Unobtrusive Screencasting

ux desktop

Tue Mar 04 12:47:00 -0800 2008

I wish screencasting were more ubiquitous. Not just developers showing off their products, but for everyone. When a customer sends a bug report to customer service, it should be completely standard for them to include a screencast of themselves experiencing the problem. Used properly, screencasts could become a sort of multimedia email for anyone who works on something that can be displayed on a computer screen.

I’ve had this sense ever since watching my first screencast (DHH’s “make a blog in 15 minutes” - probably many people’s first). A year or so later I went looking for screencasting software and discovered that despite the apparent popularity of screencasts, the authoring software available was fairly lackluster.

I ended up making do with hacked up copy of pyvnc2swf plus a command-line audio recording tool when I made these. Nowhere near turnkey, to say the least. Later I started using iShowU on the Mac, which is an ok piece of software, but not grand by any means. Plus, it’s shareware, which pretty much means it can never achieve ubquity. (This is not because people are unwilling to pay, but that the process of payment creates friction that will always keep it out of the hands of some portion of the computer-using population.)

Recently I had occasion to try out Istanbul, an open source project for screencast recording on the Linux/GNOME desktop. I am very impressed. This is desktop software at its finest: simple, streamlined, does exactly one thing and does it well. Compare the bewildering battery of options on iShowU to the easy-to-understand context menu of Istanbul, for example.

But perhaps more significant is how it runs. It sits in your dock, showing a simple record icon (red circle) when inactive. Click it and you instantly begin recording - no questions, no dialogs, no delay of any kind. Click it again to stop your recording, review it, and either discard or save it.

It saves to Ogg Theroa, a format I’m excited about for reasons I’ll mention in a future post, but thanks to ffmpeg you can convert it to pretty much any other format.

This quiet, always-accessible aspect of Istanbul represents what I hope is the future of screencasting. iShowU dominates your screen with a huge window whenever it’s open; you’d never have it open perpetually. This is quite reasonable, if you assume that screencasting is an occasional thing, a big event. But technology is the most useful when it becomes an unobtrusive part of the background, a tool that is always within each reach. Istanbul shows us that future for screencasting.