August 2010 Archives

Microsoft Windows Phone 7: Notes from the developer workshop floor

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It's been six months since Microsoft publicly unveiled Windows Phone 7. While the handsets may not yet be on the shelves, it's clear a considerable amount of activity has been taking place behind the scenes, particularly among Microsoft's developer community.

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I had a chat with Microsoft's Paul Foster, developer evangelist and part of the Phone 7 team - and someone I've known for a long time. He's working closely with a number of brands, both large and small, to try to ensure plenty of apps are in place when the phone launches.

As Microsoft announced on Monday, to date, there have been more than 300,000 downloads of the Windows Phone Developer Tools (Beta). "The past six months have shown us that we've got our approach to Windows Phone 7 just right. We've provided a rich application platform based on Silverlight and XNA technologies, while the free tools are based on Visual Studio 2010 and Expression Blend. This has meant that our tools are accessible to developers and designers of all skill levels who are looking to capitalise on the opportunities presented by Windows Phone 7," said Foster.

As of September 16, the final version of Windows Phone developer tools will be available for download. Microsoft insists that it has listened to the developer community's response to the beta launch; so the new tools will include a number of new features, including several highly requested Silverlight controls which Microsoft says will make it even easier for developers to deliver high quality Windows Phone 7 experiences.

Rumours also suggest that in the September 16th final release, the panorama, pivot and Bing maps controls will all be available to drop into applications.

It goes without saying that with Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is facing huge competition from the likes of Apple and Google, so the company is now clearly attempting to differentiate itself from competitors in the app creation space. A smarter certification process and clear guidelines on submissions will make life easier for developers - and Microsoft has made effort in training provision too.

Foster explained, "We've invested a huge amount in ensuring the developer tools, controls and application platform are truly useful, but we also recognise the need for smart training. Just last week, we released a course called the Windows Phone 7 Jump Start. We have also recently updated the Windows Phone 7 Developer Training Kit and will be releasing many more hours of training in the coming weeks and months."

Microsoft appears to be investing heavily in the new platform, but let's not forget this is the same company that gave us the notorious Windows Mobile. Can a leopard really change its spots?

Peter McGann, lead developer at mobile games specialist IronSun Studios seems to think so. He told me, "Windows Phone 7 is a great target platform for mobile developers. You get an excellent free toolset, have a mature and robust language in C#, and the XNA framework means there are minimal cross-platform changes. As a startup company writing games for mobile devices, we wanted to be able to jump straight in and write 'proper' full-featured games. Microsoft has provided the tools to realise this, for us and other companies like us."

Will this be enough to tempt developers away from Apple? Watch this space...

W3C launches new web performance working group

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The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has launched a new Web Performance Working Group to provide methods to measure aspects of application performance and further the standards that it lays in place for the web.

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The 350 member-plus consortium says it is focused on making sure web developers have the ability to assess and understand the performance characteristics of their applications using well-defined interoperable methods.

"As Web browsers and their underlying engines include richer capabilities and become more powerful, web developers are building more sophisticated applications where application performance is increasingly important. This new Working Group will look at user agent features and APIs to measure aspects of application performance, " says the consortrium.

The working group's "deliverables" will apply to desktop and mobile browsers and other non-browser environments where appropriate.

The 'meaningful' mobile web that talks to phones properly

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While many industry commentators still argue that the mobile web has yet to truly flourish, the lack of common standards and the differentiation between platforms is in itself encouraging the development of ancillary technologies designed to help manage the fragmentation that currently exists.

The problem, or one of the major problems at least, is that different mobile websites, displayed on different mobile devices running different browsers on different operating systems have to contend with different screen sizes, different processor speeds and a vast array of functions and standards supported by different phones.

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Bemoko is a software company that supports the creation of mobile websites that "intelligently" assess the properties of each phone as it accesses the server and then only delivers meaningful content that the device can display effectively.

According to the company's website, "Web designers need to know that the content they are creating is delivering, not only on some, but on all devices. Broken links, non-displaying images or even logos that do not display correctly on every device is an easy way to switch users off and guarantee they will not return. Some of the most popular destinations on the web still render content in a manner that it is almost illegible on a wide range of phones."

Bemoko describes the vast majority of mobile applications as effectively being "mini mobile websites", with the relevant information from the server being rendered within a template on screen. The company is aiming to leverage this fact with its bemokoLive platform, which it says enables content created in HTML to display effectively on any mobile device without the need for designers to learn a new programming language or develop a new set of skills to deliver to mobile.

The company says that news of its new offering is spreading fast -- let's hope that a mere 10 followers including me on Twitter (at the time of writing) is no judge of technical worth. It may get a boost with the recent addition of bemokoLive.NET, which is intended to extend the benefits of the bemoko mobile platform to the .NET environment through integration into Microsoft's ASP.NET MVC framework.

As we strive to reach the point where software application developers can develop one single mobile site to deliver the best user experience over a wider range of handsets and devices, bemoko may prove to have helped the progression path.

Mobile websites created with bemokoLive can now be submitted to Apple to be delivered through the iTunes store whilst still working on all other mobile handsets - and, critically, this without the need for significant reworking of content, so the future may look promising.

HTML 5 & Internet Explorer 9 opinions, not all from Microsoft

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Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 Beta is on its way in less than a month from now on September 15th. Industry commentators suggest that the release of Microsoft's newest browser will send out a few shockwaves because HTML, the underpinning technology of the modern web, is also on the brink of its next change as we move to HTML 5.

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According to James Pratt writing on Microsoft's official Internet Explorer blog, "Developers are already working hard on some amazing new web experiences enabled by Internet Explorer 9. On September 15th we'll be able to show you a more beautiful web that feels native on Windows."

Meanwhile, Erik Huggers who is director of future media & technology at the BBC has written an acerbic blog suggesting that HTML 5 development is off course saying that, "The fact is that there's still a lot of work to be done on HTML5 before we can integrate it fully into our products. As things stand I have concerns about HTML5's ability to deliver on the vision of a single open browser standard which goes beyond the whole debate around video playback."

At the same time, Paul Dawson who is the 'experience director' at EMC Consulting has said that, "HTML 5 offers a wide variety of multimedia and interactivity capabilities directly in the browser which would previously only have been achievable using browser plug-ins such as Flash and Silverlight. As these capabilities increase, there will certainly be less of a reliance on the use of plug-in technologies."

Dawson continues, "However, aside from the penetration of HTML 5 browsers themselves, there are two factors which we think limit the extent to which browser plug-ins will ever disappear entirely:

Richness and access to richness
Plug-ins offer richness in some areas today which are either impossible or - and this is important - much more difficult to achieve in HTML 5. Developers may prefer the open standards of HTML 5, but not if it doubles or triples development times. This is true for both scripting and audio visual awesomeness (the phrase we're using today to avoid saying 'multimedia'): richer interfaces, stable complex client-side scripting, platform independent interface and script development, 3D (or fake 3D), sound and video. The effect is emphasised by the relative scarcity of toolkits, code libraries and IDEs, as well as the continued inconsistency of HTML 5 implementations, some current weaknesses in the canvas object and the often greater size of equivalent payloads to achieve the same effects.

Capabilities
There are some things that HTML 5 just can't do. The most obvious examples of this are hardware integration - today webcams, microphones and enhanced multi-touch support, but there are several future use cases around rich input from peripheral devices. Think also of issues around security and sandboxing and the need for the use of plug-ins (if not necessarily Flash, Silverlight or the Java Runtime) remains.

The final point to make is that even if neither Flash nor Silverlight ever graced another browser, both technologies would be far from redundant. Flash is the baby-brother of Flex, and Silverlight is being widely used today in the development of applications for other platforms, most significantly Windows Phone 7," concluded Dawson.

The impending arrival of Internet Explorer 9 and HTML 5 is exciting news and it is certainly likely to shake a few things up. Whether it will move us towards a more unified platform of open web standards is, I'm afraid to say, anybody's guess.

Adobe's testing tool for your web site "experience"

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Given the company's proximity to web-centric technologies, it is perhaps surprising that we don't hear more from Adobe about the testing and analysis side of website effectiveness.

With so-called site "stickiness" being the ultimate aim of any site owner, presenting the right content to the right people at the right time is not a process that can be pinned down to a single algorithmic model.

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Adobe's answer to this predicament is its Test&Target online testing and optimisation product, which by no small coincidence, was recently recognised as a Leader in "The Forrester Wave: Online Testing, Q3 2010" report.

According to the report, "Online testing provides a mechanism for applying the principles of quantitative analysis to improve the website experience and drive metrics that affect the bottom line."

"Many marketers are now incorporating online analytics with testing strategies giving them a distinct competitive advantage. We will continue to expand Test&Target and the entire Adobe Online Marketing Suite to help customers transform their businesses to better meet visitor needs, improve marketing content performance and generate real business value," said Aseem Chandra, vice president, product marketing, Omniture Business Unit, Adobe.

A free copy of "The Forrester Wave: Online Testing, Q3 2010" report is available here.


A "sneaky peek" at Embarcadero RAD Studio XE

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Database and software tools company Embarcadero likes to tease us with a series of 'tasters' before its major product releases. Its RAD Studio XE 'sneak previews' campaign is now underway leading up to the launch of the new application development suite in early September.

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The first sneaky peek is said to showcase developer and team productivity enhancements along with enhancements to the IDE.

Aiming at improving developer's modeling and debugging chores, RAD Studio XE features revealed in the first preview include:

  • Subversion version control integration to help manage source code revisions in the Delphi, C++Builder and Delphi Prism IDEs
  • Rapid PHP web development added to RAD Studio with RadPHP XE
  • New debugging features for Delphi, C++Builder and RadPHP
  • Modeling enhancements in Delphi XE, including enhanced code generation from the modeler for higher quality code, as well as the ability to generate sequence diagrams from methods


Embarcadero says its XE products are distinguished by three key components: support for multiple database types and deployment environments; the presence of Embarcadero ToolCloud technology for centralised licence management and on-demand tool access; and the existence of an easy upgrade path to Embarcadero All-Access XE.

All tools in this group are designed to and try save time on coding, increase productivity and focus on developing quality applications faster.

Microsoft responds to Windows Phone 7 application development criticism

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So I made some comments about Windows Phone 7 software application development recently within close enough proximity to Microsoft for the company to give me some official feedback - and I hope it makes for an interesting interchange.

In essence, I said that the Windows Phone Marketplace online application store is nothing more than a limitation and control mechanism for the company to assert its power over the market - and that initial non-Microsoft applications on the Windows Phone Marketplace have been somewhat thin, basic and single-purpose.

I also said that Microsoft has delivered the Windows Phone 7 development environment in precisely the way it wants to with a number of restrictions and limitations. There are restrictions in the form of no cut-and-paste functionality and Microsoft's (in my humble opinion) very wooly description of multitasking - and finally I mentioned (in a negative context) that third party applications would need to integrate with Windows Phone 7's experience hubs if they are to flourish.

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In response to my jibes, Will Coleman who is OS & mobile product manager lead at Microsoft provided the following comments:

Since announcing the Windows Phone 7 developer experience earlier this year, we've received a very positive response from the developer community and there has been a real sense of excitement as many look forward to working with the new platform.

Developers and designers alike have welcomed in particular the panoramic user interface, which is unique to the industry. With the user centric design, developers can create mature, intelligent apps and cross-platform games using Silverlight and XNA.

Microsoft also provides a number of cloud services for Windows Phone 7 developers to enhance the development process. For example, developers will be able to use the Push Notification service to dynamically update the apps' live tiles, which gives the user the ability to engage with the app quickly and easily.

To make app development as simple as possible, we're providing developers with a single online destination to access all of the information, guidance, tools, deployment/update, business performance and reporting resources they need to develop, beta test, deliver and monetise their apps and games.

Windows Phone 7 developers will have a highly transparent, predictable and fast certification process. Our policy guidelines are online right now and locally we'll work with the various developer communities to make sure app certification is a painless process so developers can focus on creating the best apps and games possible.

Developers will have several ways to drive demand and monetise their apps and games through the Windows Phone Marketplace, which is easily accessible from the phone itself. As a developer, you will be able to publish free or paid for apps, and can also grant potential customers the ability to trial your app or game before purchasing - which no doubt will help with sales. Also, you will be able to publish an app or game across several countries and set the pricing per country. Finally developers are free to use third party advertising platforms in their apps and games as well as allow in-app purchases such as virtual goods or services.

I'm not sure that this addressed every angle of my initial critique, but it certainly expands the argument and provides a more balanced level of comment. Please share your own thoughts...

Carry on Doctor, Your Electronic Patient Records Are Secure

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The debate over whether Electronic Patient Records (EPRs) are a positive step towards improving patient care or a glaring security risk seems to be hinged on the security of back end data management.

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Healthcare data storage expert and CEO of BridgeHead Software Tony Cotterill has called secure data management the "missing link" to improving patient care in the 21st century. Cotterill's comments follow in the wake of research that discovered that half of doctors expect Electronic Patient Records (EPRs) to improve patient care by providing verifiable, consistent and complete data to support verbal handovers between medical staff.

"Healthcare data volumes are rising day after day. Secure data management is a challenge that cannot be avoided if hospitals are to prevent compounding their current infrastructure challenges as data volumes grow," said Cotterill.

"To get the most value out of any digital patient records system - and in my view, the term 'digital patient records' encompasses all electronic data connected with a patient, whether the EPR, medical images or associated administration files - it is necessary for hospitals to consider a number of important factors concerning their data and storage management infrastructures," he added.

Conducted in the first quarter of 2010, the International Data Management Healthcheck was a global survey launched to investigate best practices hospitals should adopt to effectively manage, store and archive their perpetually growing volumes of electronic patient data.

So -- a nice generic set of statements there to help sell robust data solutions with lots of comforting terms such as 'best practice' and 'infrastructure challenges'. Of more substance perhaps is Cotterill's call for interoperable, vendor-agnostic data management and storage solutions. The need for a single central data repository owned by the hospital is also key.

Software developers, database administrators, systems integrators and plain old IT managers are all typically tasked with working across disparate, disconnected and disjointed IT systems. If it's going to be a case of Carry on Doctor - then a possible route here is BridgeHead's Healthcare Storage Virtualization (HSV) 'solution' as a healthcare technology platform that decouples applications from the allocation and management of the physical storage hardware on which the application data is located.

"By separating these applications from the storage device/s, healthcare organisations have a lot more choice, flexibility and control over the way data is accessed, protected and managed," said Cotterill.

Personally, having used our fine UK NHS system several times over the last five years I am indebted to the doctors and nurses who helped me through an arm fracture and a few other knocks. So if their job can be made easier I am all for it.

Oh, Matron!

Where will cloud computing take us in five-years time?

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Cloud computing has a problem. The problem is that people, companies, programmers and (god forbid) bloggers and technology journalists all talk about it an awful lot. With issues such as security and migration challenges to discuss, we pretty much have an endless stream of material to debate over.

The problem (it seems to me) is that we're all spending so much time talking about the here and now of making cloud computing happen, that we're not looking to the future.

Distant futures for the cloud may bring many things and mega malicious cloud-networked malware could be one of them. Personally I think there will always be a lot of 'data exchange' challenges, as mobile devices are deployed for corporate use and so need secure synchronisation channels. More positively, we might start talking about Rapid Application Development (RAD) for the cloud.

The logic here is as follows: as we learn to fully embrace cloud computing methodologies, the movement to rapid application development to adapt to fast-changing commercial market needs increases.

Now there are a few (i.e. not that many) of approaches out there designed to deliver RAD in the cloud and Tibco and SAP come up as prime suspects in this area. I'm going to pick Israeli outfit Magic Software whose uniPaaS product is not a programming language, or even a software platform - it is an application platform.

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Designed to eliminate low level coding processes, Magic says that its application development tool provides business applications with optimised business logic and processes. This pre-compiled functionality, or essentially, pre-written code, can also be called 'metadata'. The theory is that this will allow developers to concentrate more heavily on the business needs of their rapidly developed software rather than spending too much time worrying about the mechanics of already well-established software components.

According to Magic Software, "Using the uniPaaS platform, it's possible to develop both desktop and cloud applications such as RIA, SaaS and mobile applications using a single development and deployment environment. The same skill-set the developer uses to build desktop applications can now also be used to build a modern cloud offering."

Gartner recently predicted that only 20% of business applications will be off-premise (i.e. in the cloud) by 2013. The list of challenges ahead in terms of scalability, integration, asset management, security and other core technology considerations is immense.

So we may be ready for RAD in the cloud, but let's not run before we can walk right?

Internet Explorer 9: "11 times faster than IE8"

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Die hard fans of Microsoft's browser technology will be pleased to learn that Internet Explorer 9 is due for beta release this coming September. Before that milestone is reached, the company has released the forth "platform preview" version of the product for web developers to test their sites against in terms of bugs, rendering problems and general performance.

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Internet Explorer 9 Flying Images Demo

According to Microsoft, platform preview number #4 benefits significantly from hardware acceleration augmentations. These improvements have come about as a result of the company working with its Windows hardware focused partners in an effort to deliver the best hardware-accelerated video and HTML5 available.

Pair this hardware tuning with the Microsoft's new JavaScript engine called Chakra - and the end result is an increase in speed of performance over Internet Explorer 8 of 11 times.

Microsoft's IE9 developer blog comments as follows, "With IE9, we have worked much more closely with the developer community. Developers have had an earlier (and more frequently updated) look at the platform. People have downloaded IE9 platform previews over 2.5 million times. The samples on the IE Test Drive site have had over 20 million visitors. The fourth platform preview of Internet Explorer 9 shows the opportunity for fully hardware-accelerated HTML5."

Developers have told Microsoft that they want better interoperability so that the same markup (in the form of tags, script and language) works consistently across different browsers. To try and enable this and allow developers to write once and have their site work everywhere, Microsoft has submitted over 2,100 tests to working groups at the W3C.

One of the side effects of this investment has been IE9's web standards compliance Acid 3 score. When Microsoft shipped IE8, its Acid 3 score was 20. With platform Preview 4 the Acid 3 score is 95.

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Internet Explorer 9 MSNBC demo

IT solutions for 'meaningful' Government spending transparency

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What is it about public services and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) news? Personally I get the impression that the bureaucrats down Whitehall and Victoria Street think that if they spend money on technology with the word "planning" in the title that we, the Great British Public, will be calmed and feel that our tax pound is well spent.

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Putting cynicism aside just for one second, news this week of Bristol-based UNIT4 Business Software's 90+ local government clients using its ERP system may be good news. Our newly hatched coalition operates something called the Government Transparency Programme, which is described as a means to evidence a, "Shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account."

UNIT4 says that its Agresso ERP software is used by more local government organisations in the UK than any other. The company also claims that 'Open and Linked Data Initiative' provides access to data in an open format, including the ability to extract, without external assistance, all spending and tender information above £500.

According to UNIT 4's official statement, the new Agresso utility means that there is now open access to Agresso data in a linked format that can be cross-referenced and available to search by anyone - and that this exceeds the Government's transparency requirements.

"This will provide more meaningful transparency; it will also accelerate the Government's aims of holding public bodies to account, delivering better value for money in public spending and helping cut the record deficit," says UNIT 4.

"Resource planning and combining diverse information across the gamut of internal and external organisational operations is easier and more effective when utilising and contributing to rich seams of linked data. The conclusions that are drawn also attract greater confidence when they are supported by transparent access to the underlying data," said Graham Klyne who is the Computing Officer at Oxford University responsible for leading projects to apply linked data technologies to research outputs.

So let's get this straight - more ERP equals meaningful transparency in public spending to help cut our deficit right? If only it were that simple, but maybe it's a step in the right direction.

Developing the 'drive-by' desktop application

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Remote access to your desktop PC might not be the first thing you hanker after when you are behind your steering wheel, but as the car stereo evolves from the 8-track, to tape, to CD, to MP3 player with built in GPS, the pace of in-car infotainment and in-vehicle telematics is seriously shifting gear.

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Cambridge based RealVNC's remote access technology is currently gaining interest among iPad users due to its ability to replicate a user's full PC or Mac desktop (including the ability to view Flash websites) on Apple's tablet device. But also of interest is the company's recent support of Terminal Mode, the specification proposed as an industry standard for the integration of mobile devices and applications with vehicle infotainment systems.

The Terminal Mode specification has been published by Nokia and CE4A (Consumer Electronics for Automotive), the automotive industry working group comprising Audi, BMW, Daimler, Porsche and Volkswagen.

According to RealVNC's website, "Our Mobile Solution for Automotive permits mobile devices to be automatically detected, accessed and controlled through the head unit touch-screen, bezel keys or steering wheel controls as they enter the vehicle. A key consideration for the automotive industry is the promotion and adoption of safe driving practices. Built-in mechanisms interlock vehicle speed and access to applications to meet regulatory requirements and enhance safety."

VNC Mobile Solution for Automotive, an OEM package, supports a range of in-vehicle embedded operating systems including Linux, Windows Automotive, CE, QNX, Qt, Android and other proprietary operating systems.

Cross-platform remote access and control of mobile devices and desktop computers directly from in-vehicle telematics is not featuring as top news slot on Top Gear as yet - but it's still early days.

I would suggest that this technology might need to go through one more evolution cycle before it becomes anything like digestible at the mass-market level. This system enables access to back-office systems and remote desktop machines too, all directly from the head unit. So perhaps it's best for IT administrators and data centre managers to take this technology forward to its next iteration before we start seeing HMI (Human Machine Interface) technology in the next batch of Fiat Pandas.

Having said that - I have played with the iPad version of the RealVNC system and it does exactly what it says on the tin. So it may be closer around the next bend than you think!

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