe Engage event had to do with gender and blogging frequency:

The world of technology blogging is an architecture of non-participation for women–and it’s partly because we may, in general, blog differently than men. I was really impressed with Ryan Stewart’s blogging output at the event. I sat next to him and watched him pump out post after post. Many of the other bloggers–men, natch–did likewise. Then it all appeared on techmeme. I didn’t post at all yesterday. I didn’t feel inspired, didn’t have much to add to the conversation, don’t much care about what traffic I get to either Anne 2.0 or tech decentral. In this way I seem quite different from the other bloggers at the event.

Is it a gender thing? Who knows. There are plenty of women blogging frequently with attention to popularity (I do so–on Web Worker Daily, but I don’t do it out of a personal urge). But it does seem to me that women publish less frequently than men and may be less likely to post on something just because it’s news and might get them noticed. This behavior means they’re less likely to get linked to, less likely to become more visible, and consequently less likely to be invited to events targeted at influencers like this one.

So this isn’t an exhaustive study or anything like that, but I’d bet that more than anything else, this has to do with the way that blogging is turning into a business or career booster for people. It think (sadly) that posting quickly and frequently does have an impact on the attention that you get in the blogosphere. I personally think that is sad, and there are a number of very very high quality blogs which I read, whose authors post infrequently. But when it’s about the flow, the ad impressions or other related things, early and often is a big deal.

There’s another factor, which I experienced. When I first started going to conferences, I blogged everything, sometime live-blogged it. After about a year or so, I realized that I was losing part of the value of being in at the conference in person. Sure, it was great for the readers — and things like the live notes of Greg Stein’s Python at Google talk are still racking up major hits for me because people are interested in that information. But in order to get all that stuff up and early, I was giving up talking with people and/or sleep. I decided that I didn’t want the first and most frequent niche. I wasn’t getting enough value for the exchange. I’m philosophically opposed to ads on my blog, so the hits are just for my ego, but ego is cheap. Losing out on the chance to make personal contacts with people that I might later want to collaborate with was much more important. Another drawback of being the hare and not the tortoise was that there just wasn’t enough time to really think things through. So you could dump the notes, and some light analysis, but anything deeper takes time. And it’s the deepest stuff that is most interesting to me.

One of the reasons that I asked Gabe Rivera for a personalizable Techmeme is that my personal “A-list” is very different from the A-list that Techmeme tracks. The majority of these folks don’t build systems, and they are all doing variations of the same analysis. For my reading hours, the best values are the blogs of those people who are actually building systems, getting cut by the sharp edges, exulting in the delights of a new discovery, or just the downright cool hack. The tech blogosphere is getting “enterprisey”, for lack of a better description, and as it does, it gets less interesting.

One other data point on gender and posting frequency. When Julie was cranking (which was like a year ago), her output was prodigious. There’s at least one woman that can crank it out.

A second reason it’s important to include more women is to break the vicious cycle of women not being invited because they’re not visible and then not being visible because they’re not in attendance. James figured out how the A list works: you go to events like Adobe’s yesterday, you post or otherwise get noticed for your attendance, and you become more well known. Then more people seek you out. That’s a virtuous cycle. I consider that working with the architecture of the social space–not fighting against it.

Sadly, this is not how it ought to work. Ideas/blog posts should have merit whether you got invited (or could afford) to go to an event or not. Anne didn’t make her way into my “A-list” folder in NetNewsWire because she was being invited to Adobe private meetings. I trusted Cote, James and Steven because I had read their stuff. Their hiring her was a recommendation (she was unknown to me before that). For that reason, her blog went in the 30 day holding bin. Having survived the 30 day holding bin, I put her on the “A-list”. The move happened based on the strength of her ideas. The world is going distributed, and trying to sort people onto the A-list based on event invitation/attendance seems to me like a great way to make sure that the echo chamber gets louder and louder. Or maybe it really is true that the blogsphere is just high school all over again.

The locker room that is the tech business

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Anne Zelenka is a (relatively) new analyst at the Analyst 2.0 company, RedMonk. She’s covering the Rich Internet App and Rich Client platform spaces, which are near and dear to my heart because of Cosmo and Chandler. I’ve followed the RedMonk blogs for some time now, and I got a chance to spend some decent time with Cote late last year at ApacheCon, and we had several good conversations. Since the RedMonk folks are (widely) geographically distributed, they’ve taken to Twitter with a passion, which is the same reason that I’ve taken to Twitter, albeit without quite as much passion. Of course, all the Redmonk folks made my friends list.

So it was that I saw their (along with others) live Twittering of Adobe’s invite only meeting on Flex and Apollo. I’m going to save my commentary on the tech stuff for a separate post. But I was stunned to read Anne’s account of a long Victoria’s Secret demo and a few other maddening comments (which I can’t quote, because Twitter’s history is currently broken). I can relate to being stuck in an environment where people are being offensive and don’t even know it (I am sure that no one at Adobe intended to be offensive). My brother and I were the only 2 Chinese kids in our school for a number of years, so I have some idea of what it’s like to be in Anne’s situation. It’s as if you don’t exist, and people do things that offend and then genuinely have no idea why a particular action might have given offense. I’m fairly sure that’s what happened at the Adobe shindig. Still, not good.

Even worse is the general locker room atmosphere in the technology business. I didn’t care for locker rooms when I was in school, and I don’t like them any better now. I have 3 daughters. My older two can already write simple Squeak programs (sorry, they’ve forgotten their Python). If they wanted to go into technology there are lots of statements that I’ve heard that I would never want said about one of my girls, or about any other woman. Forget the arguments about leaving out half the workforce and all of that. When you make that argument, you just objectify someone in a different way, either because they have money or because of “valuable” skills. Some of what I’ve seen and heard — it’s just not right. These are people we are talking about here, and it’s just not right to treat another human being that way.