In this interview with Artima, Erik Larson, Adobe's director of product management, and Rick Treitman, CEO of Virtual Ubiquity, discuss the importance of high-fidelity document representation in online applications.
As online applications increasingly take on roles traditionally associated with locally-installed software, developers are faced with the decision of how to represent documents in an online application. Initially, that decision centered around the choice of document format, such as XML or custom formats. Lately, however, the question of document representation started to include concerns for rendering and online fidelity as well, especially as documents edited and viewed online are becoming more complex, according to Erik Larson, director of product management at Adobe. Larson told Artima that,
The WSYWYG promise has really eroded online. That may be fine for simple text, but when you wish to collaborate with others on the Web you often need to go beyond simple text and work on documents where formatting and presentation are very significant. Desktop applications have evolved over many years to produce on-screen documents that are very close to, for instance, how a document would appear in print. Online applications are typically not that careful about ensuring WYSIWYG for the documents their users work on.
WYSYWYG is not only about close fidelity to the printed output, but also about ensuring that when multiple people look at a document, they see the same thing, even though they might use different browsers and platforms to access the document. That's part of the importance of having just "one truth:" Not only should one document have just one URL, in concert with the REST principles, but one representation of a document should be, well, just that one representation. It should appear the same everywhere.
To bolster its "one-truth" approach to online document management, Adobe announced today that it purchased Virtual Ubiquity, a company behind the online word processor Buzzword. In contrast to other online document creation tools, Buzzword aims for very high document fidelity. Rick Treitman, CEO of Virtual Ubiquity, told Artima that few online technologies today make high document fidelity and WYSIWYG possible, but that tool and technology vendors started to address this emerging need:
When we started working on Buzzword two and a half years ago, we were looking at various technologies. We wanted to make it easy for people to collaborate on documents. As part of that desire, it was important for us to ensure that all users looking at a document online see the same thing.
BuzzWord targets the Flash VM, and combines the Flex and PDF programming models to present documents that look the same on every platform and every browser. Recently, other rich-client technologies, such as Microsoft's SilverLight and Sun's JavaFX have also gained in popularity, and could possibly used to create high-fidelity, WYSIWYG documents online.
To what extent do you think true WYSIWYG is important in online applications?
It depends on the task at hand. If the document needs to be shown exactly as printed, then WYSIWYG is important.
Personally, I prefer the WYSIWYG approach, because it solves many communication problems; for example, a colleague mentions paragraph 1.3 in page 9, but in my setup paragraph 1.3 is on page 10. Yeap, it's minor, but annoying and interrupts the thought process.
It depends. PDF is perfect for printed output. However I am always annoyed by the bad on screen navigation of a 2 column document. Why do I have to navigate the physical structure of the document instead of the logical flow of text? This is something HTML does better. So pages and columns are physical properties depending on the output format, whereas paragraphs and chapters are logical properties.
So I think it's still important if author and consumer have the same output format in mind (even on paper you have letter versus A4). But why can't we have nice online reading too, I find myself printing PDF far too much, whereas most 'online' and even word documents are read on screen.
If you are preparing a document which is to be delivered in printed form on a single size of paper, then WYSIWYG is ideal. In most other cases it is a BIG mistake.
I am quite fed up with organisations who want to control exactly how I see on screen documents. Whether it be web sites not respecting large font mode users, A4/letter paper size issues, those two/three column formats which are great on paper but are a disaster on screen, or really anything based on a paper aspect ratio.
For a horizontal screen (mine is ~ 1.6:1 and does not rotate), I would like to have the choice between using a relatively narrow window on one side of the screen with just simple scrolling (what is the point of pages appearing every 1.5 screen fulls), or using a wider window with the document flowing across 2 (or more columns) under my control.