2012-11-28

It's a hybrid !!



The motor car industry is in transition right now. It is a slow process that will take the motor car back to it's roots as the 'electric carriage' of the 1830's.  Electric cars were common until the petrol (gasoline) overcame the limitations of battery storage capacity and vehicle distance, to dominate the market for over 100 years.  The long term trend in the rising cost of fuel, the impact of the combustion engine on the environment and changing social/work patterns have re-introduced the electric car back into the market.
Despite electric car innovation, if you are in the market for a new car today, it's likely that you will settle for a hybrid. The hybrid overcomes the deficiencies of current battery technology in electric cars while offsetting the rising cost of petrol.

Mobile application development can be described in much the same way. When people talk about writing mobile applications, they often talk about 'native' and 'HTML5' based applications. When you think of 'native' think 'petrol'. Developers will write apps in 'native' code - that is code that runs natively on the operating system. Because mobile devices use different operating systems, developers have to write their application multiple times - thereby incurring a high cost of development. And testing. And bug fixing. And enhancements. Even if you plan only on supporting iPhone and Android - that's still a hefty investment to make for the same piece of functionality. You will never have functional parity (think Windows and Mac software).  Don't be fooled by that starry eyed programmer who is telling you that writing a native application is the ONLY way to build your mobile application.

The alternative approach to developing mobile applications is to write a single web app that runs on the mobile browser, using HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript, mitigating the high cost of writing multiple native apps. HTML5 mobile web apps are very much like the electric car. HTML5 is a new standard but the mileage is limited. HTML5 is a specification that has been evolving at the same time as the iPad - so naturally it falls short in supporting all the things you want to do on a smart phone or tablet today. Even with basic feature support (location, local storage and camera) HTML5 does not solve many of the mobility problems that developers face - specifically security, offline support and access to native device features and phone functionality such as push messaging.

Just like the motor car, there is also a third option - the hybrid.  The hybrid mobile application blends the best of web with native code operation. Hybrid apps run inside a native container and leverage the device’s browser engine to render HTML and process JavaScript locally. Hybrid development requires you to write one web application (HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript) and access device features through a JavaScript API.  Apache Cordova (PhoneGap) takes this approach, as does emotive an mobile cloud computing platform (disclaimer: the company I work for).

There are many advantages to the pure hybrid model (by 'pure' I mean there's no  cross compilation of the source code - it is just run it as-is) - these include
  • faster time to market
  • standards based web programming model 
  • access to native device features
  • development team needs no training and no expensive native programmers to hire
  • reuse existing web assets - including mobile web assets
  • cost of maintenance is low
  • not locked into any vendor 
  • faster iteration time to build and revise applications

Yes - it's true that today you get more mileage from a native application over a web mobile application - but at a really high operational cost and you know that it is not the long term option.  HTML5 web mobile applications are cheaper and easier to produce but fall short in giving you full device access.

Just as with the car, if you are looking to build the next generation of platform independent, smart, context aware, enterprise mobile applications at low development and maintenance cost, then you want to go with a hybrid.

2012-05-21

Sorry Sir, this club is SaaS only

Client: "....sounds great I'll take it. You do support on premise, don't you? We're an on-premise business"

Sorry Sir, we don't that. Let me explain why, Sir, by dispelling two software myths right off the bat.
1. companies that produce on premise software understand how to run it in production
2. your IT department can manage an app better than the SaaS company that makes it

Despite your disappointment and hurt feelings, Sir,  deep down you know that I'm right...

Client: "....I have some of the best ops guys in the business. You don't know my business"

  • Nice car Sir! Topped up the oil Sir? Water and air? But beyond that you probably leave car maintenance to the 'experts' Sir? The local dealer or the manufacturer that produces your car? Of course Sir, you're too busy and can't possibly spend the time to become a specialist in car maintenance Sir, can you? You are the car user but 'operations' is outsourced to a third party.
  • Nice house Sir! Assume you have running water, gas and electricity? Every one of these services is provided by a third party utility Sir? You could set up your own electricity generator and pump your own water from a well - but you don't have the time or infrastructure to do any of that do you Sir? You are a user and consumer of services, these services are provided by a third party.
Client: ".... nice examples - but this is software we're talking about. software is different....."
  • You run an on premise business Sir? Yes I understand. Your payroll is managed by ADP,  health by Blue Cross, copy machines by Xerox and email by Google, yes Sir? All the essential services you offer your employees are managed by third parties. These are the must-have "live or die" services you offer to your internal customers (your employees) and they had better be running in order for you to stay in business, wouldn't you say so Sir? You have implicit trust that these critical services are always available from these 3rd parties.

Now - lets consider the myths I mentioned shall we, Sir?

  • On premise software vendors spend years designing, writing, unit testing and performance testing their software. Excellent but they don't operate the software the way you do. Some companies "eat their own dog food" but there is no communication between those that operate the software and those that design the software. Since when does a product manager listen to the ops guy?  If they did perhaps there would less systems management, middleware and operations control software companies out there, wouldn't you say so Sir? And why is your maintenance budget so high? I suspect that your IT guys know parts of the software better than the on premise company that wrote it, because they run it every day in a real world setting with a mixture of other products and services.

  • SaaS companies are operating the software on a daily basis and their reputation depends on guaranteed service. For that reason, people designing the software consider the operational impact of their products and ensure that the revenue raised outweighs the costs to run and maintain. Many SaaS companies are deployed on a PaaS or an IaaS - meaning the specialism for managing the hardware, network and software stacks works on the principle of the division of labour - everyone focuses on doing a few jobs really well, instead of a lot of jobs really poorly. 


You know people aren't born with a natural understanding of any product or service. Why would you think that you can run this software yourself, better than the service we are providing Sir? We understand what we are building and how to operate it in a manner that ensures continued service and value to you.

So please, don't ask for on premise, we're not that kind of club.


2012-02-26

Let's get into character

There's a classic line in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction". Two hit men, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta), are on their way to a job where they could be dealing with as many as six guys.

Jules says to Vincent that they should “get into character,” indicating that they each play a part when they go on the job. The job of hit man is nothing more than a career choice and they don’t necessarily define themselves within those parameters.


That's great advice that every software developer and product manager should take note of. Put yourself in the position of the user and really role play the moment or the "day in the life". Better still - get out of the office and go on the road and sit with the user you think you are building software for. I say "think" because most people building software are kidding themselves that what they are building is good for the user. 
Think like a movie star. You really need to get inside of the head of the user. Only then will you start to realise that the user really doesn't want to use your application because it SUCKS! More to the point, the user is just a transient, using your software for a brief, fleeting moment to accomplish a task (e.g. make the hit) - and then they need to get out.

If the answer to any of the following is "yes" then you're in trouble.
  • the user interface is dictated by the data model 
  • you built the technology and are now looking for a use case
  • the user is expected to remember the process steps
  • the app has a lot of neat features that users "might" want
  • executive management changed the design to suit themselves
  • that's how the desktop version works
  • "well it was good enough in my day"
Put simply - if the application doesn't do anything for the user - it sucks. The user won't use it again, unless forced to - and that itself is becoming an outdated, unworkable model.

Enterprise software vendors beware. If you hadn't noticed - users are walking with their feet - choosing to use other applications and devices.
Put yourself in the shoes of the user and forget about your bias for one technical solution or another.  

Of course technology matters because if you use the wrong tech or approach the performance or scalability will suffer and again the user won't use the software. Technology should be the second consideration, after you have nailed the user experience.

So the next time you sit down with your development team to knock out a new application or update an existing one - put on the white shirt, black tie and black suit, put "Misirlou" on the stereo and "get into character".....

2012-02-22

Best Buy #FAIL: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

Sony, Samsung, HP, Gateway - take note. You spend billions of dollars on research, development, marketing and advertising only to hand the keys to the kingdom over to a retail store and cross your fingers that the stores' happy elves will help your products will fly off the shelves.

Oh dear.

I went to Best Buy on Sunday - looking for a monitor for my office at work. If it's been a while since you've bought a monitor let me just say that now is an incredible time to get a great monitor for a low price. You should think about upgrading your existing monitor for an energy efficient LED model, they're as slim as a credit card, save space, look great. (OK - not as slim as a credit card - but pretty close).
As with anything technical I'd done my research before I went to the store - had a specific size in mind, resolution, HDMI ports and I'd preselected a couple of manufacturers. I checked that the store had the monitors I'd selected, in stock. Should have been a quick job, into the store, check the image quality, crank up/down the brightness/contrast, pick the one I like and then out right? Wrong.

Unfortunately, Best Buy had chosen to use all the monitors on display to advertise their warranty products. (We all know that warranties are a total scam and a waste of money). The video was a white, grey and gaudy yellow display that kept playing over and over again. There was no way to view anything other than the warranty video.

Net effect: it was impossible to differentiate between each product.

A store rep came and asked if he could help me. I asked him to remove the video so that I could compare the monitors by looking at the native display and several high definition images. At such a high resolution I'm sure the eye couldn't notice the difference - but each monitor does look different. If I'd wanted to buy blind I could have just ordered the monitor from Amazon.  The store rep said there was no way to remove the video. Despite explaining why, the store rep said that they could not remove the video. So there really was no way to compare the three models that I had preselected. Buying a monitor without seeing the picture is as stupid as buying audio equipment without listening to it.

So I left the store without a monitor. No sale for Best Buy - but worse still - bad news for the manufacturers. Just imagine investing so much in your product and your brand only to end up displaying some cheap ad for a useless warranty product. That's like swimming the English Channel only to give up two feet from the shores of France.

I drove to Fry's Electronics down in Palo Alto. All the monitors were displaying high resolution images on a slideshow. I could play video from each monitor. It took a while to decide as the monitors were all good and Fry's had a greater selection of monitors (also at cheaper prices). I left with a monitor and managed to get a discount on the monitor I'd selected. And no - I didn't buy the warranty package.


2012-02-07

Get Dropbox on your Kindle Fire


Frustrated that you cannot find Dropbox on the Amazon store ? No worries, getting Dropbox on your Kindle is pretty straightforward and works like a charm. To do this all you need to do is set up your Kindle to accept installation of apps from unknown sources and then download the dropbox.apk file from the secure (https) dropbox.com website.

Here are the detailed instructions:

Preparation
  1. Click the gear icon in the top-right corner of the Kindle screen 
  2. On the Settings window click the "More +" button then select the "Device" option.
  3. Turn on ‘Allow Installation of Applications from Unknown Sources’. 
  4. Close the Settings window.


Setup
  1. Open the web browser, go to https://www.dropbox.com/android, click Download App.  This will download the Dropbox .apk file
  2. When the download is finished, open the notification in the top left corner and select the file.
  3. You will be prompted to install the application.  Click the button.
  4. Once installation is completed, start the Dropbox application and log in.

Now you can access all your Dropbox files on your Kindle. While you can transfer files using a cable, I find this to be another convenient way of sharing files - especially when deploying native apps to the device.







2012-01-02

How to get the BBC iPlayer running when you live outside of the UK

(subtext: Get the World's most famous detective on your favourite browser)

The new series of Sherlock has started on the BBC. If you live outside of the UK and you are too impatient to wait for your local TV content provider to host it for you - then fear not !! These simple instructions will get you up and running. In addition to the iPlayer you can access most of the other UK TV channels using the same method. Note: you can use the same method to access content in other countries - such as Hulu in the U.S.

How it works:  In simple terms, the BBC iPlayer, like other players, perform a check to determine whether your internet access is originating from the UK.  So the trick is to ensure that your access to the BBC website will originate from the UK.



First you are going to use a free piece of open source software that was designed to keep your internet access anonymous. You will add a setting that will ensure that the software makes use of servers in the UK whenever making requests to the internet. You will add one final setting to your browser to configure how it connects to the web and then you should be done.

The following instructions will how you how to get the whole thing running on Google Chrome on the Mac. The steps for Windows/Linux and other browsers are the same.

Step 1: Download tor from this site : https://www.torproject.org/.  The download button should detect your operating system. For Macs the direct link is here

Step 2: Install tor. Find tor and run it. (on the Mac it is called "TorBrowser_en-US.app"). This will launch the Vidalia control panel.

 

If all goes well, the control panel should connect to the Tor network and you should see the following status:

Once you are connected, the web browser bundled with Tor will appear and carry out a check to ensure you are online anonymously. Do not close the browser just yet.

Step 3: Get the port number from the Tor bundled browser. This is required for Step 7.  The bundled Tor browser is a cut down Firefox image that does not have Flash player installed (required for iPlayer).  You can install it if you want or use another browser. To use another browser we need to copy one of the Tor browser settings.
From the bundled Tor web browser menu select Preferences. Then press the Network tab.



Press the Settings option. This shows you the default settings for the bundled Tor browser


You can see that the browser is going to talk to Tor using localhost (127.0.0.1) on port 53742. It is important to note that on your machine the port will be different. It will have a different setting everytime you run Tor.  Make a note of the 5 digit port number. (Don't use 53742 unless your setting has the same number). We will come back to this in Step 7.
Press Cancel to close the window and then close the Preferences panel.


Step 4: Now you are going to set up tor so that it uses servers specifically in the UK. This step is straightforward - so hang in there.
On the Vidalia control panel click "View the Network". The Tor network map will open.

This shows you a list of the servers that are available all around the world. You can sort the list of countries by clicking the column (header) for the flags. Once the list is sorted by flag - scroll down until you see the Union Jack (British Flag). The "relays" are the servers you are going to use to relay requests to the BBC website. Make a note of 4 of the relays by typing their names in a text editor. (Note: if you are outside of the US and want to access hulu - then you can pick a US relay...). You pick several incase one of the servers is not running or has poor performance...

Once you have made a note of the relays - Close the tor network map.


Step 5: Now you need to set up your tor connection to use those relays.
On the Vidalia control panel press "Settings". The press the "Advanced" tab.


In the middle panel entitled "Tor Configuration file" press the "Edit current torrc" button.

At the bottom of the list of settings add the following two lines. Replace #R1, #R2, #R3 with the names of the relays that you picked and wrote in the text editor in Step 4.

StrictExitNodes 1
ExitNodes  #R1, #R2, #R3, #R4

For example if I had picked out the following relays TorLand1, StickItToTheMan, obelix - I would type the following:


StrictExitNodes 1
ExitNodes  TorLand1, StickItToTheMan, obelix


(StrictExitNodes makes Tor use the list of Relays that you provide).
Now press OK to confirm the changes and close the window. Press OK to close the Settings Window.

Step 6. Restart tor by pressing the Stop Tor button.  Once Tor has stopped - press Start Tor. When Tor has started successfully - then get excited - you're almost there !

Step 7: Now set up Chrome to user Tor when it accesses the internet. You need to change the way your browser connects to the internet. To do this you are going to need the port setting that you copied in Step 3.
Open Google Chrome.
Click the wrench on the toolbar, then click "Preferences" from the menu options.
On the Preferences page - click "Under the Hood" on the left navigation panel.



In the section marked "Network", click the "Change Proxy Settings" button. This will launch the Network panel on the Mac.
Click the "Proxies" tab. Select "SOCKS Proxy". Tick the SOCKS Proxy to enable it.
In the SOCKS Proxy Server field enter 127.0.0.1
In the field marked ":" enter the port number. This is the port number you copied down in Step 3. In my example I would enter 53742.  You will enter another 5-digit number.


Press OK. Press Apply to close the Network settings dialog.
Now Google Chrome is set up to talk to Tor running locally on your machine on port 53742 (in my example).

To check that Chrome is Tor enabled - enter the following URL into your Chrome browser: https://check.torproject.org/?lang=en-US

If all is OK - you should see a familiar looking screen....


Step 8:  View !!  You made it ! OK - now reload the BBC iPlayer page. You will no longer see any warning messages and you can now press the play icon.





Sit back with a cup of tea and enjoy !!


Final notes
#1: When you have finished watching the programmes - don't forget to switch off the Network setting. You just need to uncheck the settings in your network System preferences.

#2: When you want to watch the iPlayer again - remember to get the new port setting when you restart Tor, and put this in your SOCKS Proxy setting.

#3: You are not limited to the BBC either. You can access online content from ITV and Channel 4 in the UK - but also content from any part of the planet. Just remember to change the relay for the host country.

Have fun !!  (I really do recommend watching Sherlock )

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