Allegiant White Paper

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    THE ALLEGIANT INTERNET AUTHORING ENVIRONMENT: A WHITE PAPER

The Allegiant Internet Authoring Environment is a comprehensive suite of tools and technologies that will put a complete multimedia environment and a fourth-generation scripting language into the hands of developers for the World Wide Web and internal corporate networks (intranets). This White Paper provides an overview of the components of the authoring environment, its key benefits over existing Internet authoring solutions, and an explanation of the integration of the tools in delivering Internet applications.

INTRODUCTION

The extraordinary power of multimedia communications, coupled with the widespread availability of the Internet, has generated tremendous interest in the capabilities of the World Wide Web.

But the Web as it exists today is "a mile wide and an inch deep." The well-known limitations of bandwidth for many users, coupled with the limitations of HTML and the inadequacy of current tools, severely constrain the Web and discourage many potential commercial uses of the Web space. The enabling tools and technologies needed to make the Web into a vital medium for multimedia communication have, until quite recently, been over the horizon.

This paper discusses several of those enabling tools to be delivered by Allegiant Technologies. Taken together, these tools and technologies will profoundly change the landscape of Web authoring. With its Internet Authoring Suite, Allegiant is simultaneously raising the standard for the richness and sophistication of Web applications while lowering the threshold of technical sophistication needed to create such content.

In the sections that follow, this paper will discuss:

ALLEGIANT AND THE SUPERCARD TECHNOLOGY

Allegiant is the publisher of SuperCard, one of the premier multimedia authoring tools in use today for CD-ROM delivery. SuperCard and its scripting language, SuperTalk, are the most robust, cross-platform implementation of the HyperTalk language that serves as the underlying scripting language for such authoring tools as Asymetrix Toolbook, Macromedia Director, and Oracle Media Objects, among others.

SuperCard is widely used today to deliver computer-based training and education applications, multimedia reference, entertainment and "edutainment" titles, executive information systems and database front-ends, as well as a variety of custom applications. SuperCard's strength is in combining rich multimedia support with a full-featured application development environment, giving developers a unique tool for building multimedia-based applications.

With this background, Allegiant is in an ideal position to deliver authoring technology for creating Internet- and intranet-enabled multimedia applications. By extending its core authoring technology to treat the Internet as an operating system and provide full support for it, Allegiant will enable the creation of Internet applications that go beyond anything currently available in terms of sophistication and ease of creation.

Allegiant's products will deliver the first integrated multimedia environment, including bitmapped and vector-based graphics, animation, QuickTime and other digital video, font, hypertext and sound support to the World Wide Web. By delivering this integrated environment upon a simple, English-like scripting language, Allegiant's environment will be far easier to use than anything currently available on the Web.

DELIVERING SUPERCARD TECHNOLOGY ON THE INTERNET

    Allegiant's Internet environment is based on an Internet-enabled version of SuperTalk that will be implemented in WWW browsers, custom clients, and cgi servers. The Allegiant environment itself consists of three distinct components:

    • Roadster , a browser plug-in for delivering SuperCard-based content into existing browsers, such as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Current SuperCard developers will use a version of SuperCard to create documents for Roadster. In addition, new, template-driven software applications will be provided to create much broader access to the power of Roadster.
    • Marionet, a client-based Internet scripting engine for creating Internet-enabled client software.
    • Flamethrower (codename), a SuperTalk cgi (Common Gateway Interface) server for building distributed Internet applications based on the common use of the SuperTalk scripting language.

    The combination of the components in the Allegiant Internet Authoring Environment puts a common fourth-generation scripting language, SuperTalk, into a framework that spans browsers, custom clients and servers. By leveraging the highly efficient visual development environment provided by SuperCard, this SuperTalk framework will greatly ease the time and cost of developing Internet-enabled Multimedia Applications both on the Web and within the corporate intranet.

In the next three sections, each of these products will be discussed in more detail.

In addition, Allegiant will be providing new tools for authoring Roadster content:, including a revision of SuperCard that will fully support authoring multimedia content and Internet applications for both the desktop and the World Wide Web.

ROADSTER -- THE POWER PLUG-IN FOR MULTIMEDIA

Browser software is currently the chief portal to the World Wide Web. Although we believe that trend will change in the future as browser capabilities are integrated into applications and operating systems, today the browsers -- particularly Netscape Navigator -- are the Web.

Browsers, however, are fundamentally constrained by the limitations of the basic Web language, HTML. Leaning heavily on Sun's Java language, Netscape has made a valiant effort to try to circumvent the limitations of HTML through two enabling technologies, plug-ins and JavaScript. Microsoft has set out its own vision for the same extensibility through ActiveX controls and Visual Basic Script in Internet Explorer, and Apple, too, has a similar strategy with its CyberDog OpenDoc part. (In what follows we will primarily address Netscape, but the same opportunities present themselves with respect to Microsoft's and Apple's technologies, and Allegiant will integrate its technology with those environments as well).

The problem associated with these solutions is that the complexity of authoring grows exponentially with the increase in functionality. To deliver even a modest multimedia application over the Web today would require developing in a hybrid environment of HTML, JavaScript and probably several plug-ins, all of which have distinct development environments that are either ignorant of -- or actively hostile to -- the other components. For the end user to actually run such an application requires a similar effort, with the acquisition and configuration of multiple plug-ins and the hope that the plug-ins will have enough memory to execute together.

While both Netscape and Microsoft have postulated a world in which some of these authoring issues are addressed through their proprietary solutions, there is a limit to the level of integration they will be able to achieve, and that integration will come at its own price.

Allegiant's Roadster technology, on the other hand, uses the plug-in framework and SuperTalk language to deliver a virtually complete implementation of SuperCard inside these browsers. SuperCard-based content can thus be delivered across the Web directly into the browser environment. This gives the developer several critical advantages over trying to author using a hybrid of HTML, JavaScript and plug-ins.

ROADSTER'S KEY BENEFITS
  • Roadster is an integrated environment.
  • SuperCard provides support for bitmapped and vector-based graphics, animation (including animated "multimedia" buttons), QuickTime and other digital video, as well as numerous font, sound and hypertext formats. With these capabilities, it is possible to build rich multimedia experiences entirely within the plug-in.

    While some individual features of Roadster may be matched by a single-purpose plug-in, no other plug-ins available today offer this level of integration and ease of development. To even approximate Roadster's functionality within the Netscape/HTML environment would require at least several plug-ins -- each with its associated development environment -- along with some Java programming. The resulting content would then have to be wired together using JavaScript and integrated manually within an HTML editor. In contrast, Roadster content can be easily created within SuperCard.

  • Roadster is a distributed environment.
  • A key strength of SuperCard today is its ability to employ and play back external media within an application shell. This strength maps perfectly to the requirements of delivering meaningful interactive multimedia experiences from Web servers to browser clients for the "bandwidth challenged" of the Internet.

    A Roadster developer can create a simple shell application that can be downloaded quickly, providing a fast initial response to the user. Additional data elements can then be "streamed" to the user and cached locally to populate the shell. At worst, the data will arrive as fast as it would in a conventional HTML environment. But in many cases, the developer will be able to anticipate and sequence data downloading so that the user will experience little or no delay. Web applications will therefore behave much more like traditional "local" applications or CD-ROM titles, with minimal wait times, leading to a dramatic increase in the number and variety of potential uses.

    By using the latest compression standards, Roadster also benefits from the most rapid possible downloads and yet makes updating content as simple as it is for HTML pages today.

  • Roadster is extensible.
  • A future version of Roadster will include support for Java applets, which will provide a simple, cross-platform mechanism to extend application capabilities. Other future technologies can be similarly incorporated.

  • Roadster is accessible.
  • The underlying scripting engine is based on SuperTalk, a superset of widely used HyperTalk fourth-generation scripting language. Out of the box, Roadster's scripting language will be understandable to literally millions of content and application developers who have used SuperCard, HyperCard, Director and Toolbook on Macintosh and Windows platforms.

    To further open up end-user access to the creation of real multimedia Web applications, Allegiant is developing a new version of SuperCard that will be optimized for authoring content and Internet applications on Roadster.

ROADSTER VS. OTHER WEB ENHANCEMENT TECHNOLOGIES

    Enormous efforts have been made in the past 18 months or so to enhance the capabilities of the Web, both through enhancing the HTML spec and through extensions to the Web browser environments. Clearly the most significant of these, so far, have been Sun Microsystems' Java language followed by the Shockwave plug-in from Macromedia.

    Java has opened the possibility of breaking through most of the limitations of the Web -- and of the Internet itself -- by enabling secure, text-based, platform-independent "applets" that can move fluidly across the Internet and run on any Java-enabled browser.

    Although certainly less fundamental a technology than Java, Shockwave has already had a significant impact on the Web by enabling animated "shocked" sites to proliferate for users with either high bandwidth or a lot of patience.

    Together, these two disparate technologies have become emblematic of the (so-far largely theoretical) potential of the Web to deliver multimedia applications.

    Roadster fits squarely into the rather sizable gap between Shockwave and Java. Roadster will deliver the majority of the multimedia capabilities of Shockwave, and a similar 75% of the application capabilities of Java. More importantly, it will deliver that capability at far lower cost in terms of time and programming skill.

    ROADSTER VS. SHOCKWAVE

    Shockwave was developed to bring some of the sizzle of multimedia to the Web, based on content created with Macromedia's Director application. Shockwave plays back Director animations in an HTML-based Web page. These animated clips are placed on the page much as GIF or JPEG images are currently and, again like GIF or JPEG images, are used to spice up a Web page with visual content.

    Many other plug-ins have appeared recently that compete with Shockwave for the low-end Web page animation space, including WebAnimator from DeltaPoint, Sizzler from Totally Hip and others.

    The SuperCard/Roadster combination, in contrast, provides the framework for delivering complete interactive applications -- including animation -- on the Web. SuperCard delivers sophisticated animation authoring capabilities, and Roadster can play back animations created in any of the leading single-purpose animation programs, using industry standard formats.

    Compared to Shockwave, Roadster offers numerous advantages in delivering true multimedia across the Web:

    • Script-controlled downloading -- with full script control for downloading and caching all the media components of a Roadster project, the Roadster developer has far more control over the data rates required to display a given sequence of multimedia data
    • Externalized media -- Roadster's support for linked media, and all common Internet-standard file formats, makes changing and updating content easier than Shockwave.
    • Streaming media -- Roadster supports streaming linked graphics, animations and QuickTime movies, as opposed to Shockwave, which requires downloading a complete Director file and supports no linked media or streaming.
    • Greater interactivity -- Roadster supports more system messages than Shockwave, giving the Roadster developer greater control over user interactivity.
    • Card metaphor -- The card metaphor of SuperCard/Roadster maps much more directly to the page metaphor of the Web than Director's timeline, making Roadster a far more accessible environment to Web authors.
    ROADSTER VS. JAVA

    As InfoWorld editor Stewart Alsop wrote in a recent column, Java is based on C++ and will likely be used for only those projects that use C/C++ today -- typically high-value projects that can afford the freight of C engineers.

    Roadster co-exists with Java in the same way that SuperCard co-exists with C/C++ today. There are an enormous number of projects that cannot justify C engineering but which can be delivered quickly, cheaply and effectively in a fourth-generation environment such as SuperCard. Roadster brings that same leverage to the Web. By providing the SuperTalk interpreter within the Roadster plug-in, Allegiant gives scripters the ability to build fully functional Web applications for a fraction of the cost of developing in Java.

    Moreover, the largest disadvantage to interpreted environments -- as compared to compiled languages such as C -- has been the loss of performance during the interpretation phase. Because Java, though derived from C++, is an interpreted language, at least part of that performance advantage has been traded away for networked portability.

    The key to evaluating Roadster vs. Java, however, is not a matter of choosing one or the other, but rather a matter of using the appropriate tool for each specific task. Java is a lower-level operating environment than Roadster. It can therefore provide additional functionality that can in turn be used to extend Roadster -- in exactly the way that SuperCard, Director and Toolbook developers use XCMDs and DLLs to extend the capabilities of their chosen environments.

FILE FORMAT SUPPORT

    Roadster will support the following media formats:

    • GIF
    • PICT
    • JPEG
    • ART
    • AIFF
    • QuickTime
SECURITY ISSUES

    Because Roadster will enable real Internet applications, restrictions are required to prevent Roadster projects from taking actions that could create problems on the end-user's computer, such as viruses or other system problems. The ability to include external code modules (XCMDs/XFCNs) in the downloadable project will be disabled, for example, in the publicly distributable version of Roadster for the Macintosh. In addition, commands in the SuperTalk language that provide for file I/O and the manipulation of external resources will be disabled.

AVAILABILITY AND PLATFORM SUPPORT

    Roadster will be available in mid-1996 for MacOS and Windows 95 platforms. A version for Window 3.1.1 is expected to follow by several months. Allegiant is currently considering UNIX platform support.

MARIONET -- BREWING DECAF

    "Caffeine and anti-caffeine. For purposes of discussion, let's call all efforts to combine the web with multimedia, animation, agents and complex images under the heading of caffeine, and other efforts to combine the web with proper search engines, directories of links, and mostly text-based methods under the heading of anti-caffeine. Both 'sides,' if you will, are important for the web to grow and thrive." - David Strom, from The Web Informant

A browser-centric view dominates the Web and Internet today, and Roadster is targeted squarely at delivering significant enhancements to current Web/browser technology. But there is another facet of the Internet that is critical to future growth - the portion of the Internet that functions as an information repository:

Marionet is designed to facilitate development of the "anti-caffeine" Internet by providing full access to Internet data from within applications built with popular authoring tools on Macintosh and Windows.

Marionet is an asynchronous, multi-threaded communications engine that provides a high-level scripting language interface to all the major Internet protocols. It insulates the developer from all the complexities of communicating with the Internet and "talking the talk" of the Internet protocols.

But unlike other "client object" solutions, such as Apple's CyberDog, Marionet does not force a particular view of the content upon the developer. The "raw" data is passed from Marionet directly to the target application, to be used, modified, reformatted, etc., as necessary. In this way the developer has the greatest flexibility in presenting the data to the ultimate end user.

Marionet enables two broad classes of Internet-enabled application -- Internet management tools and custom Internet client applications.

INTERNET MANAGEMENT TOOLS

    Marionet has opened up the opportunity to easily build Internet management tools that control, automate or accelerate some predictable, routine task on the Internet. For example:

    • A major software company is incorporating Marionet with an Internet product to automate the download of new versions of software for its customers.
    • An Internet provider has built site management tools that monitor whether a site is "up," and initiate a series of actions if it isn't.
    • A large newspaper is using Marionet to manage the daily assembly of its Internet edition.
    • A publisher of a major CD-ROM reference work uses Marionet to search the Internet for data related to its content titles.
CUSTOM INTERNET CLIENT APPLICATIONS

    Instead of relying on browsers for Internet access, developers can build their own custom clients that can view Internet data in any way they choose - in other words, precision Internet access rather than random access via browsing.

    Marionet can thus be used to incorporate Internet access directly into "conventional" applications, such as CBT projects, multimedia titles, EIS applications, database front-ends, etc. For example:

    • A major multimedia content development house has used Marionet to deliver an online advertisement, in the form of a game that automatically posts your scores on a Web site.
    • Several software publishers are incorporating Internet access via Marionet into their CD-ROM based electronic brochures about their products.
    • Several universities are using Marionet to enhance distance learning applications to include automated Internet access to specified sites for uploading e-mail and downloading lesson information.

FLAMETHROWER -- CGI SOLUTION

Today the standards for creating cgi applications are typically complex, difficult interfaces such as the UNIX-based scripting language known as PERL, or C-based custom engineering, that also require an intimate understanding of the underlying cgi communications methodology. By providing the ability to execute SuperTalk scripts on WWW servers as easily and simply as executing SuperTalk in a desktop application, Allegiant will lower the final barrier to building complete Internet applications.

To extend the reach of SuperTalk from the browsers and custom clients to the servers, Allegiant will deliver a SuperTalk-based cgi engine that will process SuperTalk commands that it receives from a WWW browser, a Roadster document or a Marionet-based application.

Currently known under the codename Flamethrower, this cgi engine will be a multi-threaded application optimized for providing high-performance processing of SuperTalk scripts in an Internet environment.

Making SuperTalk available for scripting custom behavior on the part of Web servers is analogous to making SuperTalk available to script the behavior of Web content through Roadster. In both cases, SuperTalk is a simpler, more accessible language that provides 80-90% percent of the capabilities of the lower-level languages it replaces though with significantly greater ease-of-use.

KEY BENEFITS OF FLAMETHROWER

    The key advantage to using the SuperTalk cgi engine is in the simplicity and accessibility of SuperTalk itself. Simple scripts replace the complexity of scripting in languages such as PERL, providing a much broader class of developer the ability to create sophisticated Internet applications.

    Once called, Flamethrower will execute scripts in virtually the same way that SuperCard does today on a desktop platform, with the parameters passed as part of the cgi call being available directly as SuperTalk properties. This will eliminate tedious parsing of low-level data structures used as part of the inter-application communication of the WWW server.

    The benefits of Flamethrower will be accessible to anyone on the Internet. It will be callable by using the same cgi convention supported by any Web server, from any HTML document. However, a developer using a combination of Roadster or Marionet and Flamethrower would gain the advantage of a consistent scripting interface to all the elements of his Internet application.

    Flamethrower will include access to third-party database applications, as well as extensibility through Java applets. Flamethrower will also incorporate the full functionality of Marionet, giving Flamethrower developers the ability to directly control other Internet processes as part of a comprehensive Internet application. With this combination of functionality, developers could even write their own protocols and server functionality.

AUTHORING FOR THE ALLEGIANT
INTERNET AUTHORING ENVIRONMENT

Allegiant will provide a new version of SuperCard that has been optimized for Roadster authoring. This will provide the most complete and powerful environment to current SuperCard developers and to those developers familiar with similar tools, such as HyperCard and Director, who want the maximum flexibility in creating Roadster projects.

SUPERCARD FOR ROADSTER

    A revised version of SuperCard will be introduced to create full-featured Roadster projects. This version will be fully Internet savvy and, through the use of Marionet technology, will be able to deliver a WYSIWYG authoring experience when scripting the behavior of objects that are linked to media on the Internet.

    SuperCard developers can elect to build projects that run within the conventional SuperCard Player environment, or that run within Roadster. This will facilitate the creation of dual-purpose and hybrid media.

    KEY BENEFITS OF SUPERCARD FOR ROADSTER
    • Common url reference for all media -- SuperCard for Roadster supports relative url references for all external media, greatly facilitating development of Roadster projects with dynamically loaded linked media. In addition, this feature eases development of hybrid CD-ROM titles that integrate CD media with Web-based content
    • Browser authoring mode -- SuperCard for Roadster allows for dynamic switching between conventional SuperCard player mode and "browser mode" to aid in mimicking the browser environment on the desktop during development.
    • Modem speed simulation -- In combination with Roadster, SuperCard for Roadster allows developers to simulate low-speed modem connections for accessing linked media in order to accurately evaluate performance across a range of target platforms.

CONCLUSION

SuperTalk is an ideal development language for the Internet. The very simplicity that makes SuperTalk so accessible for development of desktop applications also suits it perfectly to the relatively simple platform of the Internet.

Allegiant, with its commitment to SuperTalk as a development environment, is executing a comprehensive plan to deliver SuperTalk on the Internet - in WWW browsers via Roadster, in custom client software via Marionet, and on servers through its cgi server, Flamethrower.

SuperTalk as delivered within the Roadster plug-in is a far more complete and integrated environment than any of the single-purpose plug-ins available for Web browsers today, such as Macromedia's Shockwave. By fully enabling Roadster to support linked media, Allegiant has provided an environment that can maximize the use of low-bandwidth Internet connections, giving developers more flexibility and control than any environment short of Java.

Yet with this simple, accessible language available everywhere on the Internet, the development of rich media solutions, that can be efficiently delivered to even low-bandwidth users, will be within reach of a broad group of developers - including trainers, educators and content experts - without the high-level programming skills required for working in Java or similar environments.

Allegiant will support these development efforts by delivering Internet-enabled tools, including a new version of SuperCard adapted for authoring Roadster content, that will bring the authoring of rich, multimedia applications within reach of anyone developing content for the Web.

CONTENT VS. BANDWIDTH

    One of the key challenges in delivering "real" multimedia across the Web has been that of how to provide rich content in an environment in which some users are accessing it across a T1 line while others are using a 9600 baud modem. It's analogous to developing a CD-ROM title that should work effectively on everything from an 8086 to a 100 MHz Pentium.

    To that end, Allegiant has developed a spectrum of solutions that enable "hybrid" applications that include both local (typically CD-ROM-based) high bandwidth content coupled with dynamic Internet-based data. These may take the form of Internet-enhanced CD-ROMs, which work like conventional titles but offer additional functionality if Internet access is available.

    Or these hybrid CD-ROM products may be Web sites that are enhanced if a CD-ROM is available with supporting high-bandwidth data. In this case, Roadster technology can be used to deliver a complete Web-based application that uses low-bandwidth media -- static graphics, for instance -- when the CD-ROM is not available, but can seamlessly integrate rich media such as full-motion video and CD-quality sound if the CD is present. Such integration is virtually inconceivable with today's Web authoring tools.

INTERNET VS. INTRANET

    The benefits of SuperTalk authoring for the Internet are equally clear for creating "killer" pages for the public Web as they are for creating sophisticated intranet environments for such applications as corporate training, education and Internet commerce.

    This flexibility reflects the usage of SuperCard today. The product is currently used for a range of applications from multimedia entertainment and edutainment titles, corporate EIS systems, database front-ends as well as extensive use for CBT and learning applications.

    For Internet-based multimedia applications, Roadster can effectively leverage narrow-bandwidth connections by allowing the developer to sequence, pre-load and cache data in anticipation of user requirements. For users with a small "pipe," Roadster provides the ideal means for keeping the pipe full and maximizing its capacity.

    Within the corporate intranet, Roadster and Allegiant's integrated, SuperTalk-based environment is an ideal environment for building sophisticated, interactive environments, such as computer-based training and distance learning applications, interfaces to corporate data and online commerce applications.

Copyright © 1996 Allegiant Technologies, Inc.

About the author 

Mark Rauterkus

Webmaster and long-time open-source advocate. Also a swim, water polo and SKWIM coach in Pittsburgh.

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