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Big Data Divinations – Your business partner’s book about Big Data

Big Data Divination Pam BakerYou’ve gotta read “Data Divination: Big Data Strategies,” Pam Baker’s new book about Big Data.

Actually, let me change my recommendation. If you are a techie and you are looking for suggestions on how to configure your Hadoop installation or optimize the storage throughput in your NAS array, this isn’t the book for you. Rather, this is the book for your business-side manager or partner, who is looking to understand not only what Big Data is, but really really learn how to apply data analysis to business problems.

One of the challenges with Big Data is simply understanding it. The phrase is extremely broad and quite nebulous. Yet behind the overhyping of Big Data, there are genuine use cases that demonstrate that looking at your business’ data in a new way can transform your business. It is real, and it is true.

Bake is the editor of the “Fierce Big Data” website. She deconstructs the concept by dispensing with the jargon and the, well, overly smug Big Data worship that one finds in a lot of literature and pushed out by the vendors. With a breezy style that reflects her background as a technology journalist, Baker uses clear examples and lots of interviews to make her points.

What will you learn? To start with, “Data Divination” teaches you how to ask good questions. After all, if you don’t ask, you won’t learn anything from all that data and all those reports. Whether it’s predictive analytics or trend spotting or real-time analysis, she helps you understand which data is valuable and which isn’t. That’s why this book is best for the executive and business-side managers, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of your enterprise’s Big Data investments.

This book goes beyond other books on the subject, which could generally be summarized either as too fluffy and cheerleading, or as myopically focused on implementation details of specific Big Data architectures. For example, there is a lengthy chapter on the privacy implications of data gathering and data analysis, the sort of chapter that a journalist would write, but an engineer wouldn’t even think about.

Once you’ve finished with the basics, Baker jumps into several fascinating use cases: in healthcare, in the security industry, in government and law enforcement, in small business, in agriculture, in transportation, in energy, in retail, in manufacturing, and so on. Those are the most interesting parts of the book, and each use had takeaways that could apply to any industry. Baker is to be commended for digging into the noteworthy challenges that Big Data attempts to help businesses overcome.

It’s a good book. Read it. And tell your business partner, CIO or even CEO to read it too.

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For your customers, support low- and intermittent-bandwidth mobility

four-cornersWe drove slightly more than 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers), my wife and I, during a weeklong holiday. We explored different states in the western United States: Arizona (where we live), Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. The Rocky Mountains are incredible. Most of our vacation was at altitudes above 6,000 feet (1,800 meters). Many of the mountain peaks were above 14,000 feet (4,200 meters), and one road went above 11,000 feet (3,300 meters). Exciting!

The adventure involved bringing only smartphones, one running Android, one running iOS. We used mobile apps for navigation, for communication, for photography, for reading, for social media, for finding hotels and restaurants, just about everything.

We learned that apps only seem to run well when there is copious bandwidth, either WiFi at a hotel or a fast cellular data link. If a smartphone registered 4G or LTE, all was good. If the phone indicated that the connection was EDGE, GPRS or 3G, all bets were off. It’s not that data loaded slowly. That would be expected. It’s that the apps would crash, or time out, or posting data would fail, or nothing would happen at all. Many modern apps expect or demand lots and lots of bandwidth.

I’m not talking here about apps running completely offline. That’s an entirely different conversation. I’m talking about apps not gracefully handling situations where the bandwidth is narrower than a drinking straw.

Many developers test out their mobile apps using simulators. That, or on devices that have very high bandwidth connections, such an office WiFi network or the type of high-speed network that you’ll find in Silicon Valley, New York City, or other major tech hubs around the world. Having lots of mobile bandwidth is undoubtedly a blessing for developers, but for many consumers, that’s simply not the case.

Lots of customers live in areas with poor bandwidth, or find themselves traveling in places where connectivity is slow or intermittent. Given the use cases for mobile devices—that is, they are frequently used when not at home or in an office—optimizing apps for bad bandwidth should be mandatory. Hey, this isn’t about streaming 1080p movies. This is about being able to use a search engine, or call up a map, or be able to find a hotel room.

Will people use your apps in poor-bandwidth or intermittent-bandwidth situations? If so, here are some steps you can do to improve the user experience:

  1. Make sure that part of your testing involves low-bandwidth and intermittent-bandwidth scenarios. Find beta testers who live with poor bandwidth or who travel to such locations.
  2. Have your app test for throughput, and not only at application launch. Merely detecting whether the connection is WiFi or cellular is insufficient. If throughput is low, consider degrading the experience, such as by using lower-end graphics, in order to keep data moving.
  3. Cache, cache, cache.
  4. Don’t insist on reloading data each and every time the user either launches the app or switches to it. Alan’s pet peeves include news and other websites that freeze the UI while loading the latest headlines or content each time the app is brought to the foreground.
  5. If you detect that the device is in a low-bandwidth environment, pause background data syncing, or at least ask the user if he/she would like to do so.
  6. If you are sending audio or video, compress the heck out of it. That may involve choosing different algorithms for different bandwidth situations, with low-bandwidth scenarios using narrower and lossier codecs.
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Microsoft’s bold ambition scares me

satya-nadellaMicrosoft has evolved considerably. It’s moved from its early days selling developer tools, or its era focusing on Windows and Office, or its run as a server software maker, or its first iteration as a cloud/online services company. Despite all the myriad changes, it’s always been true that Microsoft does not excel at innovation.

In fact, when the company focuses on innovation, it often misses with its products and pricing. Features are implemented badly, bugs proliferate, messages are muddled and strategy appears non-existent.

This confuses customers, annoys developers and frustrates partners.

When, by contrast, Microsoft focuses on execution, it does much, much better. Software and services are about getting the details right, and that means understanding the customers, not slamming out a bewildering product that has state-of-the-art technology but doesn’t make sense to anyone.

This is true whether you are talking about operating systems like Windows, or back-end products like Bing or SharePoint, or mobile phones. The new, innovative, visionary, ground-breaking products (or product upgrades) nearly always disappoint.

Reading new CEO Satya Nadella’s letter to his employees, I am concerned that Microsoft doesn’t understand that customers want excellent products. That means execution more than it means innovation.

Nadella’s letter, called “Bold Ambition & Our Core,” was published on July 10. Right up front, Nadella says, “The day I took on my new role I said that our industry does not respect tradition – it only respects innovation.”

That scares me. I think he misses the point.

Nadella writes,

At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.

What does it mean to reinvent productivity? I’m sure it means more than carrying around a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 device that tries to be both a notebook computer and a tablet, but doesn’t truly succeed in either configuration.

Nadella continues,

Productivity for us goes well beyond documents, spreadsheets and slides. We will reinvent productivity for people who are swimming in a growing sea of devices, apps, data and social networks. We will build the solutions that address the productivity needs of groups and entire organizations as well as individuals by putting them at the center of their computing experiences.

It’s a beautiful concept – but so far, Microsoft’s bread and butter has been specifically documents, spreadsheets and slides. Is he talking about SharePoint and Yammer?

In the 3,000-word missive, Nadella spends a lot of time talking about specific areas. He talks about “digital work and life experiences,” which are productivity enhancers designed for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. He talks about context-rich connections between experience, such as with the Cortana app on Windows Phone. He talks about the cloud, where

the combination of Azure and Windows Server makes us the only company with a public, private and hybrid cloud platform that can power modern business. We will transform the return on IT investment by enabling enterprises to combine their existing datacenters and our public cloud into one cohesive infrastructure backplane.

Nadella also talks about Xbox:

The single biggest digital life category, measured in both time and money spent, in a mobile-first world is gaming. We are fortunate to have Xbox in our family to go after this opportunity with unique and bold innovation. Microsoft will continue to vigorously innovate and delight gamers with Xbox.

What’s missing from Nadella’s call-to-arms letter? You won’t read much specifically about Windows Phone, about notebooks and desktop computers, about desktop Windows, or even traditional Office.

You also didn’t see much about execution, about delivering excellent products. All I read is innovate, innovate, innovate. Ideas are nice, Mr. Nadella, but I’d like to see a company that actually delights its customers, instead of frustrating them with its latest upgrades.

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Developer programs are a good investment in your employees

OTN-Tour-2014-370x395If your developers aren’t enrolled in developer relations programs, they will grow old and stale. They will become moldy. They will pine for the Good Old Days and opine endlessly about the irrelevance of new tools, new platforms, new paradigms and new ideas. No matter their brilliance today, they will become obsolescent.

You can’t let that happen!

Developer relations programs are all over the map, literally. Some are focused on operating systems – see those from Apple and Microsoft. Some are about back-end platforms, like programs from IBM or Oracle. Some are tied to very specific products.

It’s hard to know where your developers will get the best value. Let’s take a very simplistic case. If you have a bright programmer who is working to integrate back-end Oracle databases with Windows servers, should she be a member of the Oracle Technology Networkor MSDN? Likely both; it doesn’t hurt to sign up. But where should she spend her time?

It’s tricky to make that call, and it largely depends on both the developers’ self-starter motivation and your own corporate culture. Some developer programs are free, but others aren’t, with prices ranging from a hundred dollars per year to thousands of dollars. Do you offer to cover the costs of belonging to the developer program for each architect, designer, coder or tester who wants to sign up – or do they have to go through hoops that send out the message that the programs aren’t important (or that the employee isn’t worth the investment)?

Let’s say that you are running a Windows shop, and being a Windows Server guru is seen as essential for career growth. Clearly, your bright programmer should grow and enhance her skills as a Windows expert. While deep Oracle expertise is essential, it might be a secondary investment for her time.

Of course, if your team is seen as an Oracle shop, and the Microsoft aspect is seen as secondary, she should invest her time in Oracle technologies.

The scenario above is too simple. There’s no reason that the bright programmer can’t participate in two developer programs. However, what’s a reasonable ceiling. Two? Three? Five? Ten? If developers spread themselves out too thin, it’s hard to gain deep expertise. To my mind, a developer should engage with 3-5 development programs; probably no more. Depending on the situation, though, perhaps only one or two would be appropriate. If you have a developer who doesn’t see any benefit in belonging to a developer relations program, look at where he or she is spending time. There may be local user groups that provide the same level of engagement. But if you have someone who doesn’t want to engage at all in the larger world beyond his or her team — who doesn’t see the value of building deep expertise in products or platforms — you should be concerned.

Early in 2014, the market research firm Evans Data Corp. conducted a study on developer relations programs. They asked developers, “What most motivates you to seek solutions from developer programs?” The answers should not surprise anyone:

  • 35.5%: Need to upgrade from existing, outdated technology
  • 24.3%: Present skillset is insufficient
  • 21.7%: Present toolsets are insufficient
  • 8.5%: Anticipating future problems
  • 6.3%: Need to match or beat competition
  • 3.8%: Other

I’d keep an eye on those who answered “present skillset is insufficient.” Those employees are investing in themselves — and they are going places!

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The future of computing: Android Everywhere

googletvGOOGLE I/O 2004, SAN FRANCISCO — What is Android? It’s hard to know these days, and I’m not sure if that’s good or not. We all know what happened when Microsoft began seeing Windows as a common operating system for everything from embedded systems to desktops to phones to servers. By trying to be reasonably good at everything, Windows lost its way and ceased being the best platform for anything.

Once upon a time, Android was a free operating system for smartphones, conceived of as a rival for Symbian and (believe it or not) Windows Mobile. Google purchased Android Inc. in 2005; the Open Handset Alliance launched in 2007; and the first smartphone running Android appeared in 2008. Today, Android-based phones dominate the market, with the most visible handset makers being Samsung and LG. Some estimates show that at the end of 2013, more than 81% of all smartphones were running Android.

From its origins in smartphones, it was natural that Android would expand to tablets. Although no Android tablet has emerged as a clear market leader, there are many manufacturers, from Samsung to Amazon to Google to Asus. While Android has decisively eclipsed Apple’s iPhone in the smartphone market, the iPad still defines tablets.

What else? Android is now an operating system for head-mounted displays, smartwatches, wearables, televisions and automotive entertainment systems.

We’re all familiar with Google Glass, which is based on Android. The company is working hard to recruit developers to build Glassware. This spring, Android announced Android Wear, which is described as “your key to a multiscreen world,” especially if one of those screens will be a smart watch. A few companies, including LG, Samsung and Motorola, have announced watches.

Remember Google TV? It was not a success in the market. The replacement, announced this week here at the annual Google I/O developer conference, is called Android TV. According to Google, “Thousands of apps in the Google Play Store are already optimized for TVs.”

Google is clearly interested in cars, and not only because it wants to build self-driving vehicles. A few aftermarket audio system makers have used off-the-shelf Android as the driver in replacement automotive head units. This week, Google announced Android Autoas a competitor to Apple’s iOS-focused CarPlay. As with smartphones, Google set up a vendor alliance — in this case, the Open Automotive Alliance — to developer industry specifications and to drive alliances with car manufacturers.

From the looks of things, Android is now intended to become a general-purpose operating system. Good for embedded, small-footprint, app-based, highly connected devices.

Google’s emphasis, though, isn’t on the hardware, but on that increasingly multiscreen world. With screens spanning the wrist, phone, tablet, head-mounted displays and televisions, Android looks to be everywhere. And that means that Google Play will be everywhere. Thus Google advertisements everywhere too. I mean, duh.

I guess that’s the future of computing: Android Everywhere.

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With Surface Pro 3 Microsoft withdraws from the Tablet Wars

Surface-Pro-3With the May 20 introduction of the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has unofficially withdrawn from the tablet market. If you’re looking for a tablet computer, your two main platform choices are now Android and iOS.

The Surface Pro 3 isn not an Apple iPad competitor. It doesn’t go up against the Google Nexus family, or the broad Samsung Galaxy product range. Nope.

With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has quietly redefined the Surface product line as consisting of ultralight Windows notebooks with touch-screens and removable keyboards. That’s a “tablet” in the sense of the circa-2005 Windows tablets that ran Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. I still have a Fujitsu Lifebook T4010 from that generation, and it was an excellent notebook, with flip-around screen and stylus. Better than a conventional notebook, yes. A device like an iPad or Nexus or Galaxy? Nope.

Yet the Surface Pro family is not inexpensive. It’s priced like high-powered, lightweight notebooks like Apple’s MacBook Air. In some configurations, it’s even pricier. As Microsoft writes in its specifications: “Surface Pro 3 has a 12-inch ClearType Full HD display, fourth-generation Intel Core processor, and up to 8GB of RAM. With up to nine hours of Web-browsing battery life, Surface Pro 3 has all the power, performance and mobility of a laptop in an incredibly lightweight, versatile form.”

Doesn’t sounds like a Galaxy, Nexus or iPad killer. Of course, the Surface can be a tablet sometimes, and that’s Microsoft’s thinking: Most of the time, you want a notebook. Sometimes you want a tablet. Why have two machines?

The complexity of Windows 8.0 (shipped with the original Surface Pro) and the newer Windows 8.1 made the Surface a questionable replacement for a standard tablet. For a short period of time, yes, you can unclick the keyboard and have a walk-around tablet for surfing the Web, watching a movie, reading a book, playing a game or filling in forms.

No comparison to what most of us call tablets: “Surface Pro 3 is a tablet and a laptop: multiple processors, RAM and storage options intersect with a sleek design that, with a simple snap or click, transform the device from a perfectly balanced tablet to a full-functioning laptop and back again— all in a beautiful package that is 30 percent thinner than an 1-inch MacBook Air,” says Microsoft.

The Surface Pro 3 is like an upgraded Fujitsu Lifebook from 2005. Another quote from Microsoft’s announcement:

“So many people carry both a laptop and a tablet but really want just one device that serves all purposes,” said Panos Panay, corporate vice president for Microsoft Surface. “Surface Pro 3 is the tablet that can replace your laptop—packing all the performance of a fully powered laptop into a thin, light and beautifully designed device. You’ll love being able to carry a single device for your next class, workday or weekend getaway knowing you have all the power you need.”

Also, the bevy of configurations—see Microsoft’s pricing sheet—makes this more like a notebook purchase than a tablet. Four storage configurations from 64GB to 512GB. Intel i3, i5 and i7 processors. 4GB or 8GB RAM. USB ports, microSD card reader, Mini DisplayPort, for external monitor: It’s a notebook. Except, of course, that you have to buy the keyboard separately. Bad move, Microsoft.

I am a genuine fan of the Surface Pro. I own the original 2013 model and use it as my main Windows portable. Yeah, it’s a bit slow, and the battery life is terrible, but it’s an excellent notebook. The new Surface Pro 3 is superior. Were I shopping for a new Windows machine, I’d run down to the Microsoft store and buy one.

But it’s not a tablet. There’s no small form-factor version of the Surface Pro 3. There is no upgrade of the truly tablet-class non-pro Surface running Windows RT, which you can pick up for US$299.

Bottom line: Microsoft makes great hardware, and has pulled out of the tablet market.

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Microsoft keeps stumbling

Microsoft’s woes are too big to ignore.

Problem area number one: The high-profile Surface tablet/notebook device is flopping. While the 64-bit Intel-based Surface Pro hasn’t sold well, the 32-bit ARM-based Surface RT tanked. Big time. Microsoft just slashed its price — maybe that will help. Too little too late?

To quote from Nathan Ingraham’s recent story in The Verve, 

Microsoft just announced earnings for its fiscal Q4 2013, and while the company posted strong results it also revealed some details on how the Surface RT project is costing the business money. Microsoft’s results showed a $900 million loss due to Surface RT “inventory adjustments,” a charge that comes just a few days after the company officially cut Surface RT prices significantly. This $900 million loss comes out of the company’s total Windows revenue, though its worth noting that Windows revenue still increased year-over-year. Unfortunately, Microsoft still doesn’t give specific Windows 8 sales or revenue numbers, but it probably performed well this quarter to make up for the big Surface RT loss.

At the end of the day, though, it looks like Microsoft just made too many Surface RT tablets — we heard late last year that Microsoft was building three to five million Surface RT tablets in the fourth quarter, and we also heard that Microsoft had only sold about one million of those tablets in March. We’ll be listening to Microsoft’s earnings call this afternoon to see if they further address Surface RT sales or future plans.

Microsoft has spent heavily, and invested a lot of its prestige, in the Surface. It needs to fix Windows 8 and make this platform work.

Problem are number two: A dysfunctional structure. A recent story in the New York Times reminded me of this 2011 cartoon describing six tech company’s charts. Look at Microsoft. Yup.

Steve Ballmer, who has been CEO since 2000, is finally trying to do something about the battling business units. The new structure, announced on July 11, is called “One Microsoft,” and in a public memo by Ballmer, the goal is described as:

Going forward, our strategy will focus on creating a family of devices and services for individuals and businesses that empower people around the globe at home, at work and on the go, for the activities they value most. 

Editing and restructuring the info in that memo somewhat, here’s what the six key non-administrative groups will look like:

Operating Systems Engineering Group will span all OS work for console, to mobile device, to PC, to back-end systems. The core cloud services for the operating system will be in this group.

Devices and Studios Engineering Group will have all hardware development and supply chain from the smallest to the largest devices, and studios experiences including all games, music, video and other entertainment.

Applications and Services Engineering Group will have broad applications and services core technologies in productivity, communication, search and other information categories.

Cloud and Enterprise Engineering Group will lead development of back-end technologies like datacenter, database and specific technologies for enterprise IT scenarios and development tools, plus datacenter development, construction and operation.

Advanced Strategy and Research Group will be focused on the intersection of technology and policy, and will drive the cross-company looks at key new technology trends.

Business Development and Evangelism Group will focus on key partnerships especially with innovation partners (OEMs, silicon vendors, key developers, Yahoo, Nokia, etc.) and broad work on evangelism and developer outreach. 

If implemented as described, this new organization should certainly eliminate waste, including redundant research and product developments. It might improve compatibility between different platforms and cut down on mixed messages.

However, it may also constraint the freedom to innovate, and promote the unhealthy “Windows everywhere” philosophy that has hamstrung Microsoft for years. It’s bad to spend time creating multiple operating systems, multiple APIs, multiple dev tool chains, multiple support channels. It’s equally bad to make one operating system, API set, dev tool chain and support channel fit all platforms and markets.

Another concern is the movement of developer outreach into a separate group that’s organizationally distinct from the product groups. Will that distance Microsoft’s product developers from customers and ISVs? Maybe. Will the most lucrative products get better developer support? Maybe.

Microsoft has excelled in developer support, and I’d hate to see that suffer as part of the new strategy. 

Read Steve Ballmer’s memo. What do you think?

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick
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Cloud failures: It’s not if, it’s when

Apple is sporting an nasty black eye, and the shiner isn’t only because iPad sales are slipping – with a 14% year-on-year decline reported. This time, it’s because QoS on the company’s cloud servers is ugly, ugly, ugly.

As of my writing (on Thursday, July 25), Apple’s developer portal has been offline for days. As you can see on the dashboard, just about everything is down. If you go to a dev center, you see this message:

We apologize for the significant inconvenience caused by our developer website downtime. We’ve been working around the clock to overhaul our developer systems, update our server software, and rebuild our entire database. While we complete the work to bring our systems back online, we want to share the latest with you.

We plan to roll out our updated systems, starting with Certificates, Identifiers & Profiles, Apple Developer Forums, Bug Reporter, pre-release developer libraries, and videos first. Next, we will restore software downloads, so that the latest betas of iOS 7, Xcode 5, and OS X Mavericks will once again be available to program members. We’ll then bring the remaining systems online. To keep you up to date on our progress, we’ve created a status page to display the availability of our systems.

As you may have read elsewhere, the reason for the outage is apparently a researcher found a massive security hole in the App dev center system. To prevent the flaw from being exploited, Apple took the entire system down – on July 18. That’s right, it’s been over a week.

Ouch.

And then, today, July 25, there are reports that the authentication server needed to set up new iPhone accounts is offline. Apple’s IT department certainly isn’t looking too savvy right now – and perhaps this points to bigger challenges within the company’s spending priorities.

However, before anyone piles onto Apple, bear in mind that service outages are not uncommon, especially in the cloud. Certainly, they are not new; I’ve written about them before, such as in 2008’s “When the cloud was good, it was very very good, but when it was bad, it was horrid” and 2011’s “Skynet didn’t take down Amazon Web Services.”

Cloud failure is not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. When huge corporations like Amazon and Apple can suffer these sorts of outages, anyone can, no matter how big.

What’s the game plan? Do you have a fail-over strategy to spool up a backup provider? Do you have messaging ready for your customers and partners? Alternatives to suggest?

I have no idea how much money Apple is losing due to these outages – or how much its developer partners and customers are affected. Apple, however, is big enough to handle the hit. How about you?

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick
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Building on Microsoft Build

If you were at Microsoft Build this week in San Francisco, you hung out with six thousand of your closest friends. At least, your closest friends who are enterprise .NET developers, or who are building apps for some version of Windows 8.

Those aren’t necessarily the same people. The Microsoft world is more bifurcated than ever before.

There’s the solid yet slow-moving world of the Microsoft enterprise stack. Windows Server, SQL Server, Exchange, SharePoint, Azure and all that jazz. This part of Microsoft thinks that it’s Oracle or IBM.

And then there’s the quixotic set of consumer-facing products. Xbox, Windows Phone, the desktop version of Windows 8, and of course, snazzy new hardware like the Surface tablet. This part of Microsoft thinks that it’s Apple or Google – or maybe Samsung.

While the company’s most important (and most loyal) customer base is the enterprise, there’s no doubt that Microsoft wants to be seen as Apple, not IBM. Hip. Creative. Innovative. In touch with consumers.

#Microsoft wants to trend on Twitter.

To thrive in the consumer world, the company must dig deeper and do better. The highlight of Build was the preview of Windows 8.1, with user experience improvements that undo some of the damage done by Windows 8.0.

It’s great that you can now boot into the “desktop,” or traditional Windows. That is important for both desktop and tablet users. Yet the platform remains frenetic, inconsistent and missing key apps in the Tile motif.

While the Tile experience is compelling, it’s incomplete. You can’t live in it 100%. Yet Windows 8.0 locked you away from living in the old “desktop” environment. Windows 8.1 helps, but it’s not enough.

In his keynote address (focus on consumer tech), Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer pushed two themes. 

One was that the company is moving to ship software faster. Citing the one-year timeline between Windows 8.0 and Windows 8.1 — instead of the traditional three-year cycle — the unstated message is that Microsoft is emulating Apple’s annual platform releases. “Rapid Release is the new norm,” Ballmer said.

A second theme is that Microsoft’s story is still Windows, Windows, Windows. This is no change from the past. Yes, Microsoft plays better with other platforms than ever before. Even so, Redmond wants to control every screen — and can’t understand why you might use anything other than Windows.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Four common mobile development mistakes

Web sites developed for desktop browsers look, quite frankly, terrible on a mobile device. The look and feel is often wrong, very wrong. Text is the wrong size. Gratuitous clip art on the home page chews up bandwidth. Features like animations won’t behave as expected. Don’t get me started on menus — or on the use-cases for how a mobile user would want to use and navigate the site.

Too often, some higher-up says, “Golly, we must make our website more friendly,” and what that results in is a half-thought-out patch job. Not good. Not the right information, not the right workflow, not the right anything.

One organization, UserTesting.com, says that there are four big pitfalls that developers (and designers) encounter when creating mobile versions of their websites. The company, which focuses on usability testing, says that the biggest issues are:

Trap #1 – Clinging to Legacy: ‘Porting’ a Computer App or Website to Mobile
Trap #2 – Creating Fear: Feeding Mobile Anxiety
Trap #3 – Creating Confusion: Cryptic Interfaces and Crooked Success Paths
Trap #4 – Creating Boredom: Failure to Quickly Engage the User

Makes sense, right? UserTesting.com offers a quite detailed report, “The Four Mobile Traps,” that goes into more detail.

The report says,

Companies creating mobile apps and websites often underestimate how different the mobile world is. They assume incorrectly that they can create for mobile using the same design and business practices they learned in the computing world. As a result, they frequently struggle to succeed in mobile.

These companies can waste large amounts of time and money as they try to understand why their mobile apps and websites don’t meet expectations. What’s worse, their awkward transition to mobile leaves them vulnerable to upstart competitors who design first for mobile and don’t have the same computing baggage holding them back. From giants like Facebook to the smallest web startup, companies are learning that the transition to mobile isn’t just difficult, it’s also risky.

Look at your website. Is it mobile friendly? I mean, truly designed for the needs, devices, software and connectivity of your mobile users?

If not — do something about it.

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Hurray for COBOL and the mainframe

Perhaps I’m an old fogey, but I can’t help but smile when I see press releases like this: “IBM Unveils New Software to Enable Mainframe Applications on Cloud, Mobile Devices.” 

Everything old will become new again, as the late Australian musician Peter Allen famously sang in his song of that name.

Mainframes were all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s. Though large organizations still used mainframes as their basis of their business-critical transaction systems in the 1990s and 2000s, the excitement was around client/server and n-tier architectures built up from racks of low-cost commodity hardware.

Over the past 15 years or so, it’s become clear that distributed processing for Web applications fit itself into that clustered model. Assemble a few racks of servers and add a load-balancing appliance, and you’ve got all the scalability and reliability anyone needs.

But you know, from the client perspective, the cloud looks like, well, a thundering huge mainframe.

Yes, I am an old fogey, who cut his teeth on FORTRAN, COBOL, PL/1 and CICS on Big Blue’s big iron (that is to say, IBM System/370). Yes, I can’t help but think, “Hmm, that’s just like a mainframe” far too often. And yes, the mainframe is very much alive.

IBM’s press release says that,

Today, nearly 15 percent of all new enterprise application functionality is written in COBOL. The programming language also powers many everyday services such as ATM transactions, check processing, travel booking and insurance claims. With more than 200 billion lines of COBOL code being used across industries such as banking, insurance, retail and human resources, it is crucial for businesses to have the appropriate framework to improve performance, modernize key applications and increase productivity.

I believe that. Sure, there are lots of applications written in Java, C++, C# and JavaScript. Those are on the front end, where if  a database read or write fails, or a non-responsive screen is an annoyance, nothing more. On the back end, if you want the fastest possible response time, without playing games with load balancers, and without failures, you’re still looking at a small number of big boxes, not a large number of small boxes.

This fogey is happy that the mainframe is alive and well.

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Power down… or airplane mode?

Like many of you, I travel with a vast array of personal electronic devices – so much that my briefcase bulges with screens, batteries, cables and charging bricks. Some devices are turned off when I’m on an airplane – and some aren’t, often because I forget.

Take this week, for example. I am working out of SD Times’ New York headquarters, instead of my usual office near San Francisco. What did I bring? A 13-inch mid-2011 MacBook Air notebook, an iPad Mini with Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard, a Google Nexus 7 tablet, a Galaxy Nexus phone, a Virgin Mobile MiFi access point, Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-cancelling headphones, RocketFish RF-MAB2 Bluetooth stereo headset, a Microsoft Notebook Optical Mouse 3000, a USB hub, and an HP-15C calculator. Oh, let’s not forget the Canon PowerShot S100 digital camera. And my Pebble watch.

All that for a five-day trip. A bit excessive? Maybe.

I can guarantee that not every device is powered down during a flight. Yes, the flight attendants ask passengers to turn devices all the way off, and I have good intentions. But there’s a good chance that the laptop is sleeping, that some tablets and the phone might in airplane mode instead of off, I might have forgotten to slide the switch on the Logitech keyboard, and so-on.

Think about all the electronic noise from those electronics. Think about all the potential interference from the WiFi, cellular and Bluetooth radios, the GPSes in the phone and Google tablet… yet it doesn’t seem to make a tangible difference.

I’m not alone in failing to turn off every personal electronic device. According to a new study by the Consumer Electronics Association,

Almost one-third (30 percent) of passengers report they have accidently left a PED turned on during a flight. The study found that when asked to turn off their electronic devices, 59 percent of passengers say they always turn their devices completely off, 21 percent of passengers say they switch their devices to “airplane mode,” and five percent say they sometimes turn their devices completely off. Of those passengers who accidently left their PED turned on in-flight, 61 percent said the device was a smartphone.

At least I have good intentions. Many travelers intentionally keep playing games with their phones, hiding them when the flight attendant walks by, taking them out as soon as the uniformed crewmember stops looking.

That doesn’t change the reality that devices are left turned on — and the flights appear to be perfectly safe. It’s time for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, to stop the ban on using electronic devices during takeoff, landing, and flying at altitudes under 10,000 feet.

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Let’s boost developer velocity by 30x

Not long ago, if the corporate brass wanted the change major functionality in a big piece of software, the IT delivery time might be six to 12 months, maybe longer. Once upon a time, that was acceptable. Not today.

Thanks to agile, many software changes can be delivered in, say, six to 12 weeks. That’s a huge improvement — but not huge enough. Business imperatives might require that IT deploy new application functionality in six to 12 days.

Sounds impossible, right? Maybe. Maybe not. I had dinner a few days ago with S. “Soma” Somasegar (pictured), the corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Developer Division. He laughed – and nodded – when I mentioned the need for a 30x shift in software delivery from months to days.

After all, as Soma pointed out, Microsoft is deploying new versions of its cloud-based Team Foundation Service every three weeks. The company has also realize that revving Visual Studio itself every two or three years isn’t serving the needs of developers. That’s why his team has begun rolling out regular updates that include not only bug fixes but also new features. The latest is Update 2 to Visual Studio 2012, released in late April, which added in new features for agile planning, quality assurance, line-of-business app developer, and improvements to the developer experience.

I like what I’m hearing from Soma and Microsoft about their developer tools, and about their direction. For example, the company appears sincere in its engagement of the open source community through Microsoft Open Technologies — but I’ll confess to still being a skeptic, based on Microsoft’s historical hostility toward open source.

Soma said that it’s vital not only for Microsoft to contribute to open source, but also to let open source communities engage with Microsoft. It’s about time!

Soma also cited the company’s new-found dedication to DevOps. He said that future versions of both on-premises and cloud-based tools will help tear down the walls between development and deployment. That’s where the 30x velocity improvement might come from.

Another positive shift is that Microsoft appears to truly accept that other platforms are important to developers and customers. He acknowledges that the answer to every problem cannot be to use Microsoft technologies exclusively.

Case in point: Soma said that fully 60% of Microsoft developers are building applications that touch at least three different platforms. He acknowledged that Microsoft still believes that it has the best platforms and tools, but said, “We now know that developers make other choices for valid reasons. We want to meet developers where they are” – that is, engaging with other platforms.

Soma’s words may seem like a modest and obvious statement, but it’s a huge step forward for Microsoft.

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Mobile developer mojo

Tickets for the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference went on sale on Thursday, April 25. They sold out in two minutes.

Who says that the iPhone has lost its allure? Not developers. Sure, Apple’s stock price is down, but at least Apple Maps on iOS doesn’t show the bridge over Hoover Dam dropping into Black Canyon any more.

Two minutes.

To quote from a story on TechCrunch,

Tickets for the developer-focused event at San Francisco’s Moscone West, which features presentations and one-on-one time with Apple’s own in-house engineers, sold out in just two hours in 2012, in under 12 hours in 2011, and in eight days in 2010.

Who attends the Apple WWDC? Independent software developers, enterprise developers and partners. Thousands of them. Many are building for iOS, but there are also developers creating software or services for other aspects of Apple’s huge ecosystem, from e-books to Mac applications.

Two minutes.

Mobile developers love tech conferences. Take Google’s I/O developer conference, scheduled for May 15-17. Tickets sold out super-fast there as well.

The audience for Google I/O is potentially more diverse, mainly because Google offers a wider array of platforms. You’ve got Android, of course, but also Chrome, Maps, Play, AppEngine, Google+, Glass and others beside. My suspicion, though, is that enterprise and entrepreneurial interest in Android is filling the seats.

Mobile. That’s where the money is. I’m looking forward to seeing exactly what Apple will introduce at WWDC, and Google at Google I/O.

Meanwhile, if you are an Android developer and didn’t get into Google I/O before it sold out – or if you are looking for a technical conference 100% dedicated to Android development – let me invite you to register for AnDevCon Boston, May 28-31. We still have a few seats left. Hope to see you there.

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Big Data and PC Sales Data

Last week, we held the debut Big Data TechCon in Cambridge, Mass. It was a huge success – more attendees than we expected, which is great. (With a debut event, you never really know.)

We had lots of sessions, many of which were like trying to drink from a fire hose. That’s a good thing.

A commonality is that there is no single thing called Big Data. There are oodles of problems that have to do with capturing, processing and storing large quantities of structured and unstructured data. Some of those problems are called Big Data today, but some have evolved out of diverse disciplines like data management, data warehousing, business intelligence and matrix-based statistics.

Problems that seemed simple to solve when you were talking about megabytes or terabytes are not simple when you’re talking about petabytes.

You may have heard about the “Four V’s of Big Data” – Volume, Velocity, Variety and Veracity. Some Big Data problems are impacted by some of these V’s. Other Big Data problems are impacted by other V’s.

Think about problem domains where you have very large multidimensional data sets to be analyzed, like insurance or protein folding. Those petabytes are static or updated somewhat slowly. However, you’d like to be able to run a broad range of queries. That’s an intersection of data warehousing and business intelligence. You’ve got volume and veracity. Not much variety. Velocity is important on reporting, not on data management.

Or you might have a huge mass of real-time data. Imagine a wide variety of people, like in a social network, constantly creating all different types of data, from text to links to audio to video to photos to chats to comments. You not only have to store this, but also quickly decide what to present to whom, through relationships, permissions and filters, but also implement a behind-the-scenes recommendation engine to prioritize the flow. Oh, and you have to do it all sub-second. There all four V’s coming into play.

Much in Big Data has to do with how you model the data or how you visualize it. In non-trivial cases, there are many ways of implementing a solution. Some run faster, some are slower; some scale more, others scale less; some can be done by coding into your existing data infrastructure, and others require drastic actions that bolt on new systems or invite rip-and-replace.

Big Data is fascinating. Please join us for the second Big Data TechCon, coming to the San Francisco Bay Area in October. See www.bigdatatechcon.com.

While in Cambridge wrapping up the conference, I received an press release from IDC: “PC Shipments Post the Steepest Decline Ever in a Single Quarter, According to IDC.”

To selectively quote:

Worldwide PC shipments totaled 76.3 million units in the first quarter of 2013 (1Q13), down -13.9% compared to the same quarter in 2012 and worse than the forecast decline of -7.7%.

Despite some mild improvement in the economic environment and some new PC models offering Windows 8, PC shipments were down significantly across all regions compared to a year ago. Fading Mini Notebook shipments have taken a big chunk out of the low-end market while tablets and smartphones continue to divert consumer spending. PC industry efforts to offer touch capabilities and ultraslim systems have been hampered by traditional barriers of price and component supply, as well as a weak reception for Windows 8. The PC industry is struggling to identify innovations that differentiate PCs from other products and inspire consumers to buy, and instead is meeting significant resistance to changes perceived as cumbersome or costly.

The industry is going through a critical crossroads, and strategic choices will have to be made as to how to compete with the proliferation of alternative devices and remain relevant to the consumer. 

It’s all about the tablets, folks. That’s right: iPads and Android-based devices like the Samsung Galaxy, Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble Nook and Google Nexus. Attempts to make standard PCs more tablet-like (such as the Microsoft Surface devices) just aren’t cutting it. Just as we moved from minicomputers to desktops, and from desktops to notebooks, we are moving from notebooks to tablets.

(I spent most of the time at the Big Data TechCon working on a 7-inch tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard. I barely used my notebook at all. The tablet/keyboard had a screen big enough to write stories with, a real keyboard with keys, and best of all, would fit into my pocket.)

Just as desktops/notebooks have different operating systems, applications, data storage models and user experiences than minicomputers (and minicomputer terminals), so too the successful tablet devices aren’t going to look like a notebook with a touchscreen. Apps, not applications; cloud-based storage; massively interconnected networks; inherently social. We are at an inflection point. There’s no going back.

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Android + Chrome = Confusion

What is going on at Google? I’m not sure, and neither are the usual pundits.

Last week, Google announce that Andy Rubin, the long-time head of the Android team, is moving to another role within the company, and will be replaced by Sundar Pichai — the current head of the company’s Chrome efforts.

To quote from Larry Page’s post

Having exceeded even the crazy ambitious goals we dreamed of for Android—and with a really strong leadership team in place—Andy’s decided it’s time to hand over the reins and start a new chapter at Google. Andy, more moonshots please!

Going forward, Sundar Pichai will lead Android, in addition to his existing work with Chrome and Apps. Sundar has a talent for creating products that are technically excellent yet easy to use—and he loves a big bet. Take Chrome, for example. In 2008, people asked whether the world really needed another browser. Today Chrome has hundreds of millions of happy users and is growing fast thanks to its speed, simplicity and security. So while Andy’s a really hard act to follow, I know Sundar will do a tremendous job doubling down on Android as we work to push the ecosystem forward. 

What is the real story? The obvious speculation is that Google may have too many mobile platforms, and may look to merge the Android and Chrome OS operating systems.

Ryan Tate of Wired wrote, in “Andy Rubin and the Great Narrowing of Google,”

The two operating system chiefs have long clashed as part of a political struggle between Rubin’s Android and Pichai’s Chrome OS, and the very different views of the future each man espouses. The two operating systems, both based on Linux, are converging, with Android growing into tablets and Chrome OS shrinking into smaller and smaller laptops, including some powered by chips using the ARM architecture popular in smartphones.

Tate continues,

There’s a certain logic to consolidating the two operating systems, but it does seem odd that the man in charge of Android – far and away the more successful and promising of the two systems – did not end up on top. And there are hints that the move came as something of a surprise even inside the company; Rubin’s name was dropped from a SXSW keynote just a few days before the Austin, Texas conference began.

Other pundits seem equally confused. Hopefully, we’ll know what’s on going on soon. Registration for Google’s I/O conference opened – and closed – on March 13. If you blinked, you missed it. We’ll obviously be covering the Android side of this at our own AnDevCon conference, coming to Boston on May 28-31.

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From Apple to Microsoft to Tesla, rumors abound

teslaIf there’s no news… well, let’s make some up. That’s my thought upon reading all the stories about Apple’s forthcoming iWatch – a product that, as far as anyone knows, doesn’t exist.

That hasn’t stopped everyone from Forbes to CNN to the New York Times from jumping in with breathless analysis of the rumor.

Turn the page.

More breathless analysis focused on why Microsoft’s stores and retail partners didn’t have enough stock of the Surface Pro tablet. Was this intentional, some wondered, part of a scheme to make the device appear more popular?

My friend John P. Mello Jr. had solid analysis in his article for PC World, “Microsoft Surface Pro sell-out flap: Is the tablet really that popular?

I think the real reason is that Microsoft isn’t very good at sales estimation or manufacturing logistics. Companies like Apple and HP have dominated, in large part, because of their master of the supply chain. Despite its success with the Xbox consoles, Microsoft is a hardware newbie. I think the inventory shortfall was a screw-up, but an honest one.

After all, when Apple or Samsung run out of hot items, nobody says “It’s a trick.”

Can’t leave the conversation about rumors without mentioning the kerfuffle with the New York Times’s story, “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway.” In short: Times columnist John M. Broder claims that the Tesla Model S electric car doesn’t live up to its claimed 265-mile estimated range. Tesla founder Elon Musk tweeted “NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake.”

Everyone loves a good twitter-fight. Dozens of pundits, and gazillions of clicks, are keeping this story in the news.

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Movable walls in the garden

walled-gardenToday’s word is “open.” What does open mean in terms of open platforms and open standards? It’s a tricky concept. Is Windows more open than Mac OS X? Is Linux more open than Solaris? Is Android more open than iOS? Is the Java language more open than C#? Is Firefox more open than Chrome? Is SQL Server more open than DB2?

The answer in all these cases can be summarized in two more words: “That depends.” To some purists, anything that is owned by a non-commercial project or standards body is open. By contrast, anything that is owned by a company, or controlled by a company, is by definition not open.

There are infinite shades of gray. Openness isn’t a line or a spectrum, and it’s not a two-dimensional matrix either. There are countless dimensions.

Take iOS. The language used to program iPhone/iPad apps is Objective-C. It’s pretty open – certainly, some would say that Objective-C is more open than Java, which is owned and controlled by Oracle. Since iOS uses Objective-C, and Android uses Java, doesn’t that makes iOS open, and Android not open?

But wait – perhaps when people talk about the openness of the mobile platforms, they mean whether there is a walled garden around its primary app store. If you want to distribute native apps to through Apple’s store, you must meet Apple’s criteria in lots of ways, from the use of APIs to revenue sharing for in-app purchases. That’s not very open. If you want to distribute native apps to Android devices, you can choose Google Play, where the standards for app acceptance are fairly low, or another app store (like Amazon’s), or even set up your own. That’s more open.

If you want to build apps that are distributed and use Microsoft’s new tiled user experience, you have to put them into the Windows Store. In fact, such applications are called Windows Store Apps. Microsoft keeps a 30% cut of sales, and reserves the right to not only kick your app out of the Windows Store, but also remove your app from customer’s devices. That’s not very open.

The trend these days is for everyone to set up their own app store – whether it’s the Windows Store, Google Play, the Raspberry Pi Store, Salesforce.com AppExchange, Firefox Marketplace, Chrome Web Store, BlackBerry App World, Facebook Apps Center or the Apple App Store. There are lots more. Dozens. Hundreds perhaps.

Every one of these stores affects the openness of the platform – whether the platform is a mobile or desktop device, browser, operating system or cloud-based app. Forget programming language. Forget APIs. The true test of openness is becoming the character of the app store, whether consumers are locked into using open “approved” stores, what restrictions are placed on what may be placed in that app store, and whether developers have the freedom to fully utilize everything the platform can offer. (If the platform vendor’s own apps, or those from preferred partners, can access APIs that are not allowed in the app store, that’s not a good sign.)

Nearly every platform is a walled garden. The walls aren’t simple; they make Calabi-Yau manifolds look like child’s play. The walls twist. They turn. They move.

Forget standards bodies. Today’s openness is the openness of the walled garden.

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Happy Thanksgiving

Tomorrow Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. This is an odd holiday. It’s partly religious, but also partly secular, dating back to the English colonization of eastern North America. A recent tradition is for people to share what they are thankful for. In a lighthearted way, let me share some of my tech-related joys.

• I am thankful for PDF files. Websites that share documents in other formats (such as Microsoft Word) are kludgy, and document never looks quite right.

• I am thankful for native non-PDF files. Extracting content from PDF files to use in other applications is a time-consuming process that often requires significant post-processing.

• I am thankful that Hewlett-Packard is still in business – for now at least. It’s astonishing how HP bungles acquisition after acquisition after acquisition.

• I am thankful for consistent language specifications, such as C++, Java, HTML4 and JavaScript, which give us a fighting chance at cross-platform compatibility. A world with only proprietary languages would be horrible.

• I am thankful for HTML5 and CSS3, which solve many important problems for application development and deployment.

• I am thankful that most modern operating systems and applications can be updated via the Internet. No more floppies, CDs or DVDs.

• I am thankful that floppies are dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.

• I am thankful that Apple and Microsoft don’t force consumers to purchase applications for their latest desktop operating systems from their app stores. It’s my computer, and I should be able to run any bits that I want.

• I am thankful for Hadoop and its companion Apache projects like Avro, Cassandra, HBase and Pig, which in a only a couple of years became the de facto platform for Big Data and a must-know technology for developers.

• I am thankful that Linux exists as a compelling server operating system, as the foundation of Android, and as a driver of innovation.

• I am thankful for RAW photo image files and for Adobe Lightroom to process those RAW files.

• I am thankful for the Microsoft Surface, which is the most exciting new hardware platform since the Apple’s iPad and MacBook Air.

• I am thankful to still get a laugh by making the comment, “There’s an app for that!” in random non-tech-related conversations.

• I am thankful for the agile software movement, which has refocused our attention to efficiently creating excellent software, and which has created a new vocabulary for sharing best practices.

• I am thankful for RFID technology, especially as implemented in the East Coast’s E-Zpass and California’s FasTrak toll readers.

• I am thankful that despite the proliferation of e-book readers, technology books are still published on paper. E-books are great for novels and documents meant to be read linearly, but are not so great for learning a new language or studying a platform.

• I am thankful that nobody has figured out how to remotely hack into my car’s telematics systems yet – as far as I know.

• I am thankful for XKCD.

• I am thankful that Oracle seems to be committed to evolving Java and keeping it open.

• I am thankful for the wonderful work done by open-source communities like Apache, Eclipse and Mozilla.

• I am thankful that my Android phone uses an industry-standard Micro-USB connector.

• I am thankful for readers like you, who have made SD Times the leading news source in the software development community.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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Hurricane Sandy can’t stop the tech from Microsoft and Google

windows-phone-8It take a lot to push the U.S. elections off the television screen, but Hurricane Sandy managed the trick. We would like to express our sympathies to those affected by the storm – too many lives were lost, homes and property destroyed, businesses closed.

Microsoft and Google had scheduled tech events for the week of Oct. 29. Build took place as scheduled on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash. Google cancelled its New York City launch event and offered its products rollouts via blog.

The big Microsoft news was the release of Windows Phone 8, with handsets from HTC, Nokia and Samsung set to go on sale starting in November. This follows, of course, the rollout of Windows 8 and the Surface with Windows RT ARM-based notebook/tablet device on Oct. 26.

Everyone that I know who has talked to who has used a prerelease Windows Phone 8 has been impressed. (I have a Windows Phone 7.5 device and find the Live Tile apps to be quite usable and exciting. I look forward to installing Windows Phone 7.8 on that device.) Through a strong program of incentives for app developers, there are many flagship apps for the phone already.

There are three compelling messages Windows Phone developers:

  • You can use Visual Studio and familiar tools to build apps for Windows Phone 8.
  • Windows Phone 8 is almost identical to Windows 8, so there’s minimal learning curve.
  • Windows Phone 8 is a reboot of the platform, which means you’ll face few competitors in the app store, called Windows Phone Store.

Of course, the downside is:

  • The installed base of Windows Phone 8 is nonexistent, compared to gazillions of iOS, Android and even BlackBerry OS.

If I were an entrepreneurial mobile app developer, I’d give Windows Phone 8 a try.

Google’s news was much more incremental: More hardware and a minor rev of Android.

The new hardware, announced in the Google Official Blog, is a new phone called the Nexus 4 and a 10-inch tablet called the Nexus 10. The big tablet has 2560×1600 display – that’s the same resolution as many 27-inch desktop monitors, and I’d love to see one.

Google’s seven-inch tablet announced during the summer, the Nexus 7, came only with 16GB of RAM and WiFi. Now you can get it with 32GB RAM or GSM-based cellular connections using the HSPA+ mobile standard. These are good hardware upgrades, but aren’t “stop the presses” material in the weeks surrounding the launch of Windows Phone, Windows Phone 8, Surface and Apple’s iPad Mini. Heck, the tablet doesn’t even have 4G.

The operating system update is Android 4.2, which is still called Jelly Bean. There are plenty of consumer features, such as a spherical panoramic camera mode, and a smarter predictive keyboard. The ability to support many users is a good feature, and one frankly that is long overdue for these expensive tablets.

Expect to see more about Android 4.2 at AnDevCon IV, coming up Dec. 4-7, 2012. Maybe someone will bring one of those 10-inch tablets so we can see the screen.

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Skeuomorph: Fake leather textures on your mobile apps – good or bad?

Skeuomorph. I learned this word a few weeks ago, after a flurry of stories broke on various mass-media websites about an apparent kerfuffle within Apple about user interface design.

A skeuomorph is a design element that looks functional, but is actually purely ornamental. The automotive world is rife with skeuomorphs. Fake hood scoops on sports cars, plastic tire covers that imitate wire wheels, plastic that’s textured and painted to look like wood.

Check out the Wikipedia page and you’ll see several examples, including the program that sparked a number of articles. That’s Apple’s iCal calendaring application on the company’s iPhone and iPad devices, or Calendar on a Mac.

Look at the calener on an iPad. See how the app is designed to resemble an old printed calendar, and the top of the app looks like embossed leather, complete with stitching? See how there’s even a little graphic detail that make it look like pages have been torn out.

Some find that kitschy or distracting. Some find it cute. Some people, like me, never particularly noticed those elements. Some people, apparently like the late Steve Job, believe that faux-reality designs like the leather calendar, or like the wooden bookshelves in iBooks, enhance the experience. Some people, apparently, are infuriated by the notion of foisting an outdated analog user-interface model on a digital device.

A number of those infuriated people are quoted in a story in Fast Company, “Will Apple’s Tacky Software-Design Philosophy Cause a Revolt?”

Some of these designs may be nostalgic to older customers, but may be increasingly meaningless to most consumers of digital products. I’ve seen phone-dialer apps that look like the old rotary telephone dial – and they’re stupid, in my humble opinion. So are address-book apps that look like an old Rolodex, or calendar programs that resemble the Pocket Day-Timer I carried around in the 1980s and 1990s.

If you (or your young coworkers) never used a rotary phone, or owned a Rolodex, or carried a Day-Timer, those user interface metaphors make little sense. They don’t enhance productivity, they detract from it.

Worse, the strictures of the old UI metaphors may constrain the creativity of both developers and end users. If you want to innovate and reinvent productivity tools or business applications, you may not want to force your visual design or workflow to conform to old analog models. Microsoft’s Windows 8, in fact, is being held up as the new paradigm – simple colorful squares, no drop shadows or eye candy, and no skeuomorph. See another article from Fast Company, “Windows 8: The Boldest, Biggest Redesign in Microsoft’s History.”

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Apple’s victory over Samsung should drive innovation

The jury is in: Samsung was found to have infringed upon Apple’s numerous mobile patents. The jury’s verdict form, handed down in the United States District Court in San Jose, Calif., found that in many cases that the “Samsung entity has diluted any Apple trade dress(es).” What’s more, Apple proved “by a preponderance of the evidence that the Samsung entity’s direction was willful.”

Ouch. This is the worst case scenario for Samsung. Forget about the US$1.049 billion in damages that Samsung is supposed to pay Apple. What this means is that the jury agreed with what everyone knew simply by looking at the hardware and playing with the software: the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is just like the iPad.

On the short term, this ruling is going have a chilling effect not only on Apple, but on every maker of Android devices. The more similar the devices are to Apple’s iOS phones and tablets, the more scared the hardware manufacturers are going to be. (That is, if the verdict stands and isn’t overturned on appeal.)

We can expect to see a lot of introspection within the Android ecosystem. Google, Samsung and the other device manufacturers will look close, really close, to make sure they stay away from the specific patents cited in this case.

We can expect to see software updates and hardware guidelines that will take Android devices farther from Apple’s devices.

On the short term – this will depress sales of Android devices. On the longer term, we will see a ton of innovation that will truly differentiate Android from iOS.

For too long, Android handset- and tablet-makers have been trying to get as close to the iPhone and iPad design as possible. It’s not laziness or a lack of technical savvy, in my opinion. It’s just that Apple has done such a good job of defining the smartphone and tablet that consumers expect that, well, that’s just how the platforms should work.

Salespeople want to sell Android devices that are identical to Apple devices, only less expensive.

Consumers who choose Android are sometimes making those selections based on technical merit, but are sometimes looking for something that’s just like an iPhone/iPad, only different. Perhaps they want more memory, perhaps a bigger phone screen, perhaps a smaller tablet screen, perhaps a slide-out keyboard, sometimes a removable battery, sometimes simply a brand that isn’t spelled “Apple.”

Of course, with rumors that Apple is about to release a 7-inch iPad, the job of Android tablet companies is only going to get harder. In my own informal polling, folks who have purchased 7-inch tablets have done so mainly because Apple doesn’t sell one.

For the next year or so, Samsung and the whole Android community will fall back and retrench. That will involve unleashing innovation that may have been stifled, as they preferred to imitate the iOS designs instead of pushing their own ideas.

Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery – but in the smartphone and tablet markets, imitation is off the table. For good.

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The handheld and the tablet, circa 1976

Let’s talk about the HP-67 and HP-97 programmable calculators.

Introduced in 1976, both those models hold place of pride in my collection of vintage computation devices – which consists of a tremendous number of older Hewlett-Packard and Texas Instruments calculators, as well as dozens of slide rules going back to the late 1800s.

The four-function pocket calculator was the feature phone of its era. Arriving in the early 1970s, they swiftly replaced adding machines. The HP-35 calculator (1972) with its trig, log and exponential functions, singlehandedly killed the slide rule industry.

Programmable calculators with persistent removable storage – specifically Hewlett-Packard’s HP-65 (1974) and Texas Instruments’ SR-52 (1975) – were the equivalent of the first smartphones. Why? Because you could store and load programs on little magnetic cards. You could buy pre-written packs of programs on those cards from HP and TI. There were user groups where calculator programs could publish and share programs. And there were even a few commercial developers who sold programs on cards as well.

Some of my earliest published programs were written for HP and TI calculators in the mid-1970s. A foundational part of my own history as a computer scientist was learning how to do some pretty sophisticated work with only a few hundred bytes of addressable memory. Not megabyes. Not kilobytes. Bytes.

In modern terms, we would call calculator programs distributed on mag cards “apps.” The HP-65 Users Library and the TI PPX-52 (Personal Program Exchange) were among the first app stores.

This brings me to the HP-67 and HP-97, which were introduced simultaneously at prices of US$450 and $750, respectively. They were essentially the same device – except that the HP-67 was a 0.7-pound pocket calculator and the HP-97 was a 2.5-pound battery-powered desktop model with a built-in thermal printer.

“Calculator” is probably the wrong word for these devices. They were portable computers – in fact, they were truly personal computers, albeit with a custom microprocessor, one-line numeric display and only 224 bytes of programmable memory.

Although the form factors and key placement were different – and the HP-97 had the printer – both used the same programming language. Both models had a mag-card reader – and a program written on one could be used on the other without modification. This was unique.

In modern terms, the HP-67 and HP-97 were like handhelds and tablets sharing the same apps, like the iPhone and iPad, or Android phones and tablets.

No matter how far we’ve come, we’ve been here before.

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Fast cars! Fast phones! And a new developer conference!

Toys, toys, toys. I love to read about new toys, especially sleek sports cars and nifty computerized gadgets. This week has been a bonanza – from two different directions.
You might think my focus would be on the big annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Actually, I’ve been more keenly following the happenings at the North American International Auto Show, which kicked off January 9.
Dozens of exciting cars and concept vehicles were introduced at the NAIAS, which is also known as the Detroit Auto Show. They include a smokin’ hot Acura NSX super car (pictured), the futuristic Lexus LF-LC, a new Mini Roadster, the four-door Porsche Panamera Turbo R, the fast-looking Mercedes SL550, the BMW i8 electric car… the list goes on and on.
A big part of the news from Detroit overlapped what was also talked about at the Consumer Electronics Show. Sure, CES features lot of “ultrabook” lightweight notebook computers, incredibly thin televisions, high-definition digital cameras, three-dimensional printers, even electric razors. But automotive computers were very much front and center.
There’s a lot more to computerized cars than iPod jacks or even streaming Pandora on a 28-speaker Bose sound system. Companies like BMW, Ford and Mercedes-Benz are integrating phone applications with vehicles’ onboard computers. The smartphone sends the car email and text messages. The car sends back real-time diagnostics. I’m told you can even make phone calls!
Soon, you will update your car’s firmware as often as you update your smartphone’s apps.
To change the subject only slightly: Let’s talk about developing smartphone software. You know that BZ Media – the company behind SD Times and News on Monday – produces developer conferences for Android and iPhone/iPad developers. We are proud to announce support for another platform at WPDevCon: The Windows Phone Developer Conference.
WPDevCon is coming to the San Francisco Bay Area from Oct. 22-24, 2012. We are currently assembling a full slate of workshops and technical classes, and the program will be ready in early March. However, we invite you to check out the website, www.wpdevcon.net, and of course, mark your calendar if you or your colleagues are interested in attending.
Want to propose a class? See the Call for Speakers and then drop me a line. Interested in exhibiting? Contact my colleague email hidden; JavaScript is required.
Which is more interesting to you, the latest cars at the Detroit Auto Show or the snazzy gadgets at the Consumer Electronics Show?
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The Windows Malware Wars: Viruses 4, Alan 0

I fought the hackers, and the hackers won. Here’s the story: One of our employees had a nice Dell Latitude D610 laptop, and it was totally messed up – running super-slow, lots of crashes, adware popups in the browser, and so-on.

Because this was a huge productivity problem for a key employee, we solved it by buying her a new laptop this past summer. But what about the old laptop? It ended up on a shelf in my office. It’s a good machine: 1.7GHz Pentium M processor, 1400×1050 14-inch screen, 60GB hard drive, lots of RAM, DVD player, two batteries. Physically, it’s in great shape. It’s a shame not to put that laptop back into service.

It so happened that I currently need a Windows laptop for a specific project. I pulled the Latitude off the shelf yesterday morning, scurried around to find its power supply brick (which was buried) and decided to clean it up. This shouldn’t take long, I thought.

Big mistake, at least in terms of it being easy. After many hours of scrubbing, uninstalling software (the previous user had installed every free browser toolbar known to humanity) and running Microsoft Update a few dozen times, the machine was working. Sort of. It was still incredibly slow, and the browser still was being hijacked by adware.

I ran an anti-virus check, and it discovered oodles of infestations. Dozens. Most of which the Sophos software could delete. However, there were four that it couldn’t destroy. Two of them were instances of the Virtum-Gen trojan. The other two were spyware, called ClickStream and Virtumondo. As the saying goes, I tried scrubbing, I tried soaking, nothing seemed to help.

To make a long story short, after fighting with the malware last night for several hours, I’d had enough. It’s one thing to have a “project” laptop on my desk, and keep running Microsoft Update and rebooting while I do other work on my own machine. That’s not hard. It’s another to focus intensively on removing spyware and viruses. That takes a lot of time, patience and concentration, none of which this project could justify.

So, this morning I blew away the Latitude’s hard drive and installed a clean copy of Windows XP Professional. I hadn’t wanted to do this, since there were applications on the Latitude that I wanted to keep. However, at some point you just have to admit defeat and cut your losses.

The installation process for Win XP Pro itself was interminable. It’s been a while since I last did this, and I’d forgotten how long it takes. The installation disc I had was pre-Service Pack level, and it’s taken many hours to install Windows, add the service packs, and apply all the updates and security patches. But now, at least I have a cleanly configured Windows laptop that’s not infected, and runs fast, fast, fast.

I’m glad I don’t fix PCs for a living.