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4 - Overcoming cross platform deficiences

Some of this chapter may be out of date, or not thorough enough in their detail. This was due to constraints on the length of the report, not allowing me enough detail, or to be overgeneralistic. If there are problems, please contact me.

This chapter will show how, through my experimentation, I was able to find ways of addressing cross platform compatibility. And I will look into the future, speculating on the technologies that may emerge to help all designers be creative and still reach as wide an audience as possible.

“The best possible solution will come via the online delivery method. Using Java and HTML the chances of developing projects that will run on all platforms will be possible.” (entry 8, Appendix A)
James Bayliss, Marketing Director, Sherston Software

File Formats

Every platform can accept particular file formats which have emerged as the most popular, the “industry standard.” Reasons for this could be due to the level of support they are given by commercial developers, or the speed at which they are created. The table in Figure 19 shows the most popular formats for particular media, and are accepted by all three platforms. (pages 14 and 30, Cowan)

Figure 19 Figure 19

Designers employ these formats knowing that they are likely to work almost anywhere. The only niggles that could arise would be related to how the designers machine and his software save the file in a way that will prevent it running first time on another machine e.g. if a Postscript file is created using a typeface not owned by the recipient and his or her machine, resulting in errors. Therefore, testing is a high priority throughout the whole development cycle.

For commercial reasons, some developers choose to withold the data structure of a file format. Microsoft Word files are a case in point. The format is jaealously guarded to prevent competing word processors from being able to handle them. However, developers have overcome this through disassembly of the format, figuring out the structure, and eventually programming their software to cope with them.

Rather than face the hassle of working with potentially flawed file formats, why not create your own? Some multimedia companies have chosen to do this when creating titles, so that cross platform development time is halved, because only one set of files is required. Yet the reader software of all three platforms can read them. The aforementioned Anglia Multimedia and Sherston Software have used this method to create all their recent releases. Sherston’s example can be seen in Figure 20 A and B. This software, Playbook, is designed to create multimedia that runs on all three platforms without any alteration.

Figure 20A Figure 20A

Figure 20B Figure 20B

The problem that can arise is that the computer world will become overrun with formats, and too many versions of the same format will cause users much wasted time in reading them into their coputer.

Java

The Java programming language has become the multimedia designer’s dream - being able to create projects where cross platform incompatibility is effectively extinct. Since 1995, Java has steadily gained acceptance and importance in the computer industry. 1998 marked the commercial breakthrough for the language, with Java programmed software hitting the shop shelves, albeit in small quantities.

Java has made a much bigger impact on the Internet, in the form of little gadgets to improve the content of webpages. Examples include ticker tape announcers, animated webcounters, and even arcade games.

“I think as operating systems mature we will reach the stage where everybody will be running a Java Virtual Machine on top of or instead of their existing OS on their chosen platform, allowing multimedia developers to author just once in Java for all platforms.” (entry 9, Appendix A)
Ian Carswell, Track 29 Productions Limited

As long as your platform has a Java Virtual Machine to lay 'on top' of your operating system, you can use Java written programs without any concern for compatibility. Multimedia designers have started grasping the importance of Java. Macromedia have incorporated Java into Director 6 and 7, and browser plug-ins for Shockwave and Shockwave Flash technology have also been programmed with Java. Before, such technology was only available to the most common platforms.

The future of Java is pretty much secure. The only fly in the ointment is Microsoft who, in 1997, attempted to incorporate a modified version of Java with their Internet Explorer browser, so that only PCs using Windows could display such programs on the internet. This was partly the basis for the current anti-trust case that the US Department of Justice has filed against Microsoft, on behalf of Sun Microsystems (the creators of Java) and many other companies.

Know your limits

Be considerate with your target audience. I found that to reach the largest audience possible, project work should be kept simple, assuming the lowest common denominator, with graphics set to 256 colours (for old monitors) and low quality sound. Movie footage must compromise quality with the power required to play the film.

It is easy for a designer with a powerful machine to develop a project which will only run on such machines. Low end machines are much greater in number, and there is nothing more frustrating to the user than a product which they cant use without heavily upgrading their computer.

Cross platform colour palettes

256 colour palettes on the Macintosh and PC platforms are different. Graphics produced on the PC will appear darker on the Macintosh. The Acorn’s 256 colour palette seems to display images more clearly. I find it appalling that there is no agreed standard on how colours are addressed across the three platforms.

Typographical Considerations

Typography handles differently on each platform, so text may appear badly aligned or change font completely when transferred. It is usually better to have bitmapped text; graphical images of text, rather than text itself. This is essential if you want text to appear smooth on screen. The Acorn platform is the only machine to use on screen font aliasing and blending, giving good quality typeface displays.

Testing, testing, testing...

Test your product frequently. No matter how small the step, ensure that the project will run without question on other platforms. Try to run your project on as many platforms as possible, with as many configurations as possible. See Chapter 2 for an example of how testing fell through with my cover CD-ROM for a magazine.

Convergence Technology

Up to now, multimedia has been created for desktop computers. But, as digital broadcasting and computing converge, the opportunity arises for multimedia to come to the masses. However, with this, all multimedia must become platform independent, for if consumers were faced with the same problems that technically proficient computer operators frequently experience, then they would quickly look elsewhere. The technology required must be as transparent and as easy to use, if not easier, than the video recorder. A system where digital media can be simply displayed and interacted with on screen, without the need to create different versions of it.

The release of online set top boxes and network computers (NCs) to the general public marks the beginning of the worldwide change in the way that we communicate with each other (see Figure 21). NCs are devices which attach to any television, allowing you to surf the Internet using a control pad for navigation, as well as other simple computing tasks. It differs from normal computers in that all software installed on it is held at a central location and is fed down a telephone line to your NC. This negates the need to upgrade software, for it will be done for you. This way, all multimedia content can be viewed easily.

Figure 21 Figure 21

Set top boxes, however, download digital media from a television or cable company, allowing greater numbers of broadcast channels, and being digital, an interactive element can be transmitted also. Java is set to become this element, and indeed, Acorn, apart from designing the NC, are also working with Sun Microsystems on a version of Java which can work alongside digital television, providing such features as TV and film listings, and video recorder programming facilities. The possibilities are boundless, which is what multimedia design should be.

Late 1998 brought the introduction of digital television into the UK. The rest of the world will follow through 1999. In a few years time, the interactive elements outlined above will be brought in.

In the future, therefore, the need to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each type of computer will become less of a concern, as multimedia moves towards mainstream entertainment and with it, platform independence becoming a viable reality. But, for the time being at least, it is still some way off, leaving technical expertise on the part of the user as the only way of addressing cross platform compatibility.

Bibliography

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