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OpenDoc & Netscape

Dave Martin <[email protected]> made an interesting comment in regard to the MailBIT about how future versions of Netscape Navigator will integrate Macromedia Director’s Shockwave playback technology (see TidBITS-281). Dave wrote:

I just thought I’d comment on this increasing rash of what appears to be anti-OpenDoc thinking. The whole concept of the Web browser being for browsing the Web and the "helper apps" being a user-selected preference as to how to view files from the Internet seems very OpenDoc-ish. This trend of Netscape’s towards integrating Director and Acrobat – and who knows what else – goes in the other direction. Wouldn’t it be enough for Netscape to ship with preset settings that would launch an Acrobat viewer or a Shockwave player if present, much like any other helper application would be auto-launched? This decline towards sumo-sized applications makes me wonder whether Netscape will become the Word 6 of the Web world.

Netscape’s Horizon — Dave’s comment caused us to think OpenDoc may face a more serious obstacle than user acceptance. The hurdle may be the combination of the corporate alliance and its attached desire to shut out the competition. Dave is right – there’s no reason Netscape couldn’t come configured to launch a Director or Acrobat helper application. But where’s the advantage in that? Any Web browser could do the same thing, and all of them would. By building Shockwave into Netscape, Macromedia wins by associating with Netscape, whose public relations rocket continues to rise. And Netscape wins by including a technology not present in other Web browsers.

Netscape plans to use the Acrobat and Shockwave technologies to add additional value over the helper application approach. Future versions of Netscape are slated to do more than simply open the appropriate document type within Netscape’s window. For instance, the Acrobat technology will be page-based rather than document-based. So, if you find a 200-page Acrobat document on a site and want to see page 132, you’ll be able to go to page 132 without having to slog through the intervening pages. With today’s Acrobat player, you can jump to page 132 only after you’ve downloaded the entire file.

Shockwave will work similarly, allowing users to interact over the Internet with Director presentations that reside on remote machines without having to download the entire file. Of course, typical Director presentations require more bandwidth than any modem can deliver to provide a "true multimedia experience." Lingo scripts, cast members, high-resolution graphics, animations, etc., would have to be downloaded and played back on the client machine. Some effects – transitions for example – might be relatively painless, and it’ll probably be possible to design some relatively effective, low-bandwidth Director stuff for the Web. But anyone who’s tried to use an interactive Director presentation over a LocalTalk network knows how painful that can be – and LocalTalk is significantly faster than any modem (or most typical Internet connections, for that matter).

Of course, all this is contingent on support from Netscape’s partners – not only for the playback code, but also for support in the authoring environments so people can create documents for direct online use. Both the Acrobat and Director authoring environments will probably have to be enhanced to properly support these Web-savvy features.

OpenDoc Alliances? But this situation with Netscape is perhaps an isolated example in regard to OpenDoc’s overall future. Companies make alliances for a number of reasons, and both companies have to benefit in one way or another. Will the loss of the exclusivity benefit (since the entire point of OpenDoc parts is that they can be replaced) make it significantly more difficult for the corporate wheelers to find common ground with their dealer counterparts? From a user’s standpoint, of course, no one cares, but in the real life of the industry, the openness of OpenDoc may work against its acceptance.

Individual developers and small companies will likely work together on OpenDoc parts, but support from the big players may be necessary for such a sweeping change to take place. So, assuming OpenDoc is indeed the right way to do things because of the flexibility and choice it offers, the companies promoting OpenDoc over the existing method of creating mega-applications and over Microsoft’s OLE have their work cut out for them. They may not have to convince developers, but convincing management may be a difficult task.

Why Not OpenDoc? Continuing to use Netscape as an example, could Netscape use OpenDoc to accomplish its goals if they wanted to? There are a few sticky issues to consider:

  • More than the Mac in mind: Netscape has to provide these capabilities on at least three platforms (Mac OS, Unix, and Windows). Despite the best efforts of Apple and Novell, there’s no realistic way OpenDoc can be leveraged across all those platforms in the near future (Mac and Windows, perhaps; Unix is less likely, although admittedly a smaller market). Furthermore, Adobe and Macromedia have already sunk significant development resources into making their products work on other platforms. By integrating those technologies as they stand, Netscape can leverage off their experience.
  • Technological dependency: Netscape is licensing Acrobat and Shockwave technology, not writing it from scratch. The more third-party code Netscape integrates, the more control they surrender in regard to schedule, delivery, and the techniques used to develop the components. If Macromedia and Adobe decide not to go with OpenDoc – and there’s nothing to suggest they would – Netscape can’t do anything about it. Similarly, if Macromedia decides Shockwave must have OLE, then Netscape will be obliged to install OLE; if Acrobat decides ATM is necessary, then Netscape will be obliged to install ATM.

If you think this sounds suspiciously like "the road to bloatware," you’re right.

So Where Might OpenDoc Fit In? OpenDoc proponents shouldn’t despair: a lot of the idea behind OpenDoc is to let developers be fast on their feet, creating small, reusable, wildly useful components that do one or two things really well. This development approach can run circles around bloatware applications, especially those that have significant dependencies on outside companies. And Netscape so far has shown no inclination to put all its eggs in one basket. Given the right pitch, it’s a good bet Netscape could be persuaded to put OpenDoc hooks into its applications. You have a better way to handle FTP? Great – plug it in. You have a better bookmark manager? Great – plug it in. You’re a small, efficient startup company that’s made an OpenDoc component that plays Director movies? Great – plug it in. It’s in Netscape’s interest to keep their browser as flexible as possible so they don’t get blindsided by savvy, platform-specific products – like Cyberdog – that might beat them at their own game. (It remains to be seen to what, if any, extent Cyberdog will be cross-platform thanks to its OpenDoc heritage.)

Before the Fat Lady Sings — Predicting the future of a major new technology is always difficult, but in the past, the industry has proven tenaciously conservative, particularly on the Windows side of the fence. That conservatism, combined with the realities of today’s fast-paced world of software development, may prove dangerous for OpenDoc’s acceptance. We’d hate to see OpenDoc fail, but these deals between Netscape and Adobe and Macromedia may foreshadow the difficulty of the task OpenDoc faces.

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