MIX08 Roundup

With a couple of nights of rest and some time to process all the info I tried to cram into my head in 3 days last week, I think it’s time I shared my two cents on MIX08. I won’t go into great detail but give you some observations and thoughts on the announcements and sessions I attended.

Before I start tho I’d like to extend a big thanks to Paul and Qixing from the Canadian UX team for all their hard work in making me feel welcome. You can read their rundowns of the event at the CanUX blog.

MIX08 was crammed full of announcements, demos and pre-launches. Of all of them I think Internet Explorer 8, Expression Studio 2 and Silverlight 2 were the most important ones. But that’s just me. And here are my thoughts:

Internet Explorer 8 (IE8)

For the first time ever I can picture Mozilla and Opera developers scrambling to clone the new features in Internet Explorer rather than the other way around.

As a web dev-igner (I’m not sure I like that term but it kinda makes sense doesn’t it?) I’ve had a hate-on for Internet Explorer for a long time. And it’s no secret that my sentiments have been shared by pretty much anyone who has ever tried to make a web site look the same in Internet Explorer and any other browser. For some unknown reason, Microsoft has always chosen to interpret web standards differently from everyone else and as a result it’s been nightmarish to write code for sites to be displayed uniformly over multiple browsers. As if that wasn’t enough, Microsoft has persistently denied (or rather refused to comment on) these problems, and MS fanboys and pedantic coders have perpetuated the claim that this is not an IE problem but bad coding on the dev end. Well, no more.

At the first keynote of the event, MS openly admitted not only that the way IE has parsed CSS in the past was atrocious but that IE7 was a browser so full of garbage code and glitches that it should never have been released in the first place. And with that came resounding applause. I’m not sure people fully grasp how important this announcement is so I’ll spell it out for you: By making IE8 compliant with the standard set by every other browser on the market, not only is MS admitting fault but they are showing that they listen to consumers and work hard to correct the wrongs they have created. Now technically one shouldn’t have to celebrate a company doing what it should have done a long time ago, but in this case it demonstrates such a drastic turn that it’s worth noting none the less.

The implications of IE8 are significant because it means that once the program is out of beta and market penetration has kicked in, devs no longer have to worry about filling their sites with IE hacks just to make them look good.

There are several other interesting features in IE8 like Activities, Web Slices, Ajax task-bar behaviours, php and CSS debugging tools and so on. You can read more about all these features at the Beta site.

Expression Studio 2

With the 2nd release of Expression Studio, Microsoft has lifted the software package from the “good idea, but needs more work” stage to the “solid competitor and a threat to the status quo” stage.

If you read this blog religiously you know I was started it to force myself to learn how to use Microsoft Expression Studio. And you also know that after testing the software I’ve actually transitioned my entire work flow from Macromedia to Expression. But being a first-generation software package, Expression had some serious limitations including (but not limited to) colour matching issues, horrendous bitmap compression, nonstandard sizes, no php support, FTP issues and so on and so forth. Through my communications with Microsoft staff I knew that all of these issues were being addressed, and with the release of Expression Studio 2 Beta I see that in almost every case the problems have been fixed.

I have yet to test out the Beta releases but from my playing around with the software in the Sandbox at MIX I can tell you that it’s an entirely new experience. Whether it be small things like individually lockable and visible sub-layers in Design or monster improvements like direct layered PSD imports in Web the improvements are impressive, substantial and necessary. Expression Design 2, Expression Web 2 and Expression Media Encoder 2 are programs that are going to become the basis of my operation and that of many others and I have no doubt they will steal a significant market share from Adobe.

The one program that still needs some work is Blend, but only because the evolution to Silverlight 2 has been so dramatic it doesn’t look like the program developers have managed to keep up. The new features demonstrated in Silverlight 2 are astounding and make it a true competitor Adobe should fear. But as of now, many of these features are only accessible through XAML hard coding. This is facilitated by Visual Studio which has extensive Silverlight and WPF coding support but for a designer it would be great if Blend could catch up. And I think it will, it’ll just take a little more time.

When Expression Studio 2 comes out of beta, it will be a full upgrade you have to pay for. But before you cringe and start waving your clenched fist in the general direction of the nearest Microsoft logo I have inside information that the price of the upgrade will be very reasonable. That’s all I can say without getting myself or anyone else in trouble.

For now you can download all the new Beta releases for free.

Silverlight 2

With the introduction of Silverlight 2 and the upcoming NBC Olympic online broadcast, Adobe should stock up on anti-anxiety meds.

When I first was introduced to Silverlight last year, I reacted like most others: Oh, Microsoft has created a Flash clone… wonder how that’s going to work out. In hindsight I realize that thought was not only misinformed but quite frankly stupid. After six months of fiddling with this new application and seeing demos at MIX I can honestly tell you that Silverlight will become a true competitor before you know it. And here’s why:

[DISCLAIMER: The following is my personal theories about product development and usage. I have no stats, research or information to back up my claims and there is a good chance I am way off. Nonetheless, I think you’ll find my reasoning compelling and my conclusion viable.]

When Flash first came on the market it was mainly an animation platform. But it didn’t take long for web developers to see the potential in the application and before long it became a full fledged web development platform largely based on code. The problem is that Flash was never meant to do this and therefore the back end coding became a total nightmare. As designers and developers went from drawing out their animations in the timeline to simply plonking in an empty movie and then attaching 300 pages of ActionScript, Flash started showing signs of not measuring up to the demands of it’s users. But since there was no viable alternative, the platform retained it’s place as the number one web animation (and now also video streaming) application.

And that’s where Silverlight comes in. You see, Silverlight picks up where Flash hits a wall: Flash is a complicated animation platform that can be manipulated through a very limited package of code. Therefore there are very real limits to what you can do. Silverlight on the other hand is a hard-code platform that can be manipulated through an animation platform (Blend). And since it runs on C#, there really is no limit to what it can do. In other words, Microsoft has picked up where Macrodobe stalled. And unless Macrodobe puts on the thinking cap and comes up with something radical now, they’ll be left in the dust.

I can see you shaking your head at that last comment. “Come on” you’re thinking. “Flash has something like a 98% penetration rate and all the major video sharing networks are using this platform. There’s no way Silverlight can catch up.” Really? Isn’t there? Coming from a broadcast background I can tell you that as a video platform, Flash is equivalent to old VHS tapes: Unless you do things exactly right, the video looks like shit. That’s because video was a last-minute ad on to the Flash platform. Silverlight on the other hand was built around video first. As a result it supports fully scalable, high-definition video right out of the box. If you’ve tried to build a custom Flash video player from scratch you know it’s a total pain in the ass; it requires intimate knowledge of ActionScript, a deep understanding of how Flash streams and parses information and a lot of time and patience. It’s a long and arduous process and it requires pages of code. In Silverlight, building the exact same player should take you no more than 10 minutes and the results are guaranteed as long as your video compression is up to par.

As for the penetration issue, 1.5 million people are downloading the Silverlight plug-in every day and when the Beijing Olympics start in August and NBC launches their humongous (and potentially internet killing) video application running Silverlight, every sports fan with a high-speed connection in North America is going to have the app installed and ready to go.

I had a chance to talk to a lot of people from different parts of the business at the show; from programming teachers and instructors to designers, developers, students and end users, and they all pretty much said the same thing: They have to invest in this technology because even if it doesn’t kill Flash, it will become equally important in no time. I could see the department heads and teachers from schools and universities go through a full range of emotion – from fear and hatred at having to build all new programs around this new and unfamiliar technology to elation and lust at the potential it presents. I myself found my brain racing as the possibilities, especially when it comes to video distribution, became clear and I realized just how limiting the Flash platform really is.

You can get more info on Silverlight by visiting the site.

If you are curious about all the sessions at MIX08, you can watch them at the site.

One thought on “MIX08 Roundup

  1. Morten, it was a real pleasure to host you at MIX! Great write-up; your explanation on the differences of Flash and Silverlight are bang on. And you’re right about IE8 – I think we at Microsoft are learning the “better together” message we kept touting a little while back, this time with respect to playing nice with standards. It was a good week for Microsoft. Cheers!

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