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November 30 2011

Developer Week in Review: Siri is the talk of the town

After a one-week hiatus, during which research was undertaken in waistline enhancement via the consumption of starch and protein materials, we're back to see what's been happening in the non-turkey-related fields.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

SiriIt's an interesting time for the voice-enabled smartphone field. On the one hand, some industry pundits with vested interests are claiming that people don't want to talk to their phones and don't want them to be assistants. Perhaps they have forgotten that the original smartphones were offshoots of the PDA market, and that PDA doesn't stand for "public display of affection" in this case.

At the other extreme, we have Microsoft stating that Apple's Siri is just a knock-off of Windows Tellme, a claim that has been placed into question by several head-to-head comparisons of features.

Of most interest to the developer community are reports that the latest iOS beta release contains additional hooks to allow applications to integrate into Siri's voice recognition functionality. I talked about the possibility that Apple would be expanding the use of Siri into third-party apps a few weeks ago, and the new features in the beta seem to confirm that voice is going to be made available as a feature throughout applications. This would be a real game changer, in everything from games to GPS applications on the iOS platform.

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Computer science for the masses

Two interesting pieces of news this time around on the educational front. In the higher learning arena, Stanford is expanding its free online computer science courseware with several new classes, including one on machine learning. Although you can't earn a free degree this way, you can get computer-graded test results to go along with the recorded lectures. This material will be very useful, even to grizzly old veterans such as myself, who may have a hole or two in their theoretical underpinnings. For a bright high school student who has exhausted his or her school's CS offerings, it could also serve as a next step.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the government seems to be moving toward having all students learn the basics of programming. I worry about this, on two fronts. First, it is unclear if the majority of students really need to learn software engineering or would benefit from it. Force-feeding coding skills into students who may not have the aptitude or proclivity to want to learn them seems unwise to me and is likely to slow down the students who might actually have a desire to learn the subject. Second, I have my doubts that a government-designed software engineering curriculum would actually be any good.

Is there anything JavaScript can't do?

JavaScriptJavaScript is often derided by "serious" computer professionals as a poorly designed toy language unfit for "real" software engineering. Yet, those who spend time using it know that you can produce some impressive results with it.

For example, there is now a JavaScript implementation of the OpenPGP message specification, which would allow JavaScript code to send and receive encrypted messages. And if you really want to go out on a limb, you could always develop a Java Virtual Machine byte code interpreter written entirely in JavaScript (somewhere, James Gosling is crying ...).

There's no question that JavaScript has its weak points, but its near-ubiquity makes it an incredibly useful spanner to carry around in your tool belt. Developers, sneer at your own risk. Like cockroaches, JavaScript may be around well after some more traditional languages have turned to dust.

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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.

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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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February 16 2010

The Convergence of Advertising and E-commerce

With hundreds of millions of users paying to download music, applications and ebooks on mobile phones, with reports of Zynga generating hundreds of millions of dollars from selling virtual goods in social games, with startups like Square making mobile payment systems the hot new startup category, it's clear that e-commerce is poised to supplant advertising as the business model of choice for new startups.


But that's only the beginning. A few weeks ago it occurred to me that there's a very real possibility that the next breakthrough in advertising itself is its convergence with e-commerce. Buying an app from the Android Market, I realized how those of us with smartphones have become accustomed to seamless purchases on our phone. That is, we search for an app, and then we buy it, directly from our search vendor.


Isn't that after all the goal of advertising? To cause a transaction. So why not do away with the intermediate step of sending someone to a website for more information? Especially with the limited screen real estate on the phone, there isn't really room for the contextual text advertising that made Google its billions. Interstitial or popup ads are intrusive and unwelcome. But how much search activity on the phone is tied to commerce already? Find a restaurant nearby and make a reservation? Why not pay as well? Point Google Goggles at a bottle of wine you enjoyed at that restaurant, and have a few bottles more show up on your doorstep?


This line of thought led me to the conclusion that Google, Apple, Microsoft, will soon be announcing e-commerce programs akin to Adsense, in which retailers will register with "app stores" to allow physical goods and services to be bought as easily as apps. We can also expect announcements of partnerships between phone providers and Amazon or Wal-Mart or other big retailers who can fulfill e-commerce requests from the phone. I have no inside information to support this contention, just the logic of the marketplace.


Interestingly enough, it was only a few days after I had this thought that I met with the folks at Siri, which bills itself as "Your virtual personal assistant." Siri does pretty much what I was imagining for Google or Apple: it searches, and then does something. In our conversation, one of the founders referred to it as a "do engine" rather than a search engine. Right now, Siri mainly interfaces with services that provide APIs for reservations, like OpenTable or TicketMaster. It isn't a general purpose e-commerce engine. But that is clearly in the future, if not from Siri, then from some other startup, and then, inevitably, from the big guys.


E-commerce is the killer app of the phone world. Anyone whose business is now based on advertising had better be prepared to link payment and fulfillment directly to search, making buying anything in the world into a one-click purchase. Real time payment from the phone is in your future.

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