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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?

OpenOffice.org 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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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...)

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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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June 02 2011

Developer Week in Review: The other shoe drops on iOS developers

Bags packed? Check! Ticket printed? Check! "I (Heart) Steve" T-shirt worn? Check! Yes, it's that time of year, when the swallows return to Capistrano the developers return to San Francisco for WWDC. I'll be there Sunday to Saturday, so keep an eye out for me and maybe we can get a beer or something.

But even as we await the release of Lion, iOS 5 and iCloud, the world continues to turn.

Well, so much for Apple's big umbrella

App store screenshotLast week, iOS developers everywhere breathed a sigh of relief as Apple stepped up to the plate, and said that they considered their developer community to be covered under Apple's existing licensing agreement with patent holding company Lodsys. Lodsys, evidently, had a difference of opinion on the subject. This leaves the lucky seven developers who got hit with the first round of lawsuits with an interesting choice. Do they settle with Lodsys, perhaps paying out many times what they have brought in as income from their apps, or do they fight and face expensive legal fees and a lawsuit that could drag on for years?

Android developers shouldn't gloat too much at the misfortune of their iPhone counterparts, since Lodsys is asserting that two of their patents cover Android apps as well. Apple and Google are going to have to take things up another notch, and offer free legal services to their developers, or things could get quite messy, quite fast.

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OpenOffice finds a home at Apache

Oracle, as part of their ongoing shedding of all of their Sun acquisitions, had promised earlier in the year that OpenOffice would be given to some third party at some point. Well, that third party is Apache. Oracle will be donating the source code to Apache, where it will become an incubator project. For developers who have be interested in poking around with the guts of OpenOffice (or extending the functionality), but were leery of Oracle holding the strings, this announcement should eliminate any doubts. Statements from The Document Foundation (who split off a fork of OpenOffice) were guarded, but it seems like there's hope of reuniting the code streams, and avoiding yet another case of parallel development of the same "product."

Java rant of the week: Interface madness

As I am wont to do from time to time, I'd like to take a moment today to rant about a coding abuse that I see more and more frequently. That abuse would be the indiscriminate use of interfaces in front of implementing classes, usually with a factory. There are certainly places where the interface/factory pattern makes sense, such as when you genuinely do have multiple implementations of something that you want to be able to swap out easily

However, far too often, I see factories and interfaces used between classes simply because "we might" want to someday put something else in there. I recently saw an implementation of a servlet that called for authentication of the request. There's only one implemented version of the authentication code, and no real plans to make another. But still, there were Foo and FooImpl files sitting right there (there was probably a FooFactory somewhere, I didn't go looking ...)

Unneeded interfaces are not only wasted code, they make reading and debugging the code much more difficult, because they break the link between the call and the implementation. The only way to find the implementing code is to look for the factory, and see what class is being provisioned to implement the interface. If you're really lucky, the factory gets the class name from a property file, so you have to look another level down.

There's no excuse for doing this. It's anti-agile, and the refactor cost once you do genuinely do have a second version, and need an interface, is relatively low. End of rant.

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September 29 2010

Four short links: 29 September 2010

  1. Digital Mirror Demo (video) -- demo of the Digital Mirror tool that analyses relationships. Some very cute visualizations of social proximity and presentation of the things you can learn from email, calendar, etc. (via kgreene on Twitter)
  2. Free Machine Learning Books -- list of free online books from MetaOptimize readers. (via newsycombinator on Twitter)
  3. Chewie Stats -- sweet chart of blog traffic after something went memetic. Interesting for the different qualities of traffic from each site: As one might expect, Reddit users go straight for the punchline and bail immediately. One might assume the the same behavior from Facebook users, but no, among the visitors that hang around, they rank third! Likewise I would have expected MetaFilter readers to hang around and Boing Boing users to quickly move along; but in fact, the opposite is the case. (via chrissmessina on Twitter)
  4. The Document Foundation -- new home of OpenOffice, which has a name change to LibreOffice. I hope this is the start of a Mozilla-like rebirth, as does Matt Asay. (via migueldeicaza on Twitter)

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