Thoughts


14
Sep 11

A Splash of the Future

“It’s about ideas. Fuck, technique, I can get a monkey to do
this shit for me.”
James Victore

There’s been much talk of the death of Flash in the last 2 years. Pundits have been making sweeping, sensationalist statements from both sides of the aisle – fuelled by emotion and agendas – that has made the majority of the discussion read like a particularly partisan tabloid.

I’m not going to rehash those tired old arguments here, but spending the last 3 days at the inimitable Flash on the Beach conference in Brighton, it’s impossible not to consider where it’s all going.

One indicator is that this is very probably the last Flash on the Beach. As you’d expect, the theme and subject matter of a lot of the talks this year reflected the new digital landscape and focussed on HTML5, JavaScript and mobile devices. It was even pointed out on Twitter that in session titles, “HTML” beat “Flash” by 3:2. Not exactly scientific, but even the organiser admitted that next year will probably see a rebrand that I suspect won’t feature the word “Flash”.

6 years ago, John Davey launched FotB as a conference with a difference. Rather than just technical sessions by designers and developers from the Flash community, there’s always been a mix of artists and inspirational figures that are often at best tangentially associated with Adobe Flash, or even web technologies at all. This year was no exception, with the likes of Jon Burgerman, James Victore, Bradley Munkowitz and Cyriak Harris providing inspiration through their passion and creativity.

But while the sessions may have had more JavaScript and less Actionscript than ever before, there was still plenty of amazing stuff being done in Flash by the likes of Eugene Zapetyakin, David Lenaerts and one of the most impressive Elevator Pitch sessions I’ve seen yet. Sure it’s cool that you can now do in HTML5 what only Flash could do a few years ago, but for me it’s always been more impressive seeing something that could never have been done before.

For years the Flash community has driven the growth of the web – pushing the boundaries of what can be done online, creating a template for browser developers to catch up with. When it was first created Flash (or Future Splash as it was originally titled) was simply for animation and gradually interaction and increasingly sophisticated code was introduced. By its very nature, it has grown out of a hybrid of design and code, the visual and the interactive, which has always attracted programmers with a creative streak and designers with a hacker mentality.

And that’s why I’m not worried about the future of the Flash community. Obviously, the type of inquisitive and innovative minds that were drawn to Flash when it was the only game in town, will experiment with new tools like Processing, HTML5, mobile development etc. Many may never use Flash again. We may not all use the same software anymore but it’s the same passion that drives us all, and ultimately is what unites a community.

Davey may need to come up with a new name for next year, but for my money, he’s already nailed it with the new conference he launched in New York this year, “Geeky by Nature”. It’s not the tool we use that defines our work; it’s the passion that drives the craftsman to create in the first place. And that’s something that’s just in our nature.

Follow Shane on Twitter: @shane_casey

6
Aug 11

Happy Birthday, Interwebz!

20 years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee published the world’s first website at http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html. The Internet had been around since 1969 and the original proposal was drafted in 1989, and you could also argue that it wasn’t really “born” until there was a second web-server online, in December of 1991, making the World Wide Web a distributed network. That said, today’s a pretty good day to mark as the tipping point in the development of our digital world.

Early screenshot of http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html using the NeXT browser

What, no AdBlock?

On that day, the world found a new way of sharing information and connecting beyond borders and boundaries and with no barrier to entry. In twenty years, it’s grown to be the single most important innovation for civilisation since electricity. So important, Berners-Lee has called for it to be recognised as a fundamental human right: “It’s possible to live without the Web. It’s not possible to live without water. But if you’ve got water, then the difference between somebody who is connected to the Web and is part of the information society, and someone who (is not) is growing bigger and bigger.

Big talk, but if anybody can claim to have shaped the 21st century, it’s him.

Here’s to the next 20, wherever they take us!

Follow Shane on Twitter: @shane_casey

3
Jun 11

Game theory

Cross-post from the MZ blog at http://www.mzl.com/blog/game-theory/

Your game has begun

“A game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”

- Bernard Suits

We love to play games. From the day we’re conscious of the world around us to the day we die there’s an innate desire to play. Why? Well, it’s fun, isn’t it?

Gaming has long been one of the most active areas of the internet – growing with and pushing the development of technology. Flash gained widespread penetration through its suitability for web games, and the creativity of the game-developing community has driven advances in underlying technologies that make the web a more fun and engaging place to be.

And, true to form, many of tomorrow’s biggest advances in web technology are being pushed forward by a demand for games. Adobe’s latest Flash Player preview (codenamed “Molehill”) provides hardware-accelerated 3D graphics, meaning web games like MaxRacer and Zombie Tycoon will soon be the norm. 3D performance in a browser like that was unimaginable only a few years ago and the potential applications are endless. (Read more about Molehill on The Lab.)

Other web technologies are also pushing their boundaries through games. Web developers are using HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript to retrace the steps of the pioneering flash games with classics like pool, tower defence games, platformers and even Line Rider. But what we’re also seeing is how this kind of play helps push developing technologies to new levels. They’ve even managed to get a game into the address bar of your browser!

The convergence of Facebook’s social graph and our natural social tendencies has created the perfect breeding ground for game growth. CityVille, for example, currently has over 90 million monthly users, 20 million of whom are active daily! The developer of CityVille, Zynga, has been so successful that recent investments have valued the company at as much as $10 billion dollars. To put that in context, Sainsbury’s is valued at $9.55 billion.

But Facebook isn’t the only place where games are big business. Angry Birds launched in December 2009 and now, less than 18 months later, it has sold over 12 million copies on iOS alone. It’s so popular the developers Rovio claim users play 16 years of Angry Birds every hour. The game has now been ported to Android, Windows, OSX, Playstation and is even coming to Facebook soon. On the surface, there’s nothing to Angry Birds – fling some birds, pop some pigs – but the numbers tell a different story. A simple game mechanic can make users devote countless hours to overcoming those “unnecessary obstacles”. And have fun while they do it.

Fun - in diagram form

Fun - in diagram form

Paradoxically, the difficulty of making something fun is defining the simplicity. Game designers speak of what’s called “the flow” (don’t worry, I’m not going to get all Mr Miyagi on you). A game or a task is fun if it can strike a balance between difficulty and the skill required to overcome the obstacles. Players become more skilled at completing tasks with practice, so to keep those endorphins flowing, the difficulty should increase correspondingly. So you could say, learning is fun… your mum was right all along!

The rise of the smartphone means more and more people have a gaming device in their pocket and a recent survey found one in four US and UK adults are “avid mobile gamers”. But as technology advances, we’re continually finding new ways of having fun. Ubiquitous GPS chips and geo-location data have led to innovative new games such as SCVNGR and competitive game mechanics are at the very heart of the success of Foursquare, Gowalla et al.

The application of game design and thinking outside of “gamespace” is gaining wider recognition via the buzzword du jour: gamification. Expect to hear it a lot this year, as marketers fall over themselves to turn every task or consumer interaction into a game, but try not to get too cynical. Games are engaging, rewarding and addictive because of how we naturally respond to them. Understanding what motivates your audience isn’t just a fad.

Shane Casey is Head of Digital Innovation at Mason Zimbler

Follow Shane on Twitter: @shane_casey

26
Apr 11

Think before you “Like” – Designing for the Social Web

DislikeI know, I know… “Social Web”. If that term isn’t enough to put you off reading the rest of this post, you’ve passed the first test and are ready for the brave new future.

Just over a year after the launch of the “Like” button, Facebook has announced it’s new “Send” button. “Finally!”, I hear you say. Liking, sharing, buzzing, digging, tweeting and stumbling just isn’t enough these days. Sarcasm aside, the new “Send” functionality may actually be a step in the right direction. Basically, “Send” allows you to share a page/link/whatever with the right group of people instead of all your contacts. (Funnily enough, Google’s Buzz, widely derided as a giant social-networking flop, has had this functionality built in from the start.)

The more interconnected our online behaviours get with our offline lives, the harder it is to do anything online without it potentially being seen by the wrong people. We naturally have separate personas and behaviours in how we interact offline with different groups (for e.g. think how you are with your family, your work colleagues, your gun club), so it’s hardly surprising the model of a single group of contacts or “friends” isn’t a natural fit for all of our online activities.

Likewise, Facebook commenting has tried to tie us all to one online profile that means we lose the freedom to have different personas on different sites.

In its rush to create one social graph to rule them all, Facebook has missed the point of the interest graph. Sure, I’m connected to all these people, but I’m not connected to them in the same way. Hopefully, “Send” marks a return to Facebook getting why 700 million users use their site.

The “Social” aspect of web design isn’t a fad – on the contrary, it’s going to become more and more pervasive in the future – but we need to make sure we add it in the right way. Adding social features to your site has great potential… as long as we bear in mind that the user is connecting your service to their profile for the value they gain from it. There’s no point in gaining a “Like” if it ends up a dislike.

PS: If you have the time, check out this slideshow from a few months back on “The Real Life Social Network” by Paul Adams, it’s excellent.

 

Follow Shane on Twitter: @shane_casey

11
Mar 11

Show & Tell #7: Mission to Molehill

i can has hardware accelerashun?Here’s a run-down of what we covered last night. It’s link heavy so you’ll find lots more info if you go exploring a bit more. If it doesn’t make sense shout out in the comments and I’ll catch you up on anything you missed.

 

Molehill

This changes everything. Again.

This week Adobe released their pre-beta (they call it an ‘Incubator’) release of what will eventually be Flash Player 11. Codenamed ‘Molehill’ it caused massive excitement at Adobe Max (see previous Lab post here) and it’s making waves all over again because now we can play with it ourselves. So if you’re feeling adventurous (this is pre-beta software remember, I’m taking no responsibility if your machine melts down), download the Incubator Flash player and join in the fun.

If you’ve already got Flash Player 10.2, you should already be seeing performance boosts on video sites such as YouTube and BrightCove thanks to the new StageVideo API. StageVideo hands off the processing of video to the GPU so there’s less strain on the CPU. Get it? If not, trust me on this, utilising hardware acceleration like this dramatically improves performance. PixelBender was a start, and 10.2 continues this approach.

Molehill is taking the focus on improving performance on to the next logical step, 3D. You can see the performance in this video with some pretty hardcore environment mapping and interactive reflective surfaces.

If you’re playing along at home, you can try out the rippling water and the reflective figure yourself.

One of the areas that I’m expecting to see some really exciting innovation is in web-based gaming. The Max Racer demo that I featured in the previous post looks really incredible and I love this one… Zombie Tycoon.

3D gaming in the browser has come on loads in recent years, the main players being Unity3D and Shockwave (and possibly Virtools) but they’ve all struggled to gain widespread penetration. Others like Quake Live have developed their own bespoke browser plug-ins that have some pretty impressive performance but have stubbornly remained stuck in their niche. Flash has lagged behind with 3D performance but Molehill has changed all that. Combine that with Flash’s 99% penetration and super-fast upgrade adoption and you’ve got a perfect storm for game developers.

If you fancy playing with some more demos, check out Lee Brimelow’s collection of links to lots more cool Molehill demos. Hours of fun!

This is a part one of Show & Tell #7′s round up. Check part two here.

Follow Shane on Twitter: @shane_casey

7
Mar 11

Advertising in Skype

Skype has always been one of those things that seemed too good to be true for me. Free phone calls, of any length and with better-than-landline sound quality. Sure, they had their pay-as-you-go calls to landlines etc but with the cheap-calls market as saturated as it is, that never seemed like a long-term business plan to me.

Sell-outs

Today, Skype announced on their blog that they’ll be introducing ads to their software. Thankfully, Skype are savvy enough to know that intrusive ads mid-conversation would cause a lot of people to hang up permanently. In their post, Skype were quick to point out that “The ads won’t interrupt your Skype experience. You won’t suddenly see annoying pop-up ads or flashy banner ads in middle of conversations.”

The ads will initially feature just on the ‘Home’ tab but I’m sure over time we’ll see them introduced elsewhere too. More interestingly though will be what level of targeting they’ll be able to provide. Ads will be location-targeted by country as you’d expect (though you can opt out of this) but what other data can Skype glean from your calls?

Google Voice, only available in the US at the moment, is a free service that routes all your calls through one number, so that all your phones ring at the same time and you have one centralised voice-mail. Oh, and free voice-to-text transcription. Sound confusing? There’s an explanatory video here that shows just how compelling an offering this is.

Google Voice caused a lot of concern about privacy when it launched but it seems to have settled now. The temptation will be huge for Skype to offer an extra level of personalisation to their advertising offering, I’ll be interested to see how this goes for them. Hopefully they won’t go the way The Onion predicted…

Follow Shane on Twitter: @shane_casey

8
Feb 11

Email campaign best practices

Email campaigns are the meat and drink of many marketing campaigns. Recently I was tasked with nailing down what makes a successful email campaign:

Although we have an increasing amount of variables to consider, such as: quality of data, ever-changing email clients etc, I believe if you follow a simple set of rules you can create a successful email campaign.

Plan your campaign
Identify your target audience but more importantly the objectives you want to achieve.

Be relevant
Use the information you have identified about your audience to send them targeted, relevant messages.

Design a strong campaign creative
Keep your message short, concise and memorable.

Test, test, test
What the email will look like in the most popular email clients (Outlook, Hotmail, Google Mail, Yahoo! Mail etc)

… and finally… measure campaign success
It is incredibly important to track user activity on the email. From this we can learn what works and what doesn’t and, most importantly, make improvements to avoid making the same mistakes twice!

Follow Rob on Twitter @robert_lowe

11
Jan 11

Social networks, anti-social behaviour

Obey the bird

The age of Web 2.0 has well and truly arrived. The days of the first few pioneers engaging their users through social media have passed and now every brand, advertiser, celebrity and politician has a social media presence. The goldrush is on and everyone knows they should be in the “social space” – they just have no idea what to do once they’re there.

Everyone knows the benefits – multiple platforms and touch-points mean you can find your audience where they already are. If they’re on YouTube, you can get your own channel there; if they’re on Facebook, why not set up a “Fan” page? This direct access means there are fewer barriers between you and them, you can really engage in an actual conversation. Awesome, right?

But hang on – multiple platforms mean more and more places to manage your message. So often we see social outlets that are all but abandoned, and whatever visitors do come across them can sense the virtual cobwebs of a hastily created  and forgotten social media “presence”. What does that say about you/your brand and how is that any different from Web 1.0?

And worse, direct access to your audience means they can talk back to you. How do you control what they do on your page? What if they don’t say nice things? They can rant and bitch and slag you off and everyone can see it and join in. WTF?!? I didn’t sign up for this – it’s out of control! The first problem’s easy to solve – make a commitment to care-taking your social outlets or, even better, don’t just create them for the sake of it: only make the ones you’re going to use.

Managing the conversation is harder. Here are your options:
- Fake it. Why bother with actual consumers when you could just have your agency create fake accounts and drown out the negative with spin? Sony learned the hard way in 2006 with their “All I want for Christmas is a PSP” campaign that did irreparable damage to their brand with the very people they were trying to win over. The public are wise to advertisers and you will be found out. If you’re going to be alternative, you have to be authentic.

- Edit it. Sarah Palin and her horde of winged monkeys (or whoever works for her) are the ultimate example of this. Palin’s Facebook page is conspicuous, considering what a polarising figure she is, for the glowing “we love you Sarah” tone of every comment you can find  there. In the wake of the tragic shootings in Arizona this week that have left Palin with a PR disaster on her hands, the editors must be working double-time. A social presence like this is the perfect outlet for people to directly express their outrage and anger but it’s all deleted. Check out Obama London’s report on the methodical removal of any dissenting opinions here. And this raises an even more important point – if you’re obviously moderating content, anything you don’t remove can be assumed to have your approval. Like this comment celebrating the death of a 9 year old.

It's ok. Christina Taylor Green was probably going to end up a left wing bleeding heart liberal anyway. Hey, as 'they' say, what would you do if you had the chance to kill Hitler as a kid? Exactly.

You stay classy, Sarah.

- Ignore it. Hey, maybe they’ll just go away? While there is some wisdom in not feeding the trolls, pretending it’s not happening just allows any negative commentary to go unchallenged and gives the complainer (another?) valid reason to be angry with you. The longer a grievance goes unrecognised, the larger it becomes.

- Listen. “The fool speaks, the wise man listens”. This is really your only option. Your social media presence is essentially the town square so if someone’s unhappy, deal with it. And deal with it publicly. You can turn a situation around by treating your audience with respect and hearing their issues. Maybe you can fix it and win them back or at least you can show everyone else watching that you care. Starbucks runs MyStarbucksIdea.com to actively invite criticism and then acts on it. Customers have a clear channel for their dissatisfactions and Starbucks take them seriously. Smooth.

Confucius

As Confucius said, “With great power, comes great responsibility”. Social media is an amazing tool for anyone with a message for a wider audience but it can potentially destroy you. Everything you do on the Internet is public so behave like it. If you respect your audience and are transparent and authentic, they’ll appreciate it and repay you in kind. And if you can’t do that, then maybe it’s time you had a think about whether social media is right for you or not.

Follow Shane on Twitter: @shane_casey

4
Jan 11

There’s a new sheriff in town!

He's just crazy enough to do it!

It’s been coming for a while but, Internet Explorer has finally been toppled from the number spot in Europe. FireFox has taken the crown with 38.11% share to IE’s 37.52% – even though it’s market share has stayed pretty much static around the 40% mark throughout 2010. (Source: StatCounter)

You can see from the graph, it’s the rise of Chrome (sounds like a Michael Bay movie!) that’s really hurting IE’s market share. Chrome’s share tripled during 2010 from 5% to over 15% today and shows no sign of slowing down.

Sacre bleu!

It’s no coincidence though, that this rapid change has come about since the Microsoft’s antitrust settlement with the EU led to the “browser ballot” being integrated into Windows 7 installs. So in some ways, Microsoft are victims of the success of their own operating system (that, and the fact that IE9 is still not ready for launch!). For 12 months now Microsoft’s headstart with the whole “the internet is the blue E” crowd has been eaten away and people are beginning to realise that a browser is software that can be chosen, not just an invisible portal to the Internet.

And that can only be a good thing for everybody.

Follow Shane on Twitter: @shane_casey

31
Dec 10

Mobilising the Web – A necessary evil?

The mobile ecosystem is extremely diverse with more and more devices being released using a variety of different software. Although the iPhone is having the most impact on the mobile industry over all else, mobile web browsing still only accounts for around 4% of webpage views (Dec 2010). And despite all the noise, the iPhone’s not the only one out there.

Of this 4%, Mobile Safari only commands 23.44% of the market (17.51% on the iPhone, 5.93% on iPod Touch) – not much of a lead on Opera Mobile, Nokia & BlackBerry’s browsers. In fact there are 5 very different mobile browsers within 4% of each other, making a very fractured ecosystem.

Browser Market Share
Safari 23.43%
Opera 20.1%
BlackBerry 17.87%
Nokia 15.68%
Android 13.23%
Other 20.1%

With the constant growth in mobile devices, client requirements / briefs for creating mobile friendly services are commonly very vague. Many things need to be considered before building for multiple devices. For example:

  • What devices are we building for (desktop/tablet/smart phone/WAP)?
  • Defining device groupings based on device capabilities (e.g. HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Video, Flash support etc)?
  • Create functionality, restraints and support for each device grouping.

This can prove frustrating to clients as sacrificing important functionality for differing devices can be a bitter pill to swallow.

This approach can also be increasingly confusing, frustrating and discouraging for traditional ‘desktop web’ developers and consequently focus on optimising their sites for just one device… the one in their pocket. Ironically, if you suggested to a developer that they only built for one desktop browser they’d look at you like you just insulted their mother.

With the mobile ecosystem being as fragmented as it currently, it is hard to see clients spending the time and money on developing specifically for the 5 big name browsers  individually. So what is the way forward? Do we just develop versions with Safari and Opera in mind and cover as much of the market share as possible? Or will we see a move towards building sites which degrade gracefully throughout the mobile browsing ecosystem?

Follow Rob on Twitter @robert_lowe

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