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 Thursday, August 29, 2013

As you can tell from my post volume, I’ve had a few weeks of enforced downtime during which time a lot of thoughts have been percolating in my mind just waiting to escape :)

There’s an ongoing discussion inside Magenic as to whether there is any meaningful difference between consumer apps and business apps.

This is kind of a big deal, because we generally build business apps for enterprises, that’s our bread and butter as a custom app dev consulting company. Many of us (myself included) look at most of the apps on phones and tablets as being “toy apps”, at least compared to the high levels of complexity around data entry, business rules, and data management/manipulation that you find in enterprise business applications.

For example, I have yet to see an order entry screen with a few hundred data entry fields implemented on an iPhone or even iPad. Not to say that such a thing might not exist, but if such a thing does exist it is a rarity. But in the world of business app dev such screens exist in nearly every application, and typically the user has 1-2 other monitors displaying information relevant to the data entry screen.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying mobile devices don’t have a role in enterprise app dev, because I think they do. Their role probably isn’t to replace the multiple 30” monitors with keyboard/mouse being used by the employees doing the work. But they surely can support a lot of peripheral tasks such as manager approvals, executive reviews, business intelligence alerts, etc. In fact they can almost certainly fill those roles better than a bigger computer that exists only in a fixed location.

But still, the technologies and tools used to build a consumer app and a business app for a mobile device are the same. So you can surely imagine (with a little suspension of disbelief) how a complex manufacturing scheduling app could be adapted to run on an iPad. The user might have to go through 20 screens to get to all the fields, but there’s no technical reason this couldn’t be done.

So then is there any meaningful difference between consumer and business apps?

I think yes. And I think the difference is economics, not technology.

(maybe I’ve spent too many years working in IT building business apps and being told I’m a cost center – but bear with me)

If I’m writing a consumer app, that app is directly or indirectly making me money. It generates revenue, and of course creating it has a cost. For every type of device (iOS, Android, Win8, etc.) there’s a cost to build software, and potential revenue based on reaching the users of those devices. There’s also direct incentive to make each device experience “feel native” because you are trying to delight the users of each device, thus increasing your revenue. As a result consumer apps tend to be native (or they suck, like the Delta app), but the creators of the apps accept the cost of development because that’s the means through which they achieve increased revenue.

If I’m writing a business app (like something to manage my inventory or schedule my manufacturing workload) the cost to build software for each type of device continues to exist, but there’s zero increased revenue (well, zero revenue period). There’s no interest in delighting users, we just need them to be productive, and if they can’t be productive that just increases cost. So it is all cost, cost, cost. As a result, if I can figure out a way to use a common codebase, even if the result doesn’t “feel native” on any platform, I still win because my employees can be productive and I’ve radically reduced my costs vs writing and maintaining the app multiple times.

Technically I’ll use the same tools and technologies and skills regardless of consumer or business. But economically there’s a massive difference between delighting end users to increase revenue (direct or indirect), and minimizing software development/maintenance costs as much as possible while ensuring employees are productive.

From a tactical perspective, as a business developer it is virtually impossible to envision writing native apps unless you can mandate the use of only one type of device. Presumably that’s no longer possible in the new world of BYOD, so you’ve got to look at which technologies and tools allow you to build a common code base. The list is fairly short:

  • JavaScript (straight up or via various wrapper tools like PhoneGap)
  • Microsoft .NET + Xamarin

(yes, I know C++ might also make the list, but JavaScript sets our industry back at least 10 years, and C++ would set us back more than 20 years, so really????)

I’m assuming we’ll be writing lots of server-side code, and some reasonably interactive client code to support iPad, Android tablets, and Windows 8 tablets/ultrabooks/laptops/desktops. You might also bring in phones for even more narrow user scenarios, so iPhone, Android phones, and Windows Phone too.

Microsoft .NET gets you the entire spectrum of Windows from phone to tablet to ultrabook/laptop/desktop, as well as the server. So that’s pretty nice, but leaves out iPad/iPhone and Android. Except that you can use the Xamarin tools to build iOS and Android apps with .NET as well! So in reality you can build reusable C# code that spans all the relevant platforms and devices.

As an aside, CSLA .NET can help you build reusable code across .NET and Xamarin on Android. Sadly some of Apple’s legal limitations for iOS block some key C# features used by CSLA so it doesn’t work on the iPad or iPhone :(

The other option is JavaScript or related wrapper/abstraction technologies like PhoneGap, TypeScript, etc. In this case you’ll need some host application on your device to run the JavaScript code, probably a browser (though Win8 can host directly). And you’ll want to standardize on a host that is as common as possible across all devices, which probably means Chrome on the clients, and node.js on the servers. Your client-side code still might need some tweaking to deal with runtime variations across device types, but as long as you can stick with a single JavaScript host like Chrome you are probably in reasonably good shape.

Remember, we’re talking business apps here – businesses have standardized on Windows for 20 years, so the idea that a business might mandate the use of Chrome across all devices isn’t remotely far-fetched imo.

Sadly, as much as I truly love .NET and view it as the best software development platform mankind has yet invented, I strongly suspect that we’ll all end up programming in JavaScript – or some decent abstraction of it like TypeScript. As a result, I’m increasingly convinced that platforms like .NET, Java, and Objective C will be relegated to writing “toy” consumer apps, and/or to pure server-side legacy code alongside the old COBOL, RPG, and FORTRAN code that still runs an amazing number of companies in the world.

Thursday, August 29, 2013 3:20:39 PM (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [8]  | 

I am not only a member of the computer software industry, I’m also a member of something often referred to as “fandom” – which means I deeply enjoy science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, and all sorts of things related to SF. Yes, I’m a Trekkie, and a Star Wars geek, and a master of Lord of the Rings trivia :)

Fandom has its own conventions, and my family and I enjoy going to them. Over the past couple years there’s been a rise in understanding that fandom conventions often attract some people who feel like they should be able to harass other people. Often sexual harassment.

As a result there’s been a wide ranging and intense discussion about the topic on “the Internets”. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone can argue for harassing behaviors, but people do.

Recently John Scalzi, the author of some of my favorite books, and a wonderful ambassador for SF to the world, posted Scalzi’s convention harassment policy by which he will determine which conventions he’ll attend. In short, his policy is to only attend conventions that have a clear and public harassment policy, and to not attend conventions that ignore this very real issue.

This was so popular that Scalzi ended up creating a blog page where people can co-sign Scalzi’s harassment policy. And a lot of people have, including me.

Now I not only attend SF conventions, but I speak at or attend a whole lot of computer conferences each year. Arguably Scalzi’s policy only applies to SF conventions, but it occurred to me that it is a worthy policy for professional conferences as well. Perhaps professional conferences have less of an issue with harassment because people attend them as an extension of work or their professional life, not as part of their personal lives. And it probably helps that they don’t have cosplay, though sadly some still do have “booth babes”.

Booth babes seriously degrade our ability to attract and retain talented women in the computer field. Too often female attendees and speakers are treated as if they are attending in the same capacity - as if they don’t exist because there is an assumption that men are there as attendees and women are there as entertainment.

Throughout my career path from data entry guy to CTO of a national technology consulting company, I’ve observed some amazing female technologists sidelined in their careers by a number of factors that most men just don’t have to deal with. It damages these women’s careers, but it also damages our industry, makes our companies and our national talent pool less competitive globally, and I just don’t like seeing the waste of talent.

As a result of this train of thought, I contacted the conference organizer for Live! 360, Visual Studio Live! and Modern Apps Live!. These are conferences I not only speak at, but where I am co-chair or chair from a content perspective. My question to 1105 Media was whether they’d consider having a harassment policy for these conferences, and the response was immediate and positive.

It turns out that there has been at least one instance in the past where having such a policy in place would have been helpful to the conference organizers. Beyond that, as soon as you give even a moment’s thought to the issue it is pretty obvious that having such a policy is only a good thing. Conference organizers want more attendees – that’s how they make money. The more inclusive your conference; the more people are likely to attend, so taking steps to ensure people feel comfortable regardless of gender, race, gender identity, disability, etc. is only a good thing.

Now, my conferences (and one organized by 1105 where I’m not involved: TechMentor) all have anti-harassment policies. Here’s the Live! 360 anti-harassment policy for example.

Lest you think this issue impacts just me or 1105 Media, this month’s editorial in CODE Magazine coincidentally addresses harassment at conferences as well. The editorial expresses amazement and frustration that anti-harassment policies are necessary – and it is hard to argue with the idea that civilized people shouldn’t need such things. But we live in a world where there are less civilized people that attend the same events as the rest of us, and personally it makes me proud to be affiliated with 1105 and Visual Studio Live! knowing that they also recognize the need for policies to deal with that fringe minority.

Thursday, August 29, 2013 12:25:58 PM (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [1]  | 
 Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I am a bit unusual in that I have extensively used four different Windows 8 tablets:

  1. Samsung Series 7
  2. Surface RT
  3. Surface Pro
  4. Acer Iconia W3

The Samsung, Surface Pro, and Iconia are all Intel based machines, so they are running Windows 8 (or 8.1 preview) Pro. As a result they can theoretically run anything Windows 7 can run, plus all the new Windows Runtime (WinRT) apps.

The Surface RT is an ARM based machine, so it can run only WinRT apps (plus Office because Microsoft broke their own rules in that case).

So you might immediately assume Surface RT is the worst of the bunch, because it can’t run legacy apps from Windows 7.

But you should also consider battery life. The Samsung and Surface Pro get 2-3 hours if I’m lucky. The Samsung has a loud fan, and the Surface Pro gets quite hot. So while both can run Visual Studio, neither is a particularly fun tablet due to noise or heat, and certainly due to short battery life.

The Iconia has great battery life (I typically charge it every 2-3 days), no fan, and it only gets a little warm. Of course it uses an ATOM processor, so I shudder to think how slow Visual Studio would run (I haven’t tried), but it does run other legacy Windows 7 apps. Its primary drawbacks are that the wifi reception is horrible, and the screen is a bit fuzzy. It is also an 8” screen – which is both good and bad. It is a really nice size for casual browsing and reading, including laying on the couch, etc. But it is pretty cramped if you actually have to do any work – data entry or whatever. So it is a consumption-only device in my view.

The Surface RT also has great battery life. I spent an entire 8 hour flight across the Atlantic watching movies on it and didn’t run out of charge. It makes no noise and doesn’t get warm, and it has a big enough screen that it is good for consumption and light work (data entry, spreadsheets, etc.). True, it can’t run Visual Studio or other legacy apps, but then neither can the Iconia in practical terms (due to its slower processor).

Right now the biggest challenge with the Surface RT is the lack of WinRT apps, not that the machine itself is flawed. In fact, I think the device itself is the best of the four – light weight, good screen size, no noisy fan, no heat during use, great battery life, good performance.

For around-the-house or on-the-plane use the Iconia is the next best thing. It has great battery life, and has the double-edged attribute of an 8” screen. It has no fan, but does get a bit warm. My big problem with it is the weak wifi reception, which is often problematic, and the issue that if I do need to edit a presentation, document, or spreadsheet the screen is just too small. I should say that I don’t have any legacy apps installed on the Iconia other than Outlook, Office, and Chrome. I just haven’t found the need for anything, because there are WinRT apps or web pages to do everything I want to do. I only installed Chrome because the preview IE11 release is often unsupported by web sites – hopefully those web sites will get it together by mid-October…

If I need to use Visual Studio or other legacy Windows 7 apps I pretty much always haul out the Surface Pro these days. It is much nicer than the older Samsung. The Surface Pro is too warm and heavy for casual use as a tablet, but it makes for a great ultrabook that can act like a tablet in a pinch.

I know a lot of the tech media has been bashing on Surface RT due to Microsoft’s write-down on their excess inventory. And presumably the device hasn’t sold nearly as well as Microsoft expected or hoped. Personally I think this is purely because Microsoft didn’t include Outlook on the device – a choice I’m sure someone is regretting in hindsight. If the Surface RT had Outlook (and perhaps a full Lync client) it would do everything needed by most managers/executives in most companies.

Of course it wouldn’t be useful for knowledge workers like developers, CAD users, etc. But those people have desktops/laptops – the primary target market for tablets are managers/executives that travel around a lot and who don’t need a big/fast machine. We know this, because those people are running around with iPads that also can’t serve the needs of knowledge workers.

And if a knowledge worker does rely on a tablet, my observation is that they RDP into a Windows 7 computer to run the higher powered software. Obviously a Surface RT is at least as good of an RDP client as an iPad :)

My point is that I very much hope Microsoft doesn’t give up on the Surface RT. Or if they do, that they provide something comparable to it in terms of battery life, screen size, weight, and so forth via an Intel processor (presumably an ATOM processor).

A secondary point I suppose, is that I’m losing hope that I’ll ever be able to carry just one device. The idea that a device capable of running Visual Studio with good performance, where the device gets 8+ hours of battery life, has no loud fan, and doesn’t get uncomfortably warm might be out of reach…

Then again, the next-gen Surface Pro devices might pull it off?

To conclude – right now I’ve been carrying/using the Surface Pro and Iconia. I actually gave my Surface RT to my Dad because he needed a good tablet, and he’s enjoying it (as much as a non-computer user can enjoy any computer). But I do kind of miss the Surface RT, because I liked it better than the Iconia in some ways…

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 8:30:45 PM (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [5]  | 
 Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The news is atwitter with Ballmer’s impending departure from Microsoft. I’ve read analysis from technical, business, financial, and investor perspectives. Some seems good, a lot seems like just noise.

I am personally rather ambivalent about his departure. I’ve met Ballmer, and even “opened” for him at a fairly large speaking event in Detroit (back when Detroit was reasonably vibrant). He is a very intense, focused, and intelligent man. Pretty much what you’d expect from the CEO of a megacorp.

(yes, I’m a hard-core cyberpunk fan, and if “megacorp” doesn’t apply to Microsoft, then it doesn’t apply to anyone!)

The reason I’m ambivalent has less to do with Ballmer than Microsoft itself. I think Microsoft has gotten itself into such a predicament (undoubtedly in part due to Ballmer’s leadership) that anyone stepping into the CEO role will have a major uphill climb. Of course they have a lot of great raw material to work with, because Microsoft is loaded with extremely smart and dedicated technologists, but they’ll also have such massive issues to overcome that it’ll be really challenging.

The way I look at it is this (keeping in mind that I’m an outsider with nearly 20 years of “insider” status – so I’ve had a great/close viewpoint from outside the company to watch things unfold, but I’ve never been an employee, so I’ve never actually been in the belly of the beast):

Microsoft is not a monolith. In fact, its culture breeds internal competition at a personal, departmental, product, and division level. It is really like a whole bunch of companies that are sometimes allied and sometimes bitter competitors with each other.

When BillG was active in the company he conducted what were infamously known as “BillG reviews”. I remember friends sweating as they prepped for these events, because their product or initiative or idea would live or die based on such a review. As a result of these reviews, a lot of stuff did die – or at least got merged into other products/initiatives. When BillG left these reviews stopped – or at least changed.

The thing is, Bill (who I’ve also met) is amazingly smart and focused, and always seemed to have some idea of everything that was going on across the whole company – at a pretty technical level. Perhaps that was illusion, but I don’t think so. I think he is really that smart, and was really that tuned into what was going on, not in small part because he reviewed everything at one time or another.

These “BillG reviews” provided a failsafe, or level of regulation, against wholesale internal competition within Microsoft. Once they stopped there was nothing to prevent everyone from pursuing their own goals, driven by their personal, departmental, and division motivations (largely staying employed, getting raises, getting bonuses, and doing cool work).

(please note, I’m not judging these motivations – we all share them – or if you don’t want to keep your job and make more money, etc. then you are an odd duck)

As a result we ended up with silly things like multiple new data access frameworks being released all in a year. I strongly believe that BillG would have killed all but one via his review process. But in the absence of any global oversight, we ended up with a confusing array of publically released data access frameworks. What a mess!!

The thing to keep in mind is that developing multiple solutions to a problem is deep in Microsoft’s DNA/culture. It has always worked that way. What was new after the BillG reviews stopped is that nobody prevented the previously-internal chaos from becoming public chaos. Chaos we all have to deal with as developers or consumers.

Ballmer is a sharp guy, but he’s no BillG. He doesn’t have the technical chops for it. Obviously Ray Ozzie didn’t either – or if he had the technical chops, he didn’t have the organizational power. Either way, he wasn’t what many of us hoped he’d be.

Will the next CEO have technical chops? I expect not. And that’s OK, as long as they figure out some way to tame the wild beast that is the individual/departmental/product/division sub-companies that comprise Microsoft. One way or another somebody or something needs to harness that internal innovation and energy, pruning the duplicate bits, and focusing effort toward some unified technical vision.

Personally I feel really bad for a lot of my friends and colleagues who’ve had to work in the chaos over the past many years. Perhaps they haven’t had to sweat out the prep for a “BillG review”, but they must have seen how the uncoordinated chaos was working against the overall interests of their company…

So Ballmer leaving makes me neither happy nor sad. He merely administrated over this chaos for a few years, and was perhaps a good cheerleader. The real question is whether his replacement will be another administrator, or a marketing wonk, or the puppet of investors – or perhaps we’ll get lucky and it will be someone who (if not a deep technologist themselves) understands the core of Microsoft – the power and depth of its technical resources, and the desperate need to focus those resources on a reasonably common goal.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013 4:54:17 PM (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [3]  | 
 Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hello everyone.

I try to keep this blog mostly professional, with only occasional forays into more personal topics. This is one of those forays.

A little over two weeks ago I was speaking at a Windows 8 user group in the Twin Cities. Like most user groups they had pizza, and i ate a couple pieces.

About half-way through my talk i had _horrible_ heartburn. A searing sensation from the center of my chest up into my throat. And I got dizzy and a little short of breath. To the point that I apologized to the attendees and did the rest of my talk from a seated position. I though it was heartburn.

Following the user group I picked up some Tums (heartburn medication) and chewed a few tablets as i drove home. These had no impact, nor did a couple similar meds my wife gave me when I got home.

I couldn’t sleep. Between the discomfort and the worry about what was going on, I just couldn’t sleep.

Why worry? Well, just a couple weeks prior to this point, Jeffrey McManus (a fellow speaker and colleague) passed away in the night due to a heart attack. And he was two years younger than me. So this idea of a heart attack was pretty fresh in my mind, and I knew that the symptoms for a heart attack and heartburn were similar.

So I got online and started doing some research to find out the differences. It turns out there are NO MEANINGFUL DIFFERENCES. If you have heartburn that doesn’t respond to antacid or anti-gas meds, you should assume you are having a heart attack.

As a result my wife drove me to the ER, where they admitted me right away of course. They don’t mess around with chest pain.

Interestingly enough, after a bunch of tests they found no indication of a heart attack, but also no indication of heartburn. In other words, no immediate cause of my pain and discomfort. They gave me the choice to go home or remain in the hospital for some further tests the next day – mostly what’s called a stress test where they have you run on a treadmill while monitoring your heart.

My wife opted for me to stay. I _probably_ would have stayed anyway, but she was clear that in her mind this wasn’t optional (have I said I have the most amazing wife?).

A few hours later they said they wanted to a CT scan. One of the techs that does the stress test noticed that one of my blood tests wasn’t quite normal, and thought it would be worth doing a scan before the stress test. This turns out to have been a life-saving call.

The CT scan revealed something called an ascending aortic aneurism with dissection: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aortic_dissection

In the majority of cases this condition is identified post-mortem. I was extremely fortunate that it was discovered while I was still around, before the aneurism burst.

Everything changed at this point. As in they wouldn’t let me sit up, they immediately put me on a regimen to radically reduce my blood pressure, and they started checking with all hospitals in the Twin Cities to find the first available heart surgeon. The level of intensity was a _lot_ higher than it has been.

I think fortunately the next surgeon was in my hospital. The other primary possibility was in another excellent heart hospital, so that would have been fine, but this way I didn’t need to be transported across the city.

I woke up somewhere around 8 hours later. Or I should say that my first memory of waking up was around 8 hours later, as I apparently “was awake” after perhaps 5 hours and my family was there with me, but I have no recollection of that time.

I was in the hospital for another week before they sent me home, and even then my memories are a bit hazy due to the pain meds.

So here I am after about 1.5 weeks of being home and I’m on a lot less pain meds, so my mind is at least reasonably clear. I have another 10 weeks of healing before I can resume all normal activities, though just 4-6 before I can do things like go back to work full time.

I apologize to the LA .NET User Group and VS Live Redmond attendees who’d hoped to see me, but as you can tell I really had no choice but to cancel my appearances at those events. I do expect to be at Modern Apps Live and VS Live in Orlando in mid-November.

The primary things I’ve learned from this whole thing include:

  • You can’t easily tell the difference between heartburn and actual heart issues, so if antacids don’t work, error on the side of caution
  • I have the most amazing family and friends, who’ve been incredibly supportive, and continue to be supportive as i heal
  • My coworkers at Magenic are wonderful, and have ensured that I have no stress or worry about anything work-related, in addition to being broadly supportive through goodwill and kind thoughts
  • The online/professional communities to which I belong (CSLA .NET, various Microsoft communities, Regional Director, MVP, and others) have also been extremely supportive, and I truly appreciate the outpouring of goodwill

Some other observations:

  • I hate sleeping on my back – I always have disliked it, but after being confined to that option for a couple weeks I feel comfortable using the word ‘hate’
  • Hospital food is actually pretty good when you haven’t eaten anything for days
  • I am _shocked_ by how weak something like this can make a person – to the point that something simple like taking a shower is a major undertaking that takes a lot of planning and requires a long nap afterword

On the other hand, the fact that I’m here to make these observations and to write this blog post makes it all worthwhile.

I wanted to write this post for a couple reasons.

First, to thank everyone who has been and continues to be so supportive as I recover.

Second, to let colleagues and followers in my various communities know why I went dark so suddenly, and why things like CSLA releases might take longer than normal.

Third, to share my actual medical experiences in the hopes that even one person someday goes to the ER when they have “heartburn”. In my case I was sensitized to this issue due to the recent death of a colleague, and I’d prefer to have as few other people suffer that fate as possible.

Sunday, August 11, 2013 3:07:31 PM (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [26]  | 
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