Taking your developer library mobile with the iPhone
I have always been a big proponent of reading/understanding complex development topics really well before starting to use them in prototyping or a live environment. Developers/architects learn in different ways; however, I find myself uncomfortable coding something when I don't understand why/how things work. With all the information out there in the web 2.0 age (with all the development blogs), I still find that the best resources for information are books. I am in the process of starting my own book on a specific Business Intelligence topic and have learned to appreciate the dedication and time it takes to put a book together. The topic, individual chapters, code examples all have to flow and make logical sense for your desired target audience. Furthermore, books on development also have to go through a technical review process that can include multiple people. This usually makes a chapter or even several pages in a technical book much more valuable than someone's 2 a.m. rant on a blog.
Evolution of my technical resources
Phase I - Physical Resources
I started my technical library in late 1998 when I did some consulting work for BMG Online (They also owned booksonline.com which gave me access to many IT books that customers had returned or were defective). The only problem with all these resources is that they were physical and I had a pile of books under my desk at its peak (probably around 75). The other problem is that books aren't really portable and you just can't take 75 physical books with you.
Phase II - EBooks
In the last several years many publishers have started offering e-book versions of their books usually in PDF format. This format allowed the books to be stored on the network and located in multiple places (i.e., e-mail, network drive, internet drive, etc.). Ebooks also had some obvious nice features:
- If you wanted to print several pages out, you could easily
- You could share the books/some pages with your developer team(s)
- If there were a part of code you wanted to analyze, you could do it by simply selecting it and pasting it into Visual Studio and not have to download a seperate code zip file for just a snippet of interesting code
Phase III - Books on the Mobile & The Cloud
Having an ebook library that can be shared and on the internet is great; however, it does come with two drawbacks. The first drawback is that you still need a laptop/desktop to view ebook files. Secondly, you are still responsible for building your own library and creating a variety of feeds for reading yourself. Mobile devices and devices like the Amazon Kindle coupled with cloud services aim to solve some of these problems. This marriage of digital reader and service can bring entire massive libraries to your fingertips.
The Kindle and Kindle 2 from Amazon seem to be the rage in the recent months. Even many technical bloggers are talking about their new Kindle and how great it is. With the Kindle, you do not need a desktop/laptop to read an ebook online as the Kindle device is specifically geared for reading digital content online. I never have used the Kindle; however, I do like the concept as it is an evolution over having a bunch of PDF files on my HD or an internet drive. One of the issues I have with the Kindle is that you need to subscribe to feeds just to read blog articles. Even though they are nominal fees, I am not paying $1.99 to read Slashdot articles :) Furthermore, I do find having an entire seperate device just for reading ebooks a little overkill. This is why I have started porting my ebook library to the iPhone.
Google's approach is to index a great deal (if not all) of the books in the world at http://books.google.com and essentially brings a huge amount of books to your fingertips without having to own/download any of them. The great part about this is that they are now available on mobile phones as well.
Google Book Search also includes new titles like this:
Using your iPhone for your development library
Using GMail as your ebook storage and provider
For those who do not know, Gmail is fully integrated into the iPhone and provides you a decent amount of storage on the Internet that you can cache on the iPhone. This was my first stab at setting my developer library up -- by using Gmail on the iPhone to cache my attachments (which were PDF files) on the iPhone. I sent myself some e-mails and tagged them as an Ebook.
My Ebooks in my Gmail account
If you double click the attachment (if the file has been downloaded), then the ebook will launch in the PDF viewer.
The book (e-mail attachment) downloaded from my Gmail account and opened in iPhone's default PDF viewer
An Ebook opened in iPhone's default PDF viewer
I thought this was a great solution and started throwing all my PDF books into my gmail account...then came the issues. The first one I ran into was when I tried opening a large PDF file. I quickly found out the default iPhone PDF viewer cannot open PDF files over ~12 megabytes.
The second problem is that the default PDF viewer has really basic functionality. You can view the documents vertically/horizontally, zoom in and page by one page at a time. For a technical resource (some over 600 pages), we need a little more functionality beyond basic viewing. It would be nice to be able to open large documents, page faster, access Internet links embedded in the document, be able to jump to the current page where you left of reading and be able to bookmark certain key parts of the book.
Using a PDF Organizer on the iPhone
The great thing about the iPhone is that if we need some key functionality or need a software program to provide some functionality, we can head to the App Store and most likely someone is providing this functionality. This is what makes the iPhone superior over other devices -- that I can solve any problems I have with the device itself and not have to "sync" with my home desktop or install via a cable.
After doing a quick search on the App Store and checking out the reviews, I decided to go with the Felaur PDF Viewer as it had the highest ratings and it provided a lot of the functionality I wanted. The application (like most iPhone apps) was only $1.99 and I figured it was well worth the cost of trying it out. The only feature that was missing was the ability to click a link and be taken to a web page. The Felaur PDF Viewer allowed me to upload my PDF files for viewing by making the iPhone a web browser (pretty cool technique) and using my browser to upload the files.
iPhone App Store search on PDF files
The Felaur PDF Viewer works just as promised. Using the appliction, I can open large PDF files (The largest one I tried was about 30 megs), page quickly using a slider to acces any part of the book, add bookmarks to access any sections I want with one click of the button and if I close the book and do something else on the iPhone and open the book up, it remains on the page I was reading.
Screen shot shows the uploaded ebooks to the PDF viewer. They are stored locally on the iPhone's HD
Screen shot shows an ebook opened with the commercial viewer (Notice the slider bar so I can access any page quickly)
Another nice feature of the Felaur PDF Viewer is the ability to bookmark large resources. Screen shot below shows Jon Skeet's excellent C# with my bookmarks for reference allowing me to jump to any page
Now any of the technical books I have purchased are available to me online. I am a real big fan of the Manning books as they are quickly becoming one of the highest quality programming books out there (Reminds me of the quality Wrox (big red books) used to be in the late 90's and early 00's). Furthermore, all of their books are provided in physical and ebook format. They also have a MEAP program and it gives you the ability to access "in progress" books before they are officially released.
Not all the resources have to be purchased, nor do they have to be books to be high quality resources or valuable resources. Here are some other types of resources you could use:
Using Google Book Search for Technical Resources
Google has been scanning a huge amount of books and uploading them to the Internet and providing users the ability to view them. Google calls this project Google Book Search. They also provide a rudimentary way of paging and searching the books. What this means is that there is a huge number of books available online including many technical books. Furthermore, mobile access has started being offered to some of the books (I am sure that this will include all books in the future). Mobile access means that the book is formatted for a smaller screen. However, an iPhone or a mobile device with a full feature browser can browse the book just fine in the window. This is definitely the future in taking your technical resources online, as nothing needs to be downloaded or persisted to the hard drive. The books live "on the cloud" and all you need is internet access to start viewing what you want.
Browsing Google Book Search with the iPhone for technical resources
Google is touting its breakthrough agreement with authors and publishers to provide access to these books on the Internet. They have several access categories of books and the recent technical editions are all likely copyrighted. What is interesting is that Google's Book Search allows you to page through the book and randomly insert a statement that the book is copyrighted or these pages are missing. However, if you go back to the screen in a new browser window, you can go back and access that page again. (Hint: If you use a tool like Fiddler/Web Development Helper, it's not hard to see what is going on). Essentially, what I am saying is that even the copyrighted books are available for you to browse and download. I am not advocating this. In fact, I would be mad if I were an author and had my book up there and people reading it for FREE. I think that Google needs to address this loophole in Book Search.
In this article, I showed you how you can move your developer resources to electronic format and access them using a mobile device. For any developer that wishes to take his resources everywhere and access them anywhere, this is a must. There is so much out there to learn and consume. Combing the ability to consume resources using a local viewer or from "the cloud" using Google's Book Search service will allow you to consume more information. Having your resources organized on your mobile device will help someone who is an "information junkie" or who wants to be more efficient in accessing their resources faster. While this article targeted the iPhone device, I am sure you can do the same with some of the more recent mobile devices and Windows Pocket PC devices.
So what I am reading now?
Beginning Silverlight 2 From Novice to Professsional - Book Review
- Excellent book for anyone getting into Silverlight 2
- Detailed step-by-step exercises cover the core of Silverlight
- Code is simple and easy to follow. Does not introduce unecessary syntax sugar/advanced techniques that could confuse a beginner reader
- Well organized. This resource is a perfect example why a Silverlight novice should bye a book and not try to read from blog articles (which can contain misleading information)
- Code exmamples work (I did not try all of them). The ones I tried work spot on.
- Delivers what it promises: a very good introduction to the core foundation of Silverlight 2 that can be built upon in future training or resources
- Does not cover some basic steps that could confuse Silverlight novices
- A chapter dedicated to installing the Silverlight 2 SDK, plug-in, Control Toolkit and Expression Blend 2 SP1 together would have been welcome
- "Introduction to Expression Blend" chapter completely fails to mention that SP1 is required for Silverlight 2 development. Having this critical piece of information missing from the resource is completely inexcusable as it will make the exercises unusable.
- Does not provide much "resource value". Once the reader has consumed the core information, only several chapters are worthy of several re-reads.
- Truly for beginners only. If you have done some WPF development or have done some basic prototyping with Silverlight, this book is not for you.
Detailed Chapter Overview
Chapter 1 - Welcome to Silverlight 2
This chapter introduces Silverlight 2 to the reader. The introduction is short and to the point and explains what Silverlight is and what other analogous technologies are out there. Not much to say about this chapter other than it is a good introduction.
Chapter 2 - Introduction to Visual Studio 2008
Chapter 3 - Layout Management in Silverlight
This chapter is very good on explaining how layout management works in Silverlight. It introduces the main controls that govern layer control: canvas, stackpanel and grid. There are plenty of exercises with screen shots that describe what each one does. The layout management topic is absolutely essential in order to be able to understand how Silverlight design works. The location of this chapter in regard to the other chapters is perfect. Developers that are not coming from a WPF/RIA background will find this chapter very informative and valuable in understating how Silverlight applications should be designed.
Chapter 4 - Silverlight Form Controls
This chapter introduces some of the base controls that make up the Silverlight 2 runtime. The former part of the chapter introduces the syntax, properties and events associated with controls. The latter part deals with some exercise dealing with several controls. This chapter is very similar to Chapter 3 in that it is very well positioned in the book and the exercises do a very good job in conveying the necessary information.
Chapter 5 - Data Binding and Silverlight List Controls
This part of the resource introduces how binding works in Silverlight and then gives some detailed examples using the DataGrid/List controls. Binding is a critical component of data-driven applications and how their information is consumed by the UI controls. The binding component of this chapter is very well put together. It introduces the concept and gives the reader just enough information for them to "be dangerous". Binding in Silverlight has many facets to it and can be complex. This chapter doesn't try to overwhelm the reader with all of that information. Having said that, if you are familiar with WPF binding, this part of the chapter will be nothing new (WPF data binding is signifigantly more complex than Silverlight's model).
The latter part of the chapter deals with consuming the data via binding inside a DataGrid and a List control. The exercises show the reader the basics of consuming the data and presenting it in a nice way to the end user. This part is very well done and one of the strengths of the book.
Chapter 6 - Data Access and Networking
This chapter talks about a very important concept in Silverlight of being able to request data from outside storage. Silverlight cannot consume data directly from a database; therefore, understanding the network stack is essential for a Silverlight beginner. This chapter covers two essential types of network communication in Silverlight: services and sockets. Examples of both are provided in the book. They are good examples; however, they are geared more for the beginner. You would not want to follow these techniques in a real-world scenario; however, this does not fault the book in any way as it is meant as a novice introduction.
Chapter 7 - Local Storage in Silverlight
This is probably the most "fun" chapter for the reader as it covers the topic of local storage very well. Furthermore, at this point in the book, the reader is finally presented with a well-crafted Silverlight exercises that shows off the power of Silverlight. I really like the way the author presented the chapter and then introduces an exercise that builds on itself. Isolated Storage is another one of those concepts that makes Silverlight unique and not just another fancy Web 2.0 technology. It is a very powerful tool and the exercise presented in the chapter reinforces this very well.
Chapter 8 - Introduction to Expression Blend
This chapter is all about the design tool arm of Silverlight: Expression Blend 2 SP1. The chapter starts off by speaking to the necessity of having a design tool because of Silverlight's rich UI. My problem with this chapter (and the book as a whole) is that it doesn't provide all the information on Blend. For Silverlight 2 development, Blend 2 SP1 is required. Otherwise, your XAML design will simply not work. This omission is completely inexcusable. Furthermore, some links and overview of Expression Studio would have been nice. This is a very frequent hiccup to developers new to Silverlight as they get confused by what Expression is.
The core of this chapter essentially introduces the tool and all its parts. Even though I am critical of some of the omissions I listed above, the information here is very good for the beginner to understand where to find the design tools and how Blend is organized spacially in panels/toolboxes.
Chapter 9 - Styling in Silverlight
This is another fantastic chapter in this book, which is finally getting into some "meaty" parts of Silverlight. This chapter covers the topic of styling. The author does a real good job of introducing styling from inline properties, user control styles to application styles via XAML and Blend. The author goes over a key part of styling that other blog articles constantly miss, which is the styling hierarchy and how it is applied to the control. The concepts are presented with examples and screen shots like other chapters; however, this is where the layout of the book shines as it conveys a not so easy topic with ease.
Chapter 10 - Transformations and Animation
This part of the resource covers animations which are a core component of the Silverlight framework. This chapter is very solid; however, the novice reader absolutely must try the examples provided to fully comprehend the information. To no fault of the book, the different animations and transformations available in Silverlight are much easier appreciated online rather than the book. On a website you can clearly see what the animation/transformation is supposed to do.
Chapter 11 - Custom Controls
The last chapter in this book covers custom controls and why/how you would want to write them. This chapter is definitely the most complex part of the book and it is rightfully located as the last chapter. The chapter introduces the best practice model (Parts & States) that Microsoft recommends in creating custom Silverlight controls. Furthermore, dependency properties are explained and why they are key in custom controls. The latter part of the chapter covers an example of creating a custom button following the best practice of creating custom controls. This was one of my favorite chapters; however, I am not sure it fits well into an intro book for Silverlight. One could make the argument that this chapter could have been replaced with a chapter exclusively on the Silverlight Control Toolkit or Silverlight's rich media capabilities (which is suprisingly missing from the book completely).
Robert Lair's Beginning Silverlight 2 book is an excellent resource for developers that want to get learn Silverlight 2. The book is laid out very well chronologically and each section is clear and includes step by step examples and screen shots. The code examples are written in C# using concise and simple syntax, which allows the reader to focus on understanding the new concepts rather than trying to understand syntactic sugar. One of my presonal tests for using a book rather than online material is how much material does it offer beyond online resources (which are largely free). Robert's book does that very well in that regard as trying to find all of the core Silverlight knowledge in one place without having a lot of misinformation is hard. However, the book is missing a section on installing a Silverlight development with all the tools and I think that would be very valuable for Silverlight novices. If find that many developers new to Silverlight are suprised how many tools are out there from the obvious ones like Blend to the less prevelant ones like Expression Web or Media Encoder. This book delivers an intro to Silverlight spot on. However, it does this almost too well as anyone familiar with WPF/Flash won't get too much out of this as a resource. In conclusion, I would definitely recommend this book to any developer that wants to invest in the future and get their head around the core foundation of Silverlight.
Windows 7 - Should a developer invest in the upcoming OS?
- IIS 7.0
- 64-bit Computin
- Windows Azure
Windows 7 is the next Windows version being released by Microsoft this year. It is already getting a ton of positive buzz from the community about how much better it is than Windows Vista in terms of performance and new features. However, looking at the features currently being announced for Windows 7, many of these appear to be visual tweaks and there aren't many new revolutionary features being added. This is why many people (including myself) feel that that Windows 7 feels more like a service pack to Vista rather than a new OS.
Microsoft not only adds features to the OS, but additional OS add-ons sometimes are only provided to the "current" operating systems. This is especially important for developers who rely on their development environments working properly on the operating system in which they decide to invest. Developers (especially web developers) also need to concern themselves with developing on workstation environments that have server equivalents. For example, Vista has IIS 7.0 and it is the server equivalent of the IIS in Windows 2008 Server.
Windows 7 builds on Windows Vista and its feature set. Therefore, when evaluating Windows 7, it is also important to consider the features Vista has added. Below is a list of items I came up with that I feel are important to developers working on the Microsoft platform. Obviously, depending on what you do, some of these things might be more important than others.
IIS 7.0 (Vista & Windows 7)
IIS is Microsoft's web server platform (If you don't know what IIS is, you probably got here by mistake). IIS in its early days was decoupled from the Operating System. However, since Windows 2000, Microsoft has essentially coupled the version of IIS with the OS offering. The current offering of IIS is version 7.0 and it offers a huge number of benefits over IIS 6.0. Version 7.0 is currently available for Vista, Windows 2008 and Windows 7 users. IIS 7.0 has its own team in Microsoft, and the team is actively rolling out new features in updates/service packs to the operating systems. These enhacements are geared towards the server operating systems; however, they need to roll the features into the workstation OSes (Vista, Windows 7) as well since not every developer can afford a "legal" license of Windows 2008 Server. A good example of this is Vista SP1 bringing IIS 7.0 features to match the server equivalent of Windows 2008 Server IIS 7.0. This is pretty important if you are targeting hosting your application in IIS 7.0.
Picture from Tim Sneath's article on comparing IIS 7.0 before SP1 (left) and after SP1 (right)
Why should you care about IIS 7.0? IIS 7.0 has huge performance improvements over previous IIS verions, security improvements, new features, etc. This article is not about how great IIS 7.0 is. Needless to say, it is a platform developers need to start considering more when designing their architecture/hosting strategies. Microsoft also recently announced a service release to IIS 7.0 which will be included in Windows Server 2008 R2. One of the key enhancements to this version is the ability to support multiple CLR versions at once (.NET 4.0). This will obviously be a big change that developers need to worry about. Furthermore, Microsoft announced during the PDC 2008 that some of the features of WCF 4.0/WF 4.0 will require WAS (Windows Process Activation Service). Therefore, having an OS that will support some of these features will be critical for developers to be able to develop, publish and test their work locally.
The question does remain: Will Vista get all of these new changes and get all future IIS enhacements or will they eventually be rolled into Windows 7 only? There is a service pack 2 slated for Vista later this year. So my guess would be that it's safe to assume that the recently announced service released to IIS 7.0 (7.5 ?) will probably be rolled into that service pack for Vista.
Important Note: You do have to be very careful which version you purchase of Vista/Windows 7 in order to enjoy all the benefits of IIS 7.0 on a workstation OS. This is a good link to the features in IIS 7.0 available on Windows 2008/Vista. As you can see, the Ultimate/Business versions of the OS pretty much have all the features that Windows 2008 IIS 7.0 offers.
64-bit computing (Vista & Windows 7)
64-bit versions of Microsoft's products have been around for a while now. However, older 64-bit OSes (i.e., Windows XP) gained little traction because of limited driver support and the hardware back in 2001 was limited in 64-bit offerings. This has all changed recently because almost every recent server/workstation hardware is 64-bit compatible. Furthermore, 64-bit OSes are much more stable and have a greater range of support. Vista and Windows 7 do a great job of supporting 64-bit on a workstation.
The biggest benefit of running a 64-bit OS is that you gain more addressable memory and can actually utilize more than 4 gig on your laptop/workstation. This can be a huge performance boost if you're running memory hogs like IIS, virtual machines, SQL Server, etc. Furthermore, certain enterprise applications love what 64-bit offers. For example, some of the tests I ran on SQL Server 2005/2008 show that 64-bit vs 32-bit gains an extra 10-15% in performance. For people who run really large systems (i.e., data warehouses with large amounts of data), this can add up to minutes/hours of processing time saved.
64-bit is the current platform for enterprise applications. There is no extra cost for the 64-bit premium and as I mentioned before, almost all current hardware is already 64-bit compatible. Application architecture seems to be the only road block preventing 64-bit adoption and it is a no-brainer for new projects. This is also important as some of Microsoft's enterprise applications are 64-bit only (i.e., Microsoft Exchange) and in the near future, this trend will continue. I could see some version of SQL Server/WCF/WF/Biztalk in the near future to be only available for 64-bit processes, and you do not want to have a development environment that can't handle it.
Virtualization (Vista (basic) & Windows 7 (full))
Virtualization used to be a buzzword a couple of years ago. Now its benefits are coming into fruition big time via enterprise support and implmentations. I remember a few years ago being at the SQL Server 2005 launch event and noting how Microsoft stressed that all their presenters were presenting for the first time with the same exact Virtual PC image. The beauty of this was one single image set up properly with all the necessary demos was distributed to all the presenters and all they had to do was fire it up and they knew exactly where everything was (no self-installing or maintaining their own software). This is a trivial example of how virtualization can help a company succeed in delivering a conference; but virtualization's key benefit: isolating environments and making them deployable to multiple workstations.
Windows 2008 Server x64 allows you to host Microsoft's software virtualization implementation called Hyper-V. What makes Microsoft's virtualization offering unique is that it is essentially a free add-on ($27.00 extra per OS license) to Windows 2008 Server rather than a hardware/software investment from vendors like VMWare. Vista SP1 does allow you to manage Hyper-V with an add-on and this obviously allows you to connect/manage different virtual image settings.
However, Windows 7 will take virtualization to the next level. Anyone who has played with Microsoft virtualization offerings can note that local images are stored as VHD files. Essentially, what users have done before is they have been able to copy this VHD file and load it almost like an application from their current OS. The downside of course is that your main OS has to allocate its share of resources and the image takes up a lot as well. In Windows 7, users will be able to directly boot to a VHD bypassing loading their main OS. It will be essentially like having another OS partition available (only this one will be virtual).
If Microsoft can streamline the configuration and booting process, this will be a huge win for them in the virtualization space. Microsoft already releases a lot of their beta products with virtual machines. A great example of this is the Visual Studio 2010 (.NET 4.0, VS Studio, C# 4.0, WCF 4.0, etc.) image. The entire environment is already pre-installed for you and ready to go for you to test out. This example can be taken much further. In your specific companies, you can deploy full-blown developer environments to their local workstations with all the software pre-configured. I always have these conversations with developers; "works here fine" or "blows up on this machine, don't know why". Having the ability to create and isolate a development environment correctly once and deploy it to all your developers is a big win for productivity. Vendors like VMWare already allow you to do this; however, with Windows 7/Windows 2008, the ROI of virtualization will be far greater.
Windows 7 and Windows 2008 have kernel enhacement changes made to their OSes, so they understand running hyper-v/virtual images without loading the whole OS. Windows 7 developers won't have to load an entire OS and then load a large image and carve out large amounts of resources to run that VM (i.e. 2 gig of RAM). This should make running virtual images very performant and a very attractive way to distribute external/internal development environments.
DirectX (Vista and Windows 7)
For Gaming & Multmedia Development
DirectX is a set of APIs offered by Microsoft for multimedia and game programming. DirectX is a good example of how Microsoft gets into the game and simply crushes the competition. Since the last few versions, there is no other framework that includes all the multimedia features that DirectX does.
Well before Vista's release, Microsoft was touting how they were adding a new fresh DirectX 10.x that was fully re-written and I heard interviews with product managers claiming 50% performance improvements. Seemingly, just like everything in Vista, this fell well short of the enhaced expectations. Since then, Microsoft announced DirectX 11 which will be available for both Vista and Windows 7 OSes. DirectX 11 is really exciting because it includes true multi-threading support (I was really suprised that DrectX 10.x doesn't do this really well). This is probably going to be the biggest performance boost to gamers: All higher-end gaming rigs are now quad core (or better in the future) processors.
If you are not a game/multimedia developer, you probably don't care about this too much. However, if you are in the gaming industry, this is obviously a cornerstone of picking the proper development OS. However, having said that, what true hardcore developer isn't a gamer at heart? I know that right next to all my SDKs and APIs, I have just as many cutting-edge games installed. Crysis on my 2560x1600 30" monitor looks really nice :)
WPF for example leverages DirectX as its rendering engine for some of its tasks. I am not sure how this will progress as new versions of WPF materialize (.NET 4.0). But it is probably safe to assume that some of the effects/shaders you will be able to use in WPF will probably rely on DirectX specific versions. A good example of this is the WPF Effect Library which uses the DirectX engine's pixel shaders for some neat effects. Currently, you do not need Vista/Windows 7 to execute these effects. However, DirectX 10.x includes Pixel Shader 4.0 and DirectX 11 includes Pixel Shader 5.0. Obviously, as the pixel shaders include more capabilities, it is safe to assume some of these effects will be consumed by WPF. Therefore, you will eventually need a higher level shader in order to do some of the more advanced effects.
Clear example of Pixel Shader advances (2.0 vs 3.0)
This is also something to note for Silverlight developers as in Silverlight 3 we are supposed to get "hardware" acceleration and 3D support. The easy way to achieve this is by using DirectX engine under the covers. However, for compatibility, this would probably kill a lot of Silverlight's features on a Mac. I don't know if there is more information on this, but it is something to look out for if you are a WPF/Silverlight developer.
Windows Azure (Windows Vista & Windows 7)
Windows Azure is Microsoft's Web/Cloud OS that was announced at the PDC 2008 in October. Windows Azure combines cloud storage in Microsoft DataCenters with several enterprise services. Applications created for Windows Azure can be consumed via the web or on the desktop/mobile devices via an Azure client. This is not meant to be an intro to Azure; however, if you want to quickly get a high level understanding of what Azure is all about, I recommend checking this article out: Windows Azure - Breaking It Down.
To get started with Windows Azure, you need to install the Azure SDK (The full version is currently under private beta). The catch is that you need Windows Vista SP1 in order for this to work. There is a great thread here that explains the details, which essentially boils down to having certain IIS 7.0 processes "simulate" the cloud environment. Included there is also a link from someone who was able to get it to work on XP. Obviously, the supported version is only for Windows Vista SP1 currently (and eventually Windows 7).
Note: Windows Azure is a brand and what it will exactly include is still up in the air. Not everything is based in Azure. For example, certain parts of Azure and features like Live Services DO NOT/will not have a requirement of Vista/Windows 7. However, trying to guess what those items are months before Azure is released is anybody's guess (maybe except at Microsoft). Microsoft is moving more and more things into the "service offerings". For example, last week (January 23rd) Microsoft announced that the ProClarity BI product (which allows end users to build Dashboards/Analytics/Scorecards) will essentially be moved as a service under SharePoint. Maybe Microsoft offers a similar service for Azure developers (?)...kind of how Google allows users to use analytics/BI for Google Analytics.
There are obviously numerous other examples and productivity enhancements included with Vista and Windows 7 for developers. Windows 7 performs much faster than Vista in most benchmarks. It will include a new TaskBar which is programmable for minimizing clicks, etc. If you are a driver/SDK developer for a particular OS, having the OS installed is obviously a no brainer in these kind of situations. Windows Vista also includes additional cryptography enhacement. All these things are important; however, they seem to be geared towards a smaller developer audience.
Jump Lists in Windows 7 (imagine Visual Studio 2010 or other dev products with nice lists)
Windows 7 is going to build on a lot of features that Vista already includes for developers. Many of these features already exist in Vista and Windows 7 will merely enhance them. If you are working with Vista, you can take advantage of many of these features. Development shops on Windows XP need to seriously evaluate their upgrade paths for their next OS. Vista is a good choice if you want to get started on any of these new upcoming technologies (i.e., Azure). However, waiting for Windows 7 might be a better choice as it will extend the next time an upgrade is required in the OS lifecycle. Windows XP is clearly showing signs of a "semi-supported OS". Microsoft likes to suppport the latest two versions of any product. Once Windows 7 comes out, developers have to be very cognizant of this that the new upcoming beta/SDK might simply not work in their Windows XP environment.
Windows 7 - Should a developer invest in the upcoming OS?
Windows XP or earlier: You need to plan for this accordingly as XP will be missing some big features geared toward .NET developers in the short term. Upgrading to Vista/Windows 7 is largely a personal choice (if a consultant) or a corporate choice (if on a work computer). Not upgrading to a "current" OS also presents the developer with the danger of any new upcoming SDKs or even the .NET framework future versions not being supported.
Windows Vista: Windows 7 simply enhances some of the features previously introduced in Vista. If you are on Vista, you won't gain much as a developer in terms of pure features. However some of the virtualization, performance and possible IIS 7.5 extensions might warrant an upgrade at least on your second development environment.
Note: Uses who purchase a computer with Vista after July of 2009 will get a free upgrade coupon for Windows 7. Furthermore, I recommend any developer to attend Microsoft's launch events. I have gotten a couple licenses of Vista Ultimate this way, they are given away to attendees for FREE amongst other software. Microsoft recently started giving away software (full versions) about 3-4 years ago at their events.
Silverlight 3 - What we Know So Far & What We Can Predict (Part 3 of 4)
Silverlight 3 Platform Stack - Part 3 Part 1 - Silverlight 3 Announced Enhacements Part 2 - Silverlight 3 Development Stack Part 3 - Silverlight 3 Integration with the Microsoft OS and Platform Stack Part 4 - Silverlight 3 vs Flash and the iPhone
In Part 1 of this short series, I looked at what we know so far about Silverlight 3 from what has been announced by Microsoft. In Part 2 of this series, I take some educated guesses as to what and how Silverlight 3 will be released in relation to the development environment. In Part 3 of this series, I am going to take a look at the upcoming Silverlight 3 platform stack and how it will evolve to push Silverlight as THE leading RIA for business applications.
A little history/background about .NET in relation to Silverlight
For those not familiar with .NET or those who have not been programming in .NET until recently, this will be some good background information that will set the precedent for a lot of my platform predictions. .NET was formally released by Microsoft as a developer platform back in 2002. In those days, a lot of top gurus argued that .NET 1.x was not really adding any value to the development experience. The arguments were that it wasn't really revolutionary and a lot these concepts had been done before (and were being done better by other languages like Java). Some predicted that .NET wouldn't even be able to compete with Java and Microsoft was yet again copying rather than innovating.
A few years changes A LOT :) Java is way behind in language features compared with .NET and .NET now is everywhere in the Microsoft stack. How did this happen? What many naysayers failed to see was Microsoft is more than just a software company with a couple of products. They offer products that range from mobile phone apps to platforms that run the biggest companies in the world. This is the exact way that .NET CLR went from a simple developer language/framework to being the core runtime across the board at Microsoft (Yes, I know MS still uses C/C++ for OS/SQL, etc). Seemingly all new applications are written in .NET and many of the older C applications all have .NET level based APIs. What does this mean? This essentially means that if you want to extend/enhance/be more productive with the Microsoft platform, you will most likely be utilizing the .NET CLR. A lot more can be written about this, however this core concept of how Microsoft made .NET a huge success plays into on how I think Microsoft can make Silverlight technology the premier RIA technology.
Silverlight 2 Current Platform vs Silverlight 3 Possible Platform
As you can see, Silverlight 2 (released in October 2008) has a limited platform stack. As of today, SharePoint 2007 content can be extended with Silverlight 2. Furthermore, the Windows Azure SDK (in private beta) supports the Silverlight 2 environment. I added it in a slightly different color because it has not been formally disclosed whether Silverlight 2 or Silverlight 3 will be the fromal version for Azure. Note: For those that do not know, Windows Azure is the Microsoft Cloud OS announced at the PDC 2008. On the right-hand side, you see my predictions as to where Silverlight 3 will expand. I am going to go through each item and list my predictions as to how Silverlight can be used.
SharePoint & Web Parts
SharePoint is Microsoft's collaborative platform. The current version of the platform is SharePoint 2007 (which extends the free WSS 3.0 that comes with Windows Server OSes). It was announced SharePoint was the fastest Microsoft product to grow into $1 billion in revenue. Many businesses are installing SharePoint to place their internal documents, HR, financial/accounting, business intelligence, etc., systems into one consolidated portal. SharePoint allows for a rich programming model with WorkFlows, SharePoint Designer, web parts and other APIs. This allows developers to provide custom content that might not be available OOTB or via 3rd party solutions. One of the ways you can extend SharePoint is with web parts using the web part framework.
SharePoint is all about sharing data easily with a simple drag & drop (no programming) interface. Right now a lot of the data exposure objects are essentially derivatives of ASP.NET grids presented nicely with Ajax magic. For the most part, they work really well and are highly performant. However, they could definitely benefit from some Silverlight integration. For example, filtering/sorting/uploading documents can be brought down to the Silverlight client and improve the interactivity and performance.
Web Part Framework
The web part framework was introduced in ASP.NET 2.0. This allowed ASP.NET developers to introduce portal/modular functionality that started becoming more popular with Web 2.0. The web part framework was also introduced into SharePoint 2007 as well and the same API can be used to create web parts. The Web Part Framework allows you to create web parts for both SharePoint and/or native ASP.NET. You have an option to use the web part class from either the SharePoint framework or the ASP.NET framework. The nice thing about using the ASP.NET framework web part class is that it will work in both SharePoint and ASP.NET, while using the SharePoint class limits your web parts to only work in SharePoint. I prefer to use ASP.NET web part base classes as it gives you much more flexibility and the SharePoint web part classes only give minimal additional features.
Silverlight & SharePoint/Web Part Framework
The nice thing about web parts is that they can use a number of different technologies. They can use plain vanilla HTML code. They can use ASP.NET controls with postbacks. They can use a combination of Ajax capabilities. Obviously, they can be extended to us Silverlight as well. This is a real powerful extensibility, as you can write a Silverlight application/module with minimal design considerations for SharePoint. A web part wrapper can be written for the Silverlight web part that essentially consumes the XAP file and integrates with the web part framework. This can add capabilities such as personalization properties, consume SharePoint lists/libraries, web part connections, feature deployment, etc.
Silverlight & web part design
Now you can provide a very rich UI for your SharePoint data
This is very powerful extensibility of SharePoint to essentially add RIA. Of course, you could have done this Flash/Flex; however, you can write everything in one single .NET language, single environment and a consolidated development environment. The next version of SharePoint or Silverlight 3 will probably get formal support for SharePoint. It would be pretty cool if you could simply just point to a Silverlight XAP file that implements an interface for basic communication and everything just worked. Hopefully, in the near future we get this functionality. Furthermore, Silverlight web parts provide additional features like "low postback design" and can offload some of the processing on the client thereby improving performance.
Windows Azure is an OS from Microsoft announced recently at the PDC 2008. The unique thing about Azure is that it is a "cloud OS". This means all the services, data and all the backend "stuff" lives in Microsoft data centers. Windows Azure is compromised of several services that work together and make up the total platform. Currently, the Windows Azure platform is in beta and you can request an SDK to write Azure enabled applications.
Services that make up the Azure platform
Silverlight and Azure
Cloud computing is the new buzzword in the industry. This has been done by other vendors, even very well like Amazon's S3 service. Microsoft (like always it seems) is late to the game. However, Microsoft as a latecomer has to do things a little different. A few things that make Microsoft's venture into cloud computing unique is that several of these services that make up Azure are first class services from enterprise products (SQL Server, SharePoint, Dynamics CRM). Powering all of this is the .NET framework. However, one uniqe aspect is that Microsoft also owns UI technologies like ASP.NET, Silverlight, WPF, and Surface that can be used to display these cloud services. Silverlight's small footprint and being a web plug-in play a big part in it being a great choice as a UI.
Upcoming Live Mesh Applications can use vanilla Ajax or Silverlight Web Applications
Jonas Follesoe has a great article on creating a Silverlight application in the "cloud". Furthermore, this also moves the "fit client" (i.e., Adobe AIR) rumor from a probably to highly likely for Silverlight 3. I can't stress how much different this is from other cloud computing initiatives by the other big players. Microsoft has an entire UI technology that differentiates itself from simple data storage like Amazon and it has the power of mature platforms like SQL Server, SharePoint and Office running some of the service offerings.
"No current player in cloud computing has this combination of a mature development framework (.NET), desktop-like UI (Silverlight), mature services (SQL Server, SharePoint, Office) and data storage"
What is really nice about Microsoft's initiative is that going from an idea or business concept to going live on a fully scalable framework that can reach millions is really simple now. During web 1.0, a lot of money had to be invested in the web infrastructure and this is why startups that were global had to raise tens of millions of dollars to just start up. With web 2.0, hardware became cheaper and a lot of companies actually could afford to completely outsource all of their server maintenance to a host provider. A very good example of this was YouTube, who at the time of being bought by Google had approximately 300 servers on RackSpace. With Web 3.0/cloud computing, this is further abstracted as you are not hosting on "servers" from a development perspective. As a cloud developer, you are writing these services and they are materialized somewhere on the server but you don't really care about it. Not having to worry about OS/hardware intricacies directly obviously makes creating applications much faster.
SQL Server 2008 R2/2010
SQL Server 2008 was released last year and not many additions were made to the tools which are largely based on the tools rewritten for SQL Server 2005. For those that work with the full SQL Server stack, it is a lot more than just a place to store your data. SQL Server comes with rich Busines Intelligence, Reporting, Data Transformation capabilities, etc. A lot of competitors and non-database vendors have moved ahead of Microsoft in the end user tools area. Microsoft tools are largely geared towards the developer and this needs to change. Some of the examples we see that Microsoft is seeing the pressure in this regard is the new user friendly Report Builder in SQL Server 2008 or the new self-service Business Intelligence application that Microsoft is planning for the next version of SQL Server, codename Kiliminjaro/Gemini. I think Microsoft can add Silverlight in key areas of SQL Server and catch up or pass competitors in these areas.
Charts & Graphs (make them interactive with Silverlight 3)
You can make pretty charts in SQL Server 2008, but wouldn't it be cool if they were Silverlight based and highly interactive?
SQL Server 2008 currently allows you to create rich reports using Dundas Visualizations. These visualizations are nice but they are highly static (no animations or interactivity). Competing vendors like Panorama have added Flash charting capabilites to their end user reports which are animated, interactive, spacial, etc. This is an area where I see Silverlight being added to enhance products like Reporting Services, Report Builder or PerformancePoint Server. That would be a real powerful addition to the SQL Server stack.
RIA charts for your data
If you have done any kind of business intelligence development, dashboards are a great way to present a huge mountain of data in an easy-to-understand way. There are different types of dashboards with distinctions on their intended audience (i.e., executives) or their functionality (i.e., what-if scenarios). There are products by other vendors that can tie to SQL Server data and do this already. One great product is offered by Business Objects called XCelcius . This product allows executives or senior management to answer questions like, what happens to my margins if the cost of fuel goes up 20%? The person can get the answer immediately and not have to drill down or reference other reports or data sets. It is real powerful information. Evolving a product like this into Silverlight makes perfect sense.
What-If profitability analysis in Business Objects XCelcius (Click the picture to try the demo out)
You can write applications like this right now in Silverlight and tie it via services to SQL Server. However, this requires a significant development effort. It would be much easier if this were a simple drag and drop feature inside SQL Server Report Builder. Adding Silverlight 3 in key places to SQL Server can bring the data to life and make it a lot easier for end-users to consume, analyze and deliver insight.
XBOX 360 & Zune
The XBOX project is finally starting to pay off for Microsoft. While it is being outsold by the Wii, it is beating the Sony PS3 handily. The XBOX 360 has probably one of the best online experiences and the online arcade is great. It is the only major console that allows hobbyist developers to add their own games via the XNA Framework. The concept of Microsoft spreading .NET everywhere rears its head here. Recently the 3.0 version of the XNA framework allows developers to publish their games to the Zune as well. While it is nice that hobbyists can post their games on the XBOX arcade (after it is verified by the community) and make some money off of the game, they are still geared towards the young male audience.
Apple has perfected the micro/casual game devliery and micro payments on the iPhone
The iPhone market has really opened up the ability to deliver a new genre of games to the mobile market. These games are simple and they cost usually very little compared to large console alternatives. Apple has a huge opportunity here and is gearing up to take on Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft in the gaming market from a different angle, and there are some articles already creeping up about new GPUs and multi-core firmware which could add significant processing power to the iPhone. On the web you can see sites like http://www.miniclip.com or http://flashgames247.com/ that get millions of hits per year that target the casual games. If you have an iPhone or have visted these sites, these games are not really complex, offer any revolutionry AI or have breathtaking graphics. However, these games do provide one key feature and that is delivering quick entertainment on the spot. Furthermore, casual gaming has a much larger audience than your 12-28 year old male that can include families, older generations and - dare I say - women :)
In Part 1 of the series, I wrote about Silverlight 3 heading for mobile devices. Couple this with the Azure framework and you have a technology that can be used to compete with Apple and in the casual gaming market. Look at how popular games like Rock Band or other party games bring families and/or friends together. These types of casual games that can be delivered to the user via the XBOX brand have a huge potential. Silverlight 3 is gearing up to be faster via rendering, hardware acceleration and adding 3D support. Microsoft is one of the leaders in the gaming arena and with the Xbox brand name, it can expand its market into micro/casual games with Silverlight 3.
"Silverlight 3 as a potential gaming framework is a perfect alternative to the current Apple iPhone model that can reach audiences on the web, Xbox 360, Zune and mobile devices."
Note: In Part 4 of my series, I will look at how Microsoft shapes up competively against Adobe and Apple in this space.
Windows Mobile 7
Windows Mobile is one of the less successful product lines being offered by Microsoft. In terms of innovation and market share, it is far behind the leaders. Even when Microsoft is not a leader in the mass-market, it makes up for it in the corporate market but not for mobile devices. Blackberry is way further in the game. I made the jump as well. I moved from my Windows Mobile 6.x phone in favor of an iPhone recently and love it. Having said that, Windows Mobile 7 is promising to be multi-touch and feature a full browser and essentially compete with the iPhones and BlackBerries of the world.
Silverlight fits the mobile world real well. Anyone who has an iPhone has enjoyed the ease and power of the AppStore. For users, it's great. You have access to thousands of applications which are very reasonably priced (fall into the micro-payment category). However, for developers and app publishers, it's a whole different game. Apple only provides SDKs on the Mac platform. You have to program in their language/framework and they JUST recently lifted the NDA on being able to talk about iPhone programming....a big WTF :) Apple also vehemently opposes Flash to be installed on the iPhone. Many people wrongly assume it's a technology obstacle. It's more of a "owning everying on the iPhone" model. If Flash can be run on an iPhone and I come up with a stupid FlashLight app for $.99, Apple doesn't get its cut and you also bypass the "store firewall" called iTunes.
Some screens of a Windows Mobile 7 Theme (from screens that were leaked)
Silverlight on a Windows Mobile 7 platform can do a couple of big things: by providing an open development platform analogous to the AppStore and enabling many web apps to be run on a mobile phone. If Microsoft pursues this route, they can very easily gain a lot of users. That is one of the nice things currently about Windows Mobile. You can go out to a third party site and download an application and off you go. It does sacrifice in ease of use because of needing to install the application while being connected to your PC. Silverlight 3 being a web plug-in obviously changes all this. Furthermore, it was announced during the PDC 2008 that Silverlight Mobile will run off of the Silverlight desktop codebase.
"Silverlight 3 is a very attractive framework as you write the code once, and it works on mobile, desktop and fit client applications all at once."
In the near future with all of the XAML based frameworks (WPF, Silverlight, Microsoft Surface) integrated into a single XAML codebase will be a huge productivity boost. Imagine having to write one set of code for your application and you can automatically distribute it to the web, desktop, Azure cloud, mobile devices and multi-touch screens. That is a very powerful concept that Microsoft can potentially hold has as their ace card.
I saved the least interesting concept for last (least interesting at least to me). Boxed software is actually facing a huge crossroads now. Software like Office (Word, PowerPoint, etc.) and Photo Suite (Adobe PhotoShop) have traditionally grown over the years by throwing in more and more features. Over the last few years, people have been asking themselves, what am I paying for when I only use 20 features? For me, a couple of real examples actually re-enforced this point. I was on a website a while ago where you selected the features you need from MS Word. Over 70% of these features I never heard of or knew what they did. After you were done selecting, the website told you what version of Office you could get by with. After the quiz, the site recommended Office 97/2000. As you can see, the recent versions are simply feature-gloat and don't really add anything to the normal users. Another example is from a study of people who were self-described "Office Word Gurus". These people were from publishing backgrounds, etc. The study found even self-described power users only really used about 25 core features of the entire product. This obviously goes on to show that these traditional feature-gloat software needed to become simpler and cheaper to use if they want to remain relevant with casual/infrequent users.
Google has been quick to jump on this potential and have released Google Docs, a marketed free alternative to Microsoft Office. I personally think it's neat and simple to create documents pretty fast and access them from anywhere. It's not enough to replace a Word processor for me (I use OpenOffice 3.0 by the way). Adobe has done the same has placed some of the core features on the web of the graphing suite. Microsoft is late to the game (as always). However, they are going to roll with "Office Web" soon. This is going to be a web version of the Office Suite and live in the Azure Cloud utilizing a lot of the Office Services in Microsoft data centers. What can potentially make the Office Web product a lot nicer is the UI technology behind it. Having a Silverlight based UI is simply a lot better than just a HTML/Ajax UI. This is where I think Silverlight 3 can be used to enhance the product. Furthermore, it can also spur further adoption of the Silverlight framework. Microsoft has made the right decision in not REQUIRING Silverlight for Office Web. However, Silverlight will enable some additional content and improve things like rendering. Note: Office Web is not out yet formally and neither is Silverlight 3. This is why I am guessing this will be based on Silverlight 3 rather than Silverlight 2.
Office Web (Word) shown at the PDC 2008
As you can see, Silverlight 3 has the potential to spread throughout the Microsoft platform like a virus -- just like .NET started out with a wimper back in 2002 and now it's in every single API that Microsoft releases. I am willing to bet that Microsoft is already implementing a lot of these ideas and using the power of Silverlight as a web/cloud/mobile/desktop UI to enhance the funtionality and competitiveness of their products. Microsoft stands uniquely positioned to take advantage of Silverlight because of their deep platform of products. While Silverlight 1 and 2 were simply playing catchup to Flash/Flex, Silverlight 3 will be different. The upcoming spread of Silverlight version 3 and beyond across Microsoft products will become an important piece not only to the users but to developers as well who will be able to take advantage of the numerous features the framework will provide.
Note: In Part 4 of the series, I will take a look at what this means for Silverlight vs Flash/iPhone.