Saturday, February 08, 2003

Clay Shirky on power-law distributions: Excellent paper on how website traffic follows a power-law distribution (few sites get the bulk of traffic), instead of a flat distribution, or bell-shaped distribution. "Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality." He does not note how the overall communications within a group follows an s-curve distribution (rapidly rising, until finally levelling off after everyone is handling all the inputs they can handle). Other power-law distributions are found in nature, such as the sizes and populations of animals (sperm whales vs sardines) or trees (giant redwoods vs scrub oak).

Towards the end he gets into some particularly interesting implications, such as how power-law distributions can be self-reinforcing over time, how terms like "home page", "portal" and "blog" will likely lose meaning over time, how the audience makeup will eventually influence the content of a site, more. Even though there may be a natural inequality in readership, the low barrier to acess insure that there's no lock-out to newcomers, and the requirement to continually provide value means that mobility among the tiers remains possible. Links are included to source research.
[via Meg Hourihan]

Laszlo Presentation Server: I've been hearing about this for awhile, and now they have a page up describing the process. Apparently you can describe an interface through an XML format -- its interactions through ECMAScript -- data feeds as other XML nodes. If I'm reading things correctly, this is apparently processed by the Laszlo Presentation Server each time a file is requested, generating a customized SWF, which has the current data embedded within it. (It sounds like the client never does a live data pull, but they also mention "chat and auctions", so I'm not sure if they serve XML as well as SWF.) The presentation can then be viewed in PDA, desktop browser, and desktop standalone (delivering an EXE?). There's more information available on their site behind a registration wall. Navneet has more info on his page, linked below. Lots of possibilities...! 8)
[via Navneet Nair]
Superx++: Programming in XML Usually we keep structured data in an XML-formatted file, but this language is an application of XML which can also contain operators upon that data. These operations are interpreted by any Superx++-compliant engine. Why bother? Well, it's an easy way to transport instructions from system to system... if you have a Java output to Superx++, and an ActionScript parser for Superx++, then you can transfer class definitions as well as data structures between systems. This could theoretically be done live at runtime, but because of the verbosity of XML files I'd guess it would be of more use when preparing a project for porting. Cool idea... I'll need to print out the docs and read more comments to see it more clearly.
[via Scott Johnson]

Friday, February 07, 2003

Kasparov Chess: Excellent... I had heard of this, but hadn't made the connection to a live web application. This SWF-based display pulls and stores real-time data about the current chess match between Garry Kasparov and the Deep Junior computer. You can step, play, back through a game as it occurs. Tabbed panes let you navigate through additional resources without losing your place in the main display. The developers, X3D, have a number of other implementations listed on their site, using a variety of technologies in addition to Flash and Shockwave.

Is this a "web application"? I'm not sure, because it doesn't help you "do stuff", it's just a better way to "look at stuff". Then again, it's not just a document either. There's definitely great client-side control and interaction over the display... you could do similar things by refreshing a text-based document, but this type of live, interactive display is just a far better experience.
[via Mike Chambers]
Spamming aggregators? I use Flog and Full As A Goog as a sort of "headlines news service" -- both sites regularly poll the XML feeds of a range of MX-related blogs and show the latest entries of all in a single list. (This type of "aggregation" is a little different from readers such as Philter's News Portal and NewsMonkey, which present a range of feeds individually.)

Anyway, I like being able to quickly see the latest news from "everyone", and usually lean towards Flog because its display fits my browser windows better, but lately I've seen a lot more political evangelizing in the main list. (I don't know if this is intentional spam, or unintentional spam, but regardless, it comes across as a spamlike breach of the social contract.) As a result, I'll be moving more of my attention to Full As A Goog, because it lets me block out individual blogs while still aggregating varied entries together. I'll still check in on Flog, but the ability to choose my feeds has recently become a killer feature.

(For politics, most of us have enough respect for others to avoid "shoving out religion down their throats", but as these threads show, each of us has to climb this same learning curve at our own pace. If you'd like to read debates, then Indymedia, Democratic Underground, Free Republic and Little Green Footballs have tons going on. Me, I usually prefer to read news and commentary, and the better bloggers link out to opposing viewpoints so that you can get the best objections from all sides. I could debate most evangelists under the table (honest I could), so it's a little frustrating to keep getting chainmail and other ads advancing poor arguments in inappropriate forums... easier for me to block 'em out so I don't risk hurting their feelings.)

But if you're really into politics, check Fark's Photoshop Poster Contest... this is the most succinct, economical, and ecumenical commentary I've come across recently.... ;-)
Greg Burch, Blog UI Tools: Greg moved, redesigned, and added two new SWF utilities to his page. "GregTracker" shows where he is and what he's doing, and allows navigation back through previous entries. "Blogregator" displays varied items from varied other blogs. Both are about 160 pixels wide by 240 tall, and both are embedded within a master SWF which also holds a calendar tool and a tool to display blogs in other languages. They all share similar appearance, and I suspect the scrollbars, listboxes and other UI widgets were all from the standard component set. The tracker relies on an XML feed which he produces and publishes, while the browser pulls the RSS feeds from various other blogs. (I'm not sure whether this is an aggregator, because the entries remain separated from each other... I'd call it a browser or a "headline news reader" or something, but who knows what the names are all about these days.... ;-) This work is a great example of how to expose much data without baffling the visitor's eyes... that little sidebar is sort of a control panel for a larger and hidden data set.
Hoagies & Contribute: I couldn't figure out why this article about sandwich shops near Madison Wisconsin turned up in a Macromedia news search, until I noted that they're using the new tool: "[Web developer Kent] Orfan said there are some nifty developments for home-based Web site developers. One is the recent release of the Contribute by Macromedia, a $100 program which lets users update Web sites without mastering HTML, the arcane language used in formatting. Orfan scoffed at Mircosoft’s FrontPage program, the former industry leader that he considers woefully outdated." I'm particularly interested in how Kent finds Contribute useful, even though he's not using Dreamweaver templates for protected regions, and even though he's using a PHP backend for many of the data-fed parts of the site. These technologies can blend.
Comments for Jeremy: Good reading here, seeing how people connect back over the years, and how one person's work can help so many others positively change their own lives. Even the anonymous slams are fun to read, trying to visualize what could lead a person to invest their time that way. ;-) I'm glad Jeremy will still be connected to the company, and to the work we're all doing here in this field.
Acacia streaming patent: CNET: "Acacia Media Technologies, said it owned patents on the process of transmitting compressed audio or video online, one of the most basic multimedia technologies on the Net. " I don't know anything beyond this article, although their website lists five current and one pending patent numbers. That page also describes their work as "owning patents"... doesn't say they do research, discover things, or perform other services. Sounds like what economists call "rent-seeking behavior", an entitlement. I'd be surprised if any of the people who actually developed streaming a/v techniques had heard of them while doing their realworld work....

Thursday, February 06, 2003

Web apps as a series of conditions: Pereira Calsavara writes in about ways to handle applications where inputs can come either from the user or from the network -- where there is not a single predictable flow of control to determine what happens next. "Finite state machines" is a fancy term to mean that there's a specific number of different states the application can be in -- it could have condition A but not B and C, or A & B but not C, etc. If you lay out each state, you can figure what the program should do next, regardless of the order in which inputs arrive. Most of his article itemizes the states of a single application.

There's an interesting multi-state Flash infographic at the bottom of the first page, which presents eight screen captures in a single area of the page. This seems handier than multiple GIFs, because it takes up less room. At first I thought it was a GIF, and I didn't want to risk losing my page or having a popup by clicking on it. In retrospect, it might have helped if each button told what it showed ("log in page", "default view" etc), instead of having abstract labels like "Figure A-1" which needed to be decrypted in the nearby text. Interesting use of SWF as an illustrative tool, regardless.
Microsoft & business applications: They also see a lot of improvement possible in networked applications: "When people apply the metaphor of a zero-sum game to application market they don't understand how crude the applications are today that we're shipping--and not just Microsoft. Even though they're great, they're still too hard to use, too difficult to maintain, and so on. We have a lot of work to make those things go away." It's good to have this validation of the observation, even though VB-style geeks may be in competition -- from what I've seen, folks using MX tools have stronger skillls in actually setting up an effective user experience.
Murray Summers interviews Matt Brown: If you frequent the Dreamweaver forums you're familiar with the indefatigable Murray. Here he asks Matt all the tough questions that regularly come up on the forum... features and abilities that prompt a lot of support calls... the newsgroup synch problem... anonymous drive-by posters... more. Good stuff!
Flash pulling XHTML: In the comments section at Kevin Lynch's blog, Scott Blanchard said he wanted to render more HTML inside the Player, and Kevin pointed out that the player renders only a subset of tags because the size of a dedicated HTML renderer is much larger than the player. (The adoption problem would then become similar to downloading a new browser.) Tony MacDonell raised the good point that if you're dealing XHTML rather than legacy HTML pages that you could use XML parsing techniques about the document and handle rendering as you will -- instead of having the rendering descriptions be in the universal player download, this approach would send specific rendering instructions along with the file. (ie, instead of installing one renderer which handles all cases of all documents, you can treat the player as a general rendering engine and pass it specific instructions for your document's needs.) Another approach to getting HTML 4.0 rendering within the player is to use tables to put four SWFs around an HTML cell, or to use CSS and wmode to put HTML content atop part of a single SWF, but Tony's approach of handling HTML as XML is cleaner, if your source markup can be expressed as XHTML.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Macromedia site revised: The Macromedia site has had a significant upgrade, moving more towards an interractive application than a set of static documents. There's still some news to come over the next week (the Designer & Developer Center has evolved into Macromedia DevNet, for instance), and we'll definitely be in shakedown mode on the new site for a bit, but please do check it out and use the feedback form to let the web team know how it's going for you. DevNet also has a new set of articles on specific features of the site (not all are immediately visible!), and additional specific info is in the pipeline. Please do test it out over the next week and help us refine it further, thanks!
Update: Sorry, I got my release dates wrong... last night we were just running some load tests on the new site, but the new version isn't in final release yet and today you'll see the familiar version of the site. Those of you who got a sneak peek of the next rev will know what I'm talking about here, but if you didn't catch the site during its public testing then hang tight, we've got some good stuff for you soon... ;-)

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

DALnet bans filesharing: The largest Internet Relay Chat network will be returning to its original purpose of facillitating chat, and will shuck off the filesharing which later made use of their network. Censorship? Not really, they're just enforcing their own house rules, and unlike true censorship you're free to avoid a relationship with them. (The DDOS attacks continue... large numbers of computers are being made to make incessant requests upon their servers, blocking other traffic.)
Pervasive computing: In our work we focus on creating human interfaces to learning and control applications. The flip side is the increasing prevalence of microprocessor sensors and embedded effectors out there in the world -- our interfaces, whether on computers or smaller devices, will be distilling more remote information, and controlling more remote activity. This article discusses a recent panel of speakers from MIT and other companies working in the field. "While there are some 150 million CPUs, or central processing units, in computers worldwide, there are 7.5 billion micro controllers—chips that act as sensing and control devices. For the most part, these chips are deaf and blind, not in touch with their environment... [companies are] developing wireless networks that connect micro controllers, such as the chips that control the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in buildings." Privacy and security issues will change as connectivity increases: "...people should be more concerned with the arrival of cell phones that report your location via GPS satellite. 'I'll know you are in a parking lot next to a cancer treatment center'...."
Branden Hall's "Outlet": I haven't tested this yet, but am keeping an eye for comment on it. His Outlet Component apparently offers an easy way to externalize components (UI widgets, etc). I'm not certain yet of universality, of whether the browser cache can be checked for existing instances of a component before downloading a new widget definition. Seems like it was efficient at least in Lockheed-Martin's case, though.
Reflections on Slammer: The Sapphire/Slammer worm hit ten days ago, and not only slowed web communications but also knocked out non-web systems like banking machines. This eWeek article takes a step back to examine the implications. In some ways such a non-lethal attack is helpful, because it shows people which machines were left vulnerable -- an immune system response. The code is apparently based on Chinese hacker design, although it's not yet certain where it was implemented and first deployed.

This quote in particular caught my eye: "I'm certainly not blaming the victims. Customers like stability and don't like to apply patches very often," said Mary Ann Davidson, chief security officer at Oracle Corp., in Redwood Shores, Calif. "The industry needs to provide better tools to harden systems. The difference between something being theoretically possible and being exploited is the blink of an eye." Macromedia regularly updates its Player software, as people research new ways to abuse it. One thing I don't understand well yet is how to push people to adopt it. The Macromedia site requires the most recent Flash Player, but not all consumers visit this site. Auto-update mechanisms add weight and are often ignored. I haven't seen any realworld exploits of earlier Flash Player vulnerabilities -- haven't seen any site crash the browser with a malformed SWF, for instance. But in wake of Slammer, I'm really wondering what we can do to help more people get more current.

Sidenotes: Slammer is being called the first flash worm in some accounts... this doesn't refer to Macromedia Flash, but instead to the heretofore-theoretical Warhol Worm style of very fast internet attack, often using a predetermined fleet of zombie machines. (People who download executable code from known-criminal warez sites are likely vectors for infection and zombie control) Other post-Slammer articles point to the increasing likelihood of blended attacks which use combinations of email, filesharing, IM and server vulnerabilities. Friday afternoons are apparently the most profitable time to launch an attack.
Groove, Microsoft: I had to read this CNET article a few times... Microsoft apparently invested in Groove Networks, which today "released a revamped version of its collaboration software that ties the company closer to Microsoft and introduces compliance with Web services." I'm guessing these are two parallel initiatives -- private back-channel hooks into MS apps, and also easy universal data transfer through the separate web services engineering. My first question was why they didn't merge the two... have both apps speak openly to each other and to the world. But maybe they're adding additional features in the private comunication which would not be possible in the open one (maybe like how Flash Remoting can convey data structures without parsing costs, compared to its additional ability to parse XML-formatted data). The article says that Groove now exposes calendar data as a web service, so it might be possible to display this within a SWF interface...?
Update: Lots more info in the comments (thanks! 8) and Jeroen Bekkers provides a report on his previous experiences integrating Groove and Flash.
Arul's "Quick View": Arul Kumaran has updated the categorized viewer into his blog entries. I'd love to see some way to integrate this segregator into an aggregator (what's the opposite of alliteration? ;-).... it would be great to be able to harvest many news feeds simultaneously by topic, rather than just by source. But how would you categorize the items within several sources? A predefined taxonomy would do it, but defining a taxonomy and then having the whole world agree on it would be a bear of a task... some type of ad-hoc taxonomy ("in my folderA show all of Branden's posts except for his 'devices' category, along with Arul's 'code' and 'examples'; in my folderB show....") seems stronger but even if you could find an implementation you'd then have set-up work for each reader... a keyword sorter could help with even uncategorized feeds but I'm not sure how well it would classify... how can each of us automatically order an unstructured bunch of news...?
What's a "standard"? I followed a referring link back today to a blog from "", which contains items on vector web technologies in SWF, SVG and Java. Back on July 23 there was an entry which objected to this item about a CNET article about Intel work on "standardized software browsers" for 3D, where I pointed out that the Macromedia/Intel Shockwave 3D engine is the standard 3D visualization engine on the web today. That word "standard" is used in lots of ways... real-world capabilities are de facto standards, while theoretical specifications released by some deliberative bodies can be de jure standards. Sometimes a de jure standard can become a de facto standard, as with HTML 2.0 and 4.0. Sometimes a de jure standard never becomes a de facto standard, as with VRML. Sometimes a recommendation to a standards body can become a de facto standard while never becoming a de jure standard (CSS?). Sometimes a recommendation to a standards body never becomes a de facto or de jure standard (PNG, etc). De jure standards, de facto standards, and recommendations for standards often overlap, but they aren't the same.
Video news on phones: Web broadcaster The Feedroom is apparently working a deal with Sprint to deliver video clips of news to phones. (I tried to evaluate their site via computer but was turned away for browser-compatibility.) For me, the important thing here is that businesses are recognizing the technical capability for richer presentations even on smaller devices. I'm not sure whether it would be compelling for consumers to have someone else's news choices pushed at them... broadcast TV news is usually background these days, and the most interesting info I receive is almost always stuff I deliberately pull, not mass-market news choices. But if they can cherrypick visuals of widespread interest, like sports scenes and accidents, then there might be a demand. The big thing is that this is proof that smaller devices will carry more messages.
[via Jenny Levine, welcome back!]
Big Brother vs Bigger Brother: Last autumn there was much debate about the US government using TIA databases to track people. This 5-page article in the Sunday Boston Globe describes the bigger issue of people using web databases to track each other. Problems include: parts of your past never go away; some have deliberately posted misinfo about others; mistaking one individual for another causes problems; some institutions publish private info without your consent. Solutions? Some would say "ban search engines", but most people are aware this won't work. A "search engine regulatory body" will likely be proposed, but c'mon, get real. Will we adapt? I believe so. It will be a significant adaptation, though, and I'd be surprised if we figured it out by the end of this decade. Are you you, or who people think you are, or...?

Monday, February 03, 2003

BEA lowers prices: InfoWorld reports that tomorrow BEA will drop its non-J2EE JSP server to $649 per cpu, and will also offer a 20-user J2EE implementation for $4000. That's more than JRun, but I suspect this may be because non-installation phone conversations are all-you-can-eat instead of a la carte.
Branded aggregation: PointCast was one of the first companies to push news to an audience. They became Infogate, and this page contains demos of toolbar/fullscreen displays for a half-dozen newspaper clients. There are a couple of ways to get at the info: a toolbar ticker shows selected headlines, while one of the fullscreen functions apparently allows text-matching on keywords. So, if you're using RSS feeds, or web services, or something else that divorces data from presentation, then who really owns it? The newspaper is providing an experience, even though that experience may be based on someone else's data.Lots of stuff to resolve here. For business, the Los Angeles Times has found slow downloads of this native-code extension, and 5% of these convert to subscriptions. (I'm a little leery of loading native-code executables myself.) Other newspapers cited in this article report better success with subscriptions for specialized content.
Kevin Lynch blogging: Kevin was a driving force behind Dreamweaver here at Macromedia, and he's now working on some other types of new technology. He weighs in with comments on the "docs-vs-apps" discussion recently permeating the web.
Network as commons: Declan McCullagh traverses the current ambiguity, particularly in light of potential attacks upon our ability to communicate together. "Is the Internet like newspapers, like the water supply or like the power grid? Is it like the banking system? Issues like these have not been seriously explored...." Adding to the complexity is that it's easier to use cut-outs and front-groups on the net... it can be harder to prove who is responsible for an attack on the common connection.
SWF as anti-spam tool: Chris MacGregor at Flazoom noticed that spammers were harvesting email addresses from people who commented on his page, so he now uses a 536-byte SWF to hide addresses from spiders.
Audio interfaces: Shirley Kaiser provides a bit of personal observation atop Jakob Nielsen's recent article on Voice Interfaces. She has been using Dragon speech recognition daily, and finds that browser-level commands (site navigation, window management) are often easier than in-site commands (awkward menuing, etc). She finds that voice-recognition is useful in conjunction with manual techniques... no need to single-mode the interaction with the box. (Shirley's blog is a good place to keep up-to-date on many trends in the web-authoring world... she ties a lot of threads together each week.)
Columbia infographics: Paul Nixon is maintaining a listing of online news services which use graphics to document the loss of shuttle and crew.
"What is a web application?" Bob Baxley works towards a definition at "Boxes and Arrows". One test he uses is whether the visitor's operations change data structures on another machine, such as by placing an order or some other distant edit. By this definition, an in-browser mortgage calculator would be closer to a search tool than to a web app. There's also discussion about the continuum from standalone networked apps, to client-side logic (Flash-in-browser, eg), to pure server-side apps where the logic & UI are delivered anew with each data change. I found a number of points I hadn't considered before, such as how a web app needs to know more about the current user than a non-networked desktop app like Photoshop. Good food for thought.
Builder on Contribute: The new tool is getting many reviews, but this one in particular could be useful to developers because it focuses on what to look at before deployment. (Notes: Mac version is on the way but I haven't seen a date yet... docs are purposely brief to get them up and running... I'm not sure how you'd integrate it with Vignette myself, seems like it would vary with what that site is trying to achieve.)

Sunday, February 02, 2003

News Quakes: Interesting visualization application from Ronan Cremin. I don't see a methodology page, but am guessing that he pulls a newsfeed, scrapes out a geographic location (from title rather than byline?), and then plots this on the world map. The result is that you can instantly see the distribution of world news items... a rollover reveals a title... a click brings up the article. This is not a high-volume experiment (83 stories examined and 12 used at this moment), but it seems an efficient interface for quickly analyzing and investigating news patterns.
[via Jon Udell]
CNET on web services adoption: A Forrester Research survey of 70 companies shows that the vast majority expect to greatly increase use of web services over the next two years, in part because transferring data through known protocols lets disparate systems work together (no end-to-end lock-in). Most current implementations are business-to-business, because these early adopters can agree on protocols together. I expect we'll see these move more and more into business-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer applications during this time, as implementation details become increasingly well-understood.
Happy Tree Friends: Need a Flash Valentine's Day card, but don't wish to be accused of maudlin sentimentality? You'll have time to cue up some Burt Bacharach while this is loading....
Problems implementing CMS: The Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture conducted a poll of problems people experienced when implementing Content Management Systems. (A CMS is usually considered as a database system which merges text contributed by a group's knowledge experts with HTML templates to produce an easy-to-update website. Macromedia Contribute solves an overlapping range of problems through a different mechanism.) The sample size was small (64 respondents) but select (members of IA mailing lists). Top common problems included: difficulty evaluating solutions, capital & labor costs in implementation, lack of flexibility or too much flexibility, difficulty including legacy content or systems. There's also a page with anecdotes about challenges facing information architecture.