Archive for November, 2011:


Windows Out To The Clouds

It was probably at some point between the release of the iPhone and the release of the iPad that the change started happening.  Until that time, we had windows on our computers – be they Windows, Mac or Linux.  Sure, our small digital devices didn’t have windows, but they were small, trivial things… or in the case of Symbian devices, they at least looked like they wanted to have windows.  But on the iPad we have no windows.  And in the next version of windows, the windows have been demoted to sit behind the windowless Metro interface (except of server editions.  On server editions, the recommendation is to drop windows entirely and have command lines)

So where have the windows gone?

it used to be, if we wanted to do many things at once, we did one in each window.  Each web page had its own window.  Each application had its own window.  But gradually we realised that all these windows were becoming hard to manage.  For web browsers, we invented tabs.  While more and more people moved to doing email on their phone.  Gradually we took control back.

What is happening is that we are keeping fewer windows open on each screen.  And effectively the screens are becoming the new windows – we now flick between tasks not by alt-tabbing, but by picking up – or focusing on – the display showing the thing we want to look at.

Its also clear that we are using different types of display for different things.  I have 2 monitors for programming on.  One has a landscape orientation – which is useful for some things, whereas the other has a portrait orientation – which is useful for displaying long documents and web pages – not to mention getting lots of code on the screen when I’m programming.  I also have a phone.  Its smaller, less obtrusive, but it tells me when I have new emails and tweets – and it often acts as a timer and a desk clock.  Also, unlike my monitors – it moves with me wherever I am.  Also on my desk is a Kindle – it has a e-ink screen – which is much more comfortable if I want to read books (unfortunately, it is terrible for reading reference books – but that’s a different story).

Increasingly too, all these devices are connecting to the same data.  My email is on my phone, but I can also get to it by logging into gmail on a web browser – on my monitors at work, and even – if absolutely neccessary – on my Kindle.  The same is true of many documents (whcih I tend to store in google docs).  My phone has Citrix Receiver which lets me get to various parts of my work IT infrastructure.

Less and less does the computer under my desk seem to be a particularly useful thing.  In the old days, I would install software on it.  Now, not so much – more and more of what I use runs on someone else’s cpu somewhere out there in the cloud.  The day can’t be far off when I abandon any idea of installing software on my own PC and, if I need to install software, I install it on a virtual machine hosted somewhere in the cloud.

So our devices are more and more becoming windows on the cloud.  Our apps, and out data live out there, in the nebulous somewhere of data centres and network connected disks.  Ideally, I don’t have to know where my data is at all – I just have to hope it can get to whereever the application which wants to process it is.

Increasingly I doubt the software on the devices we use matters all that much.  The hardware matters – it can change a devices usability.  And maybe the device drivers which expose this hardware to the world matter.  But once the cloud can see the device driver, the cloud can do what it wants, and the software on the device stops mattering.

We’re not at this place yet – but its where we are going.  And as the cost of devices drops, we’ll find ourselves there.

For this to work we’ll need:

  • Ways to access the full capabilities of a device from the clound.  Standardised ways, where possible.
  • Ubiquitous low cost network connectivity
  • Better data sharing between cloud applications
  • Better data movement around the cloud (either through clever caching, or just higher bandwidth)
  • Some way to pay for everything we use – which is to say a way to get a ‘phone bill’ for all of this
  • More and more cheaper, small,er more portable, more capable, devices to act as windows for the cloud.

 

A Long Game?

I’ve worried that with Windows 8 being so far away (guesses range between next summer and the spring after next) that it won’t be able to make a dent in a runaway tablet market.

It occurs to me that making a dent in the tablet market may not be the plan.

The reason I think this is to look back at Windows NT.  When Microsoft introduced Windows NT, comodity server market was a far more specialised area than it is today.  You didn’t just call a random IT consultant and get a linux box or two in a server room.  MS were planning ahead.  Specifically, MS realised that the Windows 95 line of products were never going to be the server class OS they wanted.  They also realised that people would one day want server class operating system stability and functionality on their desktop… just not yet.  So NT was maintained alongside the 95 strain.  Eventually 95 was eradicated, and with the introduction of XP we all moved over to NT.

I think MS  might be trying to do the same with tablets.

Right now tablets are not quite up to being full PCs.  Not if you want battery life and low weight.  But they might well catch up with what desktop users want on day – especially as more and more processign moves into the clouds.  So Windows 8 might not be a play to corner the tablet market tomorrow, or next year.  Rather it might be a play to put a foot in the door.

Once MS have a foot in the door, they can keep working on dekstops. They can keep working on laptops.  And they can keep working on heavy, underpowered tablets.  And they can keep making all three of them better.  Tha gamble is, as tablets improve, and as Windows looks more and more like it is ready for tablets people (and IT managers) might think to themselves “Why don’t I just use Windows tablets?”

Its a gamble, because it assumes tablets are slowly going to become PCs.  I’m unconvinced by this argument – I see desktop PCs and Laptops ultimately becomeing more like tablets.

Its also a gamble because, with 95 you could move to NT without losing too much (or even noticing, int he case of most users, I imagine).  MS are assuming people will want to move from desktops to tablets, which seems to opposite direction from DOS-based to NT based PCs

But its a long game stategy.  And it might work.

I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.

Raspberry Pi Idea : Hotel Router / Corporate Presentation Box

To be fair, in the US it seems hotels are now generally coming with free wifi.  In the UK this is less true.  Anyhow, the device I want could, presumably, be built from a Raspberry PI, 2 usb Wifi dongles and a bit of love)

1. The device should be able to run a wifi network with NAT that you log into like you would a hotel network.  Maybe with a bit more security on top if it can be done in a user friendly way.

2. The device should be able to connect by wire – or by another wifi dongle to the hotel or company network you are visiting.

3. The device should bridge the networks.  Now all your wifi attached devices will work wherever you are without having more than one lot of tricky config to do.

4. The device should be entirely controlled by web pages (which you can access from your phone or PC… because its doing DNS and NAT)

5. But the device should be able to output graphics over its video out port.

6.  With this you have the beginnings of something that can be used to control projectors wherever you go.  And your phone can now double as the clicker… but can also let you do things like data entry if you want to personalise a presentation on the fly.

App Idea: Full Screen Phone

I’m noticing that my phone is particularly good at being a notification device – something similar to what we used to use icons on the right hand side of the windows task bar for – telling me when I have something  I have to pay attention to.

Meanwhile my monitor, keyboard and mouse are still where I live most of the time, and where I get the most done.

Ideally, when my phone notifies me I have something I ought to pay attention to, then I should be able to make it pop up on my screen – giving me something like a VNC session with which I can control my phone (and yes, it should also mean my PC speakers become my phones speakers, and my PC microphone becomes my phone  microphone – that way I only need to use one headset).

The connection could – for all I care – be over the network – cell or wifi.  But since I leave my phone plugged into my computer by USB cable all day, that would also be fine (moreover, it would be a good way of knowing that I’m PC attached)

Extra points for giving me an API I can use so that I can make reading and responding text messages from my PC friendlier than just using a VNC-alike connection.

Extra extra points for letting me communicate from my phone to my PC while in this mode – for example, when I open a web link, give me the opportunity to open it (I undertand fonleap are doing something along those particular lines, but its only part of what I require.  Someone make a phone that does all of this, please!)

Where is the new TV Guide? (Redux)

I recently asked “If apps are the new channels, where is the new TV guide?” and today there is a bit of buzz about zeebox.

So, is zeebox the new TV guide?

In short:  Not yet – but its the sort of thing that could be.

Zeebox is currently aimed at social networking while watching broadcast TV, with a bit of discovery thrown in.  Its also a wireless remote for a limited number of Freeview TV sets.

They say that in the future there will be support for Android, PVRs and things like iPlayer.  So I don’t see why they shouldn’t add support for apps, if apps do become the new channels.  What they will need to do is provide a way for apps to pass info back to zeebox – which will be harder to get people to take up than it would for Amazon, because zeebox don’t control the platform.

Quite how you support the chat functionality – which seems to be at the core of zeebox – on things like PVRs and iplayer, I don’t know… but if they could have a way of commentary messages turning up at the point in the program where they were written, that might be quite cool.  It would also allow enterprsing people to do their own directors commentaries – or indeed their own MST3K style spoofing.

And if they can add support for PVRs, why not for DVDs?

Then add a shop where you can buy the DVDs it recommends you watch, and we have a bit more of a monetization strategy.  They could have their own marketplace for apps-as-channels too.

Unless they can build streaming (or some other form of content delivery) into their app, I don’t see a long term future for zeebox as a standalone thing.  However, if their endgame is to get bought out by Facebook, TV manufacturers, Apple, Sky or Amazon, zeebox might be onto a winner!

(As an afterthought :  adding comments to a programme / DVD / YouTube clip based on fingerprinting the audio or images might be an interesting challenge – it would mean your comments would work on any edited form of the show, and could be inserted at exactly the time you wanted to see them, no matter how you chose to start / stop / pause the programme.  There are lots of ways one could go about doing this, depending what exactly you wanted to integrate with)

A (somewhat modest) proposal to increase social mobility

Social mobility is a good thing, right?  And we want to see more of it?  And markets are out friends?  The latter seems questionable in the current economic climate, but it still seems to be a fundamental underlying belief in our economic and political systems.

My plan is simple – we increase the tax everybody pays by a small amount, lets say 3-5%.  However, rather than going to the government, this money is put into a government savings account that pays a fair rate of interest – say linked to bank rate, and pays out on the date of the taxpayer in question’s death.

We then sell shares of each of these accounts.

We know, on average, how long someone will live – life insurance depends upon it.  So we can hedge against the possibility that a particular person dies early.  Once we’ve done that, the value of shares is tied in with the amount of income tax the individual pays (lets assume this is a rough indicator of their social success)

At this point, it would pay to find people with high potential from disadvantaged backgrounds, and offer them junior positions:  why?  Because you could also buy that individual’s shares.  And while right now, with little training their shares may be cheap, if they have the success you expect, their shares will later be more valuable.  Indeed, given two similar candidates, it is the one who is more disadvantaged socially you would be more likely to employ.

Exclusive schools might want to seek out the underprivileged and offer them places – places which could be paid for entirely by the expected growth in value of their shares.  Similar strategies could be used to subsidise university education – or to provide grants.

(in this situation, I encourage insider trading – as this is the process of taking information only you know and making it available to everyone, via the magic of market pricing.  We actively want people to be able to benefit by offering a knee up)

The downside is that the amount of tax each person pays becomes public knowledge (or at least easily inferable, assuming any company finding an employee’s shares are lower than they would expect given their salary, would be insane not to buy them).  And also that there might be a market in shorting individuals shortly before redundancies (which feels a little bit horrid)

A Sandbox In Every Walled Garden

The Apple wold seems to be throwing a wobbly at the announcement that sandboxing will be required for all apps in the mac os app store.  People are discussing what might be a better solution, and if we might eventually only ever be able to install applications from the walled garden of the apple store .

It all gave me a sense of Deja Vu.  Weren’t we having the same thoughts over in Microsoft land a few months ago?  Are Apple developers really that out of touch about what is going on on other platforms that they haven’t noticed the parallels?  Apparently yes – I hav’t seen the words Metro or WinRT mentioned in this discussion.  Which is odd, because surely how the competition is trying to solve the same problem – and going down the paths which have Apple devs so up in arms – can feed into their strategy for how to approach our brave new world.

So, herewith, a cheatsheet aimed at showing the parallels:

What Apple Have Announced?

Mac OS apps for the Mac Os App store will have to implement sandboxing – which is to say, they will have to list a set of capabilities that their app requires, and then not make any calls which require capabilities they have not listed.  It appears (from people saying that this currently buggy and affects AppleScript) that this is enforced at runtime.

What Apple Have Not Announced That People Are Scared Of?

It might seem only a short way from there to declaring that the app store becomes the only way to install apps on your Mac.  And only a short way from there to giving Apple the chance to have a kill switch on every Mac Os application.

What People Have Suggested As Alternatives?

Certification.  Specifically having per developer certificates signed by Apple, so that if someone does something bad, Apple can revoke their trust in the developer certificate.  And ditching the whole sandboxing idea.

What Have Microsoft Announced?

If you want to use the new Metro UI, you can only use a subset of Win32 calls alongside calls to the new WinRT runtime.  Furthermore, you must specify a set of capabilities your app will be using at compile time.

The only way to install your apps will be via the new Windows App Store (this isn’t strictly true… there is a way to install developer signed apps on a developers own machines, and we are expecting to hear a way for enterprises to install apps which will presumably be more than just the App Store)

To get your apps into the app store, your app will have to pass a set of tests.  Microsoft will run these tests, but they also provide them to developers, so that developers know if they will pass.  Once MS have validated you pass the tests, MS will sign your app and put it in the app store.

One of the tests that MS will provide is to ensure you make no calls which are not allowed by the set of capabilities you have requested.  In short, the sandboxing is done prior to signing, rather than at runtime.  (This has some security issues, specifically in the area of self modifying code.  I presume MS plan to handle this via legal and social means, rather than technical)

Oh, and all your old Win32 Apps will continue to run unaffected – but not via Metro.  You will even be able to install Win32 apps via the App Store.

Have Microsoft Ever Done Anything Like This Before?

Yes.  We’ve had driver signing for years – each driver type has its own set of functions it is allowed to call, and there are any number of testing hoops you have to jump through in order to pick up a signature.  Just check my twitter stream to see how much pain WHQL causes me every so often.

This means Microsoft have experience of the real world implications of trying to manage a certification and signing scheme.  The main implications being “for every rule we lay down, there are exceptions”  generally many exceptions – there seem to be as many special cases as there are drivers.  Half of the fun of passing WHQL is convincingMicrosoft that a set of rules they require drivers to obey are wrong, or insufficient, or just plain shouldn’t apply to your driver.  The good thing is that Microsoft can usually be convinced.  Eventually.

Now, I’ve no idea if Microsoft’s driver signing experience will feed into their App signing experience, but there are enough similarities between the processes for me to guess there has been some communication beween departments on this issue.

Are Microsoft Doing Anything That Seems Wrong?

The biggest problem seems to be requiring that things are signed.  Because once you require apps to be signed, you need to sign every script you run (or just sign scripting languages – in which case you’ve lost most of the security you were aiming for).  It looks like the solution to this involves dev certificates which so far are only available via Visual Studio.  So all development will involve Visual Studio in one way or another.  (Incidentally, PowerShell has had signed scripts since day one – maybe there is some intention to integrate that architecture – but I don’t see a straight forward path).  It may be that all scripting will stay on the Win32 side of the fence.

Is there anything Apple could learn from Microsoft?

Firstly, MS are allowing old apps to continue to work with no changes.  There is no Win32 walled garden.  All the changes are only for people who want to use the new WinRT hotness.  Now, we’ve no idea if anybody will want to use WinRT, but MS do seem to be providing us with a world where people get to make the choice between two different environments.

MS are also allowing the same of old-style apps via their app store.  It seems that this will be more ‘providing a link to your companies website’ and less ‘a full integrated install experience’ for Win32 apps.  As far as I can see, its a way MS can make money while still saying ‘do this at your own risk’.  I’m guessing here that anything distributed this way may have to be an MSI – if so, you might just be giving the app store the ability to uninstall apps which turn out to be dangerous.

MS realise that there are exceptions, that app stores and enterprises won’t mix (think bespoke software), that admins have to have some control over what users install, that perhaps some software won’t fit into the model they are testing for.  Apple have always wanted to provide the user with the best experience, whereas MS are more about providing the developer with the best way to ship their software.  Apple is about fitting in around how Apple work, whereas MS is more about MS fitting in around how your application works – and we see this with the attitude towards signtime vs runtime tests for sandboxing. With Metro, MS is trying to learn from Apple, Apple could probably stand to learn a few things from MS too.

Are there any other thoughts

Moving to OS X bought Apple a whole load of developers who wanted Unixy tools on a reliable machine with a nice UI.  OS X comes with many many scripting languages which are able to access the core of the system and do everything a compiled program can do.  Do we honestly think that apple are going to restrict those scripting languages so that scripts can no longer access the system?  That one move would cause a major rupture in the dev community and harm Apple significantly.  MS can get away with it (if you want to develop for Metro, use Iron Python on top of the CLR and you’re happy – if you want to run a script, theres Win32), but without a new hotness to tie all these changes to, Apple would just be taking developers favourite toys way – and suffering the tantrums that follow.

Of course, most mac users don’t know or care abou what a scripting language is.  These will be the people who use the app store.  Just like Itunes makes it easier to get music (so fewer and fewer people bother buying CDs and ripping them to fill their iPod), the App store makes it easier to get your apps – your average user won’t consider getting apps any other way.  There is no need to restrict the techie few that the Mac software ecology depends upon.

And is Signing the answer?

Signing isn’t a flawless solution to all your problems – assume you have a killer app your system depends upon – lets say “Photoshop” for the mac.  Assume the manufacturers of Photoshop were to bring out another piece of software Apple didn’t like (I’ll call it ‘flush’).  If apple wanted to revoke the signature for flush, they could either revoke the signature on every release of flush ever made (and on the new applications ‘flish’ and ‘flosh’ that might be submitted thereafter), or they could revoke the developer’s signature and loose their killer app (and annoy many customers in the process).

Signing also requires that certificate lists are kept up to date on every system involved (or that you have reliable internet connectivity all the time)

But signing does allow for technical, legal and social means of deciding which apps to allow to run.

Most notably though – signing is really really irritating to have to do all the time – especially if you’re scripting.  I can’t see it as a real solution to the problem if you want to keep developers hanging around.  What you need is to just let people write their scripts and get on with using their machines…  By all means make developers go through some sort of hoop once to be able to script and install their own software (lets say by joining a group, or turning off a particular feature of their user account), but don’t come up with a technical solution that will only irritate.

Understanding America

I’ve just been on a road trip around the US, and I’ve figured out a few things about American culture which had previously eluded me.  You may well know these, but I’ve managed to hold a European superiority complex for thirty three years and not notice why American was the way it is

Firstly – the USA is vast.  Huge.  You can’t comprehend how bit it is.  Nor can you comprehend how big small parts of it are.  Looking at some of the deserts, plains and canyons, my mind just shut down and said “don’t really believe what I’m looking at”.  I think this vastness has an effect on the American psyche.  Its easy to understand why the US might be slow on the uptake with environmentalism.  American has a hell of a lot of environment.  And more of it is unspoilt.  And it seems inconceivable, looking at the vastness that there could ever be a lack of anything.

Secondly, the US is at one with nature.  This is going to take some explaining to my European brethren so hold tight:  As soon as you step outside of a city you see that nature controls where people build things.  Roads run alongside rivers.  They turn only to meet mountain passes.  And some close for months in the winter, because fighting nature would be crazy.  People use the wind to pump their drinking water from wells.  People farm – and sure, they irrigate the land to make it farmable – but only to the extent of their irrigation systems.  And when they top – nature returns.  People in America love the land – they hunt (which is natural) and they hike.  They travel around in monstrous RVs in order to be part of nature – not to raise a finger to it.  And sure, there are cancers.  LA is a huge growth which wants to spread out and encroach everything, killing all the nature in its path.  But there will be fighting back – and even now, the sprawl of LA is held at bay by mountains.

Thirdly, Americans are inquisitive.  They want to know about the world.  It may well be that there is so much of the USA they don’t have the time or opportunity to travel beyond it – but they want to hear about it.  They want to talk to travellers.  And they want travellers to enjoy the US as much as they do.

Forth, America remains a land of opportunity.  It may have terrible social mobility and a huge rich/poor divide, but it does something that no european country does:  it allows people in so called menial jobs to feel proud about what they do.  A new friend of mine out here has worked as a Barrista for several years, and he talked about it with pride – he talked to other barristas about it – and he talked about how some baristas are better at there jobs than he will ever be.  This is a man with dreams, a man looking forward.  But its also a man who is accepting the hand he is currently being dealt and making the most of it – in fact enjoying it thoroughly.  Because its a land where, if you value what it is you do, then what it is you do has value.  An land different from the carping criticism of Daily Mail Britain.

Finally, it isn’t all about politics.  In europe we’ve taken to seeing the US as a Red/Blue divide.  And thats wrong.  Its a country full of people – fascinating people – people who all look out at the world in their own way, and care about their families, friends and the travellers they meat.  They are individuals, shaped by their land, their communities, their isolation or submergence into urban sprawl, their faiths and their cultures -both present and those of their forefathers.  No one here talked to me about politics – but I’ve heard lots about churches, jobs, communities, friends, pets and travel.

 

This isn’t meant to be a love letter to the US.  Escaping the US insanities and returning to European and British insanities still feels like coming come – and I appreciate my home more and more.  But it is a lesson never to judge, and to walk a mile in someone elses shoes (or, in my case, drive 2000 miles in Hertz’s rented SUV)

Its a land of freedoms, restrictions, imbalances and communities and a home of the brave, the scared, the downtrodden and the optimistic.  And it is a land you have to visit to understand – 15 years of teleconferences haven’t given me half the idea of America that driving down its highways and interstates has offered.

 

App Idea: What should we do tonight?

Lets say I’m at home and at a loose end.  I go to my app “What should I do tonight” and it suggests a location I should go to.  It suggests this based on a recommendation engine, based on my prior nights out and how I have rated them.

So far, so tripadvisor

But after I have said I plan on going to a particular location, the app knows who I enjoy hanging around with (they all have this app too), and it might suggest they go to the same venue.  It might even alert them saying “I have a suggestion of where to go tonight”

The app doesn’t even have to know who my friends are.  If we always check in (or at least let the app know where we are when we have a good time) it can figure out other app users around us – and build our gang of people who are always around without our obvious involvement.

Monetization?  Think advertising.  Think money off coupons and special deals. Think being able to track where else your bar’s regulars go.

If apps are the new channels, where is the new TV Guide?

John Gruber says “Apps are the new channels” and he is right.  Spot on.  Its one of those clear statements that, when you hear it, seems to sum up how the media is moving.  The app is the new channel – not just a TV channel, but a media channel.  There no longer needs to be a difference between National Geographic the magazine and National Geographic the TV channel.

What are the implications of this?

Channels will become smaller – there is no point in a BBC app – but there might be lots of value in a BBC News app.  I don’t care less about most of the entertainment on ITV, but give me an X Factor App (I know, I know, its social anthropology, honest, I’m not just easily please) and I’ll watch it that way.  Most of the time it will be “One app per show”, occasionally you might get something bigger like a “Discovery Science” app or a “Film 4″ app.

We are going to need apps to move between devices.  If I install National Geographic on my tablet to read on the train, I also want it installed on my TV set.

We need apps to communicate between devices – so when I’m reading an article in a magazine and want to see a film on my TV, I can just click and let it play

We need syndication of app messages in really clever an innovative ways.  I’m not sure what form this might take yet, but if there is a new edition of my favourite magazine, or a new episode of my favourite show, I want to know about it – and I don’t want to have to go to that show’s app to find out.  Something clever needs to tell me what I’m able to watch

We also need discovery.  Which will be a combination of reddit, stumble-upon, facebook and digital spy if it is really going to work.  Something will have to tell us when new interesting things we don’t currently have apps for turns up.

Commercials might be dead.  Its possible we can get advert supported versions of apps – but I feel more and more that this isn’t the only way.  We are going to have to pay to watch episodes of shows.  But sometimes it might be in the network’s interest to get us watching for free before jacking up the price.

Indie TV will become more plausible without having to fit into a channel’s framework

Apps will become more interactive and less linear – if you want them to be.  While I expect to be able to watch the X Factor in exactly the way I do now with my X Factor App, I also expect to be able to choose which video’s to watch again, skip the boring bits, choose to buy downloads of the tracks I likes, see extra interviews with people I like, vote for the winner, discuss the X Factor with other social anthropologists like myself and bet on the outcome (aha – maybe you finally see my hidden interest.  I think I’m already well into profit this year)

There will cease to be boundaries between software, TV, movies, games and magazines

Someone out there is going to make a lot of money by being the new media hub.  It might be Apple – they’ve clearly made a lot of inroads. Google don’t seem to quite know what the game is and the old guard with their Hulus are way off base.  If I had to put my money on anyone, right now Facebook is where the future of TV is – or, maybe – just maybe – the BBC and iPlayer might manage some sort of coup (but thats more likely to be blocked by the powers who be and financial shortages).

Or there is always Amazon.  Who own Lovefilm in the UK.  And have all the pieces they need except a TV interface.  Kindle TV?  It would be a logical next step to their domination of my life.  And I might welcome it.

© Ben.Cha.lmers.co.uk
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