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Macromedia: Advancing With Mobile Innovation Print E-mail
Written by Richard Bloor   
Monday, 24 October 2005
Last week's purchase of Mobile Innovation by Flash maker Macromedia signals a significant shift in the way mobile user interfaces will develop in the future. We talk to Matt Millar, co-founder of Mobile Innovation and new Practice Director of Macromedia's Mobile and Devices practice in EMEA, about how the change affects Mobile Innovations products and services.

We first featured Macromedia's plans to push Flash from a content presentation tool to mobile UI enabler back in July 2004. Since then Macromedia have announced a number of licensing agreement, including Nokia. The drive looks as though it will be moving up a gear with the purchase of UI specialist Mobile Innovation. Mobile Innovation have been behind a number of the UIs seen on today's Symbian OS devices.

Richard: What is the motivation for Macromedia's purchase of Mobile Innovation?

Matt: Mobile Innovation has used Macromedia Flash for PC prototyping of user interfaces for as long as its been in existence. In the last 18 months Macromedia has made Flash Lite available and moved into the mobile space. As a company we questioned why we were prototyping with one tool and then implementing the design in C++. If we could go straight from the prototype to running, it would made a lot of sense.

As Macromedia started to work in the mobile space we started working more closely. We offered Macromedia our handset experience and helped inform their development. Over time it became clear that the companies shared goals and the deal progressed from there.

Richard: Mobile Innovation has been synonymous with Symbian OS development, how does this deal affect that?

Matt: Mobile Innovation has been moving to a more operating system agonistic position for a while. We care a lot about the user interface, believe we can design them well and want to get our designs on to handsets. The operating system is just a vehicle to enable us to do this. One of the advantages we have seen, over the last year of working with Macromedia, is that Flash is operating system agonistic and already shipping across a range of devices. So it gave us a technology aligned with the goals we want to achieve.

There will certainly continue to be a very close alignment with Symbian OS, it is the reference platform for Flash Lite. That means that at the high end, leading edge of the phone market there is going to be a very close alignment. The new arrangement allows us to address a much broader market in terms of RTOS base devices and imbedded devices. We can also address devices outside the mobile space, such as set top boxes. For example, iriver U10 MP3 players have a Flash interface as do some Kodak cameras.

Richard: Mobile Innovation was more than just UIs though, you have a number of testing tools for example. What is going to happen to those?

Matt: Support will continue for all the existing products and we have announced a new version of Try for the Series 60 3rd Edition. In terms of future direction; Macromedia are a tools company, that is what they sell. There will be some work aligned road maps, to see what benefit we can have in combination.

Richard: If there is no alignment does that mean some of the Mobile Innovation tools will be abandoned?

Matt: No. Remember that those tools are being used by players in the industry who are key customers of Macromedia. It is very unlikely that support will ever be dropped for them completely. However, if they don't form a strong strategic fit we will seek someone with whom they do fit strategically or look for other ways of making them available to those who rely on them.

Richard: How do you see Flash fitting in with UI platforms like Series 60?

Matt: The existing Flash Lite version is 1.1. Its core is based on Flash 4. It has limited interaction, with very basic scripting. We have now announced Flash Lite 2.0. It is a significant upgrade. It aligns roughly with Flash 7, which until earlier this year was the shipping Web version. Flash Lite 2.0 has a full OO scripting language Action Script 2.0. On a PC it enables developers to undertake full Web application development and will allow full mobile application development too. Clearly there is always an API access issue, whether you have the right access to the application engines.

However, I don't think it would make sense to write a highly performant contact management engine in Action Script. That's always going to be the domain of the platform and OS providers. Presenting a fully functional, interactive contacts management solution sourcing data from the OS in Flash is something that is achievable. I'm sure we will see manufacturers shipping that style of interface on phones in the near future.

Richard: So you see Flash complimenting or perhaps replacing the top UI layer?

Matt: I think there are a number of very hard problems that have to be solved when you are creating a hand set. Many are presentation related, many genuine engineering problems. The most obvious example is a browser. In a browser there are interface issues around skinning, functional layout, bookmark management and so on; but the core rendering engine, that puts html on the device, is a very tough problem to solve. This is something that presentation layer doesn't solve for you, it also tend to sit outside the OS.

So I think there is a huge amount of value in terms of combining an application layer such as Series 60, that builds out the full set of applications and functionality, with Flash. With Series 60 you are getting components like browsers, phone engines and media engines, which are needed to build a phone. As you know Nokia have licensed Flash Lite. I expect they will see, where issues are purely related to the presentation of interface, it makes a lot of sense to develop interfaces using a technology like Flash. Where there are hard engineering problems, that need to be solved below the interface, then solve those in C++.

Richard: So would you expect to see the interface on platforms like Series 60 gravitate towards Flash?

Matt: I think that will end up being a tactical choice by the manufactures about what tools enable them to do. We are already seeing manufactures shipping handsets where the top level interface elements are developed in Flash, such as the main menus and navigation. Where presentation is very important it makes a lot of sense to develop in Flash. Where the presentation is less important and the technology challenges are harder I think applications will continue to be created with C code.

Richard: What does this move mean for Mobile Innovation's work?

Matt: This new practice is not intending to hold a monopoly on development of Flash interfaces. Macromedia's business is to sell tools that enable millions of developers world wide. The sort of challenges our team is aiming to solve are about pushing the envelope of what can be achieved with Flash. That inevitably leads to requirements to develop new APIs and extensions that allow creative developers to do new things on devices. The sort of projects we have been doing, and expect to continue doing, will mix developing interfaces with Flash and extending the core Flash functionality to enable the creation of new interfaces and features that cannot be easily achieved at the moment.

Richard: So Mobile Innovations engineering skills are going to be redeployed from building Symbian OS interfaces into engineering Flash to build Symbian OS, and other, interfaces?

Matt: That will be one aspect of the work, but there is also integrating Flash into devices. The core Flash engine itself is C++ so our engineers will be integrating it into platforms and devices. Making it very functional and very performant on devices is key. Life is not as simple as a box of software that everybody can put on their phones, there is quite a lot of work to make that happen.

Richard: How do you see your relationship with companies like Nokia evolving?

Matt: Nokia is one of the most significant licensees in the mobile world, and I don't expect that will change. They are one of the most creative and innovative companies as well, which is how they maintain their position. The fact that they have made significant investment in Flash has made the rest of the industry take notice. I would expect that they will continue to be the people that push the envelope.

Nokia is commitment to Symbian OS, but Flash is complementary to their existing business. It is not a threat to any of their existing solutions. For some of the things they do Flash simply provides a better way.

For more information on the purchase of Mobile Innovation by here.



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