By Carl HoweAt MIX07, Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE) introduced its complement to Flash (despite the fact it owns Flash) called Apollo. Not to be outdone, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) did the same thing a few hours later with Silverlight. As is often the case, Mark Pilgrim at Dive Into Mark uses his snarky wit to eviscerate both vendor attempts to create new proprietary standards to replace open ones.
Now some may be wondering why so many people, myself included, have such violent negative reactions to these attempts to improve the user experience of the World Wide Web. After all, I wrote a report at Forrester about seven years ago called the X Internet that claimed that the Web needed to be more interactive. So what's wrong with a extensions and developer tools to make it all easier? Well, other than attempting to sidestep important collaborative efforts like World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Web Standards Project, these proprietary browser extensions break the utility of the World Wide Web in important ways. The problems with these proprietary tools (and by the way, I include Flash in this list as well) is that they:
Put users into plug-in hell. Here's a fun experiment. Load your original installation disk of Windows. Install it on your computer. Launch Internet Explorer and go try to download one of these plug-ins. You've just embarked on a many hour to many day project. Why? Because these plug-ins only work on the latest versions of most operating systems. So you'll be downloading security updates, verifying Windows Genuine Advantage checkers (don't get me started), and updating your security software to OK your plug for many hours. Oh, and if you aren't on a broadband connection, you have about as much chance of doing this successfully as swimming the Atlantic Ocean. Because of this plug-in hell for all but the most up-to-date users, plug-in requirements will.... Create Web ghettos. Browser plug-ins divide the Internet into two camps: those that have, and those that don't. And despite these vendors' best efforts, users of Internet Explorer 6 and earlier, Windows 98 and 2000 users, Linux afficionados, cell-phone browsers, and those unwilling to put up with absurdly restrictive end user license are just out of luck. In today's more than a billion user Internet, that means telling millions of users, "You aren't important enough for us to serve." Nice. Don't provide accessibility. If you're sight-impaired, good luck finding anything within a Flash/Apollo/Silverlight-powered site. These systems are so focused on providing streaming video, flashing menus and shiny objects that they provide almost no information that can be used by standard text or reading browsers. Yes, you can add alternative information in the underlying HTML markup, but that means keeping parallel data consistent; any developer knows that is painful. Make search a pain. Yes, Fox Studios may put its catalog in Silverlight, but you can forget Google ever finding the films in that catalog once you do. Suddenly, you are held hostage by Fox's searching capability (or worse, Microsoft's) to find what you want, and if we've learned one thing over the last decade, it's that good searching is hard to do right.
One final note on Silverlight. This isn't the first time Microsoft has created a new framework for interactive Internet applications to embrace and extend the Web. Mark Pilgrim's reference to shiny objects triggered a long-dormant synapse in my brain. Does anyone remember Microsoft's 1998 initiative called Chromeffects? Here's a reminder from the press release:
Chromeffects interactive media technology gives developers the power to dramatically improve the end-user computing experience by adding visual impact and unique real-time functionality without the lengthy downloads of current bulky multimedia. Chromeffects takes advantage of the latest multimedia enhancements to the Windows operating system and leverages the power of the latest PC hardware to deliver an end-user experience that is uniquely entertaining and efficient.
Fast. Chromeffects introduces a host of new interactive media data types to achieve richer interactive graphics with smaller, faster downloads, increased frame rates and real-time performance. XML tags in Chromeffects allow lightweight descriptions to be sent over the Internet for the Windows 98-based client to render and process the media, exploiting the latest PC hardware for acceleration gains in performance and real-time interactivity. Flashy. Developers can now easily create high-fidelity, television-style effects and animations never before seen on the Web. By utilizing the 16-bit color and 3-D compositional space of Chromeffects, designers can create a more entertaining, engaging and memorable viewer experience. Functional. Content optimized for Chromeffects can be used to improve overall navigation and communication of information. Mapping HTML text or images to a cube can multiply the effective real estate of a page. Rather than navigating through pages, the user can mouse-over a cube to bring a new side of information to the front. Chromeffects also enables bend-away menu bars, to increase focal area on the screen. The Chromeffects SDK provides many interactive examples of how the technology can be applied to greatly improve functionality. The documentation on the SDK itself is an actual example of how the Chromeffects technology inspires viewers to interact and explore concepts.
"The Chromeffects SDK puts the ability to create compelling interactive media content in reach of a far broader community of graphic and publishing designers," said Eric Engstrom, general manager of multimedia at Microsoft. "By making it simple for third-party developers to design and adapt add-in enhancements to Chromeffects, we intend to fill the huge void in the easy-to-author tools space."
Of course, that was the sequel to Microsoft's original Web-killer Blackbird from the early 1990s. It's nice to know that despite changes in interfaces and software technology, Microsoft's strategy for the Internet hasn't changed.