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November 18 2011

Developer Week in Review: Adobe sends Flex to Apache

Although Turkey Day is less than week away, things have been distinctly Labor Day-ish around here, at least as far as the weather goes. Following the Halloween snowstorm, it's been mild and sunny, T-shirt weather.

Today is when my day job company does their annual Thanksgiving lunch, with all the fixings. So, before I become comatose from starch overdose, here's a look at the week that was.

Apache and Eclipse: The Salvation Army of software

FlexIt seems as if a week doesn't go by without a major donation of remaindered code to an open-source foundation. But even recent large donations, such as Oracle's donation of Hudson to Eclipse, are dwarfed by the announcement this week that Adobe is donating the entire Flex SDK to Apache.

Considering Adobe's announcement last week that it plans to drop mobile support for Flash in favor of HTML5, this isn't completely surprising. However, the speed with which Adobe is moving to divest itself of its Flash assets is somewhat breathtaking. By shedding Flex in this way, Adobe can concentrate on building its HTML5 portfolio without leaving existing Flex developers out in the cold.

Donating obsolete products to open source is a commendable effort, and one I wish more companies would undertake. Beyond allowing developers to tinker with the code and improve the product, it also can be a valuable teaching tool (either in a best-practices or bad-example function). Unfortunately, patent encumberment and corporate paranoia make it difficult to do.

This year, Thanksgiving dinner includes Raspberry Pi

Raspberry PiOne of the reasons that the Arduino has become such a popular Maker platform is that it's so cheap; if you hose one, you're only out $20 or $30. Unfortunately, they're also pretty primitive, both in terms of memory and how you have to code them. You can buy a Beagle board or similar kin, which can run Linux, but those are fairly expensive.

The Raspberry Pi is an attempt to create an affordable single-board that can run Linux and interface to consumer-level components. The organization building it just celebrated a milestone, finishing the final cut of the first-gen printed circuit board (PCB) design. This raises hopes that the single-board computer (SBC), with a price projected in the same range as Arduinos, may be available in the near future.

The Pi runs standard Linux ARM distributions, has a USB connector and HDMI out, and if it works as planned, should become the go-to board for homebrew hardware projects. The Arduino is a nice board, and it will continue to have an advantage for those who want pin-level I/O access. It shouldn't be hard to jigger up a cheap USB-based general purpose input/output (GPIO) breakout board, however, so this advantage is likely to be fleeting.

Skynet v0.1 is now operational

People hoping for the eventual enslavement of humanity by sentient machines got good news this week. Researchers at MIT reported the development of a chip that contained 400 neuron-analog circuits. Unlike digital switches, these new circuits mimic the ion channel mechanism that is found in the brain.

The MIT team claims that the work will lead to better understanding of brain processes and the development of prosthetics, but we here at DWIR know the real truth. We have photos of Siri entering the building through a back door, and a witness claims to have seen a large man with an Austrian accent in the vicinity, looking for a student named Sarah Connor. Claims that the Tech Square parking garage control system refused to open the gate for anyone named Dave are still being investigated.

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

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November 10 2011

Developer Week in Review: Adobe raises the white flag on mobile Flash

To err is human, to err publicly is just plain embarrassing. I ran an item in last week's review that turned out to be kinda stale news. How stale? Well, it dated back to the last Bush administration. That stale ...

Moving forward, I'll try to avoid posting "classic" developer news, and keep things on the cutting edge. Such as:

Flash - 0, HTML5 - 1

Flash and HTML5For a long time, it appeared that Adobe Flash was going to become the de facto mobile application development platform. Apple's intransigence to adopt Flash on mobile Safari was considered a major knock against Apple, and when Apple opened the door to AIR-based iOS native apps, it was seen as Apple caving in to the desire for Flash developers to be able to deliver their apps onto iOS.

Somewhere in there, however, HTML5 came along and stole Adobe's lunch money. Adobe appears to have moved on to Kübler-Ross stage five, and has accepted that HTML5 has trounced Flash, at least in the mobile arena. The company has signaled to their employees that moving forward, Flash will not be supported on mobile platforms.

This is a much bigger story than just mobile, however. Mobile web traffic now accounts for 7% of the total, and is growing at a rate of nearly 1% every three months. As tablets become more popular, this number may skyrocket. Web content providers are unlikely to commit to developing web pages that can't be used well by such a growing demographic, and publishers/developers are likely to shift from Flash to HTML5 for RIA development. Adobe has a leg up on other tool chain providers because it has rich integration into tools such as Photoshop and Illustrator, but it will have to fight to keep this position.

On the mobile app side, Adobe can try to promote the AIR-to-native path, but it's going to be competing with a growing number of "write-once, run-everywhere" companies such as Appcelerator, as well as companies that choose to simply develop natively.

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

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Working toward the one-language-per-developer ratio

Frequent WIR readers will know that I'm no fan of language dilution, the process wherein new languages are developed and promoted with such frequency that software engineering becomes a Tower of Babble. It seems like a necessary step in the developing hubris of an organization that it decides to have the one true language that will make life a programmer's paradise. Google has done this several times, most recently trying to replace JavaScript. Now, the normally staid Eclipse foundation has joined the fray with Xtend.

Extend joins C# in the "looks just like Java, if you squint" language camp. The good news is that as a JVM-based language, it can share libraries with Java, so it's not starting from scratch. New code created in Xtend can be used by Java developers. But still, do we need another pretty-close-to-Java language? I spend my days coding alternately in Java and Objective-C, and the cognitive dissonance set up as I switch back and forth can generate major cranial pain. Is it 'this' or 'self'? Do I send a message with a dot or by putting it inside brackets? It's much easier to switch between languages that share nothing in common because it's the small differences that screw you up. Xtend is going to be another language close enough to one I already know to make me go nuts remembering the deltas between the two.

Because it's the only shape that can't fall into a manhole, that's why!

Work long enough in the industry, and you'll end up interviewing for a company that thinks trivia and brainteasers are a good way to test applicants. Increasingly, companies seem to think that tests and code challenges are the best way to find the "best of the best." Neil McAllister has an interesting essay in InfoWorld questioning if this really leads to the desired outcome.

I tend to agree, somewhat. Tests that require an applicant to pull obscure or advanced knowledge out of his or her head aren't good tests because they are essentially memory exercises. The best "challenge-style" test I ever had was when I applied for a job at ITA, now (ironically) a part of test-junkie Google. They sat me down in front of a system with carte-blanche Internet access and the ability to install any tools I wanted, and to use any language. Then, they presented me with a heuristic challenge: as I remember, it was to find all the possible anagrams of varying lengths you could find in a provided dictionary.

What I liked about this test was that the company seemed interested in my process, rather than my ability to immediately churn out the right answer. I sat with my minder for several hours, refining the code, adding features that he requested — much more like pair programming than a pure test. At the end of the day, they knew how I worked, how I found things I didn't know or remember, and my coding methodology. It was time-intensive, but much more useful, to my mind, than knowing why manhole covers are round.

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November 03 2011

Developer Week in Review: The hijacking of an insulin pump

A future batch of kindlingIt was a great week at the Turner household! Although we love our house, we've frequently said to each other, "You know what we could really use? A 25-foot-long tree limb wrapped in power lines blocking our driveway." Well, this weekend mother nature decided to help us fill this void in our landscaping, and threw in some ornamental cherry firewood as well (chainsawing not included). Thankfully, I spent the extra bucks on Saturday to get our LPG tank topped off, so I've got generator power for 10-14 days. Given we're on day four with no power in sight, that was a good decision.

It could have been worse, of course. For example ...

A scene from an upcoming technothriller

Plucky researcher Ann McManna walked across the room toward the podium, ready to reveal the details of the fiendish plot she had uncovered to the waiting reporters. Now the world would know about the conspiracy to corner the world supply of macadamia nuts. Her heart pounded with excitement, her mouth was dry and she perspired, in spite of the air conditioning that was making the room practically an ice box. As she approached the stage, she bumped against a table, stumbling and suddenly having trouble seeing her path through blurry eyes. Something was wrong, but she couldn't focus, couldn't identify what was happening to her, even as she collapsed to the ground. Minutes later, the paramedics would close the eyelids of her corpse.

Some fanciful invention of Tom Clancy or Robin Cook? Not anymore, thanks to research by McAfee's Barnaby Jack, presented at this year's Hacker Halted conference. Using some custom software and a special antenna, Jack was able to control Medtronic insulin pumps as far as 300 feet from the controller. He was able to disable the tones that warn a user that insulin is being pumped, and trigger a 25-unit bolus of insulin. In some circumstances, this could kill a victim.

As networked computers appear in more life-critical items, this is a good reminder that security should be job No. 1, not something to think about if you have time. Too many proprietary device manufacturers seem to depend on security through obscurity, rather than security in depth.

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

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The first taste is free, but you'll be back

One of the perils of depending on public APIs from for-profit companies is that they may get turned into a profit center down the road. Users of the Google Maps API learned that lesson recently, as Google announced that high-volume users will no longer have free access to the APIs starting next year. Before you start panicking, the definition of high-volume will be more than 25,000 calls a day (2,500 if you use the custom styling features), and the rate over 25,000 is $4/1,000 calls. Google claims that less than 1% of all users will run up against this limit.

The problem with using beta or "free" services in your products is that, unless the terms of use specifically say that it will be free forever, you have no contractual agreement to lean on, and the provider is able at any point to change how (or even if) the service is provided.

Linus Torvalds vs. C++

Linux progenitor Linus Torvalds has a reputation for diplomacy and fence building — that's practically the only way to herd the stampede of cats that is the Linux developer community. But when he gets upset, the results can peel the paint off the walls.

We got a good example this week, as Torvalds responded to a complaint about the fact that the git source control system was written in pure C, rather than C++. In a nutshell, Torvalds called C++ a lousy language that attracts substandard programmers and leads to sloppy, unmaintainable code. In general, I tend to take any blanket condemnation of a programming language as hyperbole, but Torvalds seems to genuinely loathe C++. We'll have to see if his anger against the language alienates any of the kernel developer base, or if people will just shrug it off as Linus being Linus.

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October 26 2011

Developer Week in Review: These things always happen in threes

Fall is being coy this year in the Northeast. We've been having on and off spells of very mild, almost summer-like weather over the last few weeks. That trend seems to be finally ending, alas, as there is possible snow forecasted for the weekend in New Hampshire. As the old joke goes, if you don't like the weather here, just wait five minutes.

The fall also brings hunting to the area. The annual moose season just concluded (you need to enter a special lottery to get a moose permit), but deer season is just about to open. My son and I won't be participating this year, but we recently purchased the appropriate tools of the trade, a shotgun to hunt in southern NH (where you can't hunt deer with a rifle) and a Mosin Nagant 91/30 for the rest of the state. The later is probably overkill, but my son saved up his pennies to buy it, being a student of both WWII and all things Soviet. Hopefully, he won't dislocate his shoulder firing it ...

Meanwhile, in the wider world ...

John McCarthy: 1927-2011

It's been a sad month for the computer industry, with the deaths of Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie already fact. Less well known, but equally influential, AI pioneer and LISP creator John McCarthy passed away on Sunday. McCarthy was involved in the creation of two of the preeminent AI research facilities in the world, at MIT and Stanford, and he is generally credited with coining the term "artificial intelligence."

LISP has had its periods of popularity, peaking in the 1980s, but it's never been a mainstream language in the way that C, FORTRAN, BASIC or Java was. What people tend to forget is just how old LISP really is. Only FORTRAN, COBOL and ALGOL are older then LISP, which came on the scene in 1958. Many of the concepts we take for granted today, such as closures, first saw light in LISP. It also lives in the hearts of Emacs and AutoCAD, among others, and LISP is the language used in much of the groundbreaking artificial intelligence work.

On a side note, when I first met my wife and told her I was involved in the AI field, she gave me a truly strange look. She had a BA in animal science, you see, and in that field "AI" stands for artificial insemination.

Velocity Europe, being held Nov. 8-9 in Berlin, will bring together the web operations and performance communities for two days of critical training, best practices, and case studies.

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Someone finally admits the dirty truth about the GPL

If you listen to Richard Stallman, the GPL is all about being a coercive force that will eventually drive all software to be free (as in freedom.) Those of us who watch such things have noticed that it has a paradoxical effect, however. Companies like MySQL (now Oracle) use it the same way that drug dealers offer free samples to new customers. "The first one's free, but you'll be back for more." In other words, they get you hooked by offering a GPL version, but cash in when you want to use their product for commercial purposes because the GPL is too dangerous for most companies.

Now, python developer Zed Shaw has brought the GPL's dirty little secret into the light of day. In a particularly NSFW rant, Shaw explains why he chooses to use the GPL these days. In short, it's because he's sick of developers at companies getting to be heroes by using his stuff and getting the glory. "I use the GPL to keep you honest. You now have to tell your bosses you're using my gear. And it will scare the piss out of them." He goes on to say that he's using the GPL as a stick to force companies to pay him to use his software.

This goes right to the very core of the debate about what free/open software should be about. Is it a tool to make all software free? Is it a way to allow "good" people (i.e., non-commercial users) to have access while punishing "bad" people (professional developers)? Personally, I'm thrilled that Southwest Airlines uses a Java library I created for another client years ago and open sourced, but evidently some people (especially those who aren't getting paid to maintain open-source projects by a day job) want to get paid for their efforts.

I find the logic a bit questionable. I don't see a lot of difference between a free software developer who holds corporate users' feet to the fire and a commercial software developer. Sure, it still allows hobbyists and educational users to use the software for free, but it's actually acting to discourage companies from getting involved in FL/OSS by encouraging the wrong model. When companies use open-source software in their products, they are more likely to contribute back to the project and to open source other non-critical code they produce. If they are paying a developer for it, they are much less likely to contribute back.

The Steve Jobs movie: I predict lots of people walking and talking

With the Steve Jobs biography currently sitting at the top of Amazon's bestseller list, Sony Pictures is wasting no time getting a film adaptation underway. The current buzz is that Aaron Sorkin, creator of the West Wing and winner of the Academy Award for his adaptation of "The Social Network," is on the short list to write the screenplay.

It would be interesting to see how Sorkin would tackle Jobs' story, full and complex as it is. One approach might be to leave out the '80s, already covered to some degree in "Pirates of Silicon Valley," and concentrate instead on his youth and the last 15 years of his life. One can only hope that the technological details are not hopelessly mangled in an attempt to make it accessible.

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October 21 2011

Developer Week in Review: Talking to your phone

I've spent the last week or so getting up to speed on the ins and outs of Vex Robotics tournaments since I foolishly volunteered to be competition coordinator for an event this Saturday. I've also been helping out my son's team, offering design advice where I could. Vex is similar to Dean Kamen's FIRST Robotics program, but the robots are much less expensive to build. That means many more people can field robots from a given school and more people can be hands-on in the build. If you happen to be in southern New Hampshire this Saturday, drop by Pinkerton Academy and watch two dozen robots duke it out.

In non-robotic news ...

Why Siri matters

SiriIt's easy to dismiss Siri, Apple's new voice-driven "assistant" for the iPhone 4S, as just another refinement of the chatbot model that's been entertaining people since the days of ELIZA. No one would claim that Siri could pass the Turing test, for example. But, at least in my opinion, Siri is important for several reasons.

On a pragmatic level, Siri makes a lot of common smartphone tasks much easier. For example, I rarely used reminders on the iPhone and preferred to use a real keyboard when I had to create appointments. But Siri makes adding a reminder or appointment so easy that I have made it pretty much my exclusive method of entering them. It also is going to be a big win for drivers trying to use smartphones in their cars, especially in states that require hands-free operations.

I suspect Siri will also end up being a classic example of crowdsourcing. If I were Apple, I would be capturing every "miss" that Siri couldn't handle and looking for common threads. Since Siri is essentially doing natural language processing and applying rules to your requests, Apple can improve Siri progressively by adding the low-hanging fruit. For example, at the moment, Siri balks at a question like, "How are the Patriots doing?" I'd be shocked if it fails to answer that question in a year since sports scores and standings will be at the heart of commonly asked questions.

For developers, the benefits of Siri are obvious. While it's a closed box right now, if Apple follows its standard model, we should expect to see API and SDK support for it in future releases of iOS. At the moment, apps that want voice control (and they are few and far between) have to implement it themselves. Once apps can register with Siri, any app will be able to use voice.

Velocity Europe, being held Nov. 8-9 in Berlin, will bring together the web operations and performance communities for two days of critical training, best practices, and case studies.

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Can Open Office survive? logoLong-time WIR readers will know that I'm no fan of how Oracle has treated its acquisitions from Sun. A prime example is OpenOffice. In June, OpenOffice was spun off from Oracle, and therefore lost its allowance. Now the OpenOffice team is passing around the hat, looking for funds to keep the project going.

We need to support Open Office because it's the only project that really keeps Microsoft honest as far as providing open standards access to Microsoft Office products. It's also the only way that Linux users can deal with the near-ubiquitous use of Office document formats in the real world (short of running Office in a VM or with Wine.)

The revenge of SQL

The NoSQL crowd has always had Google App Engine as an ally since the only database available to App Engine apps has been the App Engine Datastore, which (among other things) doesn't support joins. But much as Apple initially rejected multitasking on the iPhone (until it decided to embrace it), Google appears to have thrown in the towel as far as SQL goes.

It's always dangerous to hold an absolutist position (with obvious exceptions, such as despising Jar Jar Binks). SQL may have been overused in the past, but it's foolish to reject SQL altogether. It can be far too useful at times. SQL can be especially handy, as an example, when developing pure REST-like web services. It's nice to see that Google has taken a step back from the edge. Or, to put it more pragmatically, that it listens to its customer base on occasion.

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October 13 2011

Developer Week in Review: Two giants fall

My apologies for the lack of a Week in Review last week — I was taken by the seasonal plague that's going around the Northeast, and spent most of the last week in a NyQuil haze. Fun bonus fact: Did you know certain prescription drugs inhibit the function of the CYP2D6 enzyme, which means that you can't metabolize Dextromethorphan (aka Robitussin)?

Thankfully, I was able to pull myself up from my sickbed and get my order in for one of those newfangled iPhone 4S contraptions. It's currently sitting at the UPS sorting facility in Kentucky. The faster processor and Siri are nice, but for me the big attraction is the 64GB of storage. I was always bumping up against my current 32GB iPhone 4's disk limit.

On to the Review ...

So long Steve, and thanks for all the apps

iOS App StoreAt this point, pretty much anything I could say about the passing of Steve Jobs has been said so many times already that it would be irrelevant. I was fortunate to see him in person once, at the last WWDC, but like many people, I've followed his career for years. I have somewhat of a unique perspective because I worked at Xerox AI Systems in the mid '80s, selling the Xerox Star (and later Dandelion) with Interlisp, and got to use the Xerox Alto at the MIT AI lab before that. In other words, I was able to use what pretty much became the Mac before the Mac existed.

It was a tremendous source of frustration to those of us who worked at Xerox that the company seemed to have no clue what an incredible breakthrough the Alto and its successors were. Obviously, Jobs had significant amounts of "clueness" because he raided the mouse and GUI wholesale from PARC, and a good thing he did, or we'd still be using CP/M.

One important legacy of Jobs is the App Store model. If you owned a Windows Mobile or Palm device at the turn of this century, you know what a mess it was to get applications to run on them. Until the App Store came along, you either had to hunt around the web for interesting things to run on your smartphone, or you were at the mercy of what your carrier chose to allow. The App Store created both a distribution model and an even playing field for independent and large software makers alike.

Web 2.0 Summit, being held October 17-19 in San Francisco, will examine "The Data Frame" — focusing on the impact of data in today's networked economy.

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Goodbye to Dennis Ritchie

The other significant passing we have to mark this week is Dennis Ritchie, father of C and one of the brains behind Unix. It's no exaggeration to say that if you had walked into any programmer's office in the early '80s, you would have probably found a copy of "The C Programming Language" on the bookshelf. Between C (which begat the majority of the modern languages we use today) and Unix (ancestor of Linux, BSD, Solaris, OS X, iOS, and countless other POSIX spin-offs), Ritchie has likely influenced the computer field more than any other single individual in the last 50 years, Donald Knuth included.

Ritchie was a veteran of Bell Labs, the organization we have to thank for fostering the innovative environment that let him be so creative. I'd be hard pressed to find an organization today that is offering that kind of fertile soil, out of which so many beautiful flowers bloomed. Jobs may have been the flashier showman, but he never would have gotten off the ground without the contributions Ritchie made.

Worst reply-all ever?

We got a rare view into the inner workings of Google this week, thanks to an inadvertent broadcasting of a long rant by long-time Google employee Steve Yegge. Yegge accidentally made his short-story-length critique of Google's API policies public on Google+, letting the world know how he felt.

While it will be interesting to see if Yegge's posting turns out to be a career-limiting move, what's more interesting is the insight it gives us into the problems Google is facing internally. Yegge's main complaint is that Google doesn't eat its own dog food when it comes to APIs. He particularly singles out Google+ as an example of a product with almost no useful APIs, and charges Google with developing products rather than platforms.

Those of us who have been frustrated with Google's inability to implement "simple" things like a consistent single sign-on infrastructure would tend to agree.

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September 29 2011

Developer Week in Review: Android proves fruitful for Microsoft

The ball has finally dropped at Apple, and we know that October 4 is the big day that iOS 5 and some undisclosed subset of iPhone devices will be unveiled. Oddly, developers still haven't received the Gold Master of iOS 5, which means that Apple is cutting things close if it wants to give people time to update apps in the store, not to mention those of us who have to revise books once the NDA lifts on iOS 5.

So, while we wait for Godot Tim Cook, let's see what other mischief is afoot.

Royalties for Redmond

As we've reported previously, one of the big winners in the growth of Android has been Microsoft, as phone manufactures have been lining up to pay royalties to Redmond to avoid patent lawsuits. Samsung joined the fray this week, agreeing to pony up a reported $5 per phone to stay out of court.

In light of this, Google's purchase of Motorola Mobility is looking less and less wise. The widely held view was that the sale was intended to shield Android-based phones behind Motorola's rich patent portfolio, but every major player is caving into Microsoft anyway.

Between the squeeze play on Android and the long-standing siphoning of Linux revenues from companies such as Novell, Microsoft seems to be following a business plan reminiscent of a certain Monty Python sketch.

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders.

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SPARC? Oh yeah, I remember that ...

SPARC T4Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, the absolutely hottest thing you could have on your desk was a Sun-4. The SPARC-based systems were leaps and bounds ahead of anything else in their price range, except perhaps for some esoteric hardware from Silicon Graphics (remember them?)

Time has not been kind to the SPARC, alas. Sun's hardware market share shrank as people discovered that Linux on cheap hardware could give a better bang for the buck, and the entire venture was eventually swallowed by Oracle. The conventional wisdom was that Oracle bought Sun largely for its hardware line, and there was some confirmation of that this week. While much of the rest of Sun's holdings have been left to languish or spun off entirely, Larry's gang has evidently been busy with hardware. The SPARC T4 is the result.

The problem is, while the T4 brings some modern features like out-of-order execution to the SPARC line, these are things that other processor families have had for a decade or more. While it may staunch the flow of former SPARC customers defecting to x86 systems, it's unlikely to gain many new converts. And as any Harvard MBA can tell you, a business model based on not losing existing customers is not a formula for success in the long term.

Might want to rethink those voting machines (and the people who use them)

We've been hearing for years that direct recording electronic voting machines are potentially hackable. With a powder-keg election forthcoming, it was therefore not reassuring news this week that researchers at Argonne National Laboratory were able to totally subvert the voting counts on Diebold voting machines, simply by installing a $10 circuit between a ribbon cable and the connector. Since Diebold machines are not tamper resistant, this means that pretty much anyone with the technical savvy to create the device could hijack the polls.

I see this as part of a larger problem in the computer industry — an almost blind belief that technology can solve social problems in isolation. People seem to think that making government data transparent or turning to social networking can solve society's ills. In reality, the things that need to be re-engineered are the people. The best software in the world won't make people give up irrational belief systems, or stop hating others (be they red state or blue) because they're different. And as long as hate, intolerance and ignorance run wild, technology will be as likely to be used as a weapon as a solution.

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September 23 2011

Developer Week in Review: webSOS

On the developer front, if the growing tide of rumors is correct, there will be some iOS stuff to report next week.


Last one out turn off the lights

HP WebOSHP has flung the axe, and it has taken out a large swath of the ill-fated webOS crew. HP is confirming that development will cease by the end of the year, reducing the number of viable mobile operating systems down to two again (Blackberry is heading the way of webOS, and Windows Mobile has an uphill battle at this point).

Is hegemony in the mobile space a good thing? Maybe, maybe not. It's good for mobile developers, as it reduces the number of potential platforms you need to consider. It could be bad for consumers, as it reduces the pressure on the remaining players to innovate. However, given that neither HP nor Microsoft nor RIM was pushing the envelope much with their products, that might not be a valid concern. And, frankly, Google and Apple do a pretty good job of stealing ideas from each other — witness the new Android-like notification framework in iOS5.

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders.

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An (un)sign of the times

JavaOne of the joys of Java development is dealing with signed jars. For the uninitiated, Java Archives (jars) can be signed, "proving" that the contents inside are valid and untampered. Among other things, it is how the Java Web Start framework decides which Java programs can be automatically downloaded and started from a web page. Getting your jar file signed correctly is a delicate dance, and getting it wrong means that the applications will just plain not work.

Seemingly out of the blue, Oracle has started to remove the old Sun signatures from some core Java libraries that many developers depend on. The end result of this is that, going forward, it will become more difficult to deploy applications that use these frameworks. Oracle is saying it was done for security reasons, but as with many moves by Oracle lately, the end result has been to upset the developer community.

Creating the next generation of coders?

One of the paradoxical phenomena that seems to be occurring in society is that, even as technology is becoming more and more a part of people's lives, programming is being marginalized in the public schools. Instead, kids are taught how to use Excel or Powerpoint (God knows, my kid is a Powerpoint wiz!).

In the UK, they've decided to turn things around by making software design a part of the curriculum. You can make a strong argument that software engineering brings in skills from a lot of other disciplines like math and science, so it makes a good integrated teaching experience. On the other hand, my experience has been that public schools are uniquely bad at teaching coding because they try to teach it by rote, when it is at heart a creative process. It's like trying to teach painting by telling the students exactly where to place every brush stroke. Only time will tell if the UK can do it any better.

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September 15 2011

Developer Week in Review: Windows 8 Developer Preview goes public

As automobile engines get more complex, the software that runs them has a correspondingly greater chance of doing something bad. Case in point, in summer 2009 I got a check-engine light on my Civic (also known as the $400 light ...). When I brought it in, I was told my catalytic converter was shot, and I'd need a new one to the tune of $1,250. Fast forward two years, and I receive a letter in the mail informing me that there was a tiny lil' software glitch in the oxygen sensor routines, and I didn't really need a new catalytic converter after all. I can send in the bill, and and they'll refund me for the service.

Embedded software engineering is a particularly demanding discipline since it usually involves making complex things happen in tight spaces with little power under extreme environmental conditions. As my catalytic converter incident demonstrates, it also can be a very expensive one for a manufacturer if done incorrectly. Props to Honda for stepping up and making good on the snafu, however.

Of course, not all software runs in confined quarters. Take for example:

Get yer Windows here

Since the dawn of time, the only way to get early releases of Microsoft software (and especially operating systems) was to be a member of their somewhat pricey Microsoft Developers Network (MSDN). If you joined, of course, you got pretty much everything in the world shipped to you on DVDs, but the rest of us had to wait for the official release to get our paws on the products.

Not surprisingly, this has led to a lot of bootlegging of early releases, many of which had malware slipped in as an added bonus. Perhaps to head this off with Windows 8, Microsoft has taken the surprising step of making a publicly downloadable version of the first early release available. That's right, anyone is free to grab a copy and install it or stick it on a VM, and take it for a drive.

Making a public alpha available also serves to drum up excitement for the new release, something that Vista and Windows 7 lacked. So did I install it? Silly question, children, of course I did. I'd give it an initial grade of "meh." Microsoft gets points for radically changing things, including better full-screen app support (that looks surprisingly like Lion ...), and changing the Start menu to something more like Launchpad. But on the other hand, I found it pretty garish, and some things seem to have been changed just for the sake of change, like putting the address bar on the bottom of the browser.

You don't need to take my word for it. Grab a copy and see for yourself.

Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science — from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively.

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Yet another emerging language ...

Somewhere, deep in the bowels of Google, a cabal of developers is trying to overthrow the world by promulgating so many new languages that we descend into madness. Remember Go?

Well, the latest in their mad scheme is Dart, which will be offered up next month as an intended replacement for JavaScript on browsers. Never mind that we've just started to get enough standardization of JavaScript that you can write meaningful AJAX code without having it be 90% conditional logic for the various browser dialects, now Google evidently wants to throw the whole thing out and start from scratch.

At some point, isn't it time to step back and ask someone to stop the madness? It seems like a new language springs up every week these days, and I have to ask what is so bad with the ones we have? You know, the ones that Portal 2, Photoshop, Eclipse and many other outstanding software products were written in? The continual fragmentation has got to stop. Unless, of course, Dart is really cool ...

Patent news that's not about a lawsuit

In a perfect world, a developer news summary should never have to deal with the patent system. In the one we're stuck with, though, patents have become the sledgehammer that software concerns use to beat each other around the head and neck with. The proliferation of bad patents has made software development a minefield, where any new product almost certainly infringes on some junk patent.

It is with great joy that I report that a new patent reform bill is about to be signed into law, and it will solve all of our — oh, never mind.

The legislation heading to President Obama's desk does pretty much diddly over squat to fix the broken United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The major change is a shift from "first to invent" (where companies get to dig through their engineering notebooks to prove that they came up with the idea first) to a "first to file" system, where the first person to get the patent through the door wins.

What's missing is a provision allowing the USPTO to keep the money it raises so it can pay for enough personnel to actually do the job properly. Instead, patent fees will continue to flow into the general fund, while overworked patent office examiners rubber stamp questionable claims and make life interesting for those of us who create code.

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September 09 2011

Developer Week in Review: iPhone 5 is still on hold

Ah, a new school year. It's the time when my wife disappears into her office, not to be seen again until the late spring unless she sees her shadow. My son is grumbling about 60-question math homework assignments, and all the melancholy I feel during the summer about being the only family member on the clock fades away since I actually have the lightest schedule now. Revenge is sweet ...

If you've been in a late-summer haze, here's a few items you may have missed.

Bigfoot sighted using iPhone 5

iOS 5The predictions in August were that the iPhone 5 (or 4S, or whatever it's going to be called) would be announced in early September. Then it was going to be mid-September, and now people are talking about early October. Now, I'm as much of an Apple fanboy as the next guy, but this obsession about the new phone seems to border on the absurd. I've only had my iPhone 4 for a year — I'm not even sure I would upgrade to a 5 unless it cures cancer or something.

The only real reason to speculate about the iPhone 5 ship date is that it will probably coincide with the general release of iOS 5, which definitely is something to talk about, if only to other people who have signed the developer NDA. I mean the ... no, I can't talk about that. But the ... no, can't mentioned that either. Anyway, it's wicked cool, trust me.

Your comprehensive legal roundup

HTCLast week, everyone sued everyone. This item will repeat for the foreseeable future.

Of particular interest is that HTC is using patents acquired from Google to strike back at Apple. The patent war is becoming reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis — I expect to hear a statement from Oracle HQ any day reporting a suspected transfer of patents from Apple to Google and vowing a blockade unless the lawyers turn back at once.

The Makers are coming, the Makers are coming!

For those who live on the East Coast, your annual chance to get your geek on is coming up next weekend. Maker Faire New York will be returning for a second year at the NY Hall of Science, and it's well worth the trip. I went with my son last year, and we'll be back this year as well.

It's a great chance to see programming integrating with the physical world on a much more practical (or impractical) level than developers are accustomed to. If you've spent your life designing ecommerce websites, it can be refreshing to see a pair of honking-big computer-controlled Tesla coils blaring out music. It's also a Mecca for embedded computing and micro controllers, so if you like programming on the small scale, you'll see a lot to enjoy. If you happen to run into me there, say hi!

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September 01 2011

Developer Week in Review: HP fires up the TouchPad production line one more time

Dear Waters Near Africa,

I know that you're very proud of the tropical depressions that you raise, and I'm sure that watching your "little babies" develop must bring you a lot of joy. It pains me to tell you, however, that one of your offspring, I think her name is Irene, went on a bender last week and totally trashed our coast. And if that isn't bad enough, I hear you have another little hellion called Katia eyeing our back yard with malice. If you can't control your children, I'm afraid we're going to have no choice but to call the police, or possibly NOAA, and ask them to do something about the situation. Thanks.

You can help my personal disaster recovery program (hey, propane for the generator doesn't grow on trees, you know ... well, actually, it did a few million years ago ...), by buying my new book, now available in early release. Read the book that helped Oprah lose weight, landed Gwyneth Paltrow her first acting gig, and got Barack Obama elected. While we can't promise the same amazing results for you, it does have a lot of good stuff in it about enterprise iOS development.

In non-flood-related news ...

At Crazy Bill Hewlett's House of Tablets, we're giving them away!

HP TouchPadWhen HP called it quits on its attempted iPad-killer, the TouchPad, most folks chalked it up to another attempt by an industry dinosaur to become one of the hip new kids. And it was no surprise that HP tried to clear its inventory by fire-saling the remaining inventory at a bargain-basement price.

What has everyone scratching their heads is that, as TouchPads disappeared off shelves at the low, low price of $99, someone over at HP decided it made sense to restart the production line and make more units to sell at the same discounted price. Given that the best estimates show HP losing around 200 clams per unit at that price, the company seems to be pursuing a somewhat questionable business model.

It may make sense if HP is trying to build interest in WebOS in front of a potential sale to buyers such as Samsung, though at least some buyers of the discounted units seem more interested in hacking them to run Android rather than stay with the native OS. In any event, if you're interested, run out and get one before the last run sells out ... Unless HP decides to do another last run ...

There's a joke about geese leaving the nest here, somewhere

Google has a history of acquiring big names in the industry to enhance its prestige as a leading software research organization. When Google hired James Gosling, who is considered one of the fathers of Java, it was seen as another feather in its cap, adding to a cadre that includes such notables as Mac pioneer Andy Hertzfeld (most recently responsible for designing the Circles feature in Google+) and Vim developer Bram Moolenaar.

It appears that for Gosling, Google wasn't so much a destination as a rest stop, however. After only a few months on the job, he's flown the coop, off to join a new startup designing autonomous ocean-going robots. If I had to guess, I'd say that Gosling decided he'd rather be a big fish at a small company solving a challenging and cool problem, as opposed to being part of a brain trust at a large one. Hey Google, I'm still available!

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Apple lost another phone?

While you're pondering the wisdom of HP, here's another puzzler to chew on. If you had just gotten over the embarrassment of having one of your top-secret product prototypes left in a bar, and ending up in the hands of Gizmodo, wouldn't you make doubly sure that you kept track of where the next ones went?

Well, evidently, there's a lot of after-hours drinking going on at Apple because, once again, a next-gen iPhone became separated from its owner at a watering hole.

The more cynical among the press have suggested that it's actually all just a publicity stunt, though given that the police were brought in, I tend to doubt it since filing a false report is not a trivial charge. I blame the new iPhone Drinking Game App in iOS5. You know, the one where you have to take a drink whenever you pull out your phone to settle a trivia dispute at a bar.

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August 26 2011

Developer Week in Review: End of an era

The week of the apocalypse continues here in the Northeast. It began with an earthquake that rocked homes from Washington to New Hampshire, and continues with a major hurricane running up the coast toward New England. Anyone out there offer Plague of Locusts insurance coverage?

So long, and thanks for all the cash

Steve JobsIt was inevitable, and somewhat sad, but we knew he would have to step down eventually. He helped define the geek culture of the last decade, and things won't be the same without him. Yes, Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda has stepped down at Slashdot.

What? Someone else resigned this week?

Yes indeed, if you aren't living under a machined aluminum rock, you've heard that Steve Jobs has stepped down as CEO of Apple, leaving Tim Cook to hold the reigns. This is good timing, in my opinion, since we all knew it was just a matter of time before Jobs would have to leave, and doing it in a controlled and non-urgent fashion lets people get used to a non-Jobs Apple.

The magic question in everyone's mind is: Did Jobs sufficiently infuse his ethos into the corporate culture to keep Apple "insanely great" after his departure? I, for one, believe that he did. What will be interesting to see is if Jobs continues to do show and tells, or if Cook will take over that role. Will we still get "one more thing"? I guess we'll find out at the widely rumored early-September presser for the next iPhone.

Fly the Angry Bird skies

Sky Chart Pro screenIf you're a private (or commercial) pilot, you probably have one arm that's significantly longer than the other, stretched by years of carrying your "brain bag" around. For an instrument-rated pilot, the weight of dead trees that must be lugged around is truly staggering, and keeping all the manuals and charts up to date is a nightmare. Not surprisingly, many of the commercial carriers would like to spare their pilots from potentially crippling back injuries, and with an agreeable nod from the FAA, some carriers have started using tablets (mainly iPads) to replace much of the printed material.

This may lead you to wonder why pilots are allowed to use iPads in the cockpit while you have to turn yours off for takeoff and landing. The answer has nothing to do with electronic interference. The real reason is that takeoff and landing are when most accidents occur, and it's a good idea not to have a bunch of potential projectiles sitting in people's laps.

It's fairly amazing how well iPads work for aviation. I'm not an active pilot anymore, but I plugged a Bad Elf GPS into my iPad 2 before my vacation to California and used Sky Charts Pro to "play along at home." It made me jealous because I would have killed for that kind of high-quality moving map experience when I was doing my instrument pilot training.

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The TouchPad has a price on its head

If you could use a little spare cash, have we got a job for you. All you have to do is port Android to the HP TouchPad, and a cool 20 Benjamins can be yours. Now that HP has scuttled their WebOS efforts, early TouchPad adopters are left wondering if they've purchased a pricey doorstop. As a result, there's a bounty out for the first person or group to get a stable Android build onto the device.

Oddly, no one has taken up my bounty of an easy two bucks to anyone who can port Android onto my Timex Sinclair.

Photo: Steve Jobs photo from Apple Press Info.

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August 18 2011

Developer Week in Review: Google Goes Yardsaling

This is the city: Los Angeles, Calif. Every year, millions of tourists flock to this Mecca of stardom and glamour, hoping that some of it will rub off on them. Sometimes they're geeks. My name is Turner. I carry a MacBook.

This is your somewhat delayed Developer Week in Review, coming this week from the Mondrian Hotel in Hollywood, a place where the laws of reality have become so distorted that paying $6 for a can of soda has actually begun to seem reasonable. There was no WIR last week, as I was trapped in an alternate universe full of hotels with Wi-Fi connections slower than dial-up. 20kb/sec, swear to God!

We're wrapping up our West Coast trip this week, a vacation that has been warped somewhat by the presence of my 16-year-old son. Certainly, if my wife and I had been traveling alone, we would not have taken a ride on a Nike Missile elevator in the Marin Headlands, or toured a WW2 submarine. Not that I'm complaining, our side-trip to the LA Gun Club this week to shoot semi-auto AK-47s and AR-15s was definitely a blast (pun intended).

All your patents are belong to us!

Google and Motorola MobilityContinuing the massive arms buildup of patent portfolios being waged among all the smartphone makers (with the exception of RIM, which seems content to take the role of Switzerland in this war), Google has assimilated Motorola. In addition to super-sizing Google's intellectual property assets in the mobile space, it also places Google in the role of a direct competitor to the other Android licensees. Until now, Google produced what were essentially engineering development platforms, but no real consumer products. Now that Google owns the DROID (the Motorola version), they're suddenly in the position of having a strong pre-existing consumer channel.

On one hand, the acquisition makes a lot of sense. Motorola is a pioneer in the mobile space, and the purchase gives Google a lot of ammo to fend off the increasing spate of patent lawsuits being lobbed its way. On the other hand, Google is now trying to sell the Android operating system to companies that it will be selling against. While it's great to talk about how Android will remain open, the reality is that once Google is fighting for market share with companies like HTC, you have to believe the relationship will become strained at best.

Will a Kzinti invasion be next?

In another case of fiction predicting reality, the last few weeks have been host to a series of social-media-organized protests, which at least in England quickly transformed into riots. Philadelphia and Cleveland fell victim to less widespread but still serious incidents of violence, and San Francisco shut down cell phone service in one BART station after word of a planned protest emerged.

None of this should be surprising to aficionados of classic science fiction, who will recognize the flash mobs now appearing as an eerie echo of the flash crowds described by author Larry Niven in his "Known Space" series. Niven used cheap teleportation as the mechanism that brought large groups of people together at the site of interesting events, but social media is proving to have an equally powerful, if more localized, affect.

Niven also predicted that the presence of a crowd would attract people whose only reason to be there is to take advantage of the chaos to loot and cause mayhem. The big question now is, how much restriction will we accept in this new medium to prevent future occurrences? We are already seeing draconian censorship and invasion of privacy as a result of the battles against child pornography and music piracy, will this be the next battlefront?

Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science -- from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively.

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Pimp my language

While it seems there's a new emerging language every week, lots of developers are still being productive members of society with the old programming warhorses. But that doesn't mean a language can't get an "Extreme Makeover: ISO Editor"! Case in point, C++ moved into the new decade with the acceptance of the C++ 11 specification.

The new standard brings O-O concepts such as lambda functions and improved type coercion into the language, and it should make the lives of developers still maintaining existing C++ code much more bearable in the future. One must wonder which old-school language will be the next to get a fresh coat of paint. As the old joke goes, if they ever add O-O to COBOL, they'll have to call it add one to COBOL.

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August 03 2011

Developer Week in Review: Lion drops pre-installed MySQL

A busy week at Casa Turner, as the infamous Home Renovations of Doom wrap up, I finish the final chapters of "Developing Enterprise iOS Applications" (buy a copy for all your friends, it's a real page turner!), pack for two weeks of vacation with the family in California (Palm Springs in August, 120 degrees, woohoo!), and celebrate both a birthday and an anniversary.

But never fear, WIR fans, I'll continue to supply the news, even as my MacBook melts in the sun and the buzzards start to circle overhead.

The law of unintended consequences

Lion ServerIf you decide to install Lion Server, you may notice something missing from the included software: MySQL. Previous releases of OS X server offered pre-installed MySQL command line and GUI tools, but they are AWOL from Lion. Instead, the geek-loved but less widely used Postgres database is installed.

It seems pretty obvious to the casual observer why Apple would make this move. With Oracle suing Google over Java, and Oracle's open source philosophy in doubt, I know I wouldn't want to stake my bottom line on an Oracle package bundled with my premiere operating system. Apple could have used one of the non-Oracle forks of MySQL, but it appears they decided to skirt the issue entirely by going with Postgres, which has a clear history of non-litigiousness.

Meanwhile, Oracle had better be asking themselves if they can afford to play the games they've been playing without alienating their market base.

South Korea fines Apple 3 million won, which works out to ...

Apple has bee been hit with a penalty from the South Korean government that's a result of the iPhone location-tracking story that broke earlier this year. Now, Apple may have more money than the U.S. Treasury sitting in petty cash right now, but it will be difficult for them to recover from such a significant hit to their bottom line: a whopping 3 million won, which works out to a staggering ... um ... $2,830. Never mind.

Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science -- from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively.

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Java 7 and the risks of X.0 software

Java 7 was recently released to the world with great fanfare and todo. This week, we got a reminder why using an X.0 version of software is a risky endeavor. It turns out that the optimized compiler is really a pessimized compiler, and that programs compiled with it stand a chance of crashing. Even better, there's a chance they'll just go off and do the wrong thing.

Java 7 seems to be breaking new ground in non-deterministic programming, which will be very helpful for physics researchers working with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. What could be more appropriate for simulating the random behavior of particles than a randomly behaving compiler?

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July 28 2011

Developer Week in Review: Linux turns the big 3.0

I have been informed by the contractors, currently starting in on bathroom renovation No. 3 at our house, that my official designation is "Houston." This is because, pretty much every day, they call me at work and say "We have a problem." If you think patching bugs in legacy code written by someone who has left your company is bad, try getting work done on a 215-year-old house.

While the rest of the O'Reilly family is out cavorting in the wilds of Portland at OSCON, a few of us must tend the fires back East, and keep the rest of the world informed on what's going on. Such as ...

The new Linux is out, the new Linux is out!

LinuxIt used to be, when COBOL developers roamed the Earth, that a new release of the Linux kernel was a cause for much excitement, especially something as momentous as a new major version. Can anyone every remember when Linux 1.x became Linux 2.0? Here's a hint, it was 15 years ago.

But times have changed. Very few people install a Linux kernel directly anymore. Most get them through the distribution they have chosen. And for people who have embedded versions of Linux, they may not have the slightest idea what version of the kernel they're running. Ask a random sampling of HTC Android users what kernel is installed, and you'll probably get a blank stare (here's a cheat sheet, if you're interested.)

Adding to the ho-hum nature of the 3.0 release is that fact that there's really nothing special in it, by Linus' own admission. He just figured it was time to stop endlessly adding to the 2.0 version tree, and get a clean start on the 3's. With the 20th anniversary of the famous Linux Letter coming up in late August, now is probably as a good a time as ever to put the terrible twos to bed for good.

Here's a fun question to ponder, though: How many build scripts that assume "2.6.X" or "2.X.X" as a Linux version number are about to break?

Hoist with their own petard

It behooves people to remember, in this day and age, that the things they say and write may come back to haunt them. Thus, when trying to make the case that the Android operating system is an unholy misuse of Java, it would have been good for Oracle to remember that there was a letter floating around from 2007 in which Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz offers Google a warm greeting, and pledged to work aggressively to cooperate with Google on Android.

There's a certain sweet symmetry in Oracle's battle against the search engine giant being potentially derailed by material from deep in the web's archives. It was legal eagles at Groklaw who uncovered the letter, but I'm sure there was much Googling involved in finding it.

Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science -- from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively.

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You have to admire Lodsys' ambition

Not content with suing the smaller fry of the iOS and Android ecosystem, patent "leveragers" (I'd use a less kind word there, but my editor would just change it ...) Lodsys has taken their patent fight to some truly big fish. In new legal action, Rovio (the makers of "Angry Birds"), EA, Take Two Interactive ("Grand Theft Auto") and Atari have found themselves in the defendant box.

The continuing suits, which revolve around in-app purchases, could prove an interesting line in the sand. Apple has licensed rather than litigated in the past, but the signs so far are that Apple (which already paid Lodsys once for the use of the patents) has decided that enough is enough. By dragging big players such as EA into the fray, Lodsys may be making the same mistake that SCO did when they dragged IBM and other large corporations into their Linux litigation. Big companies have large legal teams, and at some point, Lodsys may find themselves worse off than if they had just taken their money and run.

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July 20 2011

Developer Week in Review: Mobile's embedded irony

Happy Lion day! For those of the Mac persuasion, today is a milestone, as Apple wraps the odometer around again, kicking it over to 10.7. Also, our favorite Penguin (and brother in POSIX arms) turns 20, complete with birthday wishes from Redmond. Many happy returns!

Free mobile OS, but with a patent surcharge

Microsoft continues to look for new and innovative (or old and litigious) ways to make money, and one of them is to squeeze Android handset manufacturers for a reported $15/unit in patent fees for every phone sold.

The irony stings sharp here. Android may be an open source operating system, but in order to actually buy an Android phone, you need to pony up patent money to the king of the closed source OS, Microsoft. And since (except for legal fees) Microsoft has no costs associated with the production of the unit, it's 100% pure profit for Microsoft.

If you want to buy an HTC Droid phone, the story is getting even worse, because the ITC decided that HTC violated several Apple patents. That's likely to lead to a similar arrangement with Apple.

Meanwhile, Blackberry (you remember them) is quickly becoming the also-ran of the mobile market, with a new survey showing a dismal 4% of potential buyers are now considering a Blackberry. This, combined with unconfirmed reports that the Blackberry PlayBook is in trouble, seem to point toward Android and iOS being the safest developer platforms for the near future.

On the other hand, Apple is now so successful that not only are the Chinese cloning the products, they're cloning the stores!

Like fine wines...

As my eligibility for AARP looms, it's good to know that my value as a developer is continuing to climb, at least on average. That's the conclusion of a recent study, which found that older developers tended to have higher reputation values on StackOverflow.

This confirms a suspicion that I've fostered for a while, which is that for those developers who bother to keep up with the new stuff (the study showed that the population of developers decreases rapidly as they age), having a wide range of knowledge and broad experience does in fact have value.

Of course, part of the problem is that older developers tend to get sucked into management or transformed into architects, and some just don't have the passion to keep up with the latest hot technologies. But if you can stick with it, and if companies are willing to recognize that more mature developers have value, the stigma of the older developer being put out on the ice to die may become a myth. Meanwhile, keep the heck off my lawn, you young punks!

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders.

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git thee to a nunnery!

The git lovefest continues to swell this week, with Google Code adding git to their list of supported SCMs. With the move, Google achieves parity with well-known sites such as github and SourceForge, and gives developers looking for a place to call their project home yet another option.

Meanwhile, on the theory that you can never have enough standards, a new distributed source control system called Veracity is sticking its head out of the nest. I hate to squash innovation, but with git, Subversion, Mercurial and even cvs all fighting to be the One True source control system, isn't adding another one just playing into the tyranny of choice paradox?

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July 15 2011

Developer Week in Review: Christmas in July for Apache

Only a few weeks left until OSCON. Alas, I won't be making it this year. I'm taking a few weeks with the family in August to drive down the California coast, and with a major software delivery coming up at work, I just don't have the time for another trip out west. So raise a glass for me, it looks like it'll be a blast.

Meanwhile ...

IBM hands off Lotus Symphony

It seems like everyone these days is in a gifting mood these days, and the various open source foundations are the benefactors. Sun gave OpenOffice to Apache, Hudson went to Eclipse, and now IBM has left a big bundle of love on Apache's doorstep containing Lotus Symphony, with a note asking Apache to give it a good home.

It makes sense for IBM to make the gift, since Symphony was built on top of OpenOffice. Speculation abounds that Apache will merge the Symphony codebase into the mainline OpenOffice source, creating the One Office Suite to Rule Them All (but remember, one does not simply send a purchase order to Mordor...)

OSCON 2011 — Join today's open source innovators, builders, and pioneers July 25-29 as they gather at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore.

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Your travel / patent guide to East Texas

If you work for a high-tech company, there's an increasing likelihood that you're going to be taking a trip out to East Texas sometime in your career. That's because there were 236 patent cases filed there in 2006 (up from 14 in 2003), and it's just kept growing since then.

Since you may have to travel out there because you're on the receiving end of a patent troll's suit, we provide the following handy guide to the area. We'll start with Marshall, Texas, with a population in the mid-twenty thousands. If you're there in the winter, stuck in Judge T. John Ward's courtroom, be sure to check out the Wonderland of Lights, and look for pottery deals year-round.

If your legal troubles bring you to Tyler, home of Judge Leonard Davis, make sure to bring your lightweight suits in the summer, as the average temperatures are in the mid-90s, and nothing spoils your testimony on user interface prior art more than embarrassing sweat stains.

Finally, if you draw Judge David Folsom, you'll be off to a city that actually straddles two states, Texarkana. Texarkana's main employer is the Red River Army Depot. Other than that, it has a depressingly sparse Wikipedia page, so maybe you should hope you end up in one of the other venues.

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July 07 2011

Developer Week in Review: The unglamorous life of video game developers

In an effort to Stop the Madness Now, this week's review will contain no references to lawsuits, rumors about Apple products, discussion of recent court cases of any kind, and it will be 100% gluten free.

Suddenly, enterprise server development doesn't seem that bad

Ever had one of those days, filled with endless meetings, when you wish you could be working on something fun, exciting, and wildly creative? You know, like a video game. Well, as it turns out, you might as well fantasize about working in a sweatshop making shirts, because the working conditions appear to be equivalent.

That's the conclusion that people are coming to, as details emerge about the horrific conditions under which the game "L.A. Noire" was produced. The reports paint a picture of never-ending work weeks, verbal abuse, and unpaid overtime. Now imagine being stuck in that kind of workplace for seven years.

OSCON 2011 — Join today's open source innovators, builders, and pioneers July 25-29 as they gather at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore.

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The Internet: It can route around any malfunction except politics

In recent days there have been several governmental attempts to break the Internet in the name of the public good (if, in some cases, the public is defined as the owners of copyrighted material.) We begin with that bastion of free speech, the government of Australia. With cries of "Think of the Children!" echoing around Ayers Rock, two major Aussie ISPs began voluntarily blacklisting a list of allegedly child-porn-friendly sites generously provided to them by the government. Previous versions of this list have been helpfully supplied to the rest of the world by WikiLeaks (the contents of the list are secret), and in the past has included such dens of depravity as a dental website. Having the government decide what websites people can visit ... nope, nothing could possibly go wrong here.

At least the folks Down Under aren't trying to fundamentally subvert the working mechanisms that make the Internet function. For that level of creativity, you need to turn to the US Congress, which seems willing to break the Internet if it makes the film and record industries happy. The latest version of the PROTECT IP act (I won't make you endure the incredibly contorted words that make up the acronym) would require DNS providers to let the government seize DNS records at will if they believed that they were involved in intellectual property violations. Kind of like the DMCA, as implemented by Stalin (notice how I cleverly avoided invoking Godwin's law there, by switching dictators ...). Not surprisingly, the people who actually have to make the Internet function are not amused.

Required summer reading: The most dangerous software errors

The good people of MITRE have just released the 2011 list of the top 25 most dangerous software errors. Several of them have made the Week in Review before, usually right after a major company was taken down by one of them. If you don't know these culprits by heart, you should, because the bad guys certainly do!

After visiting the site, I desperately want a CWE/CAPEC t-shirt. The security ninjas at work will love it. I guess I'll have to wait until this year's comes out, alas.

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June 30 2011

Developer Week in Review: Would your passcode pass muster?

A riddle for all of you Week in Review fans out there. How come I can buy an iPhone, the pinnacle of technological achievement (hush, you Android folks ...), with billions of transistors and marvels of engineering like solid state gyroscopes and accelerometers for under $500, but a freaking mattress made out of bent steel and fabric is going to cost me nearly two grand? Someone get Steve Jobs on the line, we need the iSleep.

Dark Helmet would be pleased

Really bad passcodeIt turns out that President Skroob and King Roland aren't the only people who like to pick predictable passcodes. A recent analysis of anonymized iPhone passcodes shows that if you started by entering 1 and 2 for the first two digits of a four-digit passcode, you'd be right a good percentage of the time. Worse, 10 distinct four-digit passcodes represented 15% of all passcodes entered, including such favorites as 1234 and 0000.

How are we going to have any hope of educating the public about strong passwords, digital certificates and phishing, if we can't even get them to choose a non-trivially guessable passcode?

This week's legal news, now in Madlib format!

This week, (name of big company) (legal action) (name of other big company), claiming that they had (intellectual property violation) their (intellectual property).

Into this template, you can place the following values: Oracle, had many of their claims dismissed by the USPTO against, Google, violated, Java Patents.

Samsung, asked the International Trade Commission to ban imports into the US from, Apple, violated, patents.

Apple, lost ground in their bid to prevent, Amazon, from using the term, App Store.

Ok, now you give it a try. Maybe next week, we'll do an emerging language Madlib!

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In MySpace, no one can hear you take a capital loss

MySpaceOnce upon a time, there were two sisters. Both were popular and all the young boys and girls loved to play with them. One of them went on to fame, fortune, and have a movie made about her. The other found herself left at home cleaning up the fireplace, with not a fairy godmother to be seen.

Poor MySpace. While sister Facebook has claimed the glory and prestige, MySpace has faded from social networking giant to bargain basement status. News Corp may have spent upwards of half a billion dollars to acquire the company, but this week they let MySpace pass out of their hands for a paltry$ 35 million. For those keeping score, that's a 90% loss on the original investment.

Google PlusMySpace was purchased by a company called Specific Media. Raise your hand if you've ever heard of them? Yeah, that's what I thought. Evidently, they are some big power in online advertising and digital media. What they plan to do with the shell that was once MySpace is anyone's guess.

Meanwhile, Google has finally sent a shot across Facebook's bow with the launch of Google+, which integrates social networking into the Google experience. There's an Android client for it out already, and an iOS version is promised any time now.

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June 22 2011

Developer Week in Review: Start your lawyers!

Summer is here, so it's time to hit the beach and soak up some sun. You know, sun? That bright yellow ball that blinds you whenever you go out for Doritos and Mountain Dew in the middle of a 48-hour hackathon? I'm told it's actually quite pleasant to be around, once you get acclimated to it. Still, probably better to stay inside, avoid the evil day star, and see what's been happening in the World of Geek this week.

Get your lawsuits

Samsung and AppleIn the latest chapter of "As the Smartphone Turns," Samsung has accused Apple of fathering an illegitimate child with it when Samsung had amnesia, gotten as a result of being hit on the head by an old Motorola bag-phone while trying to save RIM from ending up destitute on the street.

Not really, but the realities of Samsung v. Apple are almost as bizarre. This week, a US district judge told Samsung that, no, you don't get to see previews of the iPad 3 and iPhone 5. This comes as Samsung continues to be Apple's largest supplier of semiconductor technologies. There must be some awesome screens set up to let Apple shovel money into Samsung's bank account while at the same time suing them.

Also in "Intellectual Property Gone Wild" news this week, Oracle is evidently asking for (cue Carl Sagan voice) billiuns and billiuns of dollars as penalties in their Java suit against Google, which means that Google might actually need to clean out the petty cash drawer and make a trip to the bank. And Apple has paid off Nokia to settle a long-running patent suit between the two companies. And BitTorrent came under attack this week when they were sued for violating a "submarine" patent on file distribution granted in 2007. Litigation, the growth sector of the American economy!

In related news, I got a notice this week that my own trademark application will be approved in three months if no one objects. Watch out world, I'm gonna have some IP soon, and I'm not afraid to use it!

Please remember to stretch before logging into your PC

Folks have been hacking the Kinect for a while now, hooking it up to all sorts of esoteric devices that aren't XBoxen (and just what is the group noun for an XBox? A Lanparty of XBoxes?). Now Microsoft has decided to make Kinect hacks officially supported, at least if you run Windows. With the release of the Kinect SDK for Windows, developers can finally make desktop users flail around awkwardly, just like their gaming counterparts.

With the release of the SDK, Windows hackers will gain access to a powerful vision recognition system, and it will be interesting to see what the first third-party Windows applications to come out will look like. Somehow, I suspect it'll have something to do with porn ...

OSCON 2011 — Join today's open source innovators, builders, and pioneers July 25-29 as they gather at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore.

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Where were you when the IPv6 turned on?

The one-day IPv6 lovefest earlier this month didn't seem to break anything significant, but on the other hand, it didn't seem to do much to promote the adoption of IPv6 either. Unless you happen to be one of the 12 people on the planet whose ISP allocates and routes IPv6, the only way to know that anything had happened at all was if you had an IPv6 tunnel set up with a broker such as Electric Hurricane.

With the IPv4 space "officially" exhausted, you'd expect there would be more urgency about this issue, but business seems to be proceeding according to the normal human emergency protocol (that's the one where you ignore a problem until it becomes a crisis, then run around like a chicken with it's head cut off). In the meanwhile, there are still quite a few active class A subnets lying around, each with 16 million addresses (here's a list). One must wonder how long it will be before pressure starts to be applied on entities such as HP (which owns two!) to start freeing them up for the good of the net.

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