Christian Heilmann

Reaching the audience vs. puerile purity

Saturday, July 28th, 2012 at 6:08 am

With the release of the videos of Rey Bango and me talking about web standards I once again found a pavlovian reaction of developers and people of the internet to publishing. Here is what happened:

  • Microsoft funded a series of videos talking about sensible use of web standards and embracing cross-browser development
  • Microsoft took on the production, editing, hosting, conversion and publishing of these videos
  • Never once in these videos is a Microsoft product promoted as better than others or the right choice

Microsoft releases these videos on their channel 9 platform which shows videos as an HTML5 embed and Silverlight. Silverlight proved to be an interesting video platform, which has features that HTML5 can not support at the moment, and of course is endorsed by Microsoft as their own product.

So, predictably – and something that saddens me – people who had Silverlight installed got a Silverlight version of the movies and went “neener neener, how IRONIC that you do HTML5 videos and release them as Silverlight”. I myself don’t have it, so both the Microsoft page and the embed are just an HTML5 video for me. I also very much enjoyed seeing the download links next to the video embed – I used them as I am on a bad hotel connection and streaming is not fun here.

People who had an outdated Silverlight plugin saw an upgrade message instead of the video and immediately complained about the video being broken – although the message said clearly that they can switch to an HTML5 player instead. This messsage had nothing to do with the video – instead it complains about outdated software. It makes sense to me to not allowed outdated plugins to run.

So here are the things that annoy me about this:

  • People complaining about the purity of HTML5 being attacked are the ones who installed a plugin in the first place and failed to keep it up to date. You never needed Silverlight to watch these videos.
  • Instead of using the very obvious fallbacks, or even reading the information the not-running plugin gives you it is more important to point out a non-existent irony

Now I am – being the HTML5 advocate and open web tree hugger that I am – going to shock you even more: I really don’t care if the videos are published in Silverlight or not – as long as I get a version I can use without a plugin, too.

One of the comments of the site admins made the point very clear:

@spoonfood: Site dev here… thought I’d reply to explain a few things. So, first off… Rey/Chris have nothing to do with how we choose to implement our video player, but having said that I don’t think we are doing anything wrong here. We have access to an adaptive streaming version of these videos, which is a technology that is not yet standardized across HTML 5 implementations, so by giving Silverlight to those that have it installed we don’t force anyone to install anything, but if they already have it they get a better experience in the Silverlight plug-in. If the experience was equal we would likely start with HTML 5 and fallback on non HTML 5 browsers.

I have encountered the same in the past: when embedding videos in my blog as HTML5 videos using for conversion I felt like doing exactly the right thing. And I did. I saw it as someone living in the Western world with good connections though who might have trouble streaming but is very much OK to download a movie.

I got quite a lot of feedback from countries with flaky and slow connections who’d much more prefer that I post my videos on YouTube as they also have adaptive streaming that allows people to watch things in internet cafes in lesser quality but at least available to them.

So the learning here for me and all of us should be: getting the message out is the most important part.

I knew for a fact that on Channel 9 a lot of the audience will be Microsoft developers who have Silverlight and will use that. I am fine with that – these are the people I wanted to reach and why I agreed to this cooperation.

Getting our content out to people is the most important part in this. In the past, companies like Microsoft would have released this as a DVD or as a download in proprietary formats instead of making it available for free to the world. Instead of celebrating this change and enjoying that the content and the good messages about the open web get out to an audience struggling with embracing them we go for the childish and quick success of pointing out that someone is seemingly wrong on the internet.

This is exactly the same behaviour that keeps accessibility a subject that experts care about or people pay lip service to rather than understanding it. Years in that community made me give up on it to a large degree as incredibly good presentations and talks with information for developers never got released outside of the conference. The reasons were that transcribing and captioning the videos or even converting the slides to “accessible” formats was too much work or too expensive for the speakers and organisers.

Instead of getting important information out to a targetted audience of developers who are not differently abled great content remained mothballed to avoid a backlash of a puristic audience poised on calling out the lack of extra effort needed to bring the information to those who already knew it.

Information not getting out is a sad thing. You want to be heard, so think of who you consider the most important group to hear your message and make it available to them in the most convenient format. Don’t fall for the fake success of creating content in the most pure format but failing to reach those who need to hear what you have to say.

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