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February 16 2012

Developer Week in Review: NASA says goodbye to big iron

It looks like I'm going to have a life-changing decision to make in the next few weeks, one that will be shared by millions of people around the world. At risk, the balance in my bank account.

I refer, of course, to whether I'll pony up the cash to upgrade my iPad 2 to a 3, once Apple actually tells us what the iPad 3 will have in it. Unless it cooks gourmet dinners and transports you to other planets, my best guess is that I won't. For one thing, we're also facing the release of the iPhone 5 later in the year, and I make it a policy only to do one Apple fan-boy "upgrade the expensive toy you just bought last year" purchase a year. For another, it looks like the 3 is going to be a faster version of the 2 with a Retina display, and I just can't see it being enough of a delta in features to make it worth the cost.

If I'm going to upgrade either device, I need cash in the bank, so time to earn my keep with this week's news.

HAL is crestfallen ...

NASA logoWe arrive at a bit of a milestone this week, as NASA says goodbye to the last piece of big iron left in its data processing infrastructure. With the retirement of the last IBM Z9, NASA finishes its mission to boldly go where most of the rest of the high tech world had already gone years ago. I especially liked the shout-out to old-school programmers in JCL at the end of NASA's blog post marking the occasion.

NASA, like many organizations running life-critical applications, has to take a very conservative approach to hardware upgrades, because failure is not an option. The computers installed into NASA space vehicles and probes are notorious for being generations behind the current state of the art, because of the long lead times to get them spec'd out and installed. Obviously, no mainframe flies into space, for reasons of weight and space if nothing else. You can see the same kind of excruciatingly slow hardware progress at agencies like the FAA, which can take a human generation to upgrade to a new air traffic control system.

For now, let us bid farewell to the brave Z9, last of its kind at NASA. It would be nice to fantasize that it was responsible for some intricate detail of manned space flight, but the reality is that it evidently ran business applications. Even so, if you don't pay the engineers and vendors, they don't work, so it did play its own sort of role in the exploration of the universe.

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.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

Monty Redmond's Visual Python

Visual Studio, like Eclipse and Xcode, provides IDE support for a huge swath of the developer community. While it's still common to find old-schoolers who use Emacs or vi to grind out code, most programmers these days end up using an IDE to take advantage of the debugging and integrated documentation features they provide.

Eclipse is well-known for the wide variety of languages and platforms it supports, but it's easy to forget that Microsoft is making a concerted effort to open up Visual Studio to a wider developer audience as well. One sign of this is the version 1.1 release of Python Tools for Visual Studio, which has just come out. This toolkit is notable for another reason, too: it's one of the projects coming out of Microsoft's Codeplex open source initiative.

I know I'm not alone in having been skeptical of Microsoft's recent warming to open source. It's easy to see it as yet another "embrace, extend and extinguish" play. But at a certain point, you have to say that if it walks and talks like a mule, it may in fact be a mule after all. While I don't expect to see the Windows XP source code being donated to Apache anytime soon, it does seem to appear that Microsoft is making an honest effort to leverage the power of the open source model where it makes sense. That's a huge change from the company's previous "open source is communism" stance. As with most things, time will tell if this is the real deal.

I guess we'll find out what happens when you cross the streams ...

Open source developers have a reputation for bringing a passion, sometimes at an obsessive level, to the projects they work on. But even they would find themselves challenged to keep up with the frenzied level of creative mania displayed by bronies, adult fans of the new My Little Pony reboot. So what happens when you combine the two forces of open source and the brony herd? Wonder Twin developer powers activate!

"PonyKart" is a "Mario Kart"-style game set in the "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" universe. It's being developed by a group of brony developers over on SourceForge. It's still in the early days, but the initial videos they've released are impressive.

There's a reason you don't see a lot of open source games with this level of complexity; it's a fairly massive undertaking and is usually only within the resources of major game houses. There is a very capable Linux "MarioKart" clone out there, but consider that the "PonyKart" folks have only been in operation since July of last year, compared to the six years of development that have gone into "Supertuxkart" so far, and you can get a feel for the awesome power that can be brought to bear when two committed movements overlap. To be fair, there are more tools available now — such as physics engines — then when "Supertuxkart" started development, but the "PonyKart" effort is still striking. Imagine what could happen if we could get the Gleeks interested in video editing software ...

Tying in another theme often harped upon in these pages, the reason PonyKart can happen at all is that Hasbro has gone out of its way to apply a light hand as far as their intellectual property is concerned. Rather than wrapping a death-grip around the My Little Pony characters, Hasbro has let fans pretty much run wild with them (including the inevitable Rule 34 stuff). The company has wisely decided to let the fans churn up a meme-storm, while it sits back and counts the profits from toy sales. Are you listening, RIAA and MPAA? You could do much better by cooperating with your fan base, rather than persecuting them.

Of course, "PonyKart" could still lose momentum and die. There's a big difference between a long-term effort and horsing around for a few months (see what I did there?). But given the evidence to date, I wouldn't count this nag out of the race yet.

(Obligatory full disclosure: Your humble chronicler is a member of the herd, although not involved in the "PonyKart" project.)

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January 20 2012

Developer Week in Review: Early thoughts on iBooks Author

One down, two to go, Patriots-wise. Thankfully, this week's game is on Sunday, so it doesn't conflict with my son's 17th birthday on Saturday. They grow up so quickly; I can remember him playing with his Comfy Keyboard, now he's writing C code for robots.

A few thoughts on iBooks Author and Apple's textbook move

iBooks AuthorThursday's Apple announcement of Apple's new iBooks Author package isn't developer news per se, but I thought I'd drop in a few initial thoughts before jumping into the meat of the WIR because it will have an impact on the community in several ways.

Most directly, it is another insidious lock-in that Apple is wrapping inside a candy-covered package. Since iBooks produced with the tool can only be viewed in full on iOS devices, textbooks and other material produced with iBooks Author will not be available (at least in the snazzy new interactive form) on Kindles or other ereaders. If Apple wanted to play fair, it should make the new iBooks format an open standard. Of course, this would cut Apple out of its cut of the royalties as well as yielding the all-important control of the user experience that Steve Jobs installed as a core value in the company.

On a different level, this could radically change the textbook and publishing industry. It will make it easier to keep textbooks up to date and start to loosen the least-common-denominator stranglehold that huge school districts have on the textbook creation process. On the other hand, I can see a day when pressure from interest groups results in nine different textbooks being used in the same class, one of which ignores evolution, one of which emphasizes the role of Antarctic-Americans in U.S. history, etc.

It's also another step in the disintermediation of publishing since the cost of getting your book out to the world just dropped to zero (not counting proofreading, indexing, editing, marketing, and all the other nice things a traditional publisher does for a writer). I wonder if Apple is going to enforce the same puritanical standards on iBooks as they do on apps. What are they going to do when someone submits a My Little Pony / Silent Hill crossover fanfic as an iBook?

Another item off my bucket list

I've been to Australia. I've had an animal cover book published. And now I've been called a moron (collectively) by Richard Stallman.

The occasion was the previously mentioned panel on the legacy of Steve Jobs, on which I participated this previous weekend. As could have been expected, Stallman started in describing Jobs as someone who the world would have been better off without. He spent the rest of the hour defending the position that it doesn't matter how unusable the free alternative to a proprietary platform is, only that it's free. When we disagreed, he shouted us down as "morons."

As I've mentioned before, that position makes a few invalid assumptions. One is that people's lives will be better if they use a crappy free software package over well-polished commercial products. In reality, the perils of commercial software that Stallman demonizes so consistently are largely hypothetical, whereas the usability issues of most consumer-facing free software are very real. For the 99.999% of people who aren't software professionals, the important factor is whether the darn thing works, not if they can swap out an internal module.

The other false premise at play here is that companies are Snidely Whiplash wanna-bes that go out of their way to oppress the masses. Stallman, to his credit as a savvy propagandist, has co-opted the slogans of the Occupy Wall Street movement, referring to the 1% frequently. The reality is that when companies try to pull shady stunts, especially in the software industry, they usually get caught and have to face the music. Remember the furor over Apple's allegedly accidental recording of location data on the iPhone? Stallman's dystopian future, where corporations use proprietary platforms as a tool of subjugation, has pretty much failed every time it's actually been tried on the ground. I'm not saying corporations are angels, or even that they have the consumer's best interests in mind, it's just that they aren't run by demonic beings that eat babies and plot the enslavement of humanity.

Achievement unlocked: Erased user's hard drive

Sometimes life as a software engineer may seem like a game, but Microsoft evidently wants to turn it into a real one. The company has announced a new plug-in for Visual Studio that lets you earn achievements for coding practices and other developer-related activities.

Most of them are tongue in cheek, but I'm terrified that we may start seeing these achievements in live production code as developers compete to earn them all. Among the more fear-inspiring:

  • "Write 20 single letter class-level variables in one file. Kudos to you for being cryptic!"
  • "Write a single line of 300 characters long. Who needs carriage returns?"
  • "More than 10 overloads of a method. You could go with this or you could go with that."
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.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

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