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Next steps for Hewlett-Packard post-split

Neineil-sedakal Sedaka insists that breakin’ up is hard to do. Will that apply to the planned split of Hewlett-Packard into two companies? Let’s be clear: This split is a wonderful idea, and it’s long overdue.

Once upon a time, HP was in three businesses: Electronics test equipment (like gas spectrometers); expensive, high-margin data center products and services (like minicomputers and consulting); and cheap, low-margin commodity tech products (like laptops, small business routers and ink-jet printers).

HP spun off the legacy test-equipment business in 1999 (forming Agilent Technologies) and that was a win-win for both Agilent and for the somewhat-more-focused remainder of HP. Now it’s time to do it again.

There are precious few synergies between the enterprise side of HP and the commodity side. The enterprise side has everything that a big business would want, from high-end hyperscale servers to Big Data, Software Defined Networks, massive storage arrays, e-commerce security, and oh, lots of consulting services.

Over the past few years, HP has been on an acquisitions binge to support its enterprise portfolio, helping make it more competitive against arch-rival IBM. The company has snapped up ArcSight and Fortify Software (software security); Electronic Data Systems (IT services and consulting); 3PAR (storage); Vertica Systems (database analytics); Shunra (network virtualization); Eucalyptus (private and hybrid cloud); Stratavia/ExtraQuest (data center automation); and of course, the absurdly overpriced Autonomy (data management).

Those high-touch, high-cost, high-margin enterprise products and services have little synergy with, say, the HP Deskjet 1010 Color Printer, available for US$29.99 at Staples. Sure, there’s money in printers, toner and ink, monitors, laptops and so on. But that’s a very different market, with a race-to-the-bottom drive for market share, horrible margins, crazy supply chain and little to differentiate one Windows-based product from another.

Analysts and investors have been calling for the breakup of HP for years; the company refused, saying that the unified company benefitted from an economy of scale. It’s good that CEO Meg Whitman has acknowledged what everyone knew: HP is sick, and this breakup into Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and HP Inc. is absolutely necessary.

Is breaking up hard to do? For most companies it’s a challenge at the best of times, but this one should be relatively painless. First of all, HP has split up before, so at least there’s some practice. Second, these businesses are so different that it should be obvious where most of HP’s employees, products, customer relationships, partner relationships and intellectual properly will end up.

That’s not to say it’s going to be easy. However, it’s at least feasible.

Both organizations will be attractive takeover targets, that’s for sure. I give it a 50/50 chance that within five years, IBM or Oracle will make a play for Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, or it will combine with a mid-tier player like VMware or EMC.

The high-volume, low-margin HP Inc. will have trouble surviving on its own, because that is an area where scale helps drive down costs and helps manage the supply chain and retail channels. I could see HP Inc. being acquired by Dell or Lenovo, or even by a deep-pocket Internet retailer like Amazon.com.

This breakup is necessary and may be the salvation of Hewlett-Packard’s enterprise business. It may also be the beginning of the end for the most storied company in Silicon Valley.

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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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You’ve got 30 seconds. Make the most of it

Graeme WarringThirty seconds. That’s about how long a mobile user will spend with your game before deciding if he or she will continue using it. Thirty seconds. Maybe a minute. If you haven’t engaged the customer by then, forget it.

That’s according to Graeme Warring, COO of 2XL Games LLC, a game startup based in Phoenix. Speaking at an investor conference here today sponsored by AZ TechBeat, Warring explained that while mobile games are exploding, it’s getting harder and harder to make money at it.

One culprit that’s especially true with mobile games is that the new business model is free-to-play. That is, gamers can download the mobile app at no cost. They have, therefore, little or no emotional investment. They might try the game. They might not try it. They might play for 30 seconds or a minute. There’s no sense of guilt to drive them to engage with the software for hours or days, and then be inspired to use in-app payments to improve the gaming experience.

By contrast, consider a console game, such as for Sony’s PlayStation 4 or Microsoft’s Xbox One. A typical game might cost US$60. The gamer has done his/her research before making that purchase. Thanks to the emotional and financial investment, he/she is going to make a serious effort to play that game.

“It’s problem transference,” explained Warring. Who owns the problem of ensuring that the player gives the game a serious try? For an expensive console game, it’s the player’s problem. For a free-to-play mobile game, it’s your problem as the game developer.

Getting the player to engage requires an outstanding initial experience. Don’t require a steep learning curve; the era of preliminary in-game tutorials is long gone. Get the player involved instantly, and make it a fun and rewarding experience. Later, and only later, should you try to monetize through in-app purchases. Whether it’s a new weapon for a shoot-em-up, or grippier tires for a racing game, or more lives and candy and prizes, those become appealing only after the player is hooked and engaged.

Warring and other speakers at the AZ TechBeat conference made the point that the best-selling, top-revenue-producing games come from a small number of firms. They insist, however, that there are tremendous opportunities to make a smaller game, perhaps one that costs less than $5 million to create and market, and to make a profit from the investment.

Marketing is key. Expect to spend as much on marketing as on development, “and be prepared to burn through that budget,” the speakers insisted. That may mean social media; it may mean licensing arrangements. To that end, they suggest that instead of creating your own new brand and attracting a new audience, you may do better licensing an existing brand and a proven audience. Making a motorcycle racing game? License and tie it in with an existing motorcycle event, if you can. Such a tie in might be expensive, but it might bootstrap downloads and maybe even help attract investors.

That, in turn, will buy you 30 seconds. Make the most of it.

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Learning COBOL might be a great job move

mag-tapeOnce upon a time, back when dinosaurs roamed the planet, I learned COBOL. While I never wrote any deployed applications in the language, I did use it to teach an undergraduate course in computer science for business majors, back in the early 1980s. Those poor students, who submitted their programs on punch cards for an IBM System/370, complained that the class was the most time-consuming of their undergraduate studies, often requiring lots of late nights at the campus computer center.

Hint: If you are using a card punch, it’s important to have excellent typing skills.

Today, of course, COBOL is more likely to be a punchline. Sure, there was a resurgence of interest in the language about 15 years ago, when everyone was concerned about the Y2K problem. After that, legacy systems running COBOL disappeared from the public eye. Everyone would much rather use Java or C# or Python or Ruby or Objective-C; that’s where the jobs are, right?

Don’t be so quick to discount COBOL, especially if you are looking for a job, or think that you might be some day. There are lots of COBOL applications running all over the world, and more and more COBOL experts are retiring every day.

I’d like to share some information from one of the biggest COBOL vendors: Micro Focus. Bear in mind that Micro Focus’ interest is self-serving, but with that said, I find the information fascinating.

According to the company:

A poll of academic leaders from 119 universities across the world saw more than half (58%) say they believed COBOL programming should be on their curriculum, with 54% estimating the demand for COBOL programming skills would increase or stay the same over the next 10 years. That’s a far cry from today’s reality. Of the 27% confirming COBOL programming was part of their curriculum, only 18% had it as a core part of the course, while the remaining 9% made it an elective component.

The company has a lot of bullet points about COBOL, which I’ll share verbatim:

  • COBOL supports 90% of Fortune 500 business systems every day
  • 70% of all critical business logic and data is written in COBOL
  • COBOL connects 500 million mobile phone users every day
  • COBOL applications manage the care of 60 million patients every day
  • COBOL powers 85% of all daily business transactions processed
  • COBOL applications move 72,000 shipping containers every day and process 85% of port transactions
  • 95% of all ATM transactions use COBOL
  • COBOL enables 96,000 vacations to be booked every year
  • COBOL powers 80% of all point-of-sale transactions
  • There are 200 more COBOL transactions per day than Google + You Tube searches worldwide
  • $2 trillion worth of mainframe applications in corporations are written in COBOL
  • 1.5 million new lines of COBOL code are written every day
  • 5 billion lines of new COBOL code are developed every year
  • The total investment in COBOL technologies, staff and hardware is estimated at $5 trillion
  • An estimated 2 million people are currently working in COBOL

Micro Focus cites lots of sources: The Aberdeen Group, Giga Information Group, Database and Network Journal, The COBOL Report, SearchEngineWatch.com, Tactical Strategy Group, and The Future of COBOL report as sources for those points.

Again, this might mean job opportunities. FedTech Magazine reports:

In March [2014], the Office of Personnel Management released its “Strategic Information Technology Plan,” a vision for revamping the agency’s IT operations, including plans to automate paper-based processes, invest in data analytics and consolidate numerous databases. But maintaining the mainframe hardware and software systems that currently support retirement processes is expensive; according to the agency’s plan, OPM anticipates costs will increases 10 percent to 15 percent annually “as personnel with the necessary coding expertise retire and cannot easily be replaced.”

The United States military agrees. According to Terry Halvorsen, CIO of the Department of the Navy, it is often more cost-effective to maintain COBOL systems than to replace them:

In many cases, however, maintaining an older system that fully supports our mission makes more sense than upgrading it or buying a new system that runs the risk of degrading our mission and requires a large investment. The [Department of the Navy] and industry still use a programming language developed in 1959 to operate major business functions in finance and personnel. In fact, nearly three quarters of the world’s business transactions are done in that venerable language, COBOL. Now with an estimated 200 billion lines of code, it still works. Part of the reason for this is it’s an easy-to-use language, it is fast and it processes data quickly. It is in use worldwide and has proven so stable and reliable that many Fortune 500 companies—Capital One, for example—still hire and train COBOL programmers.

COBOL is easy to learn… and the jobs are there.

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They want to steal your data

bankamericard“My name is Patricia from the Bank of America fraud prevention department. This important message is for Mr. Alan Zeichick. We are calling to verify some potentially suspicious activity on your account. It is very important that we speak with you.”

Tuesday’s voicemail from my bank was short and simple. Nobody had pilfered a credit-card receipt or hacked into my account, the representative told me during our conversation. Rather, BofA had been notified by Visa (the credit card clearinghouse) that a retailer had been hacked, and many credit card numbers were stolen. Including mine. As of right now, my card was frozen; the bank will issue me a new card with a new number.

Who was the merchant? According to the BofA representative, Visa didn’t divulge that information due to an ongoing investigation. Nor did the representative know how many credit card numbers were stolen; all she knew what was that BofA was given a list of their bank’s customers who were affected.

These stories are coming far too often. Millions of cards were stolen in 2014 from diverse merchants like P.F. Chang’s China Bistro (a restaurant chain), Michaels Stores (art supplies), Sally Beauty (cosmetics), and Shaws (grocery stores). And those are only a few of the major vendors. Who knows how many smaller card thefts are either never reported, or aren’t deemed sufficiently juicy by the news media?

Some of you might be thinking, “We don’t take credit card numbers on our websites, so there’s no potential risk exposure.” Wrong. I am frequently astonished by the number of companies that maintain lots of customer data, and have that data pilfered. The Payment Card Industry (PCI) standards say that you should never store customer payment information. We’ve all seen that those standards are not followed, sometimes intentionally through neglect, and sometimes through flawed architecture, bad coding or lousy testing.

Let’s be clear: Encrypting browser communications does not protect your customers’ personal or financial information. If you are storing that information anywhere—in your data center, in the cloud—it is at real risk. The threats are active. Are your countermeasures active?

What is even more astonishing is that many of these thefts are of personal information stored on employees’ laptops. You may recall a high-profile case in 2013, where nearly 840,000 Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield customers had their information compromised when two laptops were stolen from the New Jersey-based health insurance company.

To quote from the Star Ledger’s story,

The stolen laptops were password-protected but had unencrypted data, Horizon said in a statement today. A subsequent investigation determined the computers may have contained files with personal information, including names, addresses, dates of birth, and, in some instances, Social Security numbers and limited clinical information, the insurer said.

How is that possible? No possible scenario should allow customer information to be downloaded onto a desktop or laptop or tablet or phone. Ever. Encrypted or not, the data should never leave the server.

Please tell me you aren’t storing credit card info in files that can be stolen. Please tell me  your company has actively sought to ensure that customer information can never ever ever be downloaded from servers.

Data theft is a nuisance, for cardholders like me, and for businesses like yours. Do you protect your customers’ information?

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What to do when, not if, your cloud goes down

azure-statusCloud-based development tools are great. Until they don’t work.

I don’t know if you were affected by Microsoft’s Azure service outage on Thursday, August 14, 2014. As of my deadline, services had been offline for nearly six hours. On its status page, Microsoft was reporting:

Visual Studio Online – Multi-Region – Full Service Interruption

Starting 22:45 13 Aug, 2014 UTC, Visual Studio Online customers may have experienced issues with latency and extended Execution times. The initial incident mitigated at approximately 14:00 UTC. During investigation at 13:52 14 Aug, 2014 UTC, engineering teams began receiving alerts for a separate issue where customers were unable to log in to their Visual Studio Online services. From 13:52 to 19:45 on 14 Aug, 2014 UTC, customers were unable to access their Visual Studio Online resources. Engineering teams have validated their mitigation efforts for both issues and have confirmed that full service has been restored to our Visual Studio Online users. These incidents are now mitigated.

My goal here isn’t to throw Microsoft under the bus. Azure has been quite stable, and other cloud providers, including Amazon, Apple and Google, have seen similar problems. Actually, Amazon in particular has seen a lot of uptime and stability problems with AWS over the past couple of years, though its dashboard on Thursday afternoon shows full service availability.

Let’s think about the broader issue. What’s your contingency plan if your cloud-based services go down, whether it’s one of those players, or a service like GitHub, Salesforce.com, SourceForge, or you-name-it? Do you have backups, in case code or artifacts are lost or corrupted? (Do you have any way to know if data is lost or corrupted?)

This is a worry.

In the case of the August 14 outage, the system wasn’t down for long — but long enough to kill a day’s productivity for many workers. Microsoft’s Visual Studio Online blog has a little bit of insight into the problem, but not much. Posted at 16:56 UTC, Microsoft said:

The actual root cause is still under investigation, but initial investigation is indicating a contention in our core database seems to be causing blocking and performance issues in the services. Our DevOps teams have identified a couple of mitigation steps and currently going thru validations. We will provide an update as soon as we have a mitigation in place. We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience while working on resolving this issue

This time you can blame Microsoft for any loss of productivity. Next time the service goes down, if you haven’t made contingency plans, the blame is yours.

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Look to the intranet for shared corporate data — it’s a Big Data problem

Microsoft-SharePoint-Foundation-2010-logoWhere do your employees go to find shared data? If it’s external data, probably an external search engine, like Google (which apparently holds 67.6% of the U.S. market) or Bing (18.7%) or one of the niche players.

What about internal corporate data? If your organization uses a platform like Microsoft’s SharePoint, that platform includes a pretty robust search engine. You can use SharePoint to find documents stored inside the SharePoint database, or external documents linked to it, and conversations and informal data hosted by SharePoint. If you are familiar with a product called FAST, which Microsoft acquired in 2008, SharePoint’s search contains some elements of FAST and some elements of Bing. It’s quite good.

What if you are not a SharePoint shop, or if you are in a shop that hasn’t rolled SharePoint out to every portion of the organization?  You probably don’t have any good way for employees to find structured and unstructured documents, as well as data. You’ve got information in Dropbox. In Box.com. In Lotus Notes, maybe. In private Facebook groups. In Yammer (another Microsoft acquisition, by the way). In Ribose, a neat startup. Any number of places that might be on enterprise servers or cloud services, and I’m not even talking about the myriad code repositories that you may have, from ClearCase to Perforce to Subversion to GitHub.

All of those sources are good. There are reasons to use each of them for document sharing and collaboration and source-code development. That’s the problem. Like the classic potato chips advertisements say, you can’t only eat one.

Even in a small company, the number of legitimate sharing platforms can proliferate like weeds. As organizations grow, the potential places to stash information can grow exponentially, especially if there is a culture that allows for end users or line-of-business departments to roll out ad hoc solutions. Add mobile, and the problem explodes.

This is a governance problem: How do you ensure that data is accounted for, check that external sharing solutions are secure, or even detect if information has been stolen or tampered with?

This is a productivity problem: How much time is wasted by employees looking for information?

This is a business problem: How much money is wasted, or how much work must be duplicated or redone because data can’t be found?

This is a Big Data problem: How can you analyze it if you can’t find it?

The answer has to be a smarter intranet portal. In a recent essay by the Nielsen Norman Group, usability experts Patty Caya and Kara Pernice write that “Intranet portals are the hub of the enterprise universe.”

The trick is to discover it, index it, and make it available to authorized users—without stifling productivity. That includes data from applications that your developers are creating and maintaining.

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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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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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Don’t sign the non-compete agreement

gold-handcuffAre you covered by a non-compete agreement at your current employer? Are your workers covered by a non-compete? While non-competes may make your executives (and their attorneys) feel good, they may not be good for your company.

Non-compete agreements restrict where you can work after you leave your current employer. They might lock you out of taking another job in your industry for years—agreements of even up to five years are not uncommon. Of course, non-competes can dissuade competitors from recruiting you while you are still working. That’s not all: They could also scare away potential employers even if you lose your job due to a layoff or involuntary termination.

By restricting the free flow of employees from company to company, non-compete agreements limit employment options. They also can cut down on a vibrant culture of innovation and startups.

Why have non-compete agreements? One argument is that employers invest in hiring and training their employees, and don’t want to have those employees, once trained, snatched up by competitors. Another is that by virtue of their jobs, employees have access to intellectual property, and that the non-compete stops competitors from gaining ready access to that IP.

As you can imagine, information technology workers, including software developers, are often seen as key strategic assets and may find non-compete agreements a necessary evil. Programmers aren’t the only folks locked in by non-competes, though. A recent story by Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times, “Noncompete Clauses Increasingly Pop Up in Array of Jobs,” talked about a Boston-area teenager who couldn’t work at a summer camp in 2014 because the camp she worked at in 2013 had a 12-month non-compete agreement. Ugh.

Some states, including California, give more protections to employees than to employers, and non-compete agreements are often unenforceable. Some analysts believe that this worker-friendly environment contributes to the vitality of the area’s tech economy—see Sharon Wienbar’s blog post, “The Power of a Fluid Market: Employee Mobility Makes Silicon Valley Flow.”

Wienbar writes

A non-compete isn’t the only reason why the abundance of VC $$ remain in Silicon Valley but it is an important item to consider. In the technology landscape, talent can make or break a business and the more fluid the resources, the better the chance of building a viable business.

Other states are friendlier to business and uphold non-compete agreements. I would not like to work in that environment, personally. I’m not a fan of non-compete agreements and have never signed one or asked an employee to sign one. However, I recognize that in some locations, and in some companies, that’s the only way to get the job you want at the company you want.

Compelling arguments against such agreements are plentiful. Read Jeff Haden’s, “The Case Against Non-Compete Agreements,” published in Inc.; “Time to get rid of ‘noncompete’ agreements” by the Boston Globe’s Scott Kirshner; and Jon Zemke’s “To Compete or Non-Compete: Contracts That Make Michigan Less Competitive,” in Concentrate.

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Forget Big Data and worry about Bad Data

bad-dataTwo consulting projects this year have involved lots and lots of data. One was the migration of a very complex customer database and transaction logging system to a cloud-based CRM platform from a homegrown system. The other involved performing serious analytics on a non-profit’s membership system that had data spanning decades.

Both projects required incredible manual intervention in the data processing. Data came from different original sources and had wildly varying schemas. Some data was relational, and some was flat-file. Some of the data was clearly contradictory. Timestamps were missing on records. Valuable data was stored in comment fields. Documentation didn’t exist. Keys were lost. Fields were abandoned. Live data was mixed with archival data.

Both systems were a mess—but that wasn’t the problem. The issues I’m describing are the everyday result of messy software, evolving databases and the real world. Solving those challenges takes some effort, but we all know the importance of factoring data cleansing into any type of migration or analytics project, both in terms of time and of finances.

The real challenge is that most of the data was totally wrong. No resemblance to reality. That person never lived at that address. The relationships in the SQL database were not correct. Conventions were nonexistent. When data is being collected by many systems—and stored in many systems—over years and decades, this is what happens.

Yes, both projects were successful. However, we had to throw away a lot of data that would have added value to the organizations and their customers or members. Worse, we learned that both organizations had been using bad data for years, resulting in missed opportunities, less-than-ideal customer service, and flawed business planning.

Garbage in, garbage out. After all, if you are thinking about offering a new product or service, and are basing your decisions on bad data, you aren’t making a good decision. You are guessing.

What went wrong? It wasn’t in the migration and analytics projects. We went in, cleaned up the data best we could, and got out. It was a finite task and went as well as could be expected.

The root causes weren’t bad programming either, or poor database administration. In many IT shops, schemas change. Documents are lost. Corruption happens. Ideas are tried and abandoned. That’s simply what happens when data is kept past its sell-by data.

The failure is that nobody regularly (or ever) checked the data to make sure that it’s still good. Nobody performs period data hygiene. Nobody tested addresses, or eyeballed records to see if they made sense, or validated the databases against other sources (or even against themselves).

Data is a valuable corporate asset. In fact, when it comes to customer data and transaction records, data may be the single biggest asset of your company. Most companies work hard to ensure that their assets are solid. A manufacturer checks its raw materials and finished goods to ensure that they are as expected. Materials in warehouses are inventoried. Random samples are pulled from time to time, tested, and examined carefully.

When it comes to data, long-term quality is rarely a consideration. Data is stored and used. Is it checked? Rarely, if ever. We all know the benefits of Big Data for our business. What about the costs of Bad Data? Unknown, but real. I’ve seen this time and again. As Bad Data is used and reused, it will only get worse.

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It’s time to learn Swift

swift-chris-lattnerSAN FRANCISCO — I expected a new version of OS X, the operating system for Mac desktops and notebooks. I expected a new version of iOS, the operating system for iPhones and iPads. I did not expect a new programming language. Yet that’s what we got at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, held here this week. And I’m delighted.

Along with the previews of OS X 10.10 “Yosemite” and iOS 8, Apple showed Swift, a language that runs inside its familiar Xcode integrated development environment.

Swift is designed primarily for safety. As Apple puts it:

Swift eliminates entire classes of unsafe code. Variables are always initialized before use, arrays and integers are checked for overflow, and memory is managed automatically. Syntax is tuned to make it easy to define your intent—for example, simple three-character keywords define a variable (var) or constant (let). The safe patterns in Swift are tuned for the powerful Cocoa and Cocoa Touch APIs. Understanding and properly handling cases where objects are nil is fundamental to the frameworks, and Swift code makes this extremely easy. Adding a single character can replace what used to be an entire line of code in Objective-C. This all works together to make building iOS and Mac apps easier and safer than ever before.

Obviously we have not had a chance to work with Swift directly. However, it appears to be a very easy language to learn, especially for developers who are used to Objective-C. It’s designed for Apple’s Cocoa and Cocoa Touch libraries, is built with the familiar and stable LLVM compiler, and creates the same runtime as Objective-C.

Apple says Swift programs are fast. The company claims that a complex object sort will run in Objective-C about 2.8x faster than in Python. But if you use Swift, it runs 3.9x faster.

Learn more about the Swift announcement, as well as a ton of new APIs, in Rob Marvin’s article, “Apple announces Swift programming language, new SDK and developer features at WWDC.”

A neat feature of Swift is what Apple calls “playgrounds,” where you can see how the code runs as you write it—without building a new version. That’s cool. Swift isn’t ready yet, but you can check out Apple’s preliminary documentation, including a tour and language guide.

Swift is a cross-platform language, if you define “cross platform” to mean “both of Apple’s platforms.” Yes, you can use Swift to write apps for OS X and for iOS, and because it creates the same runtimes as Objective-C, you should be able to run Swift applications on older versions of those operating systems, not only OS X 10.10 and iOS 8. What you can’t do, and probably never will do, is run Swift apps on competing platforms. No Android, no Windows Phone. Given that the language does target the Cocoa and Cocoa Touch libraries, that’s clearly no surprise.

Most mobile app developers already target iOS first, even though there are more Android devices than iPhones and iPads. Swift won’t change that, and in fact it will likely make iOS development even more attractive.

On the desktop/notebook side, developers writing native software probably target Windows first because of the huge installed base of machines. It’s unlikely that Swift will change behaviors there. But then again, writing desktop/notebook software truly is becoming a niche activity.

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Git control of your software development assets

gitThere are lots of reasons to use Git as your source-code management system. Whether used as a primary system, or in conjunction with an existing legacy repository, I’m going to argue that if you’re not using Git now, you should be at least testing it out.

Basics of Git: It is open source, and runs on Linux, Unix and Windows servers. It is stable. It is solid. It is fast. It is supported by just about every major tool vendor. Developers love Git. Managers love Git.

Not long ago, much of the world standardized on Concurrent Versions System (CVS) as its version control system. Then Subversion (SVN) came along, and the world standardized on that. Yes, yes, I know there are dozens of other version control systems, ranging from Microsoft’s Visual SourceSafe and Team Foundation Server to IBM Rational’s ClearCase. Those have always been niche products. Some are very successful niche products, but the industry standards have been CVS and SVN for years.

Along came Git, designed by Linus Torvalds in 2005, now headed up by Junio Hamano. For a brief history of Git, read “The Legacy of Linus Torvalds: Linux, Git, and One Giant Flamethrower,” by Robert McMillan, published in Wired in November 2012. For the official history, see the Git website.

What’s so wonderful about Git? I’ll answer in two ways: industry support and impressive functionality.

For industry support, let me refer you to two new articles by SD Times’ Lisa Morgan. Those stories inspired this column. The first is“How to get Git into the enterprise,” and the other is “Git smart about tools: A Buyers Guide.” You’ll see that nearly every major industry player supports Git—even competing SCM systems have worked to ensure interoperability. That’s a heck of an endorsement, and shows the stability and maturity of the platform.

Don’t take my word for it for the impressive functionality. Instead, let me quote from other bloggers.

Tobias Günther: “Work Offline: What if you want to work while you’re on the move? With a centralized VCS like Subversion or CVS, you’re stranded if you’re not connected to the central repository. With Git, almost everything is possible simply on your local machine: make a commit, browse your project’s complete history, merge or create branches… Git lets you decide where and when you want to work.”

Stephen Ball: “Resolving conflicts is way easier (than SVN): In Git, if I have a private branch from a branch that has been updated with new (conflicting) commits, I can rebase its commits one at a time against the public destination branch. I can resolve conflicts as they arise between my code and the current codebase. This makes dealing with conflicts easy because I get the context of the conflict (my commit message) and only see one conflict at a time.

“In SVN if I merge a branch against another and there are a lot of conflicts, there’s nothing I can do but resolve them all at the same time. What a mess.”

Scott Chacon: “There are tons of fantastic and powerful features in Git that help with debugging, complex diffing and merging, and more. There is also a great developer community to tap into and become a part of and a number of really good free resources online to help you learn and use Git…

“I want to share with you the concept that you can think about version control not as a necessary inconvenience that you need to put up with in order to collaborate, but rather as a powerful framework for managing your work separately in contexts, for being able to switch and merge between those contexts quickly and easily, for being able to make decisions late and craft your work without having to pre-plan everything all the time. Git makes all of these things easy and prioritizes them and should change the way you think about how to approach a problem in any of your projects and version control itself.”

Nicola Paolucci:
“If you don’t like speed, being productive and more reliable coding practices, then you shouldn’t use Git.”

Peter Cho: “Most developers would be delighted if they can change their workflow to use Git. Switching over early would be more ideal unless, of course, your SCM relies on a large network of dependent applications. If it’s not viable to change SCM systems, I would highly recommend using it on future projects.

“Git is infamous for having a large suite of tools that even seasoned users need months to master. However, getting into the fundamentals of Git is simple if you’re trying to switch over from SVN or CVS. So give a try sometime.”

Thomas Koch: “Somebody probably already recommended you to switch to Git, because it’s the best VCS. I’d like to go a step further now and talk about the risk you’re taking if you won’t switch soon. By still using SVN (if you’re using CVS you’re doomed anyway), you communicate the following: We’re ignorant about the fact that the rest of the (free) world switched to Git. We don’t invest time to train our developers in new technologies. We don’t care to provide the best development infrastructure. We’re not used to collaborate with external contributors. We’re not aware how much Subversion sucks and that Subversion does not support any decent development process. Yes, our development process most certainly sucks too.”

Günther also wrote, “Go With the Flow: Only dead fish swim with the stream. And sometimes, clever developers do, too. Git is used by more and more well-known companies and Open Source projects: Ruby On Rails, jQuery, Perl, Debian, the Linux Kernel, and many more. A large community often is an advantage by itself because an ecosystem evolves around the system. Lots of tutorials, tools (do I have to mention Tower?) and services make Git even more attractive.”

I’m sure there are arguments against Git. Nearly all the ones I’ve heard have come to me via competing source-code management vendors, not from developers who have actually tried Git for more at least one pilot. If you aren’t using Git, check it out. It’s the present and future of version control systems.

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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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Do you want to be a billionaire?

Would you like billion-dollar-billa billion dollars? Software companies, both startups and established firms, are selling like hotcakes. Some are selling for millions of U.S. dollars. Some are selling for billions. While the bulk of the sales price often goes back to venture financiers, a sale can be sweet for equity-holding employees, and even for non-equity employees who get a bonus. Hurray for stock options!

A million U.S. dollars is a lot of money. A billion dollars is a mind-blowing quantity of money, at least for me. A billion dollars is how much money Sun Microsystems paid to buy MySQL in 2008. Nineteen billion dollars is how much money Facebook is spending to buy the WhatsApp messaging platform in 2014 (see “With social media, it’s about making and spending lots of money”).

I’m going to share some analysis from Berkery Noyes, an investment bank that tracks mergers and acquisitions in the software industry. Here’s info excerpted from their Q1 2014 Software Industry Trends Report:

Software transaction volume declined four percent over the past three months, from 435 to 419. However, this represented a 14 percent increase compared to Q1 2013. Deal value gained 72 percent, from $22.6 billion in Q4 2013 to $38.8 billion in Q1 2014. This rise in aggregate value was attributable in large part to Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp [sic], a cross-platform mobile messaging application, for $16 billion. The top ten largest transactions accounted for 61 percent of the industry’s total value in Q1 2014, compared to 55 percent in Q4 2013 and 38 percent Q1 2013.

The Niche Software segment, which consists of software that is targeted to specific vertical markets, underwent a ten percent volume increase in Q1 2014. In terms of growth areas within the segment, deal volume pertaining to the Healthcare IT market increased 31 percent. Meanwhile, the largest Niche Software transaction during Q1 2014 was Thoma Bravo’s acquisition of Travelclick [sic], which provides cloud-based hotel management software, for $930 million.

According to Berkery Noyes, the niche software market was the largest of four segments defined by the bank’s analysts. You can read about the transactions in the business, consumer and infrastructure software segments in their report.

Why would someone acquire a software company? Sometimes it’s because of the customer base or the strength of a brand name. Sometimes it’s to eliminate a competitor. Sometimes it’s to grab intellectual property (like source code or patents). And sometimes it’s to lock up some specific talent. That’s particularly true of very small software companies that are doing innovative work and have rock-star developers.

Those “acqui-hires” are often lucrative for the handful of employees. They get great jobs, hiring bonuses and, if they have equity, a share of the purchase price. But not always. I was distressed to read about an acquisition where, according to one employee, “Amy”:

Under the terms of Google’s offer, Amy’s startup received enough money to pay back its original investors, plus about $10,000 in cash for each employee. Amy’s CEO was hired as a mid-level manager, and her engineering colleagues were given offers from Google that came with $250,000 salaries and significant signing bonuses. She was left jobless, with only $10,000 and a bunch of worthless stock.

The implication in the story, “The Secret Shame of an Unacquired Tech Worker,” is that this is sexist: The four male employees were hired by Google, and the one female employee was not.

We don’t know the real story here, and frankly, we probably never will. Still, stories like this ring true because of the brogrammer culture in Silicon Valley, and in the tech industry.

Let’s end with a bit of good news in that regard. According to market research firm Evans Data Corp.:

The number of females in software development has increased by 87% since first being measured in 2001, according to Evans Data’s recently released Developer Marketing 2014 survey.  In 2014, 19.3% of software developers are women, or approximately three and a half million female software developers worldwide.  While today’s number is strong compared to 2001, it is even stronger compared to the years of 2003 to 2009 when the percent of female developers dipped into the single digit range.

We are making progress.

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Read about Carla Schroder’s nerd life – and it’s a good life

Carla-Schroder“I tried working for some tech companies like Microsoft, Tektronix, IBM, and Intel. What a fiasco. I can’t count how many young men with way less experience and skills than me snagged the good fun hands-on tech jobs, while I got stuck doing some kind of crap customer service job. I still remember this guy who got hired as a desktop technician. He was in his 30s, but in bad health, always red and sweaty and breathing hard. It took him forever to do the simplest task, like connecting a monitor or printer. He didn’t know much and was usually wrong, but he kept his job. I busted my butt to show I was serious and already had a good skill set, and would work my tail off to excel, and they couldn’t see past that I wasn’t male. So I got the message, mentally told them to eff off and stuck with freelancing.”

So writes Carla Schroder in her blog post, “My Nerd Life: Too Loud, Too Funny, Too Smart, Too Fat” on linux.com. Her story is an important one for female techies – and all techies. Read it.

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You won’t believe what they are saying about tech women

'Rosetta (Young Girl Sitting Thinking Seated on Ground sculptures/statu' by Jenny Wynne JonesTechnology is a rewarding career track. It also can be an incredibly hostile career track, especially for the females of the species.

Here are 13 links to what they’re saying about women in tech – plus a bonus off-topic one.

 If you’re a woman – you’ve gotta read this. If you’re not a woman – you’re gotta read this too.

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Amazing women in tech? Just say “Yes”

1486079_10201603140415088_346126634_oWe need all the technical talent we can get. Whether we are talking developers, architects, network staff, IT admins, managers, hardware, software or firmware, the more women in technology, the better. For everyone – for companies, for customers, for women and for men.

I have recently started working with an organization called WITI – that’s Women in Technology International. (My nickname is now “WITI Alan.”)

WITI is a membership organization. Women who join get access to amazing resources for networking, professional development, career opportunities and more. Companies who join as corporate sponsors can take advantage of WITI’s incredible solutions for empowering women’s networks, including employee training and retention services, live events and more.

My role with WITI is going to be to help women in technology tell their stories. We kicked this off at January’s International Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas, and we’ll be continuing this at numerous events in 2014 – including the WITI Annual Summit, coming to Santa Clara from June 1-3, 2014. (You can see me here at the WITI booth at CES with Michele Weisblatt.)

If you are a woman in technology, or if you know women in technology, or you understand the value of increasing the number of women in technology, please support the super-important work being done by WITI.

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Smart glasses you have to see to believe

LAS VEGAS — If you are a geek, there are few events geekier than the huge Consumer Electronics Show, held here each January. Here is where you’ll find the latest toys, toys, toys, toys, toys and toys. Such as smart glasses, smart cars, shape-recognizing SDKs, robots with intelligent programmable faces, and so much more.

Most of the 150,000+ people who attended CES were mesmerized by the show-stopping curved UHD (ultra high definition) televisions that are at either 4K (2160p) or 8K (4320p) resolution. The 105-inch model from LG blows my home 60-inch Samsung 1080p television out of the water, and yes, I’ll buy one in a few years.

Samsung UHD TVs
Curved ultra high definition televisions, like these 4K models from Samsung, stole the show at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show.

Beyond TVs, there are lots of 3D printers from startups likeMakerBot, feature-packed cameras from giants like Canon, self-driving cars from BMW, wearables like the LG Lifeband, and phone cases. Hundreds of booths with phone cases. It’s amazing how many phone case manufacturers and distributors are here in Las Vegas.

(Who the heck needs all those phone cases? The mind boggles.)

One thing I learned at CES—though I’m sure it’s common knowledge in the robotics community—is that it’s easier to build a robot that has a large LCD screen with an animated face instead of constructing a real humanoid robotic face. The cartoon face is more expressive and less intimidating than a realistic simulacrum. Plus, software is a lot less expensive to create and update than animatronic bones, skin, motors and servos.

Beyond TVs, cameras and phone cases, here are two introductions from smaller companies that caught my eye at CES as being very interesting for software developers:
#!• The new M100 smart glasses from Vuzix are similar to Google Glass, only you can buy it today, it’s less expensive than Google Glass (US$999), it’s a full Android implementation, and you don’t have to jump through Google’s restrictive hoops to build apps. If you are willing to forego the snob value of genuine Google Glass, and don’t need quite the high-end hardware, you can have an Ice Cream Sandwich head-mount display with 24-bit color, a 400×240 display, 1GB of RAM, 4GB of storage, a MicroSD slot, a speaker, a noise-cancelling microphone, a 5MP camera, 1080p video, a six-hour battery, WiFi and Bluetooth. Most recently, Vuzix announced that a software update will add voice recognition based on Nuance speech technology. Yes, you won’t get Google Glass’ 640×360 display, but did I mention the M100 is available now?

Vuzix M100 smart glasses
It’s here now, it’s less expensive than Google Glass, and its Android stack is wide open to developers: the M100 Smart Glasses from Vuzix. The kit includes the glasses, and you can wear it on either the left or right side.

The Asus Transformer Book Duet is a head-scratcher. It’s an Intel-based laptop that looks like an Apple MacBook Air, but runs both Windows 8.1 and Android 4.2.2. The review from Ars Technica says it best: It’s clunky. Let’s assume that it gets less clunky. What would you (or your customers or employees) do with a single device that combines the best of Windows and the best of Android? I’m not sure, but if Intel’s “Dual OS” concept catches on, there could be interesting developer opportunities.

By the way, my favorite tech event that’s even geekier than CES is ACM SIGGRAPH. Catch it in Vancouver this August. Gosh, I hope there aren’t any phone cases there.

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Dancing with Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak

Steve-WozniakI’ve had the opportunity to meet and listen to Steve Wozniak several times over the years. He’s always funny and engaging, and his scriptless riffs get better all the time. With this one, he had me rolling in the aisle.

The Woz’s hour-long talk (and Q&A session) covered familiar ground: His hacking the phone system with blue boxes (and meeting Captain Crunch), working his way though college, meeting Steve Jobs, designing the Apple I and Apple II computers, the dispute about the Apple Macintosh vs. Apple Lisa, his amnesia after a plane crash, his dedication to Elementary school teaching, his appearance on the TV competition Dancing with the Stars in 2009, and so on.

Many of us have heard and read these stories before — and love them.

Read all about his talk here, in my story on the SmartBear blog….

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Possible progress with female software engineers

woodblocksIt looks like the tech industry is hiring more women. Maybe. Maybe not. The statistics are hard to interpret. Also, it’s unclear if the newly hired women are performing technical or other jobs.

I’m looking at a blog from the New York Times, “An Uptick in the Hiring of Women for Tech Jobs,” which correctly says that:

There are signs that tech companies are hiring more women, but women still appear to make up far less than half of all new hires in the industry.

In the year ending in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the net change in the number of employees in the computer industry was 60,000. The net change in the number of female employees was 36,000 — or 60 percent of the net change, according to the bureau’s data.

Yet it does not necessarily mean that the tech industry hired more women than men. The bureau’s figure is a net change, meaning the numbers reflect new employees and those who left. More men than women probably left their jobs — because there are so many more men working in the tech industry. For example, it is possible that 100,000 men left their jobs, and 124,000 men were hired, while 10,000 women left their jobs and 46,000 were hired.

If we want more women software engineers, let’s encourage girls to think like engineers. That means encouraging play that incorporates both design and construction — and in a tactile way, not only through tablet apps.

When I was young, my father chopped 2x4s and dowels into various sized blocks. Some square, some round, some rectangular, some triangles. No paint, no stain, just some sanding — and the imagination is unlocked.

Today, in addition to wood blocks, construction blocks like Lego, Duplo or Megablox are what I’d give a young child, girl or boy. Bright colors are great. If there are “boy colors” like red or blue, and “girl colors” like pink and purple, I’d buy equal quantities of both and mix them together, to provide the widest possible color palette. I would buy lots of big buckets of plain old blocks, not kits where you follow directions and assemble a specific toy. That’s great for buying furniture at Ikea – but not at inspiring creativity and hands-on imagination.

There’s a video floating around YouTube, “GoldieBlox, Rube Goldberg, & Beastie Boys “Princess Machine” (a concert for little girls).”

What do you think: Step in the right direction, a marketing ploy, or both?

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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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The developer is king

“You should double your top line revenue by making your products more awesome, not by doubling the size of your sales department.”

That was one of the insights shared during a technology roundtable held last July 16 in San Francisco. Called “The Developer is King,” the discussion was moderated by Dan Dodge of Google Ventures, formerly a startup evangelist at Microsoft and engineer at such diverse firms at AltaVista, Napster and Groove Networks. Also on the panel: John Collison, founder of online payment site Stripe; Tom Preston-Werner, founder of GitHub; Suhail Doshi, co-founder of Web analytics firm MixPanel; and Lew Cirne, founder of app monitoring firm New Relic.

The atmosphere around the panel was filled with pithy aphorisms about why so many developers are succeeding as entrepreneurs. For example, “developer aren’t just techies, they are artists who creating things,” and “a good startup founder is someone who doesn’t live only to write code, but who likes to solve problems.”

What made this conversation particularly interesting is that not only are these founders all developers, but their customers are also developers. The panelists offered some true words of wisdom for anyone targeting developers:

• Developers are hard to please. You have to build products that just work — you can’t create success through whiz-bang marketing.

• Developers will see your product and think they can build it themselves. It’s often not hard to duplicate your product. So you have to focus on the customers, ecosystem and simplicity.

• If you are building a commercial offering atop open source software, show that you help developers get their work done more easily than the open source version.

• Tools are quite viral; developers are great at telling their friends what works for them — and what doesn’t work for them.

• Focus on the initial user experience, and make customers more productive immediately. Contrast your offering with big platforms that require a lot of work to install, configure, train and use before the customer sees any benefit.

• The way to innovate is to try lots of things – and create a culture that tolerates failure.

• When hiring, a cultural fit beats anything on the resume. You can teach skills – you can’t teach character.

• Don’t set out to build a company; instead, start out creating a solution to a real problem, and then grow that into a business.

• Don’t get hung up on analyst estimates of market size. Create markets, don’t pursue them.

and my favorite,

• You shouldn’t build a company by focusing on a current fad or gold rush. Rather, figure out where people are frustrated or having problems. Make something that people want. Figure out how to make people happy.

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Saying farewell to the mouse-man, Douglas Engelbart

Dr. Douglas Engelbart, who passed away on July 2, was best known as the inventor of the computer mouse. While Dr. Engelbart was the brains behind many revolutionary ideas, his demonstration of a word processor using a mouse in 1968 paved the way for the graphical user interfaces in Xerox’s Alto (1973), Apple’s Lisa (1979) and Macintosh (1984), Microsoft’s Windows (1985) and IBM’s OS/2 Presentation Manager (1988).

Future generations may regard the mouse as a transitional technology. Certainly the touch interface, popularized in the iPad, Android tablets and Windows 8, are making a dent in the need for the mouse — though my Microsoft Surface Pro is far easier to use with a mouse, in addition to the touch screen.

Voice recognition is also making powerful strides. When voice is combined with a touch screen, it’s possible to envision the post-WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing Devices) mobile-style user experience surpassing mouse-driven systems.

Dr. Engelbart, who was recently fêted in Silicon Valley, was 88. Here are some links to help us gain more insight into his vision:

Obituary in the New York Times, by John Markoff.

“The Mother of All Demos” on 1968. Specifically, see clips 3 and 12 where Dr. Engelbart edits documents with a mouse.

A thoughtful essay about Dr. Engelbart’s career, by Tom Foremski.

I never had the honor of meeting Dr. Engelbart. There was a special event commemorating his accomplishments at Stanford Research Institute in 2008, but unfortunately I was traveling.

It’s remarkable for one person to change the world in such a significant way – and so fast. Dr. Engelbart and his team invented not only the mouse, but also personal computing as we know it today. It is striking how that 1968 demo resembles desktop and notebook computing circa 2013. Not bad. Not bad at all. May his memory be a blessing.

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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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See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, code no evil

Data can be abused. The rights of individuals can be violated. Bits of disparate information can be tracked without a customer’s knowledge, and used to piece together identities or other profile information that a customer did not intend to divulge. Thanks to Big Data and other analytics, patterns can be tracked that would dismay customers or partners.

What is the responsibility of the software development team to make sure that a company does the right thing – both morally and legally? The straight-up answer from most developers, and most IT managers outside the executive suite, is probably, “That’s not our problem.” That is not a very good answer.

Corporations and other organizations have senior managers, such as owners, presidents, CEOs and board of directors. There is no doubt that those individuals have the power to say yes – and the power to say no.

Top bosses might consult with legal authorities, such as in-house counsel or outside experts. The ultimate responsibility for making the right decision rests with the ultimate decision-makers. I am not a lawyer, but I expect that in a lawsuit, any potential liability belongs with managers who misuse data. Programmers who coded an analytics solution would not be named or harmed.

This topic has been on my mind for some time, as I ponder both the ethics and the legalities implicit in large-scale data mining. Certainly this has been a major subject of discussion by pundits and elected officials, at least in the United States, when it comes to customer info and social-media posts being captured and utilized by marketers.

Some recent articles on this subject:

Era of Online Sharing Offers Benefits of ‘Big Data,’ Privacy Trade-Offs

The Challenge of Big Data for Data Protection

Big Data Is Opening Doors, but Maybe Too Many

What are we going to do in the face of questionable software development requirements? Whether we are data scientists, computer scientists or other IT professionals, it is quite unclear. A few developers might prefer to resign rather than write software they believe crosses a moral line. Frankly, I doubt that many would do so.

Some developers might say, “I didn’t understand the implications.” Or they might say, “If I don’t code this application, management will fire me and get someone else to do it.” Or they might even say, “I was just following orders.”

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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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Big Expectations and Big Challenges for Big Data

According to IDG Research, 80% of business leaders say that Big Data should enable more informed business decisions – and 37% say that the insights provided by Big Data should prove critical to those decisions.

A February 2013 survey on Big Data was designed and executed jointly by IDG Research and Kapow Software, which sells an integration platform for Big Data. As with all vendor surveys, bear in mind that Kapow wants to make Big Data sound exciting, and to align the questions with its own products and services.

That said, the results of the survey of 200 business leaders, are interesting:

• 71% said that Big Data should help increase their competitive advantage by keeping them ahead of market trends

• 68% said that Big Data should improve customer satisfaction

• 62% believe Big Data should increase end-user productivity by providing real-time access to business information

• 60% said Big Data should improve information security and/or compliance

• 55% said Big Data should help create compelling new products and services

•33% said Big Data should help them monitor and respond to social media in real time

Those are big expectations for Big Data! The results to date… not so much. The study revealed that only one-third of organizations surveyed have implemented any sort of Big Data initiative – but another third expect to do so over the next year.

What are the barriers to Big Data success? The study’s answers:

• 53% say a lack of awareness of Big Data’s potential

• 49% say concerns about the time-to-value of the data

• 45% say having the right employee skills and training

• 43% say ability to extract data from the correct sources

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Get ready for the #SDTimes100

The software development world keeps on changing. Just when we think we get a handle on something as simple as application lifecycle management, or cloud computing, or mobile apps, we get new models, new innovations, new technologies.

Forget plugging pair programming or continuous delivery or automated testing before checking code into the repository. The industry has moved on. Today, the innovation is around DevOps and Big Data and HTML5 and app stores and… well… it keeps changing.

Tracking and documenting those changes – that’s what we do at SD Times. Each year, the editors stop, catch our breath, and make a big list of the top innovators of the software development industry. We identify the leaders – the companies, the open-source projects, the organizations who ride the cutting edge.

To quote from Rex Kramer in the movie Airplane, the SD Times 100 are the boss, the head man, the top dog, the big cheese, the head honcho, number one…

Who are the SD Times 100? This week, all will be revealed. We will begin tweeting out the SD Times 100 on Thursday. Follow the action by watching @sdtimes on Twitter, or look for hashtag #SDTimes100.

After all the tweeting is complete, the complete list will be published to www.sdtimes.com. Be part of the conversation!

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In-memory databases poised for takeoff

The classic database engines – like the big relational behemoths from IBM, Microsoft and Oracle – store the data on disk. So do many of the open-source databases, like MySQL and PostgreSQL, as well as the vast array of emerging NoSQL databases. While such database engines keep  all the rows and columns on the relatively slow, disks, they can boost performance by putting some element, including indices and sophisticated predicted caches, on faster solid-state storage or even faster main memory.

From a performance perspective, it would be great to store everything in main memory. It’s fast, fast, fast. It’s also expensive, expensive, expensive, and in traditional services, is not persistent. That’s why database designers and administrators leverage a hierarchy: A few key elements in the fastest, most costly main memory; more data in fast, costly solid-state storage; the bulk in super-cheap rotating disks. In some cases, of course, some of the data goes into a fourth layer in the hierarchy, off-line optical or tape storage.

In-memory databases challenge those assumptions for applications where database response time is the bottleneck to application performance. Sure, main memory is still fabulously expensive, but it’s not as costly as it used to be. New non-volatile RAM technologies can make main memory somewhat persistent without dramatically harming read/write times. (To the best of my knowledge, NVRAM remains slower than standard RAM – but not enough to matter.)

That’s not to say that your customer database, your server logs, or your music library, should be stored within an in-memory database. Nope. Not even close. But as you examine your application architecture, think about database contents that dramatically affect either raw performance, user experience or API response time. If you can isolate those elements, and store them within an in-memory database, you might realize several orders of magnitude improvement at minimal cost — and with potentially less complex code than you’d need to manage a hierarchical database system.

Not long ago, in-memory databases were a well-kept secret. The secret is out, according to research from Evans Data. Their new Global Development survey says that the developers using in-memory databases has increased 40% worldwide from 18% to 26% during the last six months. An additional 39% globally say they plan to incorporate in-memory databases into their development work within the next 12 months.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick