Browser Technology Helps DAM access: The Ubiquitous Merlin

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MerlinOne has a long history of ensuring that data stored within its Merlin digital asset management system is readily available to a variety of users. Offering both dedicated client software (for Windows and Mac) and a web browser interface (for a variety of Internet-connected devices), the company is continually investing in technologies that bring Merlin to as many users as possible.

At the beginning of the planning phase for each generation of Merlin software, the company’s engineers evaluate technologies that might be used to bring Merlin to the widest possible audience. Lately, something interesting has happened: web browsers have evolved to the point where more and more of Merlin’s advanced capabilities can be deployed right there. We think this is great, because it means our system’s latest and greatest features are just a login page away, and our users aren’t burdened with installing any special software.

The web browser was originally conceived as a way to view publicly visible, structured files. These simple document-readers were to democratize the availability of information on the Internet – gone were the days of downloading a file and then hunting for the right program to open it. With a web browser, users could simply punch in a URL and watch as published information appeared on the screen. Composed of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), such documents were visible on any computer so long as it had an Internet connection and a web browser installed.

We’ve come a long way since Tim Berners-Lee wrote that first browser on his NeXT workstation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NeXTcube). In addition to HTML, the intervening years have brought us many new web technologies. While some fade from view (goodbye, VRML and Adobe Flash), others such as CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and Javascript have continued to evolve in important ways. Modern CSS offers web designers more control than ever in positioning elements within the browser’s display area, and modern Javascript has made such large performance gains that it is possible to write complex, responsive applications which are delivered exclusively via the web browser.

Browser Performance

Web browser performance is largely dependent on efficiently applying style, size, and position properties (usually from CSS) to structured data from an HTML file – a process referred to asrendering. Around the turn of the century, browser technology had largely stagnated. It wasn’t until 2004 that Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari browsers sparked a resurgence of browser development. These newcomers outperformed the dominant Internet Explorer 6 in most metrics, including rendering speed. That improvement, in combination with better Javascript performance, has empowered developers to write truly responsive web applications for newer browsers.

The component of a web browser that performs the rendering is called the rendering engine. The Safari browser incorporates a rendering engine called WebKit, and Firefox employs one called Gecko. In 2005, Apple released WebKit (which began life as KHTML) as open source. In retrospect, this was a landmark event, as WebKit would go on to serve as the basis for many web browsers including: Mobile Safari for iOS, Google Chrome, Android’s Browser, and the Nokia S60 browser. Meanwhile, the Gecko engine also continued to advance, and these new competitive threats ultimately motivated Microsoft to improve Internet Explorer. Where we stand today is that all of the major browsers are dramatically more efficient and consistent when it comes to rendering web content.

The earliest browsers existed for the express purpose of rendering HTML content and did nothing more. If modern browsers were to do the same, it would be impossible to write the responsive web applications to which we have become accustomed. Nowadays, Javascript programs run within the browser and provide real-time responses to our mouse clicks and key presses. Such input is interpreted by a Javascript program, which then makes changes to the HTML document structure. That change, in turn, triggers the renderer to redisplay the page content, thereby presenting feedback to the user. The process repeats each time you interact with the page. For this reason, the better your browser’s Javascript performance is, the more responsive your favorite web applications will be.

 Dynamic Media in the Browser

Dynamic media typically refers to content that changes over time, such as audio, video, or interactive scenes. Although browsers have long been capable of presenting content of this type, they have typically employed proprietary, non-standard plug-ins to do so. In 2008, the first public, working draft for HTML5 was released. It included much-anticipated features that further improve the browser as an application delivery platform.

Among the HTML5 features that are widely supported by today’s web browsers is the <video> tag. To the engineers at MerlinOne, this is extremely important, as video assets are among the types of objects that can be stored in a Merlin digital asset management system. In the past, viewing a Merlin video asset from within your browser was made possible by way of a plug-in. While that does work, it limits what the web application can do with video and sometimes requires users to install additional software to acquire the plug-in. With HTML5’s integrated support for video objects, developers can create unique, web-based, video solutions as they benefit from better video performance, more control over how the video is presented, and more predictable layout behavior.

Another technology that is becoming increasingly relevant is WebGL. This technology allows developers to write Javascript that can leverage the 3D graphics chips in today’s computers and mobile devices. The implications of this technology are staggering – from high performance user interface views to complete 3D scenes, there are any number of creative ways that that the power of the graphics processor could be used to enhance the web applications of the future.   At the time of this writing, all major browsers (even the mobile ones) have at least partial support for WebGL.

Final Thoughts

Thanks to the hard work of the engineers developing today’s browsers, we can expect to see ever more capable web applications gracing our screens. At MerlinOne, we are excited about these empowering new technologies and look forward to using them to create solutions that reach more users than ever before.

Michael Ellis

Senior Software Engineer

Email: mellis@MerlinOne.com
Phone: 617.328.6645

 

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