Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

jQuery Mobile or Sencha Touch for Hybrid Development

I decided to try both jQuery Mobile + PhoneGap and Sencha Touch 2 to create a simple hybrid application to see how they stack up, and record my initial impressions for building a simple app. I assume a complex app would magnify these issues, although experience with each platform would also improve the experience at that point. I am evaluating the install experience, and the development experience. I wanted to know how easy I could create a simple app that displays a list and has a simple form to add items into the list. I didn’t use any back-end technologies for this, the app is self-contained.

I used a Mac for this experiment, and at this point I am sure it would be a different experience on a PC.

jQuery Mobile + PhoneGap

Install

The install of this is very easy. Download the .zip files, extract them to wherever you would like. I used Eclipse for my IDE. Following the tutorials on both the PhoneGap and jQuery Mobile sites was simple enough to get up and running.

Development

Since I am experienced at both web development and Android development, getting going was pretty easy. I simply imported the necessary files into my project. The tutorials and docs were fairly easy to follow, and I had my demo app running before lunch. Debugging is a bummer if you use the app on the emulator or a device. You are better of using a browser to develop with and debug on, and then deploying to the emulator or device for testing. The code/debug cycle with the browser is very quick and efficient. But you still have to go back to the emulator/device a fair amount which is pretty slow. I didn’t use PhoneGap for anything but being a container, so if you were integrating with any native plugins the browser for debugging might be out.

Given it’s roots, jQuery Mobile will integrate well with server-side frameworks like ASP.NET or JSPs. jQuery Mobile doesn’t have a broad set of controls or features. For instance I wanted a date picker, but I needed to go and search for one because the platform I was targeting didn’t support the HTML5 date input control. I ran into a similar issue with data binding. You will need plugins and other libraries. jQuery plugins are abundant, and it’s not easy to separate the good ones from the bad.

For me, one of the downsides of jQuery Mobile is the UI. It looks like an iPhone app. If I’m building a hybrid solution, I don’t want my Android or WP7 apps to look like iOS apps. There is a terrific ThemeRoller tool, but in the end it still looks like what it is. I’m sure if you delved into the CSS you could get it to look more styled. If you have a high design component to your app, it could be hard to get there.

Sencha Touch 2

Sencha Touch was initially a mobile-web solution, but with version 2 Sencha has introduced the ability to package the app for iOS and Android.

Install

The install experience for this was frustrating to say the least. You need to download the SDK and a SDK tools package. This was really not clear on the download page, and I didn’t figure this out until trying to use the tutorial. The tutorials want these items to be installed in very specific places, so if you have a “standard” way of setting up projects this isn’t going to work for you. Also, you need to install Compass, and that isn’t documented anywhere except in the video, so if you are not inclined to watch a video (like me), you’ll have issues. I’m an experienced developer, it shouldn’t be this hard to get something up and working. As with any framework, there are often more than one way to accomplish tasks, and this is no different in ST2. In general the code used in the tutorial didn’t match up well with the task paradigm in the documentation, so that was frustrating as well.

Development

Since Sencha Touch 2 (ST2) is purely text file development, I used my favorite web editor WebStorm. Any editor would work fine, so this is a bonus for not being tied to Eclipse. You have to do more with the command-line, and I’m sure there are folks who want the IDE experience and folks who want the text editor experience. The command-line tool creates a project structure with all the dependencies set (like Rails, Maven, etc.), so getting going was quick once I got the tool working.

Getting to know the framework for ST2 is certainly harder if you are not a JavaScript guru. Most of how ST2 works is for you to write JavaScript that renders into HMTL at run time. You see this when starting up the app/site, there is an ellipsis on a blue background that displays while the rendering is going on. This makes the code/debug cycle slow. And if you make a mistake, this screen never clears. You have to have a JavaScript dev tool running at the time to know what went wrong.

The paradigm for ST2 is very different, heavy on the JavaScript. If you are a traditional web developer, this will be a tough shift. ST2 does not lend itself to integration with server-side frameworks because you would need to be emitting tons of JavaScript instead of HTML. For ST2 you need to embrace generating you content via JavaScript and writing Ajax web services to get the data from the server. I actually like this paradigm, but it’s going to be tough going for the .Net crowd to adopt this paradigm. This paradigm fits well with native mobile development, because you have to develop the services for data. So now you aren’t completely locked in to the hybrid platform if you want to make a change later. I’ll try to explore writing more HTML with ST2 and less JavaScript and see if it can work more like traditional web development.

I tried to use the command-line tool to build the hybrid Android app, but could never get it to work. I’m certain it is a permissions problem (remember I’m using a Mac), and from here it would probably be a better solution to wrap the ST2 app in PhoneGap. The tool also only took one image for the app icon. I’m not sure how that would work out for the other device sizes on the Android platform. Packaging ST2 this way felt like maybe it was a rushed feature.

ST2 has tons of controls, lots of great functionality like data binding built right in. It’s a steep learning curve though. ST has been criticized in the past for feeling slow, version 2 is supposed to improve upon that. Still, everything is rendering in the browser layer on a memory and processor-constrained device. I predict user’s experiences with speed will vary.

Conclusion

I think neither one of these are a clear winner. jQuery Mobile will force you to spend time to find other solutions to features you need, while ST2 will force you to spend time with its steep learning curve. I think this only further rebukes the myth that mobile web or hybrid is somehow cheaper than building a native app. PhoneGap is clearly a necessity for either of these for a hybrid solution, so you will still need separate projects and hardware platforms to get the work done for a cross-platform app. And as soon as you start using images in your designs, the effort for the creative team will quickly equal the need for creative work in a native development environment. You will need to spend significant time with CSS media queries and Modernizr to deal with the slight differences you will encounter between platforms and browsers. If I was forced to choose today between these two solutions, I would choose ST2 + PhoneGap, simply for the sheer amount of functionality built into ST2, despite the steep learning curve. I don’t believe either of these is THE solution for hybrid or mobile web development. I’m still looking….

Critical Thinking in Software Design

There is a great article published at Inc which enumerates four secrets of great critical thinkers. I find this is totally relevant to designing software or software architecture. So I’m adding my take on these four secrets:

  1. Slow Down
    One of my main gripes about meetings is making a decision on the spot. At least for me, my best thinking occurs somewhere else after the fact. I need time to consider the implications and possibly see alternatives before I can be certain it’s the correct decision. So to make the most effective decisions, postpone immediate decisions as often as possible. Make the time to explore the alternatives.
  2. Break from the Pack
    This is the basis of one of the main arguments by Ted Neward in his keynote at Codemash 2012 that I already covered. The “best practices” are found in books, on the web, in corporate documents. Generally, these can get the job done. But I doubt it’s always the best or right solution to a problem. It’s certainly the safest. If that’s the goal, then go that way. But in business we are always looking for the advantage, and I doubt the best practice gives you the advantage. More likely, it’s a starting point which you should use to find the best solution. Slow down and think about how the best practice solves the problem and if that is really the solution you need.
  3. Encourage Disagreement
    I have long used this as a metric in my interview process. I want team members who will express their opinions. Usually the best answer to a problem is not the result of the idea of a single person, but an amalgamation of ideas or compromise between multiple ideas. If no one can disagree with the boss/tech lead/manager then you might as well adopt only the best practices and call it done.
  4. Engage with Maverics
    I think this one is a little harder in an enterprise environment, since often a big corporation is not the home for maverics. I think what you need to do here is actively engage with people whose viewpoints are not aligned with yours. People who think differently about a problem may provide you with some insight you may have missed or not considered properly. I have always thought of code reviews as a source for this. I approach them as a way to see someone else’s problem solving at work. I’m not interested in telling them how they did it wrong, but seeing what they did well and adapt that to my problem solving toolkit.

CodeMash Nuggets

codemash2010

This year I was fortunate enough to attend CodeMash in Ohio. Just like last time, it was an amazing experience. The speakers, the venue, the food, the folks in attendance. All of it made for a great experience. I learned, I laughed, I left exhausted.

General Observations

I went to mostly mobile-oriented talks, and over a two day period every single speaker I watched used a Mac. On top of that, all the presentations were very minimalist. I don’t know if that’s the tools on the platform or folks finally rejecting the glitz of PowerPoint and focusing on content. I hope it’s the latter. Sales folks take note.

Mobile developers are actively rejecting the BlackBerry platform. One even pointed out how his company just stopped accepting work for that platform. Another who was building a mobile product pointed out that the expense of supporting the BlackBerry platform across three different active versions was too much. Has any technology died so publicly?

In the Java-oriented talks I saw, there was very little Eclipse. Mostly I saw IntelliJ Idea. This was interesting for me, because I love ReSharper for .Net work, and have been using WebStorm for HTML5/JavaScript coding.

Notable Quotes

As always, there were a number of notable quotes that summed up so many aspects of what was being conveyed.

Ted Neward, Keynote Address

“Reject the Goal of Reuse”

I’ve been seeing this message more and more lately. Reuse happens so rarely unless you are actually building a library, that otherwise you are probably wasting effort and introducing bugs by striving for reuse in code that was not necessarily intended for reuse.

“Best practices are merely average”  “Best practices == avoid thinking”

The bigger the company, the more they care about best practices. So there will be fewer risks, fewer rewards, and overall mediocre results. Seen it, sadly still living it.

“Reject the temptation of the familiar”

I’ve been working on this one for almost the last year. I’m learning the mobile paradigm, learning Java, writing services in something other than .Net. I am very surprised how much I had blinders on when I was immersed in Microsoft-only development.

Bill Pugh, Effective Use of FindBugs in Large Software Development Efforts

“The challenge for FindBugs is to find the intersection of stupid and important.”

I have long been a fan of automated tools for helping me tighten up code. His quote sums up the intent perfectly, finding the stupid mistakes you may have made that could result in important problems in your code.

Ted Neward, Android: Where You Can Stick Data

Answering questions about SQLite on Android: “It’s not Oracle, and if you treat it like it is you’re doing it wrong.”

Understand your platform and user paradigm. Enough said.

Bruce Eckel, Polyglot Programming: The Power of Hybridization

“You don’t know where the difficult parts will be”

So don’t plan to optimize anywhere, you won’t be right ahead of time. I have seen this myself more than once. The real trouble isn’t visible at the beginning. See any article on estimating for another aspect of this issue.

“Typing is noise”

Bruce favors languages with minimalist syntax, believing those languages express your solutions clearly for those who come after to read your code. This has inspired me to start learning Python.

“Go will replace C++ as the low-level language used in high performance applications”

I’m recording this for posterity. Bruce says he’s remarkably good at predicting these things, even though no one listens. I’ve read some of his work and have faith, so you read it here first.

Bruce Eckel, Reinventing Business

“The best people would be leaving companies all around you to come work for you if you were hiring the best

There is a metric for your recruiting staff.

Geeks Are Funny

After dinner on Thursday, there was a Pecha Kucha competition which was great entertainment, hosted by the inimitable Scott Hanselman, with a geek celebrity panel of judges consisting of Ted Neward, Julie Lerman, and Keith Elder. The winner was Leon Gersing, the heartfelt and real @rubybudda. Here are a couple cell phone videos of the event:

Jon Skeet Coding in the Style of Glee

Mel Grubb Urinal Rules

Leon Gersing On Love  Tiebreaker (Talking to a set of slides he’s never seen before)

Just as good as the talks was the Twitter stream on the big screen behind the presenters. You see a brief glimpse of it at the beginning of Jon’s talk. Geeks are funny.

Ubiquitous Tech Predictions – Mobile Edition

Every year there are a bunch of articles this time of year predicting what will happen in 2012. So I’ll join the fray and reference a few with my own thoughts, mostly about mobility.

Mark W. Smith from the Detroit Free Press

  • BlackBerry users continue their exodus
    This is low-hanging fruit. I’ve been on this bandwagon for a while. I’ll amend his prediction to say RIM abandons the North American market for the third world, where they are currently making their money. They will focus on the BES in the North American marketplace. If they were smart they would focus on enterprise customers instead of consumers, but there is no evidence of good decision making at RIM. RIM should be bought by Google for the BES business alone in order to help Google get a foot hold in the enterprise back-end space. If not Google, the next most likely buyer is Microsoft, followed by Amazon.
  • Apple Releases the iPad3
    I think the iPad3 will be incremental, like the iPhone 4S, but will continue to dominate the consumer space. With no real competition at this point, there is little incentive for Apple to introduce innovative features that may be hit-or-miss. The real prediction in the tablet space will be Windows 8. Business are craving an enterprise-oriented tablet, and the inclusion of Microsoft Office will make Windows 8 tablets sell like crazy to business customers. Business users want Excel and PowerPoint on their tablets in meetings. The lack of Office on a Windows 8 tablet or late delivery will kill the platform.

Galen Gruman at InfoWorld

  • NFC gets real traction – but not for payments
    There are not enough phones with NFC support today.  Until NFC is common in phones, there is no incentive for businesses to adopt it on the other side. Users have two year contracts, and very few normal folks change phones during the contract time frame (unless you are an iPhone addict, and still no iPhones have NFC). So even if a bunch of phones get NFC in 2012, there will not be enough users to cause a change. Currently there is no widespread NFC infrastructure on the non-phone side because of that, so it will be 2013 before the common user gets NFC.
  • Make that two mobile shakeouts
    Mobile device management (MDM) will be huge in 2012. 2011 saw the proliferation of bring your own device to businesses. The enterprise will have to figure out how to do this securely, and I think MDM is the key. I agree this will cause buyouts and consolidation.
  • Google finally gets its Android act together
    I think Google side-steps the fragmentation by buying RIM/BES to get an MDM solution, and adapting it to hook into Android as a core feature that still allows the hardware makers to customize Android in crazy ways and still be secure for business. The good news for Google is that users largely blame the hardware maker and not the OS for issues with their phones. Google is selling to the hardware vendors, not the consumers directly, so they have a large incentive to please those vendors.

Buzz Out Loud from CNET

  • Amazon buys Netflix
    No way. Netflix is the biggest user of the Amazon cloud, and probably a huge source of revenue for that business, which is really important to Amazon’s future plans. Why buy your biggest customer? Unless Netflix is going to go out of business, there is no point for Amazon to acquire them, it will hurt their cloud business.
  • Video Conferencing on Phones
    Video conferencing has not caught on and still won’t in 2012. Why? No one really wants everyone to see you while on the phone for lots of reasons. PJs, bathrooms, hair, and many more.
  • Users lose confidence in Android, WP7 gains because of this
    Again, I don’t think users blame Android as the problem, but the hardware vendor, whose name is prominent on the front of the device. Look at bad reviews for apps in the MarketPlace. The disgruntled users often list their device. The fragmentation is squarely on the hardware vendors’ shoulders, and they will pay for bad implementations. There is no alternative OS for the hardware vendors. (Bada? MeeGo? Can I get Angry Birds on that?) Users are not smart enough to understand the problem and move to a platform consistent across hardware vendors like WP7. It would be great if Google would stand up to vendors and reduce the crapware and customization, although Microsoft never has for Windows and still dominates. Android is open-source after all, and fragmentation is one of the often discussed possible outcomes of an open source project.
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Don’t Forget Your Place

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the technology you use, thinking everyone is using it because everyone you interact with is using it. But when you back up and look at the bigger picture (which you should do), you may not be where you think you are. Tiobe Software creates a monthly Programming Community Index rating the use of programming languages. Our beloved C# comes in a number 6, behind (Visual) Basic of all things! I’m not really surprised by the leading languages (Java, C, C++), and it shows that while Microsoft is strong in the marketplace, it’s development tools and technologies are not leading the pack. But when looking at the charts over time, two of those leading languages have been declining in use for many years. C and (Visual) Basic have been consistent for a long time, and C# has been growing. I think the programming landscape has been fragmenting, the dynamic languages like Ruby and Python are gaining more mainstream acceptance each year, and the popularity of new platforms like mobile phones is going to keep changing that landscape.

So does that mean my choice of Microsoft as a platform isn’t the best choice? Hard to say, but I believe it’s a solid, reliable choice. I certainly think that it’s getting harder and harder to be specialized in any one language. Employable developers are going to need many programming tools in their tool chest. The end result is that fewer developers will truly be an expert with their tools, but will be good enough to get some work done. I don’t believe this bodes well for software quality going forward. There is already too much to know and be good at, I certainly struggle with this problem myself. As a consultant, learning lots of different tools is a necessity, so I will continue to keep working towards expertise in the tools I know, and not letting my interests get too fragmented.

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Staying with the Fire Hose

At the recent Ann Arbor Day of .Net, my colleague David Giard arranged an excellent panel discussion with Jim Holmes, Mike Eaton, Jay Harris, Patrick Steele, and Jason Follas, about keeping current with the stream of constantly evolving technology with which we work (aka the Fire Hose). I felt this was one of the best sessions of the day, the audience was very engaged with the panel. It definitely ended too soon. *Update* David Giard posted a video of the discussion on his Technology and Friends webcast.

One of the discussion points revolved around training. I think a couple points were pretty clear from the discussion:

  1. Companies don’t provide enough or the right training
  2. You own your career, it’s up to you to get the training you need.

One of the discussion points that I wanted to contribute, was that the existence of Day of .Net is partly driven as a reaction by the community to the two points above. We attend these conferences to learn (among other things) just enough about new technologies so we can effectively evaluate them and see if they fit into our day-to-day jobs or personal interests. Traditional training methods (books, classroom training, CTBs) seem to be falling further and further behind as the fire hose continues to flow faster and faster. We are at the conference to get some of the training we need, because it’s not available any other way.

Technical Books

For me, books have always been part of my learning, but more and more they are falling short. Technology is changing faster than publishers can respond. More often than not the book I need isn’t going to be published for a while. Even today (May 2010), look at the number of new developer technologies that are hot in my circles:

  • Silverlight 4
  • Windows Azure
  • Windows Phone 7
  • Android
  • SharePoint 2010
  • .Net 4.0

These are by no means niche technologies. You would be hard pressed to find many books published on them (maybe some around beta releases, those get stale fast and are often of dubious quality due to the rushed nature of the title). I completely understand the lag time, but I think the publishers need to step up and start paying authors as full-time employees so they can commit full time to a book and get it released sooner. Typically book authors are doing this on the side, I am sure that slows down time to market. There are some Microsoft technologies, like Commerce Server, that haven’t seen a new book since 2002. Arguably that’s a much more niche technology (and certainly not as popular as SharePoint for instance), but if a company as large as Microsoft is investing money to develop the product, they have users of the software so there must be some kind of market for those books.

I know lots of folks don’t work on the cutting edge (I spoke to a group of VB6 developers yesterday that didn’t even have Visual Studio installed), so this is less of a problem for them. As a consultant, this is a constant problem for me. Maybe I am am the minority and there isn’t as much market for these books so early? That’s hard for me to say. Either way, I know the publishers are losing my money, because I end up digging up blog posts and finding online articles to meet my need long before the book hits the shelves for me to purchase it.

Link Love

I’ve run across some great blog posts lately, and decided I needed to share and keep track of them:


Cultivate Teams, Not Ideas at Coding Horror. I am totally with Jeff on this one, I learned this a while ago. I’ve taken my last two jobs based on the quality of people working there, not the work that they were doing. I love the quote:



In software development, execution is staying on top of all the tiny details that make up your app. If you’re not constantly obsessing over every aspect of your application, relentlessly polishing and improving every little part of it — no matter how trivial — you’re not executing. At least, not well.


I want to work with folks that feel this way about the work they do. Quality matters, and even more in my profession as a consultant. Quality work today gets me more work tomorrow, I can’t afford not to write top notch code and deliver quality solutions. Few things really upset me as much as shoddy work, whether out of ignorance or laziness. If you are a professional, there is no excuse for either one.


My co-worker David Giard (the host of Technology and Friends) wrote a very insightful post about being a programmer, It’s not easy, so don’t pretend it is. I agree with Dave 100% that we are undervaluing what value we provide with our skills. I pledge along with Dave to take the word “easy” out of my vocabulary when talking about the work I do. As someone who has to estimate work, I understand the complexity of what we do and struggle to communicate that to clients, and I think what Dave describes contributes significantly to that problem. End users/clients can’t easily see the complexity of what we do (“it’s just a form”), and can’t understand that adding “one extra feature” may actually triple the complexity of the solution, because our long-term message to them has been “it’s easy”.  This actually relates to what Jeff said about teams as well. Good teams care about the quality of their work, so don’t minimize what you do to your clients or users, show them the quality of what you can do.


Lastly, I want to point out the terrific blog written by an ex-coworker of mine, Bob Kreha. While Bob does not write about technical topics per se, his observations about management really strike home as a person who is frequently managed (aren’t we all?). I particularly enjoy his insights into leadership, since I view myself as more a of a leader than manager, even though I technically may be a manager. His post BFF’s has a quote that strikes a particular chord with me, talking about a manager’s relationship with his subordinates:



So if you want nirvana, start with commitment, fairness, shared credit, transparency and vision.  You might be surprised where you end up…


I can’t tell you how many times I struggle with my job because the management above me is not clear enough on where the collective “we” should be going. I frequently think “help me help you” when I am dealing with management. Everyone has an agenda, some folks more than others, but really I wouldn’t be working at a company if I didn’t think we were working toward the same goals. But with management it often seems like they are not on my side over some of the most petty issues. Really, due to a lack of transparency and shared vision, I think it’s petty when really it may not be, I just don’t understand the scope of the issue (or other pressures from management higher up) because no one is sharing. When it feels like maybe we are not on the same team, quite possibly someone is on the wrong team. The bottom line is, tell me where we need to go, I’ll help us get there. If you don’t tell me, I can’t help.


I’ve been pretty dark from blogging for a while, it’s good to get back into the swing of things. I’ll try to follow up with a more technical post soon.

ASP.Net Exposed Review

I got the chance to attend the ASP.Net Roadshow in Detroit/Ann Arbor this past Tuesday. It was given by Rob Howard, ASP.NET Program Manager and one of the driving forces behind www.asp.net.

Rob was a very engaging speaker, and despite working with ASP.Net for over a year, I didn’t find the presentation to be dragging at all. There were nuggets for developers at all different levels throughout the presentation. The material was mostly basic, as the target audience was really developers and managers thinking about moving to ASP.Net. Rob performed most of the talk by writing code to demonstrate his points, which helped out the more experienced users in the audience. Much of the material he covered througout the presentation contained a fair amount of the “WOW” factor by demonstrating large effects with little code, such as autoformatting a datagrid or connecting to a database and fetching information.

The second half of the presentation focused on Security demos and Whidbey demos. The security demos focused around impersonationa and SQL injection. Good stuff for all ranges of developers to keep in mind.

For me, this was the first real exposure to Whidbey. A few things in particular stood out about what I saw:

  • For ASP.Net, Whidbey takes an approach much more like VB6, focusing on the Visual design aspects and not much on the code. In fact, he repeatedly pointed out how much could be done without any code at all.
  • The strong visual RAD aspects of Whidbey will draw lots of non-programmers to ASP.Net, much like VB6 did for the Visual Basic language.
  • The RAD visual development aspects of Whidbey have much going on “Under the Hood“. This of course will require real trust for the developers. Is it really flexible, or will it turn out to be like the web controls that shipped with Visual Interdev 6.0 that in theory were great, but just didn’t offer the flexibility? Only time and experience will tell us that.
  • For so much to be going on “under the hood“, there must be a price to pay somewhere in overhead. Is it in the Viewstate? This wasn’t mentioned, but it’s got to be somewhere.

Overall, it was worth the three hours. I picked up information I can use today, and got a pretty good view of what is coming with Whidbey. Every person who turned in an evaluation got a copy of Microsoft ASP.Net Coding Strategies with the Microsoft ASP.Net Team, plus there was a giveaway at the end of some T-shirts and two Pocket PCs.

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