pyehouse
29Sep/110

When the Tail Wags the Dog

Java Duke image imposed on Firefox logo, pointing at the fox

The Register is reporting that the Firefox team is considering blocking Java in response to the BEAST attack, which allows the attacker to intercept data from an otherwise secured connection. The move would be contentious given the impact it could have on anyone using Java in their Firefox browser, including users of Facebook's video chat as well as Java applets deployed internally at companies who depend on the Java functionality for their business. Without getting into the details of the problem, it seems that the Java plugin, developed now by Oracle, is causing a big headache for Firefox and their options are both limited and unappealing given possible user backlash. It's just another example of why company's are increasingly tempted to not work with other software projects to obtain new functionality, instead opting to fork existing projects, create their own solutions or just go without the new tech altogether.

A recent example involves Amazon's fork of Gingerbread (aka Android 2.3) to power their new Kindle Fire. Many decried the decision, particularly since Honeycom (Android 3.0) was available and targeted specifically at tablets and the newer Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) was going to be available just around the corner to unify the handset and tablet focused Android versions. More than just forking the code though, Amazon opted to create their own Android App Store meaning users may find themselves needing to repurchase Android apps already purchased elsewhere to get them onto their Kindle Fire or at least having to jump through additional hoops to use all available Android apps. Regardless, the fork means that Amazon is not beholden to anyone else for updates or features and given the open source nature of Android, will be able to pull any choice bits in from newer Android releases without having to work on anyone else's schedule.

We also saw this with Apple's decision to create Safari. Prior to OS X, Internet Explorer dominated the Apple browser market. Given that as connectivity became more widespread, browsing the web became a more prominent activity, Apple was moved to provide a more Apple-esque experience for browsing. The WebKit project provided the core of the browser which resulted in Apple boasting a well known browser of their own on several platforms and no longer relying on another company to provide that key experience.

Apple also showed their desire not to be reliant upon other company's technology in how they have handled Adobe's Flash. Flash has never seen the light of day on an iOS device and is no longer shipping pre-installed on Macs. There were clear performance issues (the 2009 Apple keynote mentions plugins at 10:23 but in retrospect it seems clear the reference was mostly to Flash) but more important were the control concerns. Apple has retained tight control over the user experience of their platforms, control which would only have decreased had Flash become more pervasive on Apple devices. Apple has put considerable effort into providing technologies which developers would have a hard time making use of on a meta platform like Flash, so the less dependence upon Flash by Apple, the more control they retain over their own platform.

Historically we have also seen what happens when companies attempt to coexist with competitor technologies. Witness OS/2's slow death (or lack of uptake) because developers could just develop for Windows and let the OS/2 Windows layer handle running the non-native application. Users never got a taste of what a real OS/2 app could accomplish. And while RIM's PlayBook was practically stillborn, the last gasp effort to renew life by declaring that Android apps would be allowed to run on the device was generally considered a bad idea by pundits since that, as with other similar decisions, would result in less push for developers to target the platform natively.

The lesson here is simple. Only trust third party components to the extent that you can do without them entirely. The more your own platform or project becomes dependent upon the functionality of other plugins or platforms, the more beholden you are to their schedules and priorities. It can be difficult to predict when a shift like that is going to happen (or already has), but it can be crucial.

28Sep/110

Kindle Fire vs RIM PlayBook

John Gruber, at DaringFireball.net, in a post about a comparison between the Kindle Fire and RIM's PlayBook, quoted Ryan Block regarding the Kindle Fire's resemblance to the PlayBook:

From there, Amazon’s team determined they could build a tablet without the help and experience of Lab 126, so they turned to Quanta, which helped them “shortcut” the development process by using the PlayBook as their hardware template. Of course, it’s never quite that simple, and as I’m told Amazon ran into trouble, and eventually sacrifices were made (like using a slower processor).

Although Amazon did refresh the ID of their PlayBook derivative, I’m told that this first tablet of theirs is “supposed to be pretty poor” and is a “stopgap” in order to get a tablet out the door for the 2011 holiday season — which doesn’t exactly leave the best taste in my mouth.

John then follows up by asking:

My question, though: if it’s based on or even just very much similar to the BlackBerry PlayBook, why is the Kindle Fire only $199 and the PlayBook started at $499?

My response: Amazon is hoping for a halo effect, subsidizing a reduced cost tablet, perhaps sold at or even below cost, with the expectation of additional revenue from services provided by the tight integration of the Kindle Fire with Amazon products and services. This halo effect, which is something Apple has counted on with their hardware products, selling Macs and Macbooks because users purchase iPods and iPhones, is also something RIM never counted on. RIM never had services they could push toward PlayBook users which would grow revenue beyond the simple sale of the hardware.

I actually mentioned the idea of Amazon subsidizing Kindle Fire through service revenue a few weeks ago. What makes sense for Amazon didn't for RIM, and I think for anyone trying to break into the tablet market against the iPad, they're going to have to provide a clear improvement on price because the quality and content aren't likely to be matched or beaten well enough to make a difference. And for that to hold true, someone's going to have to take a loss on the hardware and make it up elsewhere. Amazon is one of the few who can do so at this point.

27Sep/110

The State of NFC

Stylized white N on a blue gradient background

The State of NFC

Stylized white N on a blue gradient background

The “N-Mark” logo is a trademark or registered trademark of NFC Forum, Inc.

No, I'm not here to discuss the fact that the Detroit Lions have their first 3-0 start since 1980, though kudos to them. I'm talking about Near Field Communications and particularly how it is used to make purchases. If you've ever swiped a badge to enter a building, had your pet injected with an electronic tag, or swiped your ticket to get onto public transportation, then you have used NFC. In essence, it involves two devices communicating information over a very short ranged radio signal. The smarter the devices, the more interesting the exchanges that can take place. With something like a badge, ticket or card, the communication is going to be, by necessity, rather simple, typically one way and typically simple bits of information. With something like a smartphone or computer, the possibilities are endless, a whole host of information being available and both devices being capable of altering what is sent based on changing needs.

Google and PayPal are squared off against one another in the NFC space  and those are two big players, to be sure. Google is going to launch a phone with NFC payment options but and it has some major players lined up to help, but it's still going to be starting off with some limits like only being in a single new model, only being on the Sprint network, only being usable at certain retailers, etc. But it's still a serious bid by Google to get into the game in the US, where the uptake of NFC hasn't been nearly as pervasive as in other countries like Japan.

Meanwhile, PayPal and owner eBay have been involved with a number of acquisitions and partnerships which, while not being as close to actually going live, have the capability of being more far-reaching and touching on more payment processing possibilities (say that five times, fast) than Google's Wallet would out of the box.

Either company would seem to have a large leg up on anyone else entering the field (pardon the pun). For any other company to stand a chance at playing in the same arena for NFC mobile payments (i.e. paying with your phone), they would have to have equal name brand recognition, the ability to widely deploy large numbers of devices with NFC, capacity to handle purchases securely and an ability to establish relationships with merchants for rapid uptake of their payment processing system. Hmm...

Apple. Yeah, you saw that coming. First off, there have been rumors for awhile now that Apple was going to be dallying in NFC. First the iPhone 4 was rumored to be introducing NFC and now rumors are flying about iPhone 5, though admittedly tuned down  . But consider, the iPhone is in widespread use and has the highest retention rates of any smartphone in the industry so it would seem that the smart money would be on pretty widespread adoption of the iPhone 5 out of the gate. Additionally, we're seeing the iPhone move into more carriers in the US which is only going to increase its reach. Plus they've been processing payments as small as $0.99 for quite awhile now, albeit through their relatively controlled App Stores. And the process for signing up for what is essentially a merchant account to handle payment processing on the App Store is relatively pain free.

That said, a 30% cut of sales won't fly and it might be hard to explain why I can sell you a Doubleplusgood Meal for only a 10% surcharge to Apple but end up with a 30% chunk gone for selling you the latest Lady Gaga track. That's not to mention the hardware that would need to be in each location to handle that processing. Of course, the answer to that might be more iPhones or iPads. After all, Apple is already using them in their own retail stores, so why couldn't a similar system be made available for merchants in their own stores? Set up an iPod Touch on the store's wireless connection, secured of course. Run the merchant iOS app, loaded with the store's inventory plus an ad-hoc item option to ring up random sales that might not be present in standard inventory. Walk around and let your patrons make purchases anywhere on the sales floor or at the main register, whatever you prefer.

Not Part of Apple's Core

The catch to all of this is... this isn't what Apple has been about. The App Store has typically been considered an avenue to encourage sales of Apple hardware, not as a revenue center in its own right. Perhaps that principle was Jobs-specific but I find it hard to imagine that his recent departure would result in a fairly big shift in focus. Still, Apple does seem to have a lot of the tools necessary. Or at least enough of them to give it a go.

Personally, I would like to see it happen through Apple. I already deal with them on multiple levels financially and don't want to have to add to the panoply of companies who have my financial information. Then again, I suppose the same could be said of PayPal. Google... not so much. Wallet is new and Checkout has never really taken off. Regardless, here's to an interesting online battle. May the best tech win.

25Sep/110

Dear Netflix

Netflix logoDear Netflix,

I'm so sorry to see you like this. It seems like just yesterday when you were the youthful embodiment of revolutionary zeal, ready to take on the world and change how everything works. Now you're in a bit of a pickle and it seems like the vultures are circling. It wasn't supposed to be this way!

Back in the day, you were a plucky young thing with a crazy idea of how to take on the ten ton gorilla, Blockbuster. Mail the movies to your customers! It was genius! Of course it was risky, too, which is probably what made your derring-do all the more enthralling. You had to create a supply chain comparable to that of other big name retailers, able to move DVDs out with an efficiency bordering on mania. You had to have inventory available for enough of your customers to keep them happy. And you did it with a panache that turned heads. Oh, yeah, you were the star baby!

And then there was your ability to offer suggestions based on viewer's likes and dislikes. It was like having Miss Cleo right there with you as you picked your next flick! Except it was science! Do you remember that time you set up a contest to see if anyone could beat your recommendation algorithm? Yeah, me too. Those were the days, huh?

Blockbuster was steadily going down, you were on top of the world, and it seemed like nothing could stop you. Then we found out you had your eyes on another prize. Online streaming. Oh, sure, you told us later that was what you originally had wanted to do and I don't doubt it. But like you said, the network wasn't there, the licensing wasn't there... you made the right call, to be sure. But now look what's happened.

You started off well enough, hooked up with that Starz chick, but I told you at the time she was just slumming. I warned you she was just curious about you, not really sure things were going to work out. And sure enough, just when it seemed things were about to get serious, all of a sudden she demanded more. Hey, this sort of thing happens to us all. You know about my history with that girl from.. well, nevermind. No need to go there. But you know that old truism about there being lots more fish in the sea? Those aren't fish here, buddy. Those are barracuda.

See, before, when you were happily doling out DVDs, they didn't want any part of you. Sure, you sent them a check and all was well, but that was as far as it went. But now with this online streaming thing, they're like little gold diggers, wanting a piece of your pie. And if you aren't willing to share with them, well, they've got other takers. You aren't the only one in the market, you know. I hear some of them are even willing to go it alone. That's cold, man.

And now you've gone and ditched your DVD business, handing it off to your little brother, Qwikster. I hope you know what you're doing there. No one has even heard of him and now he's running the whole enchilada. Well, the DVD side anyway. And what's up with that stoner he's hanging out with these days?

Look, man, I know times are hard right now, but if you're going to stick this out, you need to get back up, brush yourself off and go make the best of it that you can. You've still got some good numbers, and your online streaming thing isn't going to melt away overnight, but you've got to get some serious juice lined up to jazz up that online streaming card you're showing everyone. It's a little stale at the moment. Consider what worked the first time, when you were offering people something that they couldn't get anywhere else. Or, I don't know, maybe you could get a wing man! Wait, that's right, I heard you and Hulu hooked up with someone recently.

I know you're the cheery sort, and I hear you've got some big plans, but you haven't been really forthcoming with them yet. That's cool. I'll be here when you're ready to talk. Just don't do anything drastic until we get a chance to discuss this some more, okay?

I'd hate to see things get worse.

-Lynn

Tagged as: No Comments
23Sep/110

More MiniStumble Hacking Fun (We Have v2.0!)

Just a quickie here. We have a version 2.0 of MiniStumble, the StumbleUpon Safari extension bar! You can find more details on the MiniStumble page.

20Sep/110

Metro and iOS – One Goal, Two Approaches

I want to touch on this subject once more, because I think it deserves some more attention. I imagine Metro is getting overplayed a bit, but as almost anyone will point out, Metro is essentially Windows Phone 7's interface writ large. Or put another way, where WP7 was a revolution for Microsoft, Metro is the next evolutionary step from WP7, putting it onto the desktop in addition to mobile devices. Yet this isn't so very different from what Apple has been moving toward with various UI elements bouncing back and forth between iOS and OS X and then, earlier this year, the 'Back to the Mac' themed WWDC conference. The fact is both Microsoft and Apple are pushing toward a unified UI strategy. They're just taking different tacks getting there.

The Red Queen - Metro's New Look

I've mentioned elsewhere that I don't dislike Metro. I can't say I like it all that much either. It's definitely different, definitely featureful. I'm not looking forward to some of the support sessions I am no doubt going to be involved with when some of my clients end up with a new computer with Windows 8 installed and no clue how to operate the new UI. Still, I think there are a number of things Microsoft is doing right with Windows 8. One thing I've already mentioned that I think they're doing wrong is making too big a change in the UI too quickly. The shift from Windows XP to Vista and on to Windows 7 didn't involve large paradigm shifts in UI usage and even so there were some complaints for users who were used to the "way things were". But by and large, things have gotten better, folks got used to the new look and layout and things were more or less okay. Windows 8 looks to upend all of that by introducing what is, for all intents and purposes, a completely new way of doing things. Technically anyone who has a Windows Phone 7 device now is already exposed to the core principles. But that's a very small number of people really. I'm not trying to rehash my previous article, but I do want to point out that this whole hog approach is very purposeful. It's not an accident that Microsoft is doing this. I think they realize just how much risk this gambit involves and I think they are going about it with eyes wide open. The question is, why? I'll get to that in a bit.

The White Queen - iOS's Slow Play

Apple on the other hand is taking a slow approach. They introduced iOS, with UI elements similar to those on OS X. The expanded on those elements. Then over time, things have slowly begun to merge. With Lion, we now have the Launchpad to mimic iOS home screen functionality, the scrolling and scroll bars are behaving like they do on iOS, swipes are beginning to work similarly, full screen mode is being rolled out, though not pushed out... slowly we are seeing the iOSification of OS X which itself was the basis for iOS. The emphasis here is slow. OS X is still fundamentally OS X. Take someone who's only familiar with OS X 10.0 and sit them down in front of Lion and they'll still be able to do anything. The reversed scrolling will confuse the hell out of them at first, granted, but once you get them past that hurdle, they'll be fine. Put someone on an iOS device and, as has been mentioned elsewhere, the gestures and usage seem relatively intuitive. People pick it up easily and things work as you would expect them to. Yet as dissimilar as the two environments are, they are being brought together. How much further we have yet to go, I can't say. What I can say is that on the current course, it's going to be a subtle shift and I if the scrolling "controversy" is any indication, it will involve little fuss.

King's Gambit

So why then would Microsoft jump so quickly to unify their UI with a fast play that may involve more pain and more screaming from consumers? Simple. The iPad. If it weren't for the fact that the iPad is trouncing all comers in the tablet space, Microsoft would not feel the need to renovate their very non-touch-oriented OS for tablet use. Yes, Windows Phone 7 is already out and seems to be a precursor to anything in the Metro interface, intimating it was in the development pipeline before Windows 8. I'd be willing to bet that Windows Phone 7 was, in fact, a product of the effort to get Windows 8 out and available for desktop and tablet use. Moreover, I think they bet on the phone strategy because at least in the phone space there has been some indication of room to grow, with Android devices challenging the iPhone's dominance and leaving hope that Microsoft might be able to push some of these devices out rapidly. Of course, I can't know for sure. But tell me... if Microsoft really wanted to, couldn't they have simply held off on finalizing Windows 8 and making it operate on smartphones and done a simultaneous release? Surely the WP7 team knew about Windows 8 development. It seems they clearly wanted WP7 out in the real world for users to play with and get used to the interface before Windows 8 was out and available. And they wanted that momentum to carry them forward into deploying Windows 8 on desktops (a lesser concern) as well as new tablet devices now based on Windows 8 and standing a chance in hell against the iPad.

Microsoft is rushing their UI unification in order to take on Apple in the tablet space, with Windows Phone 7 as the vanguard of the UI makeover. I don't know how successful their gambit will be, but as I look it over, I think it's the only move they could make.

19Sep/110

Netflix and Qwikster, Breaking Up Is Hard

Netflix logoI swear, I'm going to quit sleeping. I go to sleep and all sorts of things happen overnight. I wake up and it's like gremlins have come in and moved things around. Now it seems my DVDs aren't coming from Netflix anymore, they're coming from some Qwikster place? Same label and everything, just a different name. Anyone see this coming?

It's interesting they did this, though not completely surprising. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, has made no bones about wanting to grow the streaming side and speculation has been running high that they were looking to the streaming business as the focus of their future. Honestly, in the long run I think physical media delivery is going to only be decreasingly attractive, both as a business venture and as a product (the two do go hand in hand after all). But that shift is only going to happen when fast internet is available in more homes and, more importantly, when content is given equal availability via streaming as well as physical media. Until then, sure, if you ship, they will come.

I said not 'completely' surprising though, didn't I? And I mean it. For streaming to take off, one of the two factors is going to be having more content, and higher quality/current content, available for streaming. But Starz is taking their ball and going home because Netflix didn't want to pay the new, much higher rates Starz requested. I get that. I just hope Netflix has a plan in place to replace some of that content.

Of course this may be a way to mitigate potential disaster, too. Consider... if the streaming business does take off, it won't be hampered by what I imagine will be declining business on the DVD side in years to come. Yay. And if this gambit doesn't pay off because Netflix can't secure that higher quality content and all goes to hell in a handbasket... well, they've still got their DVD business, though at the loss of a well established brand in preference to a newly minted brand. Which they now have to share with a pothead on Twitter.

On a personal level, I really want to see Netflix succeed (you know, the new super sleek, purely streamy Netflix, not that mangy old dual business channel, clearly crufty Netflix) because I prefer to stream. It appeals to my whimsical nature when it comes to deciding what I'm going to watch. With a delivered DVD sitting there on the TV stand, I feel compelled to watch. Like I'm obligated to watch it as quickly as humanly possible just so I can return it because "oh my gosh they might be missing it and what about that mother of seven in Wichita who really needs this DVD gaaaaahhhhh". So, dear overlords of movie and tv content, please help me out. Destress my life. Let Netflix have reasonable rates for streaming your schlock er, content. A rising tide lifts all boats and all that.

Now let me get back to watching this next episode of 'Haven'. Gotta get this disc back this week.

16Sep/110

Contracts, Where Windows 8 Gets It Right

I've mentioned before that Windows 8 Metro is going to be a very disruptive UI switch for most Windows users to make and is likely going to cause some headaches for Microsoft due to customer backlash. The timing is off, though Microsoft is making an effort to get the word out early and work to make the interface as knowable as possible well in advance. Only time will tell if they succeed well enough to avoid the complaints. That said, I should make something clear... I don't oppose or even really dislike the Metro concept. The most visible change in Metro, and the one that I think is most likely to draw the ire of those who complain, is that of essentially devoting the entire screen to a single application at a time, a concept most mobile device users are already very familiar with. It's only on the desktop where this paradigm becomes less common. In any event, one interesting concept in Windows 8 that I like in particular is the concept of "contracts".

In Windows 8, an application can expose features through a contract. The contract details what the offered feature needs to work and what it will produce. Think of it like the input/output paradigm in Apple's Automator but able to be tapped into by any application on the system, not just through a single central authority like Automator. More importantly, these features can be tapped into seamlessly, the user never having to leave the current application but still being able to tap into the full functionality present on their device. In the Metro interface, where only one application has the screen at a time, this will be a boon to developers and users alike, working to increase the usefulness in situations where one app owning the screen at a time is necessary.

Move Over Bacon, There's Something Better ( in Windows 8 )

Sharing features between apps is of course something that's been around for awhile. Even the earliest operating systems allowed applications to talk to one another by opening connections between apps and sending data cross. Over time, protocols were established to be able to send higher level data across instead of having to reconstruct data manually on the receiving end. By the early 90's, Microsoft released their OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) technology, allowing the sharing of complex features between various applications. This required considerable effort to do well, though. OLE is not the only such technology though. There are many to choose from. But it seems as though the focus here is more on how it will affect the end user and less on how to integrate apps. It may seem like one and the same, but the focus drives the implementation. Here, Microsoft got the focus right.

Absent on the list of IPC protocols is OpenDoc. OpenDoc was a consortium created in the 90's after OLE became popular and gave Microsoft a big advantage with Office. It tried to unite a number of vendors to create a standard that would rival OLE's capabilities and allow them to offer a comparable feature set without having to bend to Microsoft's will. Microsoft began using their OS dominance to full advantage by requiring certain compliance criteria for OS verification of an app that resulted in practically requiring use of OLE as opposed to OpenDoc. After awhile, OpenDoc went away. Why mention a dead protocol? Because Apple was a major driver behind OpenDoc and didn't seem to learn much from it.

We see some of what Apple came away with in Services on OS X, Apple events, and a few other supported features. Automator touches on this concept of feature sharing though it's really just a workflow tool. We don't see any sort of attempt by Apple to nail down a standard method of allowing one app to provide full featured functionality to another app to be called out at will. As I said, Services touch on this concept, but not to the extent that OLE or Windows 8 Contracts provides. And that's the shocker. Heck, iOS lacks even these more basic elements, allowing only the registration of a URL type and the ability to send a simple string to that URL as the only means of sending a message to another app. And that ends up causing a full context switch, pushing the user out of whatever app they were in, and doesn't provide any means of dynamically finding feature availability. Apple should have learned more here. I imagine they're listening though.

On the desktop, I don't see this as as huge a deal as it will be in mobile. As far as I know, no mobile devices currently have this level of integration between apps and if it ends up working nearly as well as the hands on demos indicate, it's going to be a nice feather in Microsoft's cap.

15Sep/110

Android Malware, Life Outside the Walled Garden

 

Android figure with malware critter embedded

Android malware is on the rise

There's a new instance of Android malware on the loose, targeting your SMS messages, intercepting them and attempting to use them for profit. It isn't the first instance of malware on the Android platform; there have been a number of apps posing as other innocuous, even useful, tools that harvested your data for less than honorable purposes. In fact, this latest incarnation of Android malware, named SpyEye, follows on the footsteps of Zeus, an Android version of desktop malware. TheRegister reports that Android malware exploits are set to rise precipitously over the next six months. In that same article, it is surmised that Google dare not "lock down" its applications for fear of developer reprisal, intimating that the problem won't be rectified with a "walled garden".

One Android Malware To Go Please

In contrast with Apple's "walled garden", Google has adopted what could be termed an "untamed jungle" approach. While there are multiple app stores with varying levels of vetting by the operator, there are ample methods for Android owners to download apps from any location fully on their own recognizance to determine the genuineness and safety of the app in question. This has several positive effects. First, the barrier to entry for developers is lowered as they can offer applications directly from their website without having to register and receive approval from a third party operator. Second, the user has a potentially larger pool of applications to draw from since apps that otherwise might have been rejected are now available (I'm looking at you PhoneStory).

There are downsides, too, though, as Android owners are finding out. When an app store operator vets an app, there is a much lower chance that it will be approved if it will adversely affect a user's device. There are quality checks made which wouldn't be outside of an app store environment. Of course, it helps if the app store operator has reasonable standards and a habit of enforcing them but any app store operator worth their salt is going to make the effort in order to preserve their reputation, else customers will bring their money to another app store that serves them better. Outside of these app stores though, anything goes. Without a formal vetting process in place, the bar is lowered for malware authors to infect users' devices.

Of course, not even Apple requires you to enter through their gates for all of their devices. End users can just as easily install apps from a developer's website on their iMac as any Windows user could on their PC. There is an App Store for OS X users, but it isn't required. It offers a degree of comfort, of safety, but isn't the only way. Users are left to fend for themselves. But the argument that Google would necessarily lose developers if they chose to lock down Android is without merit. Apple took some heat for what was perceived to be a strong handed approach in terms of what apps were allowed to do but seems to be doing quite well in spite of this. Even when Android first arrived and all of the comparisons of openness vs not-so-openness were cropping up, Apple has still done very well. Developers did not leave the platform in droves. Apple's world did not end. So it's not the openness, per se, that Google fears. Rather it's that they have hyped it so much they can't back down now. They've worked to convince everyone that they champion openness, and the free distribution of Android apps outside of an app store is a major part of that campaign, that any backing down now would seem like a retreat of sorts. And that, Google can't have.

14Sep/110

Google Dart Misses the Mark

Google has revealed they are working on a new programming language, Google Dart, which one can surmise will be targeted at web development, likely on both the back end and front end. The first indication was the release of the speaking schedule for the Goto Conference in October, where two speakers will be presenting the keynote concerning this new language. If it turns out that Dart is in fact targeted at replacing Javascript on the front end, regardless of any other platform targets it might have, it is not going to transform the client side development experience without more support than just Google's Chrome.

What is Google Dart Targeting, Really?

Based on an alleged leaked memo discussing a project codenamed "Dash", it seems that Google is trying to supplant Javascript in the browser in order to fight the "encroachment of other, less open platforms". This appears to be referring to native apps and in the case of mobile, iOS apps in particular. According to the "Dash memo", the plan will be to have Dash cross compile to Javascript in order to continue to support Javascript centric browsers until such clients are capable of natively running Dash. The intent, then, is to create a new environment, entice developers to jump in and use it, and use that momentum to move vendors like Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla and Opera to incorporate Dart VMs in their browsers. There are some problems with this approach though.

A Twenty Mule Team

Google is going to be pulling against several different, very powerful forces if they make an attempt such as they seem to be undergoing. To begin with one of the problems they cite as a reason to consider Dart, a multitude of frameworks and libraries to perform various functions, is also one of the reasons many developers will want to stick with the language as they have already invested time and effort in learning and deploying these frameworks. Moreover, Google points to the use of myriad incompatible design patterns. Based on this statement, it suggests they want to perform some sort of enforcement over which patterns might be used or perhaps create alternative frameworks which use a common pattern and provide them as a means to allow developers to use a consistent set of frameworks. This suggests Google is looking to create "the One True Way" for web development by fiat rather than by allowing for the development of a standard which other entities might have a say in. If they were truly concerned about asserting the homogeneity of the Javascript ecosystem they would proffer their own such frameworks using compatible design patterns.

Then there are the other browsers. If you take a look at the speakers list as well as the list of sponsors, you will notice some absences. Namely any other browser vendor. Barring a last minute surprise, it doesn't seem as though Dart has the backing of anyone but Google which means that the best we could hope for would be for Chrome to have Google Dart support out of the gate. Chrome is doing well, but Chrome alone will not be sufficient to convince the majority of developers to switch to its environment. What about the other vendors?

Microsoft has continued to release additional details about development on their upcoming platforms and it seems that it is going to focus on .NET and WinRS on the backend and for native code and use of HTML5/CSS/JS for UI development. It seems unlikely that Microsoft would have a great deal of concern for moving toward adoption of yet another VM for their front end functionality. Not to mention Microsoft has their own development toolchain which they want to see in use as opposed to a Google Dart based toolchain which would allow for more cross platform oriented development.

Apple, too, is focusing on HTML5/CSS/JS for support in their browsers and given the competition between iOS and Android, I wouldn't imagine they would want to provide a leg up for developers to create apps using Google Dart that would function equally well on either platform. On top of that, Apple has already dealt with another company who owned a toolchain which focused on cross platform development. Adobe still has yet to compel Apple to release a Flash compatible update on iOS and in fact has started making overtures to the HTML5/CS/JS crowd through their announcement of Edge as well as the recent changes to their Flash Media Server to deliver alternative content to iOS devices on the fly. Apple isn't going to let their major mobile competitor install a competing VM platform on iOS devices when that means that competitor will have a distinct edge in keeping support for it more featureful and up to date on Android.

Mozilla could possibly accept Google Dart as a native VM in their browsers, simply because they have the least to lose in such an arrangement. Unlike Microsoft and Apple, Mozilla as an organization is not pushing a competing development environment or toolchain, isn't competing in the mobile space and in fact is really only going head to head with Google with regard to browser market share. Still, that may yet be reason enough not to jump in bed with Google. Plus unless Google Dart is made part of a standard of some kind, it's possible that there will be even less traction in this space.

The same argument goes for Opera, perhaps even more so. Opera has a reputation for being one of the most standards compliant browsers available and again, unless Google Dart is made a standard, Opera may not wish to incorporate this VM into their product.

What's the End Game?

Google isn't stupid, so if it seems so obvious that uptake of Google Dart is going to be difficult to achieve, why bother? As the "Dash memo" points out, this is a high risk/high reward option. Given how many different projects Google has going at one time, creating a new VM to include in their browser and to make available for back end development isn't asking much in terms of time and money. The risk is in the reputation. Google is going to put their name behind this and try to get developer muscle to push it into other browsers. In essence it is going to test how much weight they actually have to throw around. If it succeeds, they will have grabbed a commanding position, providing a toolchain which can target apps on their platforms to their liking and which other vendors would need to tailor their systems around. If it fails, it will be a sign that while they are big, they can't yet force the other big players to play their game. High risk, high reward. I don't see a bullseye in the making.

Image by renjith krishnan