Archive for April, 2010

Flash vs Apple: A Digital Designer’s Opinion.

April 30th, 2010

Since I was a kid, when my dad brought home a new Apple LC III, I’ve been a Mac guy. Every computer I’ve ever owned, all six of them, has been made by Apple. I am typing this on a Mac Pro, my iPhone is resting in my pocket, and my little red iPod Mini is sitting there neglected on the bookshelf in the corner. I also have quite a history with Flash. I started out nearly ten years ago animating things in Director and Flash. I now design and build complex experiences in Flash using AS3, Flash’s powerful programming language. I respect both companies for the great user-centric digital experiences they’ve enabled over the years, but I’m stewing over the philosophical direction that Apple seems to be taking with their newest portable devices — a direction that could set the stage for some very lame industry practices.

I’ve taken part in many-a-heated debate lately over Apple’s campaign to exclude Flash from all of their portable devices. Apple’s position on the topic, as is clearly evidenced in a letter released yesterday by Steve Jobs, is that Flash is a misguided proprietary software platform that is best replaced by other technologies. He, and many angry bloggers, point to a still-in-development revision to HTML (the programming language that makes up the foundation of the Internet) called HTML5 as providing a viable replacement for Flash. HTML5 won’t be finished until an estimated 2022, but one of the features that is stable now is video playback within the browser itself. HTML5 uses a technology called H.264 (a video codec that itself is proprietary) to play high quality video. You can try it out on many sites already, including YouTube and Vimeo. But does this new technology replace Flash?

One of the big problems with HTML5′s H.264 video playback is that it doesn’t support ads, annotations, or any other “interactive” elements within the video player. It just plays back video. This is great for video watchers, and if all Flash did was play video, I would totally jump on the “Kill Flash” bandwagon. However, if content makers are unable to make any money from offering video online, many of them simply won’t offer video online. Gone will be popular sites like HULU that depend on in-video commercials to pay for the content that users can now watch for free. If television stations couldn’t put ads between their programs, all that TV would offer us for entertainment would be the public access channel. The whole reason TV exists as it does today is because of ads. People hate ads, but it is how the people that make the shows we love pay the bills. Imagine television with no Lost, no House, no Seinfeld, no Doogie Howser MD… it would be pretty sad.

Actually, the TV analogy is a pretty useful one to illustrate the real reasons why Apple would want Flash blocked on their devices. Picture Apple as a Pay-Per-View television company. When you turn on your television, you would pay $1 for each sitcom and $4 for each movie that you wanted to watch. If this system of pay-per-play was the only way that TV shows could make any money, and it was the only way you could get access to content – Apple would be in a very strong position indeed. They would be gatekeeper – deciding which shows you could watch – and they would profit from everything you saw on your TV. If Flash came along and offered television producers a way to get their content to viewers that enabled them to pay their bills by selling their own advertising – bypassing Apple’s Pay-Per-View system and basically turning your TV into the experience it is today – you can see very easily why Apple would be balk at the prospect. Getting back to the real matter at hand – it almost doesn’t matter that HTML5 allows browsers to play back video at a quality equal to Flash. No websites will be able to afford to offer you any decent content if they can’t make money from its consumption. This is why the HTML5 argument is merely a diversion from the real truth: that Apple needs to ensure that iTunes is the only way that you can conveniently access premium media on your iPhone and iPad. This is how they make money.

Now, this business decision makes a fair amount of sense – and I don’t blame Apple for making it. I would want to keep making as much money as I could if I developed a rad device like the iPhone or iPad. I would probably feel entitled to it as the maker of what are arguably the best portable consumer electronics in the world. However, since Google and Microsoft are both promising excellent mobile experiences that will allow Flash into their ecosystem, I think that this protectionist decision by Apple is shortsighted, and I certainly think that many of their public reasons for excluding Flash are disingenuous.

So – what’s the big deal? Why do I care if Flash is allowed on a phone or not? While we’re at it, why should YOU care? Like I said before, Flash isn’t just a video player. Even if you didn’t value the relative freedom of a system that allows content creators to make money from streaming video without charging the consumer – allowing both popular and unpopular video content to survive and subsist online – you should examine what else Flash has to offer. As it turns out, Flash is the most powerful and easy-to-use cross-platform multimedia-friendly software authoring tool that currently exists. This means that people can make a compelling multimedia experience – a game, a video player, an art project, whatever – and it will work on nearly any device that has a web browser. This is very, very good both for people who make and people who enjoy these experiences. It means that authors don’t have to develop a different version of their experience in a different programming language for every single device that a user might own. When the New York Times makes an app for the iPhone – only owners of an iPhone can use that app. The New York Times has to make a whole new app for someone that owns a different phone. You can see why this isn’t ideal for anyone else other than the phone manufacturers – each of whom are competing for a developer’s attention at the cost of all the other potential users interested in the content. For the New York Times, developing multiple version of their apps might not be a big deal, but to the average developer, it is a huge roadblock. Don’t make me choose who has access to my ideas – this seems backwards.

I chose to learn to make experiences in Flash because it allows me to make really interesting, fun digital experiences that are accessible to nearly anyone. Dreaming up and designing these websites is very enjoyable, but programming them can be quite tedious and time consuming. If the future of multimedia experiences means having to develop an experience for half a dozen different phones in as many programming languages (or choosing one and alienating everyone else), then I’m not so interested in making a project anymore. This is why we need Flash, or something just as powerful – so that we can make an app once and have it go out to all the available platforms. This is ideal for developers, and it ensures that users have access to all the cool things we make.

However, all these dreams of powerful web standards aside, we know that the real way that Apple makes money is by differentiating its products from everything else on the market. They need you to think that the iPhone is unique – that the apps that essentially define its functionality can’t be found anywhere else. The fear that we will lose out on some sort of compelling and unique experience keeps us paying a lot for an expensive phone with an expensive monthly fee.

It’s true that Adobe also benefits from people adopting their product to develop applications, and that it also represent proprietary technologies and unique experiences. However, Adobe makes their money by ensuring that apps made with Flash are available to whomever the author chooses, while Apple makes their money by ensuring that authors only offer their creations in one place: on Apple devices. I will evangelize the philosophy and practice of the former over the latter any day of the week.

Design, Gadgets, Ideas , , , , ,

Frank Stella, Cindy Sherman, and my Calathea Lancifolia

April 8th, 2010

My girlfriend bought me this plant, a striking Calathea Lancifolia, from the Volunteer Park Conservatory here in Seattle. If you live in Seattle and haven’t been, the Conservatory is a classic paradise well worth an hour of your afternoon. They have a few of these little guys integrated into their tropical exhibit, and it is perhaps my favorite species in a room filled to the brim with incredibly beautiful and curious flora.

Why do I like this little plant so much? Several reasons should be fairly obvious from the photos above. Besides the fact that it is simply a visually stunning plant — with contrasting green variegation, a gradient green, gently waved edge, and a bold purple underside — my favorite aspect is how the markings on the top of the leaf appear as if the silhouette of a different sort of plant has been imprinted over top. It makes me think of a plant wearing a plant suit, which amuses my easy-to-amuse mind to no end.

Speaking of plant-within-a-plant, the notion of self-reflexivity is also at the heart of this particular fancy. Within the realm of the arts, the aspect of High Modernism that I always respected was how closely form and philosophy are married. If you were in art grad school in the 60′s, you probably would have been evangelized to the notion that a piece of artwork is most true to itself — most correct — when all of its visual, objective qualities reflect both the reason for and action of its creation. This notion began with abstract artists like Josef Albers (below left) who was interested in light and color and whose painted forms echoed the shape of the canvas they were painted on. This idea reached it’s apex with artists like Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella (below right). Stella made works where each mark was the width of the brush he painted it with, and whose canvases where sized to efficiently house the number of marks needed to complete the composition. Pollock’s work looks crazier, but his dynamic sloshing of paint is just as much an overt index of the painting process. They are very simply paintings about the act of making a painting.

So, while it might be tempting to see Calathea Lancifolia as a particularly Modernist plant because of the way that its appearance echoes its meta reality as a plant, it turns out that there something hindering this interpretation. There is an alternate way of spinning the appearance of plant-like markings on Calathea Lancifolia’s foliage. They can be seen not as a self reflection, but instead as a mask. While there is a certain self-consciousness — a redundancy of selves — to the wearing of a mask, any deeper reality must acknowledge the falseness of a second face. Once the train of thought turns towards the issue of costume, we enter into the realm of the Post-Modernists.

Starting with Marcel Duchamp, whose Rrose Selavy and Monte Carlo Bond characters set his reputation as the early father of Post-Modernism, and finding it’s full concentration within the work of Cindy Sherman (above), using disguise became a means of subverting the rules and exposing the artifice of Modernist ideals. It’s fun to think of Sherman as the anti-Stella, as her work exposed photography not as a reflector of any sort of truth, but as an agent for boundless uncertainty.

So, at the the end of the day, I think that within my little Calathea Lancifolia, I get both a modernist masterpiece and a post-modernist schizophrenic. Either that, or its just a really cool looking plant. Only time will tell how this little plant is to positioned by art historians within the hallowed canon of fine art.

(plant photos courtesy of Sara Lawrence at Soft Dimension, Albers and Stella images courtesy the unexpectedly excellent Saint Louis Art Museum, and Cindy Sherman images courtesy the Internets)

Art, Design, Ideas, Painting, Photography , , , , , ,

Youth Appropriates Its Distant Future

April 2nd, 2010

When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to be able to grow facial hair. The stubble-hued chins of the Grunge-era slack rockers had captured the fancy of most of the young women I knew and, well, I figured my mug would be vastly more desirable were it rough to the touch. Be careful what you wish for; Now I have to shave, like, twice a day.

It seems entirely natural for young people to yearn to be a little bit older. A teen may even heroize the high-school dropout that lives in a van down by the river (as Farley would put it) simply because the vagrant represents that most anticipated attribute of adulthood: the pervasive freedom to choose. Seeking control of one’s destiny is a central theme of life, but it is in the young that it is most exaggerated. Rock and punk music, promiscuous sex, flash mobs, driving fast, throwing big rocks into the river — they all exaggerate one’s presence in the world in order to demonstrate mastery over that world. We reject our parent’s generation so that we can feel like we are able to direct our own. All of this acting out serves as practice — so that we may take our parent’s place one day as the keepers of ourselves and our own families.

What do we do, though, when our parents are the generation of rejection, of revolution? What happens when we know full well that our parents smoked pot, rode glittering motorcycles, threw rocks at ‘the man’, had ratty long hair, and wandered barefoot through a field while Zeppelin echoed through the trees? How do young people rebel against rebellion?

Apparently, the answer is: by becoming our grandparents.

Yes, many young people are expressing themselves by appropriating the traditional European symbols of power and wisdom that their hippie/grunge parents fought long and hard to abolish. For men, this means donning earnestly dandy getups such as flannel suits, patterned ties, daintily kempt mustaches, parted hair, and vintage tattoos. We’ve also developed a real love of gadgets, and are proud to admit we work in real estate or *cough*advertising*cough*. Popular street fashion sites like The Sartorialist champion a return to the rolled sleeves, bespoke tailoring, and tailored suits your grandfather wore. Visit bastions of hip such as Brooklyn, Silver Lake, or Seattle and you’ll see these kids everywhere.

For women, the phenomenon is more specific. It’s all about the hair. Power is rarely defined within the fairer gender by appearing older than you are, but the photo collection above shows that even women are not immune from the mystical allure of the elderly. For young women, going gray is now sort of a cool ‘fuck you‘ to the status quo. Pixie Geldof (upper left) is a British fashionista, and Tavi Gevinson (lower left) is only 14, looks 65, and she writes one of the most read style blogs around. Doing the unexpected will always be a great way to get noticed, and it certainly helps to have good timing with these things. So, if you’re looking for a bold hair move — and bleach blonde looks too trashy and jet black looks too goth — maybe you should go granny.

So, what is behind all this preemptive old? Why now? The expression of power story seems key for the guys. Especially in this recession, the old adage ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you’ve got‘ seems to have struck a nerve in the population. Alternately, from the rebellious youth perspective, young people haven’t been left many avenues of taboo to explore. The internet has flattened time, in a way, to make the last 60 years seem like one big Best Of record. Old may be the last remaining realm that young people can claim as a new territory for differentiated self expression. I mean, you’ve got babies in skull T-Shirts, little kids with mohawks, preteens dressing slutty, and your parents are smoking grass in the den. Drastic measures must be taken! So everyone act now before your local drug store is sold out of mustache wax and gray hair dye.

EDIT: The New York Times, as usual, is right on top of this phenomenon. As I prepare to publish this article, I see they have a report on girls gone gray. Great minds think alike, it seems. :)

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