February 02, 2003
Connections and Views
I've noticed two related discussions going on in the blog world around the topic of internet applications—should all these apps be part of a single unified browser and is HTML's time over?
First of all, I think HTML will be with us for quite a long time to come, and it's proven to be an exceptionally effective way for millions of people to create over four billion pages on the web. Technologies like CSS are making HTML even better at displaying formatted pages. The problem many of us are running into with HTML is that while it's great for content, it's not great for building applications, even as heroically as developers have strived with it.
At the same time, the internet is becoming a fundamental part of native desktop applications—this can be seen in larger traditional applications like Intuit's Quicken, and of course web browsers such as Mosaic, Opera, IE, Netscape, Safari, etc., as well as a new generation of purpose-built apps that provide alternate user interfaces to the internet. These applications typically have connections to information over the network and present a variety of views on that information—here are some examples on OS X:
- NetNewsWire, which presents a simple interface to news and blog sites. It allows you to define connections to these sources using RSS and presents a summary view of the updates in each, a view on the posting itself, and the ability to jump to the source. It doesn't have the ability to cache postings to read offline so far.
- WeatherPop, which shows the current weather using connections to weather.com, my.aol.com, and wunderground.com. You can select which aspects of the weather you'd like to view, such as barometer, humidity, temperature, wind speed, as well as configure the primary locations you'd like to see. This app presents its information persistently in the menu bar, and displays the last known information when the network connection is lost.
- Watson and Sherlock of course, which are all about providing views on information over the internet. There are efficient user interfaces for viewing movie listings, stocks, and another take on weather information.
- Simple Search, which provides a simple search interface with connections to Google, VersionTracker and other sources. Search is a general example of connections to services like Google with a wide variety of views appearing.
- LimeWire and Acquisition which are both Gnutella clients, having peer-to-peer connections to others over the network, and each presenting different views and search interfaces on that information.
- Fire, Proteus, Adium, AIM, iChat, ICQ, and many other clients present different user interfaces on connections to internet chat systems.
- BlogApp which provides a better user interface to write blog entries and submit them through connections to blogs using the Blogger API.
These internet-connected applications are just a start, numbering in the dozens right now, and as it becomes easier in the future for a wider community of designers and developers to create these, we should see thousands of these applications appear to provide purpose-built user interfaces to the vast array of data and functionality amassing on the internet.
It seems to me that while some of these applications may occasionally be accessed inside a web page in a browser ("ephemeral applications"), many users will want to keep applications on their machines persistently, and have a user interface that is totally focused on their particular activity. I don't believe merging these applications with a web browser will provide the best experience as they would be burdened with page-browsing metaphors and user interface elements, though aspects closer to the page metaphor such as reading RSS feeds would be natural to integrate with the browsing experience.
I'm sure we're going to see a ton of innovation around how to best provide these applications to end users, how to develop them, and how to design the most effective interfaces for different types of information. This has certainly been the focus of our rich internet application work at Macromedia, and there is still a lot more to do.
02 Feb 03 12:12 PM
Excellent examples of dedicated apps, but you did not include my personal favorite: Atomica (www.atomica.com). A real reference tool for easily answering questions THIS INSTANT.
I'm literally addicted to this app- I crave the ability to use Atomica in the real world. In fact, this is the app that I most want to have wet-wired into my head.
For what it's worth, there's a free alternative to WeatherPop - Meteorologist.
I think that one of the catch 22's that we have as a software development company who are porting our RIA to flash is the ubiquity of HTML. Since our app is a CMS, 90% of the content that our app manages is marked up with HTML. Therefore, our biggest challenge is how do deal with HTML in a flash UI. There really is no flash based solution for this (short of the few flash based "rich text" editors that have popped up). The main problem is that flash's support for HTML is so limited to be useless when handling today's markup.
Are there any proposed solutions to this problem? (Please copy responses to email@example.com)
Yes, the Flash player supports a small number of HTML tags, but it's not an entire HTML viewer. The challenge with rendering HTML fully within the Flash player is that the amount of code to do so would be more than the entire size of the current player.. keeping the Flash player small is important in enabling it to be so widely installed.
For a content management system, I imagine a Flash UI could be used to enter metadata and perhaps edit content fragments, but if you want to display full HTML, the browser is the best at that -- since that's what end users will be running to view the pages as well, it's useful to see the idiosyncracies directly in those browsers. You could launch pages in a browser window to preview from a Flash UI as one way to connect these, such as:
Does that help? Or is it critical that full HTML be displayable in the Flash player itself?
kevin, thx for starting this blog. It looks like your development history is deeply rooted in the Mac. I infact bought one of the original Macs. However after entering the business world, I've been using intel based PC's for the past 17 years. However, just recently I took home a spare G4 from my graphics division (it's my company) and have now exclusively been using OS X at home (I wanted to try out Safari, and I got addicted.) I am so impressed by OS X and the applications it comes with, I downloaded Flash MX trial to test two ideas: 1) could I use Flash as the interactive UI to my companies three tier app and 2) could I use OS X as the development environment. I believe what I am attempting to do is exactly what Macromedia is hoping will occur. The cross plaform ability plus the rich interface potential is a compelling story. I bring up OS X for a reason though. My ap is going to rquire significnt actionscripting and XML manipulation. From what I am reading on the discussion threads, the OS X version of Flash MX is troublesome with these type of Apps. Since you seem to be interested in OS X as well, could you comment on Macromedia's plan to support OS X as a development platform for Flash?
Thx for the heads up.
Well here's something everyone keeps missing! It's a solution I have been working and it's pretty cool.
Flash may not be that great for editing HTML, and trying to integrate Flash into a CMS can be a challenge obviously. Likewise, using existing CMS systems to try and manage Flash content is not feasable either.
If you are a well-vversed flash developer you will find it easy to load XHTML docs into Flash via the XML object and strip out any tag that has an id maybe prefixed with flash_.
You be amazed at what kind of content you can rip out. Mix that with Templates and Contributes user management and whamo!! You got yourself some simple flash CMS.
As for using Flash to edit HTML content, well, that's an issue still, but I saw an app the other day that allowed you to layout a page in a Flash interface, then all of the layout data was sent to a web service that converted it to an HTML document. Not pretty but it worked.
We are working on such a solution at the moment. DENG is a modular class library, turning the Macromedia Flash Player into a webbased, zero-install, crossbrowser, crossplatform, modular and standards compliant XML/CSS2 browser, extensible through namespace plugins (XHTML/XForms/SVG/..). Expect a first beta developer release end of this month: http://w3blog.com/?id=29
Yes, can definitely use the XML interface to bring content in and display it -- glad to see the experimentation around how it can be used to better integrate with CSS, XForms, etc. I look forward to seeing the beta!
On the OS X question, my main machine is a Titanium PowerBook running OS X and I use it to develop in Flash, including a lot of ActionScript and XML, definitely a supported platform. Reading large XML files can be a performance issue in Flash on any platform (though Flash Player 6 is several times faster on this than previous versions), so it's best to segment the XML files into manageable pieces and load them over time if possible--they'll stream better that way too over slower bandwidth. Yes, using Flash to develop a cross-platform UI for n-tier apps is exactly what the MX releases are working to enable.
There's another engine getting some talk on the lists today: http://www.konfabulator.com/ (warning: site very slow).
>>>(warning: site very slow)
Very slow, is extremly slow :-)
Atomica application fully covers all important tips about both unification and accuracy
Really a nice collection of helpful apps, but not all of them are free. Tools like atomica look great, but as long as users have to pay for such tools their propagation will be limited.
Atomica is dead--at least the free version is. The version of Gurunet/Atomica we all knew and loved is no more. They killed it in favor of whatever version of Teaseware they're offering now.
I found this board during a general query for programs like Atomica/Gurunet. Apparently, they don't exist.
I think this was actually a bug, not a software bug: a moth in the relay made the machine computer erroneously
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