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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.