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Anup MurarkaInside the Open Screen Project
with Adobe's Anup Murarka

 

 

 

In May 2008, Adobe announced an amazingly diverse new entity — the Open Screen Project. It could be said that this novel consortium of hardware, software, and service providers comprises the most powerful players in global technology today. The member organizations are steering a swift-moving initiative that Adobe considers critical to its future success: to make the design, development, and delivery of digital information better for technologists and consumers alike — not only across platforms and devices we already own, but those yet unimagined.

 

The industry is watching closely as the Open Screen Project emerges from its fledgling stages toward maturity. In this interview, Anup Murarka of Adobe gives us an up-to-date, inside glimpse into the Open Screen Project as he answers questions posed by EffectiveUI senior developer Doug Schmidt.

 

Schmidt: Anup, first, thank you for doing this interview with the UIRC. Our readers are very interested in the Open Screen Project, and I’m hoping we can give them some inside information today. Can you tell us what your role is at Adobe and will you briefly describe the Project?

 

Murarka: My new job title is Director of Partner Development and Technology Strategy for the Platform Business Unit. Essentially, the Open Screen Project is an industry collaboration of companies that are interested in making it easier for designers and developers to publish and distribute great content and great experiences on any device. We think there are a number of elements that will ultimately define the Project’s success, but we’ve centered on two key goals:

 

First is the development and distribution of a consistent runtime that’s available across all sorts of screens, not just the desktop, but also mobile, television, set-top, and other consumer electronic products.

 

Second, is the notion that it needs to be easier to publish and distribute content to those screens, not just from a technology perspective, but also from the business relationship perspective. Too often, Adobe hears horror stories from developers about how hard it is to get their content to a mobile phone or to a television. Companies in the Open Screen Project would like to see that become easier.

 

Schmidt: Do you have direct responsibility for the Open Screen Project as part of your job at Adobe?

 

Murarka: The partner development aspect of my title is particularly relevant to the Open Screen Project. As a result of Adobe’s recent organizational changes, I’ve been asked to work with the 16–17 companies that were strategic members of the initial group, and ensure that we’re all aligned and working together toward key goals and initiatives.

 

Schmidt: Who are the groups involved in the Open Screen Project and what industry segments are represented?

 

Murarka: We’re very fortunate in that regard. When the Project was originally announced, we had companies from all segments of technology ecosystems participating. We have companies at the silicon layer actively participating — organizations like Intel and ARM. We also have OEMs, including all of the top five mobile OEMs: Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, LG, Sony Ericsson, and also companies from other industry segments that build other a wide range of consumer products — like Cisco and Toshiba.

 

We have service providers NTT DoCoMo, Verizon Wireless, and Comcast who most recently joined the effort, as well as major studios, content producers, and media brands including NBC Universal, MTV Networks, a division of Viacom, and others.

We see the Open Screen Project as a very broad industry collaborative effort rather than just something that is applicable only to software companies.

 

Schmidt: What is Adobe’s role in the initiative?

 

Murarka: Adobe is certainly leading the effort at this point. The Open Screen Project was conceived by Kevin Lynch and a number of other Adobe individuals, so we’re playing a central role to the definition and initial execution of the Open Screen Project. But we definitely foresee a lot of energy and direction coming from all the members over time. I think we’re really acting more as a catalyst to get it started.

 

Schmidt: Can you talk a bit more specifically about Adobe’s motivation behind the project?

 

Murarka: As we shipped millions of units of Flash Player onto various mobile phones, we didn’t see real global success in terms of broad amounts of content being available everywhere. We saw many little ecosystems, smaller silos that made it challenging for Flash developers to see their content become globally available. If you look at the way Flash content has grown on the desktop and the Web, comparing that to growth outside of the desktop, it has been slow to develop.

 

We’d like to accelerate that. We’ve certainly played a role to some extent for mobile, particularly in Japan, in parts of the U.S., and parts of Europe. But we’d like to see mobile become a more consistent environment that developers can take greater advantage of.

 

In terms of our own goals, we’ve made some significant commitments to the Open Screen Project, as well as financial commitments by agreeing to waive the royalty fees, for example, for device-based implementations of Flash Player technology. We believe that developers and OEM service providers, consumers especially, and even Adobe will benefit from that economic decision. We may see a short-term revenue gap as a result of not having device royalties come in, but again — there’s broader opportunity and need in the marketplace for something like this that prompted us to waive fees.

 

Schmidt: Mobile phones and set-top boxes are the obvious devices that come to mind when pushing the Adobe Flash Platform forward. What other devices and use cases do you expect to be available out of the gate when the Open Screen Project launches its first consumer devices?

 

Murarka: Tough to predict. Adobe Flash technology has been used in such a wide range of devices — from digital signage to ATM machines, to toys to informational gadgets, and developer platforms like the Chumby. There is broad adoption of Flash across devices, but it has not reached the penetration and mass-market consumer awareness that televisions, phones, and desktop computers have.

 

We talk about those three categories most because they are the three largest consumer products categories, but the technology evolution we’re undertaking should benefit other industries and other segments over time. So you can imagine car navigation systems utilizing some of the same benefits that we’re working on for these other three categories of desktops, mobile, and television.

 

Schmidt: The Open Screen Project was announced in May 2008. What is the project roadmap, and what has happened along the way since the announcement?

 

Murarka:  Since the original public announcement, we reached a very significant milestone in seeing some additional companies join the effort. More importantly we published the first round of specifications and details for development, as well as a schedule for releases that would be “Open Screen Project compatible.”

These future releases of Flash and Adobe AIR will really move the the Project’s goals forward.

 

Schmidt: Are you referencing Flash Player 10 and Adobe AIR 1.5?

 

Murarka: That’s what we’re “standardizing” on at this point in time. It might change a bit and there might be different version numbers but generally speaking right now we’re consolidating around these releases of Flash Player and Adobe AIR. While Flash Player 10 is already available on the desktop, it’s not yet available for these other device categories.

 

We’ve also published Flash information, including Flash technology specifications. We’ve made available various protocols over the course of the last year, such as the FlashCast client server protocol. The goal for that portion of the effort was to ensure that companies didn’t feel locked into some other piece of Adobe technology just because they wanted access to this runtime. Our other products and solutions, tools, and server services will compete on their own merits and not just because there’s any sort of proprietary lock-in to the Flash Player runtime.

 

The expectation is that there’ll be binary releases of Flash Player, a plug-in for a Web browser, as well as Adobe AIR for smartphones. This open platform will be supported by smart phones — Symbian, Windows Mobile, Android — like some of the things that we demonstrated at Adobe MAX, our developer conference, in the fall of 2008. Open Screen Project devices are likely to appear in early 2010, although we’re doing our best to have them available before that.

 

Schmidt: Can you describe how developing content for an Open Screen Project device is going to be different from the current process of developing content for Flash Lite? Will the development model still be write once and test many times?

 

Murarka: With the nature of interface design and human factors being what they are, I don’t think we’re going to eliminate the problem altogether. On our desktops, we enjoy a mouse, a full keyboard and a large ultra-high resolution display with practically unlimited amounts of memory and disk space. To think that we’re going to take all that and squeeze it down to a device that has a 5-inch screen (at best) and the short battery life that we’ve all come to expect on our phones, the problem doesn’t go away.

 

The Open Screen Project is really more about allowing developers a much greater level of flexibility to design and move assets from one screen to another without having to rebuild applications every time.

 

Here’s a good way to think about it. Today, Flash Lite developers have to consider the specific device and the specific operator, and what version of Flash Lite is in use. Our hope is that all these Open Screen Project devices will be able to support a consistent ActionScript environment and a consistent Flash environment. Yes, the physical differences of the device will still be there. Is there going to be a keyboard, is there going to be a mouse, is the screen resolution going to be HD resolution or is it going to be a quarter VGA on a small phone? Designers have to worry about those things even today on the desktop, although not quite as extensively.

 

We want to simplify the language constructs, we want to simplify the class libraries, we want to make sure that the same authoring tool is in play — and ideally even the same Flex framework and SDK in the future.

 

But today, many of the richer tool sets that are available to desktop developers are not available to Flash Lite developers. We think that’s a big obstacle to overcome — one that will help simplify the development process for all different screens.

 

Schmidt: Will Adobe Device Central play a role in Open Screen Project devices?

 

Murarka: It will, yes. The idea of testing everywhere is cumbersome, it’s expensive, and Device Central is a great way to help mitigate some of that cost in time and money. We expect that to continue; Device Central is going to be just as useful as it was before to help designers get a feel for what’s available across devices, but the big steps are really to try to close the gap.

Though a device may be in a consumer’s hands for years, we can try to keep it up to date, so the idea is that Open Screen Project-compatible platforms and devices would allow for runtime updates just like on our desktops. When a new major release of Flash becomes available, there will an opportunity for those devices to be updated via the network.

 

A lot of technical work is yet to be done still to make that work successfully, but that’s a key theme of the Open Screen Project. We don’t want designers to worry if Flash Player 10 on devices shipping now will work on devices that ship three years from now. I think this is a key aspect of what we’ve heard from Flash Lite developers over the last several years. One of the biggest challenges that developers have described to us is trying to keep track of all the many different devices, and all the different implementations of software on them.

 

One of the key Open Screen Project goals is to allow for over-the-air and over-the-wire updating of the core run time, just as we allow for that on the desktop now with Flash Player. If we can make that a seamless process and as easy to use as it is on the desktop, we think developers will get really excited and they’ll be able to do even more wonderfully creative things.

 

The idea is being able to update without end-users having to go through the gyrations of shutting off the device and swapping out hardware, or anything like that. We really want to make it a painless, efficient, software-only process.

 

Schmidt: What has the response from the telecomm providers and the set top box manufacturers been about the over the wire update concept? I could foresee a situation where a customer wants to run an application update, but a provider might be a little more reluctant about allowing a device to get updated because they’re more concerned with their core functionality than with application needs of a smaller subset.

 

Murarka: That’s why it was essential to have service providers participate in the project from the start — to help guide how we would do this successfully. The idea of tens of millions of wireless subscribers suddenly doing simultaneous downloads over a network is frightening. Consumers can undoubtedly overwhelm the network. So it’s something that has to be done carefully, and again, that’s why we wanted to make sure that we had partners in the project that could educate us on what the risks and struggles will be.

 

I think everyone in the organizations supporting the Open Screen Project understands the goals, and actually agrees with them, and so they are understandably cautious about saying “we’re going to allow for open updating that will happen out of our control.” Yes, their obligation to the consumer is to make sure their TV still works and cell phone service still works. Even more critical is to ensure service during an emergency environment, while meeting government regulations in the U.S. and globally.

 

But everyone agrees the idea is beneficial to all parties involved, particularly the consumer, to increase the useful life of the software on these platforms. Users shouldn’t feel like they’ve got to buy a whole new set of consumer electronics products every year just because there’s a new set of content runtimes out there on the Web.

 

Schmidt: As a Flex developer, I enjoy working on that platform because of the great community that’s been built up, plus the fact that the Flex SDK is open source. How can the developer community get involved with the Open Screen Project if we’re not employed by one of the initial partners?

 

Murarka: It might be in a year or two, but there are some entry points that we think would be potentially interesting for developers, particularly for developers that enjoy looking at code and evaluating code. One of the exciting elements of dealing with ActionScript 3 is the fact that the Tamarin Project and Tamarin-tracing have been created as open source projects of the Mozilla Foundation. The Tamarin project is incredibly essential to making this effort one that’s going to truly be multi-screen.

 

One of the most complex problems we’re seeing right now is getting ActionScript 3 running in low-end, mass-market devices. It’s not easy. We’d love developer participation there. It’s going to require a lot of energy. We’ve had a number of the Open Screen Project partners participating in that — companies like ARM, Intel, and Qualcomm — working on getting a well-performing, just-in-time compiler working on current and future processors. There’s a lot of juicy work to be done in that regard.

 

I think once we have ActionScript 3 working as part of this next generation of runtimes, then it opens up the opportunity for new class libraries and application frameworks. A lot of the energy and excitement that’s happening around Flex and the Flex SDK is exactly what we’re hoping to bring to mobile and television development, too.

 

Schmidt: Will there still be a Flash Player or an AIR porting kit as part of the roadmap for hobby devices like the Beagle Board or other open source hardware projects? Will developers be able to get Flash running on newer, more esoteric devices without Adobe needing to post source code everywhere?

 

Murarka: It remains to be seen. Our goal (and our hope) is that we can enable a wide range of devices.  We’ve tried to make it easier and more accessible to companies by waiving the royalty we charge today for Flash Lite for future Open Screen Project-compatible devices. We would also expect that as Adobe works to maintain binary runtimes for key open platforms, that perhaps one of those platforms would ultimately be compatible and chosen for new types of devices as well.

 

There are two different ways that might happen. One way might be to use Linux or some other open platform for a new device; that’s how to get access and availability of a binary directly from Adobe. The other idea would be for a small firm to build a new developer-oriented device. A firm might find that licensing the runtime source code from Adobe to be more palatable now, since there wouldn’t be a royalty and some of that initial cost would be removed.

 

What we don’t yet know is how third-party or individual developers would work on that source code, beyond some of the current open source projects like Tamarin.

 

Schmidt: Will there be a minimum requirement on Open Screen Project-compatible devices so that Flash Player 10 or Adobe AIR can run?

 

Murarka: There is. It’s not set in stone yet, but it is something that we’ve both contemplated and begun to identify. For the desktop, nothing really changes. For smart phones, we think the specs are somewhere in the 300 to 400 MHz processor range — the really high end of the smartphone category for now. That means devices like the G1 or the iPhone, or some of the higher end series 60 devices are the best — basically the PDA class of devices.

 

The lower-end smartphones and mass-market phones won’t get all of the same desktop compatibility that we’re offering. They’ll miss some of the class libraries or actual APIs, but the core runtime will be identical. It will be better than what you have with Flash Lite today, but still not 100 percent equal to the desktop.

 

We think the profile is going to be somewhere in the 300 MHz range for the device processor on, let’s say, a quarter VGA, half VGA screen. We’re also targeting a similar footprint for set top boxes and mass-market TVs, although with some hardware acceleration.

 

Schmidt: You mentioned that company in Cupertino. Are you saying that there’s going to be Open Screen coming out for the iPhone soon?

 

Murarka: No. I was only using it as an example of the category of smartphones we’re thinking about. Obviously, we’d love to see Adobe Flash and AIR available on the iPhone, but clearly that’s not today. And you have to expect that just because there’s an Open Screen Project, that it doesn’t change the device requirements, and it doesn’t change the business requirement.

 

I think as Apple and Adobe reach the point where there is a Flash Player available, then it’s likely that we should be able to make an Open Screen Project-compatible runtime out of it as well, but we’re not there yet even on that first step, which would be to make Flash Player available.

 

Schmidt: Can you talk about how end users will benefit from the Open Screen Project? Are there any exciting scenarios that you want to mention yet?

 

Murarka: There are a number of them. Without getting too specific, a handful of the content partners really have just some wonderfully brilliant ideas about envisioning services that could be made available across a wide range of devices. If you think about your experience with your television and which of those elements would be relevant on a mobile phone or on your desktop, it’s exciting. Think about starting an application session on your desktop and walking away and having it on your mobile as you commute on the train.

 

We see consumers demanding greater access to the content they enjoy and the services they want. Rather than forcing developers to learn a completely new set of APIs, a completely new set of capabilities, we think if they have a common tool set, and a common language to deliver those applications and services, they’re much more likely to make them consistent and make them available on a wide range of screens so that experiences can move with users and not be dependent on a desktop in any one location.

Again, our goal is to make Flash more open and more appealing to developers around the world. That represents a significant step to allow for new innovation and for faster development to happen.

 

Schmidt: You mentioned earlier that the Open Screen Project members have some great ideas for implementation. Can you share some of them?

 

Murarka:  Absolutely. One example is the announcement we made with ARM stating that Adobe is working with ARM directly to optimize Flash Player 10 for playback on processors. So much of the early engineering work is happening at the very low hardware levels in order to take advantage of hardware acceleration. ARM has made key contributions to the Tamarin project by getting the just-in-time compiler working with ARM processors instead of just desktop X86 processors. These optimizations are for core Flash Player 10 and Adobe AIR. The work from ARM (which we will probably see in mid 2009) will allow OEMs to build better devices.

 

At the 2008 MAX conferences, we demonstrated the first prototypes of Flash Player 10 working as a plug-in in the browser on multiple smartphones. I think we showed it running on a Symbian series 60 for a Nokia phone, an Android phone, and also a Windows Mobile phone.

 

Schmidt: What’s the actual workflow among the Open Screen Project member organizations?

 

Murarka: There are an incredible number of touch points, including the initiatives that are underway. Adobe certainly has direct relationships with all these different companies, and we have numerous initiatives on a one-to-one basis.

 

We’re also beginning the process of holding more community gatherings at industry events that have happened via conference calls in the past. We will be working to get various partners and companies together periodically. We haven’t formalized recurring meetings into a predictable set of events yet, but I think that will come as the effort and the project mature. More importantly, we will get through some of this early work to get the first devices to market. There isn’t very much that the content producers and designers are able to do right today, but once the first set of devices with the compatible runtime become available, there’s a lot more that could be done.

 

We’re getting some great input from different companies on what profiles are needed, what TV extensions might be needed, what mobile extensions might be needed, how we define those, who should work on those — and so our hope is to announce further elements to the model as we hit coming industry events.

 

Schmidt: Did you say that you foresee the first Open Screen Project devices coming to the market in Q4 of 2009?

 

Murarka: That’s our hope, and things look like they’re on track for that. But ultimately it’s in the OEM and service providers’ control. So I think that’s certainly the target that we’re all trying to work towards, but I would expect the volume of the products to be available in 2010.

 

Schmidt: Anup, it’s been great to get the inside story from you today. Thank you so much for taking the time for this conversation.

 

Murarka: My pleasure.

 

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Anup Murarka is Director of Partner Development and Technology Strategy for the Platform Business Unit at Adobe Systems. In this role, Murarka is responsible for defining the strategy and direction for Adobe’s mobile agenda. Murarka comes to Adobe from its acquisition of Macromedia, where he was responsible for marketing in the Mobile and Devices group. Prior to Macromedia, Murarka worked at OpenTV, where he was involved in all aspects of developing OpenTV’s solution offering. He was an active spokesperson for the company with customers, technology and financial analysts and industry events. Prior to OpenTV, Murarka was vice president at Spyglass, Inc., holding management roles in engineering, professional services and sales. Murarka has also held engineering and management positions at technology companies including Apple, The 3DO Company and SurfWatch.

 

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Doug Schmidt is a senior developer at EffectiveUI in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Doug has more than two decades of software development experience in embedded systems, industrial computing and user interaction. He has designed audio systems used by U2 and IMAX; printing systems used by WIRED, Vogue and GQ; and industrial control systems used by Goodyear and Universal Studios. Doug currently leads a team of rich Internet application developers at EffectiveUI’s Vancouver office. He is old enough to have run the film projector in grade school, but young enough to never had worked with punch cards.

 

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Adobe revolutionizes how the world engages with ideas and information – anytime, anywhere and through any medium. For more information, visit www.adobe.com.

 

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EffectiveUI is an award-winning, full-service agency that specializes in user-centered strategy, design and development of custom applications that deliver exceptional results. Leveraging emerging technologies and expertise in user experience, EffectiveUI helps today’s most respected brands deepen customer engagements by creating compelling, dynamic, and useful interactions across devices and platforms.EffectiveUI has developed groundbreaking applications for organizations including eBay, GE Health, NBC Universal, Viacom, Discovery Channel, Dow Jones, Adobe, and Microsoft. For more information, visit www.effectiveui.com.