A Conversation with Marc Canter – Part I

“I took the 90’s off….”

by Jonathan Peterson


In the mid-90s I started bumping into Marc Canter when the CD-ROM development group I’d built at CNN Interactive first began experimenting with interactive TV and the nascent Web.  As many know, Marc was multimedia before multimedia was cool – he’d worked at Bally/Midway at the tail end of the coin-op video game explosion and founded MacroMind, which became Macromedia, in 1984 with the lofty goal of enabling artists to use the computer as a new medium.

MacroMind eventually created Director, the engine that would launch a thousand multimedia ships and put Marc at ground zero of the multimedia revolution.  Later, in the early 1990s, and after leaving Macromedia, Marc started Canter Technology where he worked to create interactive content that could scale from CD-ROM up to full-blown interactive TV.


This “conversation,” which will come in two installments, is an attempt to coalesce a series of wide-ranging emails we exchanged recently over the course of a week or so in which he discusses the past, present and bright future of user-created content as well as Broadband Mechanics, his new venture.

Photo courtesy of Robert “The Noble” Scoble


Macromedia and the Rise of Flash
The Death of Interactive Television
Appropriate User Interfaces
Empowering the Digital Amateur
Part II
The Power of Open Standards
The Microsoft Response
Why Blogging Matters

Macromedia and the rise of Flash

Jonathan – You started MacroMind with an eye towards enabling artists to create multimedia content; Does Broadband Mechanics differ in that fundamental goal?

Marc – Yes.  The base set of multimedia tools have been invented and Macromedia and Adobe supply that market pretty nicely and we don’t wanna reinvent the wheel.  But while interactive content is an end-game goal there’s a new paradigm shift in what tools are.  That needs to be addressed first – before we can start to enable the masses to create what you call multimedia content – which I call hypermedia.

Artists now learn the tricks and voodoo; spending the production dollars to create multimedia today. But how can we get more ‘normal’ people – people who wanna be artists or musicians, community leaders, teachers or designers?  Learning Flash is just too much of a leap of faith for them.

To summarize; is it about enabling artists to create multimedia or is it about turning everyday people into artists? We have chosen the later.

Jonathan – That almost sounds like something you could boil down as a company vision statement.  “Finding the artist in everyone”

Marc – Believe it or not – that company was called MacroMind.  But then the VC’s showed up and asked: “how many creative people are there and how much will they pay?”  I kept saying: “No!  It’s the creativity inside of everyone!”  And then they’d point at the Director timeline and say: “Huh?”

Jonathan – What do you think of Flash, did it lower the bar for multimedia authoring?

Marc – Flash is fundamentally Director – dumbed down, vector based – which now is attempting to catch up and add back all lot of what was taken out of Director – to make Flash.  So they’ve come full circle. The ‘straw sipping’ mentality of the web forced them to put out Flash – but now that broadband is here – there’s no reason to worry about keeping things so small – anymore.

Flash didn’t lower the bar – it just lowered the size of the files.  And got people away from bitmaps and back into vectors – another backwards step.

Jonathan – So Flash succeeded in a broader way because of smaller files and lower product cost?

Marc – No not lower product cost – though we argued for DAYS about splitting up the product between a high-end $2,500 version, pro – $800 and student $250.

I think you could summarize Flash’s success as:

  • smaller file size – shorter download
  • vector artwork – less ambitious, easier to produce ’cause it’s less content and work
  • ubiquitous player – which became a self fulfilling prophecy, once they purposefully starting de-emphasizing Shockwave (the player for Director)

So it was Macromedia’s internal de-emphasis of Director that helped Flash.  We saw that happening as early as ’95-’96 – as soon as Flash appeared.

Jonathan – What do you think of goofy pop-culture cut-up videos that Flash seems to have created (I’m thinking of stuff like RatherGood’s Viking Kittens or the Kikkoman “commercial” that get passed around)?  This can’t be what you were thinking when you started MediaBand.

Marc – MediaBand was about interactive music videos – that ain’t what these are.  The cool thing coming is “Dickie & Jackie” – at joesparks.com.

Jonathan – It’s especially exciting when these little weird individualistic things take on a life of their own – making the jump into mainstream culture.  “The Simpsons”, “South Park” and “Beavis and Butthead” started as film shorts.  It’s just a matter of time before a Flash cartoon turns into a successful TV show.  [Update – Charles Wiltgen points out that Undercover Brother started out as a Flash cartoon]

Marc – But this stuff gets abused commercially; just as Paul Brainerd couldn’t control what people would do with PageMaker and the same goes for me and Flash and multimedia in general. It doesn’t surprise me that crass usage of multimedia is propagating throughout the web; isn’t the only purpose of media to fill in the gaps between ads?

What’s really too bad is that folks like Jakob Nielson have had to rise up and tell designers how to make great interfaces.  Guess what baby gets thrown out with the bath water?  The creative use of media!

So now animated interfaces equals bad and dull boring white screens equal good.


The Death of Interactive Television

Jonathan – What happened with interactive TV?  Why did we fail in what we wanted to create?

Marc – 5 years ago the Interactive TV industry standardized on set top boxes with 8Meg of memory- which were, at that time, already 5 years old.  So when 20 million boxes finally got out to the market they were delivering an experience that was almost 10 years behind customer expectation.  OpenTV and Liberate were stuck trying to get these boxes to do something interesting – good luck!

Just to make things run completely afoul, Microsoft bought WebTV and eventually put out the Ultimate TV box – both of which should have been set top boxes – but weren’t.  “I know – let’s put out crippled boxes, with limited functionality – that look, feel and taste like set top boxes – but aren’t.”

That’s gonna solidify a burgeoning industry!

Finally I think the nail that seals the fate of sucky experiences – is the so-called ‘walled garden’.  To get ANYTHING to work in an 8Meg box, they came up with this concept that ALL interactivity, information display, etc. – would happen in this ‘safe-zone’ area of screen display.

I never thought I’d have to say this: “different kinds of content and services should actually have (maybe) have different kinds of interactivity.”


Appropriate User Interfaces

Jonathan – I like playing with UI, it’s one of the things I do professionally.  But the UI for books, magazines, TV, radio, etc. are all fixed and it is the content that matters.  There will always be a role for inventive UI, but perhaps pushing the UI boundaries will be more the job of the professional hypermedia artist.  One problem is the “placeness” of the web; people like their web sites to be a reflection of thier personality.  But it’s a hell of a lot easier to move the furniture around your living room than to redesign your website.  To really torture the metaphor, buying new sofa doesn’t make your TV stop working.

Marc – Books, magazines, billboards, signage, and looking at your watch all entail reading – but they are displayed and presented differently with different purposes.  That’s how I’d approach interfaces – each aesthetic statement is a company’s, brand’s or individual’s way of communicating their particular message.

So typefaces, size, color, imagery and context are all part of the ‘interface’ to reading.  You’re not arguing that all reading only use the same font or size – are you? That’s the equivalent of the walled garden in Interactive TV.

Jonathan – No, no, don’t confuse UI function with presentation.  A photoblog needs a way to move up to an index, cycle through photos, maybe a way to change the order by people or subject instead of date.  Clicking on a thumbnail should give me a bigger picture.  Some designers and marketers want a rich, immersive experience and manage to forget about both the end-user and the content.  To further torture my home decor metaphor, pick any material and paint color for your front door, any window shape and hardware you like, but make sure you have a porch light, a street visible address, and a doorbell if you want me to come visit.

Marc – But we CAN argue about user interface guidelines and novice/xenophobic end-users figuring out how to use something and what a consistent ‘interface’ means for them.  To me – that’s called a remote control, buttons like “Add”, “Delete” or “More” and other consistent elements like zooming video frames zooming up as you ‘select’ them or even audio cues or annotation.

But guess what? Not all end-users are the same.  So what’s the justification for giving me the same interface you’ve carefully crafted for xenophobic grandma?  We’ve ascertained that there should be at least THREE distinct levels to user interfaces – one for beginning level, simplistic UE’s, one for average folks and an advanced version – as well.

Walled gardens have no place to live in that world of 3 usage levels.  Well maybe it’s the dumb down version for grannie – but NOT for me!

Jonathan – Yes!  Gramma would need a WebTV sort of interface, standardized button UI for photo albums, etc.  The new prismiq home media server has a web browser a feature others will surely copy and WebTV has taught us that custom presentation is required for TV display.  A modern web browser is the right front door for the average visitor, and a power-user desktop CMS would let me work with content across all my peering friends, public domain and commercial content providers – giving me all kinds of meta-data searching and sorting functionality. 

This interface neutrality is one of the great things about content syndication.  A visually impaired friend of mine made some good readability suggestions for my blog, but as a quick solution, I helped him get Amphetadesk up and running so he could just read my RSS feed.  He has complete control over presentation for everything that has RSS.  A HUGE advantage of aggregation that I had never even considered.

Marc – Yes, appropriate interfaces for the right humans – is core and first. Then content, commerce and communications are all reduced as XML-RPC data – RSS packets being syndicated (both sucked and pulled) all over the place. The apps and service interfaces are designed to have content, commerce items, ads, messages, etc. – all flowed through it – dynamically. I’ve been waiting over 7 years – for that to happen.


Empowering the Digital Amateur

Jonathan – So by failing to launch interactive television, we accidentally enabled individuals to be contributors instead of consumers – something that was never going to happen in multi-billion dollar interactive TV production processes.

Marc – Yes the vision of an infrastructure that delivers VOD, services and other kinds of content – via the TV set – is dead on arrival.  DOA.

Now using the cable modem line of DSL or whatever – to get data into the home and then displaying ‘some’ of that stuff on TV sets, stereos, stored on PVRs, attached to devices – IS the answer!

But don’t trust the current broadcast industry to do that!
It’s not that the broadcast biz is going to distribute our content – it’s whether or not the broadcast biz is going to enable, help, prevent, fund, or stand in the way of self published content.


Jonathan – When did you discover blogs?

Marc – I mentioned to Dave Winer that a site could be a tool.  He had content management and a web site framework (with Frontier) and we were discussing scalable content.  He said: “gee I can just put up a web page – like this….”

I said: “cool, but what about media…?”

He went on to create editthispage, and I’ve been watching ever since.  That was in 1996.  I’m still waiting for the media.

Jonathan – I played with editthispage when it came out, but I already had a server and professional web development tools, so it didn’t excite me.  Blogger’s ease of posting was revolutionary.  I started blogging in september ’99 as an easy way to share information with my other product concept team members at BellSouth.

Marc – Funny how a simple interface to a hosted service changed everything – huh?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *