Posts Tagged ‘Programming’

Vertical User Experience Platform

July 5, 2012

Whilst discussing what a UXP is and who the key players are with a customer I was asked an interesting question, “is there a need for industry (banking, retail, government …) specific UXP ?”.

My immediate reaction was that the technologies in a UXP were generic horizontal solutions that should be agnostic to the industry they were implemented in. The fact that they were specialised solutions and are not industry specific to me was a key advantage. So why would you want a content management solution or collaboration tool that was specific to banking or retail?

The response was interesting: For many smaller companies the complexity of managing their web presence is huge, even if they buy into a single vendor approach for example using Microsoft Sharepoint they still have a huge task to set up the individual components (content management, collaboration, social tools and apps) and this is only made harder with the need to support an increasing array of devices (phone, tablet, TV etc…).

It seems there is a need for an offering that provides an integrated full UXP that can be set-up easily and quickly without the need for an army of developers. Compromises on absolute flexibility are acceptable provided a rich set of templates (or the ability to create custom templates) were provided, such that the templates handled device support automatically. Further the UXP might offer vertical specific content feeds out of the box.

As in my previous blog “The End of Silo Architectures” using a UXP front end technology to create industry specific apps is a great idea. Such a solution could not only provide the business functionality (e.g. Internet banking, insurance quotes/claims, stock trading) but the technical issues of cross device and browser support, security and performance.

So whilst I can understand the requirement and the obvious benefit, the idea of a vertical UXP to me seems like providing a vertical specific CRM or Accounting package. The real answer is that it makes sense to provide vertical apps and use generic Content, Collaboration and social tools from a UXP. Ideally the generic components are integrated and have easy to configure templates.

As I have highlighted before though the UXP is complex not just from a technology perspective but also from the perspective of skills, processes and standards. The first step for any organisation must be to create a strategy for UXP: audit what you currently have, document what you need (take into consideration current trends like social, gamification and mobile) and then decide how you move forward.

Unfortunately this area currently seems ill serviced by the consultancy companies so it may just be up to you to roll your own strategy.


The end of silo architectures

June 28, 2012

From my discussions with customers and prospects it is clear that the final layer in their architectures is being defined by UXP (see my previous posts). So whether you have a Service or Web Oriented architecture most organisations have already moved or are in the middle of moving towards a new flexible layered architecture that will provide more agility and breaks down the closed silo architectures they previously owned.

However solution vendors that provide “out the box” business solutions whether they be vertical (banking, insurance, pharmaceutical, retail or other) or horizontal (CRM, ERP, supply chain management) have not necessarily been as quick to open up their solutions. Whilst many will claim that they have broken out of the silo’s by “service enabling” their solution, many still have proprietary requirements to specific application servers, databases, middleware or orchestration solutions.

However recently I have come across two vendors, Temenos (global core banking) and CCS (leading insurance platform) who are breaking the mould.

CCS have developed Roundcube to be a flexible componentised solution to address the full lifecycle of insurance from product definition, policy administration to claims. Their solution is clearly layered, service enabled and uses leading 3rd party solutions to manage orchestration, integration and presentation whilst they focus on their data model and services. Their approach allows an organisation to buy into the whole integrated suite or just blend specific components into existing solutions they may have. By using leading 3rd party solutions, their architecture is open for integration into other solutions like CRM or financial ledgers.

Temenos too has an open architecture (Temenos Enterprise Framework Architecture) which allows you to use any database, application server, or integration solution. Their oData enabled interaction framework allows flexibility at the front end too.

Whilst these are both evolving solutions, they have a clear strategy and path to being more open and therefore more flexible. Both are also are providing a solution that can be scaled from the smallest business to the largest enterprises. Their solutions will therefore more naturally blend into organisations rather than dictate requirements.

Whilst packaged solutions are often enforced by business sponsors this new breed of vendor provides the flexibility that will ensure the agility of changes the business requires going forward. It’s starting to feel like organisations can “have their cake and eat it” if they make the right choices when selecting business solutions.

If you’ve seen other solutions in different verticals providing similar open architectures I would be very happy to hear about them at

Programming with soldering irons

June 21, 2012

The last time I can remember seeing a programmer with a soldering iron was a long time ago in the hay days of micro computing in the late 70’s. A picture of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in a garage having built the Apple 1 micro-computer. The component parts totalled a few hundred pounds, and the machine sold for $666.66. At this level the cost made this a niche phenomenon, however a handful of very successful entrepreneurs emerged out of this era.

So moving fast forward to 2012, Raspberry PI foundation have launched a $25 computer running Linux, has sockets for Ethernet, HDMI, USB, RCA Video and SD Cards. At this price and capability this is unlikely to be a niche phenomenon, indeed February this year more people were searching for Raspberry PI than they were the world’s most famous pop artist, Lady Gaga ! On launch the interest in Raspberry Pi flooded their website and had to be taken down, and the first batch these was sold out in 1hour.

So is this just about a cheap computer to surf the internet on your TV and to do your basic home computing tasks like word processing on? Well by the time you add a keyboard, mouse and decent memory card the cost will be very close to a low android tablet, so this isn’t the reason to buy one.

The target market for Raspberry Pi Foundation is the education sector where it is hoped these devices will encourage children (11years+) to learn programming which in turn should produce more developers from university. At this cost it is hoped that schools / parents can afford to provide a platform upon which kids will want to learn to program.

However the bulk of the demand I would say will come from techies that want to build low cost solutions that require compute power and software applications. Home automation projects are likely to be popular: creating a solution that allows you to switch lights and other things on/off remotely via the internet. Solutions that require integration with other hardware such as a GPS or camera will also be popular.

Already projects looking to create their own weather balloons, remote controlled robots, music studios and many more have started ahead of people actually having the kit in their hands. So you can see more idea’s here .

It is early days but to me it’s obvious the options and therefore opportunities for innovation are going to be huge, some will be very practical, some will be fun (for example the guy that created a device that allows him to feed his dog via the internet, some will be useless but in all there will be lots of new ideas using these devices in the coming years.

The next Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates is amongst our children already so the time is right to get in the queue for your piece of Raspberry Pi.

Is the dream of re-use outdated?

April 12, 2012

Since the early days of programming developers have chased the dream of creating code that can be used by other developers so that valuable time can be saved by not re-inventing the wheel. Over time, there have been many methods of re-use devised, and design patterns to drive re-use.

Meanwhile the business users are demanding more applications and are expecting them delivered faster, creating pressure for IT departments. Sometimes this pressure is counter-productive, because it means that there is no time to build re-usability into applications, and the time saved is just added on to future projects.

Could we use the pressure to take a different approach? One that focuses on productivity and time to market, rather than design and flexibility as typically sought by IT?

I’m going to draw an analogy with a conversation I had with an old relative that had a paraffin heater. This relative had the heater for many years, and is still using it today because it works. When I questioned the cost of paraffin over the buying an energy efficient electric heater which was cheaper to run, the response was this one works and it’s not broken yet, why replace it? Now for most appliances we are in a world that means we don’t fix things, we replace them.

This gave me the idea, which I’m sure is not new, of disposable applications. Shouldn’t some applications just be developed quickly without designing for re-use, flexibility and maintainability? With this approach, the application would be developed with maximum speed to meet requirements rather than elegant design knowing that the application will be re-developed within a short time (2-3 years).

So can there be many applications that could be thrown away and re-developed from scratch? Well in today’s world of ‘layered’ applications it could be that only the front end screens need to be ‘disposable’, with business services and databases being designed for the long term, since after all there is less change in those areas generally.

Looking at many business to consumer sites certainly self-service applications and point of sales forms typically could be developed as disposable applications because generally the customer experience evolves and the business like to ‘refresh the shop front’ regularly.

My experience of the insurance world is that consumer applications typically get refreshed on average every 18-24 months, so if it takes you longer than 12 months to develop your solution it won’t be very long before you are re-building it.

When looking at the average lifetime of a mobile app, it is clear that end users see some software as disposable, using it a few times then either uninstalling or letting it gather dust in a dusty corner.

So there may be a place for disposable apps, and not everything has to be designed for re-use. This is more likely in the area of the user experience because they tend to evolve regularly. So is it time you revised your thinking on re-use?

HTML5 gets a database

June 9, 2011

As a relative late comer to HTML5 trying to catch up on a spec that spans over a 1000 pages is no mean feat, let alone the fact that the definition of what makes up HTML5 is covered across several specs (see previous blog on standards spaghetti). If you’ve been following this series then you’ll have worked out I have a few favourite features that I think will radically change the perception of web applications, and you guessed it HTML5’s support for database access is another.

The specification started out as early as 2006 with WebSimpleDB (aka WebSQL), and went as far as implementation into many browsers including webkit, Safari, Chrome and Firefox. From what I can find Oracle made the original proposal in 2009 and the W3C made a switch to Indexed DB sometime in 2010. Although already had their own implementation using SQL-Lite, they too preferred IndexedDB). The current status as of April 2011 of the IndexedDB spec is that it is still in draft, and according to early implementations exist in Chrome 11 and Firefox 4. Microsoft have released a prototype on their html labs site at to show their current support .

Clearly it is not ready for live commercial applications in the short term, but it is certainly something worth keeping your eye on and to plan for. When an application requires more than simple key value pairs or requires large amounts of data, IndexDB should be your choice over HTML 5’s WebStorage api’s (localStorage and sessionStorage).

The first important feature about IndexDB is that it is not a relational database but in fact an object store. Hence there are no tables, rows or columns and there is no SQL for querying the data. Instead data is stored as Javascript objects and navigated using cursors. The database can have indexes defined however.

Next there are two API modes of interaction, Asynchronous and Synchronous API’s. As you would imagine synchronous API’s DO block the calling thread (i.e each call waits for a response before returning control and data). Therefore it follows that the asynchronous API’s do NOT block the calling thread. When using asynchronous API’s a callback function is required to respond to the events fired by the database after an instruction has been completed.

Both approaches provide API’s for opening, closing and deleting a database. Databases are versioned, and each database can have one or more objectstores. There are CRUD API’s for datastore access (put, get, add, delete) as well as API’s to create and delete index’s.

Access to the datastore is enveloped in transactions, and a transaction can be used to access multiple data stores, as well as multiple actions on a datastore.

At a very high level, there you have it, IndexDB is a feature that allows you to manage data in the browser. This will not only be useful for online applications (e.g. a server based warehouse could export data cubes for local access) but also for offline applications to hold data until a connection can be established. I’d fully expect a slew of Javascript frameworks to add value ontop of what the standards provide, indeed persistence.js is one such example.

It’s good to see early implementations and prototypes for IndexDB and whilst the date for finalising this spec is unclear, I for one will be monitoring it’s progress closely and waiting with baited breath for it’s finalisation.

Does HTML5 means the end of Flash?

March 24, 2011

I am almost starting to feel sorry for Adobe Flash. First it was Steve Jobs, now everyone is starting to recognise the inherent limitations of the proprietary multimedia platform.

The Apple chief executive took a swipe at Flash earlier this year, suggesting the development tool is poorly designed, has security concerns and is ill equipped for the mobile age.

Action was tough, with Apple banning Flash from its iPhone in 2007 and its iPad in 2010. I wrote in November that the attractiveness of the platform would undoubtedly be affected by Apple’s decision (see further reading).

That would have been bad enough. But then it seemed everyone else turned up to give Flash a good kick in its multimedia platform. Such a backlash centred on the next-generation we framework HTML5.

Microsoft, a long-time defender of its own development framework Silverlight, has started to show open support for HTML5. Google has added HTML5 support for video playback and Facebook, with Facebook also going with the standard to provide video on Apple devices.

Such moves help illustrate how organisations are keen to break away from third party plug-ins. What once seemed normal, even convenient, now seems painful – users and suppliers want everything at once and they don’t want to rely on yet another multimedia platform.

It’s been a tough fall from grace for Flash. As well as the aforementioned ability to view movies, Flash also boasted a range of other snazzy and original features. Like video, Flash was able to support rich graphical applications and games. Once again, its originality has been trumped by HTML5.

Where Flash once offered a means to cross-browser reach, HTML5 provides a standards-based approach that is hooking in vendors and removing the necessity to rely on plug-ins.

HTML5’s additional ability to support the running of applications offline provides another significant benefit and a further break from a reliance on workarounds like Flash, Google Gears and Microsoft HTML Applications.

In short, HTML5 has the big backers and the big technology. It is a standards-based approach to web development that is paving the way for portability and accessibility, regardless of location, browser or device.

In comparison, Adobe Flash looks a bit old hat. No wonder Steve Jobs felt so frustrated. The only question is why, in the future, anyone would choose to go with Adobe Flash?

Jobs will not be alone in swerving away from Flash and towards HTML5. Get ready to switch lanes now.

Further reading:

Does HTML5 mean the end of the road for Gears, HTA and Flash?

March 10, 2011

Web standard HTML5 contains loads of great features, from video playback to drag-and-drop. But the best bit, and currently one of the least talked about elements, might be the capability to run apps offline.

The normal web experience is hindered by connectivity. Users can typically access web apps while they have a connection to the internet. Once offline, individuals lose access to email, calendar or notes. There are, of course, workarounds. Google Gears, for example, allows users to navigate compatible sites offline and synchronise when back online.

Microsoft HTML Applications (HTA), meanwhile, is a Microsoft Windows formalisation that provides a web-like experience offline. And Adobe Flash can also be run offline, allowing users to run Flash-based content.

Such workarounds are OK but they are also a bit messy. People want the same experience online or offline; they want to get hold of – and manipulate content – regardless of location and they don’t want to be hindered by platform specific technologies or plug-ins.

HTML5 provides that standardisation. Its two–pronged approach re-connects the user through an SQL-based interface for storing data locally, and an offline cache that helps ensure apps are always available (see further reading, below).

With regards to availability, HTML5’s application cache mechanism provides the ability to have a fall back page for rendering pages when offline. It also provides a means to update cache dynamically. The key, here, is client-side management.

And without wanting to bang my own drum too loudly, it is a rhythm I have been hinting at for a long, long time. I blogged two years ago (see further reading) about client-side management as a method for keeping data in the browser, rather than the server, and as means to reducing memory and processing requirements.

“If only it was supported as standard by the browser rather than having to use hidden fields,” I concluded – and now that day is fast approaching. HTML5 creates a standards-based method for creating local apps that run offline.

As mentioned earlier, HTML5 also provides the ability to store data locally through a client-side SQL database. A series of apps could potentially work with this database, providing a new level of accessibility and integration.

The total approach represents a huge step forwards for web development. It also signals that the end is nigh for proprietary workarounds like Gears, HTA and Flash. HTML5 is the future and web developers simply must get with the program.

Further reading:

AppInventor to drop out of school

February 3, 2011

Something odd is happening. While children have never been more involved in computing, fewer and fewer young people are studying technology.

 Any parent of young children will be able to regale you with tales of their offspring multitasking with various devices and apps. The modern, younger generation has grown up only knowing a technology-enabled world and they are a product of that interaction.

 However, that high level of interactivity has not created a rise in interest in the academic side of IT. Just 4,065 students were awarded computing A-levels this year, compared with 4,710 this time last year – a drop of 13.7% (see further reading, below).

 The jury is out on what such developments mean for the UK: while companies continue to offshore certain technology tasks, a core of highly-skilled technicians must exist in the UK. So, how can we get kids interested in the behind-the-scenes coding that supports their multi-tasking lifestyle?

 One possibility comes in the form of Google’s App Inventor, a system that claims to enable non-coders to develop Android software. Instead of writing code, interested individuals visually design the way an app looks and use blocks to specify software behaviour.

 The plus point, at least as far as getting junior programmers on board, is that App Inventor is easy to use. Code is simply snapped together to allow basic events to take place.

 That, however, is also part of the problem. As developers become more adept, the limitations of snapping blocks together – in comparison to being able to write code – become exposed.

 As Darien Graham-Smith concluded in a recent review of App Inventor for PC Pro (see further reading: “Anyone with the programming nous to make full use of App Inventor’s abilities will surely prefer a language that doesn’t force you to pedantically assemble every function, procedure and event out of multicoloured blocks.”

 Google acknowledges App Inventors’ educational route, paying deference to MIT’s Scratch project. But while the system is driven by an educational perspective, it remains restricted by its approach. In fact, Graham-Smith believes App Inventor could actually drive people away from programming unless the Blocks Editor improves.

 The system is, in short, a nice attempt to get people interested in the finer elements of programming. But successful apps are inherently much more complex than pushing Lego together.

Further reading:

AppInventor won’t solve your end user development opportunity

November 29, 2010

Once again, don’t believe the hype. Google recently launched App Inventor, a system that claims to enable non-coders to develop Android software.

The principle is sound enough – instead of writing code, interested individuals visually design the way an app looks and use blocks to specify software behaviour. The open platform for developers, meanwhile, could lead to vast array of specialised apps from people who are traditionally viewed as non-developers (see further reading, below).

However, don’t get the party bunting out just yet. The hype might suggest Google has created end-user computing for Android but the reality is slightly more complex.

Yes, the system allows individuals to work with blocks of code. And the system should be intuitive – it has been in development for more than a year and user testing has been mainly completed in schools (see further reading).

But while the drag-and-drop system of App Inventor is reminiscent of fitting Lego blocks together, experienced reviewers believe the fit is not quite as snug as it could be.

TechCrunch writer Jason Kincaid, for example, has experience of programming and attempted to put together a couple of apps. He concludes that the Google software is far from perfect and is by no means a short cut to back room, smart phone development (see further reading).

App Inventor, then, is a neat, graphical programming tool. The concept is innovative and refreshing. It is not, however, a tool for non-programmers. Google have created another step towards end-user development but this is by no means an end-point.

Senior executives should not be swayed by the hype and should not expect non-technical employees to start creating powerful Android apps. In fact, there is a strong argument for suggesting that the focus should not just be on the creation of new apps.

For some employees, end-user development is a real possibility – and Google’s App Inventor represents another staging post. At the same time, more apps create more maintenance, especially if increasing numbers of non-programmers are really going to get their hands on code.

 Proper end-user development must consider how apps can be maintained without the need for IT to run modifications and changes. Once again, good end-user development comes down to good management.

 End-users can create apps but only if the IT department is able to support such computing easily and cost effectively.

Further reading



The new legacy is HTML !

November 22, 2010

The legacy of past computing decisions is one of the biggest technology challenges facing businesses. What’s more, lessons from the past are not being heeded.

Let’s start with the most famous legacy code of them all – because if you’ve encountered COBOL, you’ve encountered legacy. Invented in 1959, the object-oriented language became a mainstay of business computing for the next four decades.

The legacy, however, quickly turned into a significant burden. Gartner reported that 80% of the world’s business ran on COBOL in 1997, with more than 200 billion lines of code in existence and an estimated 5 billion lines of new code produced annually (see further reading, below).

The reliance on that rate of production came home to roost towards the end of the last century, when language problems led to the panic associated to Y2K. The story since then has been one of decline. The continued move of business online has led to a clamour for new, sleeker and internet-ready programming languages.

First specified in 1990, HyperText Markup Language (HTML) became the predominant web development language. Its use ran alongside the development of open standards, such as JavaScript and the Cascading Style Sheets of CSS.

Such languages and styles helped to define the layout of the Web. But that is far from the end of the story. Online development in the era of HTML has become increasingly patchy, with more and more developers using varying styles of code.

Additional online tools, such as Silverlight and Flex, create further complexity. The result is that HTML, and an associated collection of standards and tools, are fast becoming the new legacy.

Just as in the case of COBOL, more and more lines of code are being produced. The disparate pace of online development is such that we will end up with reams of legacy HTML, JavaScript and CSS code.

Learn from history and get to grips with the problem now. Make sure you have proper documentation and standards. Select tools that are integrated with the rest of your business processes and which allow users to make the most of earlier development projects.

Think about how certain approaches – such as a mix of HTML/JavaScript and Ajax-server based technologies – will allow your business, and even your end-users, to use the same development techniques on desktop and mobile environments.

Also look to the future and take a look at HTML5, which is currently under development as the next major revision of the HTML standard, including features that previously required third-party plug-ins, such as Flash. Don’t stop there carry on with CSS3, Web Worker and WebFonts all new evolutions of current web technologies that will tomorrow be mainstream.

The end result should be the end of fragmented development and a legacy of useful web applications, rather than unusable and unidentifiable code.
Further reading: