Interview: Adobe on HTML5 and Authoring with the Open Web Platform

I met by phone with four engineers from Adobe on 17 June to ask them about how emerging open web standards such as HTML5, SVG, CSS3, and WOFF are transforming Web publishing.

  • Arno Gourdol, Director of Engineering for Flash Runtime and Web Standards
  • Vincent Hardy, Principal Scientist for Web Standards
  • Rik Cabanier, Senior Computer Scientist
  • Dragos Georgita, Engineer/Manager for Webkit

Ian: Let’s start at a high level: how do you see the Web publishing industry evolving?

Arno: The Web is a critical platform used daily by our customers. Because we have a broad customer base with diverse needs and interests, standards that bridge these communities are critical to the success of the platform. Standards enable consistent communication, which is a key factor to the quality our customers seek. We have been participating in the W3C for a long time to support the creation of standards that meet the needs of our customers.

Ian: What do your customers tell you they want out of the platform?

Arno:Their goals are increasingly complex, especially with all things moving to digital (e.g., video, magazines, television). Recently we’ve had some interesting discussions and feedback from magazine publishers moving to tablets and other devices. The richness of print they are accustomed to is not there yet on the Web. The layout standards are not as comprehensive as what they are used to in print. As a result of those discussions, we have proposed a CSS3 Regions module to the CSS Working Group.

Ian: We all dream of technology that lets you author once and publish to any device. CSS has some features such as media queries (supported by Dreamweaver) for tailoring output to a set of device characteristics, and other specifications promote device independence in other ways. Are there other areas for us to explore?

Arno: People like device-independent authoring, but also want to optimize for the strengths of each device.

Ian: So should they use content adaption, or really try hard to author once?

Vincent: I think it will be a mix. Categories of devices with similar form factors have emerged. We are starting to see layout patterns that work for the different categories. There are “break points” where you move from one category to the next, for example from a phone form factor to a tablet form factor to a desktop. There are also different interaction models for these devices.

Ian: In our redesign of w3.org we did minimal content adaptation, preferring to remain with a single source. We have different styles for three environments (desktop, mobile, print).

Dragos: Our customers ask us these same questions you had in your redesign.

Ian: What’s missing in the open web platform stack that your customers are requesting?

Arno: Some of what we hear comes from the fact that this is a transition period for the industry. People used to pixel-specific design are having to think about things differently. Now they have to create adaptable content. And so they ask themselves: how do you control the experience without controlling the pixels? We are not hearing a lot of feedback that, for example, the model is wrong. We are hearing from people as they experiment with the new tools to get them do what they want.

Ian: Do people say “We want HTML5?”

Arno: Our customers don’t really care about technology. They want to use the best tools to express their ideas and their creativity. The question for them is “How do we use the capabilities available through the evolving standards to express what we want, and how do we integrate into our workflows?” And: “how can you provide the tools?”

Ian: W3C places a high value on the various standards working together, even if they were designed by independent groups. From the perspective of an authoring tool creator, do you find that the specifications do work together?

Arno: Some do, some don’t. When working with CSS regions we realized that you could use it to do interesting layouts, but even more interesting things when combined with JavaScript.

Ian: What haven’t worked well together?

Arno: We hear less about interoperability issues and more about the large number of specifications. Some of them are just not that relevant to some customers. That influences what we support and what we don’t.

Vincent: One important factor is “what is actually implemented” on the Web.

Ian: Let’s talk about that. How do you manage the production of content so that it works with “what is actually implemented?”

Arno: We have a browser lab tool that let’s people test Web content across different browsers and configurations. We render your content and send you back image to show what works and what doesn’t. We also integrate some knowledge directly into Dreamweaver. We also offer a great, free, online tool that gives some information about the availability of various features in the real world SiteCatalyst NetAverages. It is a challenge, however. There is only so much you can do.

Ian: Do you have suggestions for W3C on how to improve interop?

Vincent: More testing in w3c and publishing implementation reports. We see implementers making an effort to pass W3C test suites.

Arno: Adobe wants to increase its commitment to W3C test development since there’s such a big payoff.

Ian: What do your customers say about Flash and HTML5?

Arno: Ultimately for us it’s all about what our customers need and want to use. There are tools that have different strengths for different things. We see HTML5 and Flash that way. What’s happening is that there were some things you could not do with open standards and you needed Flash to get the interactivity you wanted (for ads, branded sites, pulldown menus, etc.). But HTML and CSS have become more capable and now you can do more with them, and sometimes that will be easier to do if it’s integrated into your workflow. We’re building tools for that. We have demos showing how to create animations using HTML and CSS. Support is there in browsers but tools are lacking. We think we can provide great tools for that. Nonetheless, our customers still tell us that they really like using Flash for some of their content (e.g., more complex apps). We want to continue to support those customers and push the envelope with what you can do with Flash. I think this is healthy competition between the two platforms. We are working at the same time to improve HTML and CSS so the Web platform is overall more capable.

Ian: Do you see people moving even more in the direction to authoring over the Web?

Arno: Great question. We have a long history with our traditional software products, but we are thinking a lot about how to evolve our products to integrate more with the connected world of today. We’ve done some experiments, for instance in Photoshop Express to allow management of images via a browser and on a mobile device. You can expect us to do more in that area.

Ian: How well is the platform supporting those experiments on mobile devices?

Arno: There is still a gap both on desktop and mobile and what you can do in the browser. We don’t yet have the same richness of integration or access to device capabilities, but that gap is closing: new features are added to browsers and performance of JavaScript engines has improved a lot. The trajectory is positive and the gap will close, but we’re not there yet.

Vincent: That’s one reason we are getting more involved at W3C : to close that gap.

Ian: Where are you investing at W3C?

Arno: We want high-fidelity rendering on the Web: layout control, rich animations, and high-quality typography are all part of what closing the gap is about. We want to go from “80% there” to “the only platform you need” for your apps.

Ian: What role does SVG play in your vision, especially now that it is supported in all major browsers?

Vincent: We have SVG support in several tools, the main one is Illustrator. There is consistent demand from our customers for that support. Wallaby, a tool from Adobe Labs, can export HTML from Flash and leverages SVG as well. Vector graphics is an important part of building a high-fidelity Web platform.

Ian: Will SVG become as common to web design as CSS? Do people say “We want SVG!”

Arno: Our customers don’t focus on the technology; they want the best tools for doing what they want to do. Tools that let them focus on their goals. You made a comment about the availability of SVG in the browsers. We need to look beyond the basic support of the specification. In particular, performance is a key consideration. If performance profiles vary a lot between devices/browsers, that can be as big a barrier as lack of functional interop. Performance is a particularly important issue as mobile access becomes more prevalent.

Ian: Do you find people want to author from mobile devices, or do they mostly compose on desktops?

Arno: As diverse as our customer base is, Mobile authoring is critical to all of them these days. It’s an important outlet for them and it’s growing at a tremendous rate (smart phones, tablets, …). For example, some people are building magazines (e.g., using InDesign) , and we give them a way to export content using standards and to display it on mobile devices.

Ian: Clarification: I didn’t mean “authoring for a mobile device.” I meant “authoring on a mobile device.”

Arno: That’s only emerging. In Creative Suite 5.5 we introduced a suite of Photoshop companion apps that let you control Photoshop, sketch and mix colors on your tablet. We think there is more to be done in terms of tools to allow content creation on tablets.

Ian: Are people starting to think about authoring for television?

Arno: The lines between broadcast and TV and computers and IP networks are all blurring. Broadcasters and content producers need to think about how the fact that content is consumed on the Web affects their creative process (how they structure, build content so that it’s appropriate for web distribution) and technical considerations.

Dragos: Adobe has released Adobe Pass, which allows content producers to put traditional content online for consumption on devices and allows for a seamless integration with the TV distributors. The consumer can choose between traditional media and new devices.

Ian: Do you have suggestions for new areas of work at W3C?

Vincent: Some suggestions:

  • Continue to improve performance
  • Animations
  • Work on being able to “author properly” to formats, including round-trips
  • Graphics. There is a CSS/SVG collaboration on ‘effects’ that is important to us.

Arno: There are different areas like typography and page layouts, and we are going to help out. These are areas near and dear to our customers and also where we have expertise. We are going to participate and make some proposals based on feedback from customers. We want to work with W3C to advance the standards so they are available everywhere.

Ian: Thank you for your participation in W3C and for taking the time to speak with me.

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