Betamax versus VHS in your browser

Everyone knows the story, even if, unlike me, they are not old enough to remember it: the video format VHS overcame the superior Betamax format to dominate the Mitt Romney laughing GIFhome video market in the 80s and 90s.

Of course, the claims that Beta was superior are rather tendentious but the fact that video producers stuck with a Beta format for their own tapes long after the rest of us switched to a VHS monoculture must say something.

Now, inside your browser, the same thing has happened. As is noted in today’s Guardian, the 1987-vintage GIF format refuses to die. These days you see far fewer static GIFs than even a few years ago (though they are still out there in large numbers) – JPEG and PNG dominate. But you’ll have to look very hard for an MNG (the ‘official’ PNG analogue of the animated GIF) or even APNGs, the unofficial but more widely used attempt to animate PNGs.

A few years ago I wrote a Perl PNG module – Image::Pngslimmer – which replicated many of the functions of the C libpng library, so I could use some of that in CGI code without having to switch from Perl to C and back again. Then – this was 2006 or so – PNG support was quite weak in browsers and GIFs were far more plentiful.

PNG is a superior format to GIF (especially for line drawings and similar – for general photographs JPEG is the superior choice, unless you truly demand a lossless format) and it is a good thing that it has edged GIF out in many places. But it seems we will be stuck with GIFs for many years yet.

Further reflections on the Raspberry Pi

I don’t want to be like a wet blanket – I really love the Raspberry Pi and the idea you can get a bare bones but entirely functional computer for less than thirty quid and hook it up to your HD TV with a £1.50 HDMI cable.Raspberry Pi on HD TV

But, having spent the day trying to get it to do some pretty basic things – like play some video or audio – I have to say that a lot of educationalists seem to be vesting far too much hope in what is, after all, a testing board.

It’s true that you can boot the thing up quickly and easily and that it comes with Scratch (though I haven’t tested that, yet). But I suspect most kids will get frustrated very quickly with it when they find it cannot do lots of things on the internet that they take for granted.

Using it is like regressing a decade or so in the Linux experience – lots of things don’t work (I still have not got mine to play any sound via the HDMI cable) or the software is not (yet) available.

I could see how it could be a low spec web server (after all I got a Dreamcast to be one of those) or a management board for NAS, and I’d love to play around with the GPIO stuff, but I would worry that many children would be put off if things that they expect their programs to do just do not happen because of some problems with the drivers.

The idea is a very sound one, though, and I am sure that in six months time it will be worth considering, but I wouldn’t bet my ICT budget on a fleet of these things yet.

(In my own case my idea, that I could use the board as a micro alternative to a projector by having it display presentations and video on our office HD TVs is on hold for now, as the software is just not available as far as I can see.)