A new battle in the Net

wALKING THROUGH THE teaming casino of the Venetian in Vegas on the way to the Microsoft Mix 07 conference last week, you noticed a funny disparity between the way the men and women dressed for gambling. The women were ready for a cameo on a day-time soap opera. The men, with the exception of some older customers who have been to the Zegna shop at Caesar's, looked like frat rats. Shirt tales hanging out, three-day stubble, shorts.

Mix 07 had a similar collision of styles. This was a developer conference, with a few designers thrown in. The difference was much less than the one between men and women at the tables, unless they were wearing eyeglasses. One cartoon in Celso Gomes's presentation showed a cartoon with designers and developers as the same basic character, but the designer had a goatee and hip little eyeglasses.

The real way to tell the difference between them was to listen how they talked about the star of the conference, Microsoft's new online graphics program, Silverlight. Good developers talked about the code, what the technology can do. Good designers tended to focus on what the user can do with it.

These things haven't always aligned, least of all at Microsoft. Designers learned to recoil from the products of the people who brought us PowerPoint. The look and feel of Microsoft packaging, the logo, msn.com — these things did not create a sense of lightness and well-being in their hearts.

Designers instead followed the flag of Adobe Systems, which introduced PostScript, PostScript fonts, Photoshop, and InDesign — all the things that they used. And then Adobe bought Macromedia, which had developed Flash, the technology that has enabled otherwise boring old web pages to look cool.

Working on the Mac, graphic designers could ignore that Microsoft was slowly caching up. The new OS, Vista, has standard apps that work just as smoothly as the Apple counterpart, and sometimes are more powerful. (Compare Windows Photo Gallery to Preview, or the latest Internet Explorer to the latest Safari.)

There pushback on anything Microsoft, so a year ago at Mix 06 when MS showed off the killer publication app, The New York Times Reader, the comments on positive reviews were not very positive. (Cf., MIT Technology Review.) Critics chose to look at what it doesn't have, instead of what it might become. Built on the visual layer of Windows Vista, WPF, this reader shows how far we have moved along on the road to the digital distribution of the old print media. Here is an eminently readable newspaper — on a computer screen. For compactness, searchability and speed, it is superior to the print version. Since I go off to the remote mountain desert of the Big Bend on a regular basis, I am really grateful for this Reader.

Others said, "What's all the fuss?" They thought it didn't offer much more than a PDF edition, or one made with Flash, but it is much more. For one thing, it can be updated every few minutes. (The only dynamic clients I have seen work off of relatively static databases.)

There are lots of links in The Times Reader, although more might be made of live content when you are offline, and it needs video, but these can be added. Meanwhile a "reader" that combines live XML-fed pages with layouts that automatically fit changing window sizes is very compelling.

The key benefit, for me, comes from the fact that a newspaper's main offering is storytelling using the written word. This means words that you read from typefaces. With WPF, you can get ClearType rendering of the text, which is tuned for Vista. My colleague at the Font Bureau, David Berlow, has shown ways it can be improved, but as it is, it's easier to read than plain True Type. As people are reading more and more on the screen, this is key. Adobe's PDF text tends to be blurry, until you zoom in on it. And Flash text gets pretty crunchy, or fuzzy, or both.

Flash and PDF just take the font outlines and blur them (like Photoshop) to make the edges less jaggy. They ignore TrueType hints that can make better letterspacing, consistent letterforms, at sharper body type on the screen. ClearType fonts use hints that work at the sub-pixel level, using the three colors of the screen, red, green and blue. Berlow gives Microsoft the credit for making the best text type we have ever seen on the screen.

A valid complaint about the Times Reader is that it doesn't work on the Mac. In the global market, Apple has only six percent of PC sales. But nearly 20 percent of New York Times readers use Macs, and they have complained about it.

Enter Silverlight, Microsoft's new rich interactive application (RIA). Code-named, WPF/E, for Everywhere, Silverlight takes WPF technology and gets it to run on Vista, Apple's OS X, and Linux. And perhaps soon some PDA platforms other than Windows Mobile.

The blogosophere has been asking if Silverlight is a Flash killer, but there is no smoking gun as of yet. Flash has a huge developer following, and Adobe's Flash/Flex/Ajax/PDF rollup, Apollo, is going to the first choice for a lot of projects. A lot of people are happy enough that Adobe has some competition from Microsoft, and vice versa. But Silverlight is clearly aimed right at Flash, and many at Mix07 agreed that the download is faster, the video implementation is superior, the use of XAML (the MS flavor of XML) makes for more robust dynamic publishing.

Sadly, Silverlight does not support ClearType, although one might have guessed this, since it is cross-platform and Cleartype only works on Vista and XP. But it does support TrueType, using gray scale rendering. To get close to ClearType sharpness, I will have to get David Berlow to hint the TTF outlines for gray scale — for each project. The resulting fonts can be downloaded from a server with the Silverlight client. Whether this will be as seamless to the user as it is with WPF, remains to be seen. A big question is what happens to the fonts in the user's system, and how will the type foundries charge for Silverlight "embedding."

I expect that these issues will be resolved, and that soon we'll see Silverlight publications, some that have print counterparts and some that are freestanding. We'll see video, and forums, and live headlines, and then we can walk away from the Internet and read them quietly and easily, like we do with print. I'm hoping Adobe catches up on the font quality issue, and if they do, the transition to digital may happen fast enough to keep a lot of writers on the payroll, and a lot of readers happy.

Disclosure: I worked on early prototypes for the Times Reader, under contract for Microsoft.

Your Thoughts (1 comment)

2007-05-08 by Rob Weychert

Not Just Adobe

I think it's worth mentioning that Silverlight takes aim at Apple as well as Adobe, since it's not possible to develop RIA content without Windows. In light of the fact that a large percentage of designers (if not developers) are Mac users, it'll be interesting to see how that plays out.

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