Flash Bang

By combining our powerful development, authoring and collaboration software – along with the complementary functionality of PDF and Flash – Adobe has the opportunity to bring this vision to life with an industry-defining technology platform.

Bruce Chizen, CEO of Adobe, quoted in Adobe’s press release announcing the Macromedia acquisition [PDF]

Adobe’s announcement that it will stop working on Flash Mobile has widely been interpreted as a vindication of Apple’s controversial decision to keep the Flash plugin off the iPhone. Adobe has announced that it will continue to support the deployment of AIR-based Apps on all platforms. Has a major software company ever publicly stuck a fork in the ass of such a ubiquitous and apparently successful product the way Adobe has Flash? This isn’t like Microsoft trying to wean users off IE6 — they have a more modern version they’d like you to use instead. Adobe has pushed Flash into traffic, covered in gasoline, and tossed a few lit matches at it.

There are several ways of parsing this, but the two most common are:

  • Steve Jobs was right. Flash is dead. Apple wins. Haha.
  • Flash is alive and well on the desktop (et al) but Adobe is submitting to reality w.r.t. mobile.

The more sober analysis tempers the first version with the point that it’s not Apple that’s winning but everyone. Browser plugins have always sucked, and Flash was the last surviving plugin of importance. Similarly, the second point is tempered by the followup announcement essentially sounding the death knell for flex.

Apple Outsider takes the view that this is a win for Adobe, making the interesting argument that Adobe was never a platform company, and Flash was an outlier in its product suite which chiefly comprises tools (like Photoshop). This superficially attractive argument unfortunately ignores the fact that Adobe acquired Macromedia first and foremost to get Flash with a view to merging PDF support* into Flash to improve the reach of its PDF platform. So Adobe went to enormous expense (not to mention effort) to acquire Flash, and with it a bunch of other good or even excellent products, and ends up with little but ashes. (And recall that Adobe destroyed several major products to make the merger happen — Freehand is gone, Director is a barely warm corpse, Golive is gone.) While killing Flash may be a good move by Adobe, it’s also the dead end of a very expensive blind alley that began with the acquisition of Macromedia.

Notes: * remember how great the PDF plugin is? (Hands up if you still use it. Voluntarily.) Anyone who has the PDF plugin installed would generally chew their own arm off rather than click a PDF link, which is why I labeled the link to Adobe’s press release.

Identity Theft

iCloud is out in the wild as of today, and a whole bunch of us will now be tied to yet another “online identity”.

Back in the early days of the web most people got email service, and hence their email address, through their ISP. This was an early, and potent, form of lock-in. At some point some web sites appeared offering “permanent” and “portable” email addresses (i.e. you’d go to my_silly_name.com and get an email address like [email protected]_silly_name.com and it would be “yours forever” to redirect as you saw fit). I joined one such site (I can’t even remember what it was called) thinking this was a genius idea and the company folded before I had managed to convince all my friends to use the email address.

How many people stuck with AOL simply because that was their email address?

Lock-in of this kind continues to this day of course, typified by the gmail / hotmail / yahoo account that you’ve been using so long that simply downloading everything somewhere and then backing it up sounds too painful to think about. The IMAP protocol, which allows us to read and update our email without downloading everything, hugely facilitates this. (And no, I do not want to go back to the days of downloading all my email and then needing to move the files around, not to mention realizing that my desktop computer at home had sucked email off the server and deleted it before I could read it on the road.)

Once you recognize this phenomenon, you realize it’s everywhere:

  • Physical Address
  • Phone Number(s)
  • Fax Number (haha still have one of those?)
  • Email Address
  • Web Address
  • Twitter ID
  • iCloud ID (and its precursors such as MobileMe and Mac.com)
  • AIM ID
  • Skype ID
  • Facebook ID
  • Linked In ID
  • Google+ ID

And so on down the line.

It actually kind of boggles my mind that Apple, of all companies, has failed to unify and abstract out all this crap. Why, for example, do I have one app to check my voicemail messages, another to check my skype messages, another to check my SMS messages, and another to check my email? By the same token, when I decide to send a message to Bob, why do I first have to decide which communications channel I shall employ? Isn’t that the kind of thing a computer would be good at? I could understand if Apple only supported that subset of the above which had tractable APIs, or even excluded some because it didn’t like them for some arbitrary reason (strategic, aesthetic, or whatever).

A company called GrandCentral — long since acquired by Google, renamed Google Voice, and largely ignored — tried to address this issue for the rather obvious case of phone numbers. It provides you with a phone number that’s “yours forever” which you can then plug into a kind of virtual PABX which does all the neat kinds of things that call center systems can do (e.g. ring multiple phones simultaneously and then stop them all when one picks up, or ring one phone for a while and then another, or pick up the phone for you and let you identify yourself to the recipient before he/she agrees to take the call). It’s neat, it’s free, and it does a fairly good job of solving a tiny part of the problem — phone numbers, SMS, and to some extent email.

But we’re still left with the large and constantly evolving collection of pseudo-identities of which the list above is merely a transitory snapshot.

The flipside of all this is, of course, lock-in. Or, to put it another way, identity theft. If Google, say, solved all of this by letting your “google id” (your gmail address, say) act as router for all your communications then you’d really be at the mercy of Google, wouldn’t you? (And, of course, Google would be able to collect data on ALL of your communications. Hmm, people who call these numbers are usually shopping for cars, while people who call those numbers are probably interested in insulin.)

This seems like a problem that might need a bit of government intervention. By all means we might want to let private enterprise implement identity-based services, but we probably want the government to ensure that any such implementation doesn’t become a digital prison.

A farewell to HP

I first learned to program on an HP65 calculator. I loved HP and lusted for its products before Apple existed. When I read my Scientific Americans (yeah, I wad a precocious kid) I spent almost as much time lusting over ads for HP’s desktop workstations than reading articles. Heck I nearly bought one of their knockoff commemorative calculators.

When I was in College we all listed for the HP41c and HP15c calculators. Some friends figured out how to break out of the HP41c’s OS and hack its internals, and would compete to optimize its operations. (Unlike cheaper rivals, from Casios to TIs, HPs were actually computers; this meant that they wwr slower than Casios but much more flexible.)

Years later, when I was doing a lot of paper game design, which meant complex desktop publishing, and couldn’t afford $10,000 for a laser printer, it was HP who delivered an affordable ($2000) desktop inkjet printer with similar output quality. Unlike today’s flimsy devices, this one cranked out pages for the next ten years.

Some nave argued that HP had already lost its way in 1975 when they passed on Wozniak’s personal computer (seven years before the IBM PC) but HP’s printer innovations were not insignificant. You can’t pick every winner, right?

And we shouldn’t forget Compaq and DEC, both great companies in their time, absorbed and their legacies dissipated within the bowels of HP.

HP’s failure is not for lack of trying. Consider PA-RISC, HPUX, Alpha (from DEC), and … OK perhaps Compaq wad never such a great company. (Ever use an iPaq? They make the MessagePad 100 look like the iPhone 4.)

So, it’s pretty depressing to see this once great company, built on the bones of several other great companies, being run into the ground. The problem is, even if HP were capable of some incredible new success, I don’t think Meg Whitman is the person to help deliver it.

Netflix

WTF?

Qwikster? What’s that? A company that makes chocolate milk powder?

First you raise prices. Then we find out you’re losing Starz content (making your streaming service significantly less attractive). Now you decide to split your websites for some reason that may make sense to you, but basically makes Netflix less useful for us.

I used to love Hulu and recommend it to folks too. All it took was incompetence and greed and now I don’t even visit the site any more. (And I’m not alone — Hulu is going downhill in every metric.)

Here’s the thing about the DVD service — it handles long tail content, and everyone loves something that’s only available on DVD. And, it’s not easily replaceable. More importantly, we think of content in terms of TV shows and movies, not in terms of media. I don’t want to watch season 4 of NUMB3RS on DVD, I just want to watch season 4 of NUMB3RS. (And, obviously, I don’t want to maintain two lists of things I want to watch.) The only thing Netflix has that Apple, Amazon, Hulu, and so forth don’t as far as streaming services go is rights and customer data.

I would argue that at its core, Netflix is a company that collects customers’ viewing habits and tracks what they watch. And it’s not very good at it, e.g. when I watch an episode of NUMB3Rs on my AppleTV and switch to my upstairs Mac — Netflix thinks I’m halfway through the previous episode. How hard would this be to fix?* How hard would it be to differentiate ratings from different people sharing one account? Don’t think you’re going to sell multiple accounts to a household if you can’t manage one account.

* Hey, Apple isn’t much better — if you skip over a podcast iTunes won’t figure out you’ve “listened” to it, and in iTunes it’s almost impossible to jump to the beginning of a movie but very easy to skip to the previous movie — whatever it is.

Netflix is fucking up its core business and chasing ephemera. If Netflix is losing rights it’s probably because it doesn’t deliver value to content producers, which means that its business model was providing viewers a bargain by screwing the post office and content producers, and now it’s trying to screw its customers as well.

But hey, you’re sticking with red envelopes. Awesome.

The Convergence Device

The cellphone and the personal computer are the two most formidable points of convergence in the digital world. The PC has devoured the typewriter, the TV, the telephone, musical instruments, darkrooms, video conferencing, and… Well the list just goes on.

But the cell phone has devoured the camera, the hi fi, the personal organizer, and, with the iPhone, it started devouring the PC in earnest. Right now, the only things an iPhone doesn’t replace a PC for are either because of obvious software limitations (e.g. no file system), intentional limitations (e.g. no dev tools allowed), physical IO limitations (small screen, crappy keyboard) or computing power (speed, capacity).

Given that any large screen can serve as the display of an iPhone, and any Bluetooth keyboard can serve as an input device, really the only thing preventing most of us from simply using our cell phones or cellular tablets as our only computers is a few years of Moore’s Law and better software, both of which are inevitable.

Apple is betting that iOS will be enough of an OS for the vast majority of users. Microsoft is betting that enough people will want a more “complete” PC OS to justify the baggage it’s including with Windows 8.

Yesterday, I visited an Apple Store (my reason is a pretty funny story in itself, but I won’t digress further) and saw about a dozen people, all with greying hair, being instructed on how to use their new iPads. The point here is that the iPad is still too much computer for many users.

I suspect that Google is on the right track with Chrome (the OS) and the wrong track with Android (Android is just too fiddly — which isn’t to say that it can’t be fixed or forked). Microsoft is on the wrong track with Windows 8, but if the Windows part is just a compatibility box that can be discarded later they can adapt as required.

Ultimately, the cellphone has all the advantages over the PC and will subsume it. It’s smaller, more portable, always connected, and everyone needs one anyway. The cellphone is the convergence device.

Typed on an iPad, by the way.