09.27.10

Ode to the Floppy Disk

Posted in Software at 1:23 am by

Late last month John Gruber ran a pair of articles on Daring Fireball addressing the issue of the Apple-Adobe Flash-web standards “battle” that has been playing out in blogs, open letters, websites, and device sales.

What struck me, about the second article in particular, is how much of a case of déjà vu I was having (or, for the more Galactica-minded, “all this has happened before, and all this will happen again”). I was a bit surprised that Gruber had not had the same revelation and/or had not seen fit to broadcast it on Daring Fireball.

Flash is the new floppy disk. iOS devices are the new iMacs.

For those who don’t recall, 3½″ floppy disks were (by the 1990s) the ubiquitous method of file transfer between computers. These small disks held all of 1.44 MB of data (about half the size of a single photo taken with an iPhone 4!) and most software shipped on (or, rather, spanning) multiple floppy disks well into the late 1990s. Never mind that CD-ROM drives shipped on nearly every computer at this point (or that many computers had the ability to burn recordable CDs), the Internet (the web, FTP, and email) and local area networks were available for file transfer, or that many large-capacity portable disk formats existed and were far more suitable for storing and transferring files than floppies. The floppy disk was soldiering on, performing tasks that it had never been designed for and was increasingly unsuitable to handle.

Enter the iMac. It is 1998 and Steve Jobs has made a triumphant return to Apple. The iMac dumps a whole host of legacy technologies that were unsuited for modern computing—SCSI ports, ADB (serial) ports, and, most notably, the floppy disk—in favor of new industry standards like FireWire and USB. Prior to the iMac, a computer without a floppy disk was unthinkable. Beginning with the iMac, that very inconceivable thought had been introduced, and it would eventually trigger the extinction of the ill-suited, obsolete floppy.

A decade later, Flash is one of the ubiquitous technologies on the web, competing with HTML and associated technologies as a method of displaying text, images, and video—and even running applications—on the web. Yet Flash, which originated as a development tool and associated player for web animations, has become unsuitable for many of the round-hole tasks its users have tried to force its square peg to perform. Flash is inaccessible to most of the technologies that make the web searchable, mashable, usable. On Mac OS X, Flash is the number one cause of crashes and Flash performance is atrocious. Because Flash is a plug-in, not part of the browser software used to view websites, browser vendors can’t fix bugs and crashes or make improvements to the Flash software. And if you run an operating system other than Mac OS X or Windows, there’s a chance Flash isn’t available at all, which means Flash-only or highly-Flash-dependent websites are completely unavailable or broken. However, alternatives, such as <canvas>, SVG, HTML5 <video>, and various “web applications” specifications, exist for most of the common (mis)uses of Flash on the web. Most alternatives are implemented, or in the process of being implemented, by multiple browser developers, whose products are available for a wide variety of desktop, workstation, and mobile operating systems.

Despite all of Flash’s flaws and limitations, and in spite of the collection of accessible, performant, web-compatible, and widely-available web technologies,1 a web that doesn’t require Flash remained inconceivable to many. Once again, however, Apple has turned that notion on its head. Millions of users browse the web every day on computing devices that not only don’t have Flash installed, but can’t have Flash installed. Once again, all it took was Apple “think[ing] different” and taking a stand against antiquated technologies, and a whole new world of possibilites has opened up. The unthinkable is happening.

Flash is the new floppy disk, and iOS devices are the new iMacs that will unseat Flash from its high horse and drive it into obscurity.

        

1 It is a bit ridiculous to refer to web technologies as being “web-compatible.” However, as noted above, certain technologies deployed on the web, such as Flash, aren’t compatible with the rest of the web—they can’t be crawled by a search engine, translated by a web translation engine, or have their source displayed by a user’s browser.

09.26.10

If not me…

Posted in Camino, Life at 10:40 pm by

Working as part of an all-volunteer team on a web browser that competes with multiple corporate-funded and -developed browsers can at times be frustrating. Competitors employ dozens (or more) developers to work full-time on their browsers, and they usually have funding to hire more developers when needed (or, at worst case, the ability to reassign someone from another team or product in a pinch). They have marketing budgets, the ear of the press, and the ability to use overtime to get things done.

In contrast, an all-volunteer project by definition relies on the donations of limited free time from interested individuals—free time that could otherwise be used to go to the movies, study for exams, spend time with friends or family, or ride one’s horse through the wilderness. No one can tell a volunteer developer “you have two days to finish this feature” or “you’re going to drop everything else until this bug is fixed” or any of the myriad of managerial commands available to corporate browser developers. Sometimes you can’t fix that bug because real life intervenes, and you and your fellow volunteers can’t implement that great feature idea for a lack of hours in the day (or other similar manpower constraint). Sometimes working on an all-volunteer browser is like going into a fight with both hands and one leg tied behind your back, and that’s often disheartening.

Recently, this thought from Kevin Hoctor (via Michael Tsai) really resonated with me:

What struck me recently and inspired me to keep on the path was a simple question: if not you, then who? Are there any software products out today that I would use instead of my own? No, there are not. And why not? Why do I still like my finance software better than anything else?

In the face of all of those obstacles and limitations, why do I continue to spend my free time helping to build a web browser? Fundamentally, it’s as Hoctor says; Camino is the browser I want to use. I’ve used most of the other Mac browsers out there, and I don’t really like them; some are plagued by a quest for the kitchen sink, some have been hit hard by the “ugly stick,” and some change all the time to match the latest internet fads or whims from above. None match my browsing needs and wants as well as Camino. Sure, some might have feature x that I’d like that Camino doesn’t yet have, but they also have drawbacks that Camino doesn’t, and the overall experience always tilts in favor of Camino. And if I’m not working to create this browsing experience, then who will? Sure, it’s frustrating (and even soul-crushing) at times, but this is a browser, a browsing experience, a trusted tool, that I love.

There are, of course, other reasons why I work on Camino: the great people on our team who’ve become friends over the years, our loyal users and our supportive community, and the desire to ensure a quality alternative browser to the corporate-developed products. But it begins and ends with that same thought expressed by Kevin Hoctor: if I don’t (help) build it, who will?