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January 05 2012

Developer Week in Review: 2012 preview edition

Baby New Year has opened his eyes, and he sees a bright future for the developer community. Of course, newborn babies can't focus beyond a few inches, so I'd take that with a grain of salt. Some of us are a little longer in the tooth, so this week, I'll try to peer out into the months ahead and take my best guess as to what we can expect in 2012. You can come back in December and laugh hysterically at my predictions.

It's all about the mobile

Let's get the obvious out of the way first. The intellectual property litigation mayhem that we saw in 2011 will continue unabated in the new year. Now that several vendors have implemented the nuclear option by suing their competitors, the fun and games can only get more intense as companies use local judicial systems and trade organizations as a way to keep competing products out of markets.

On the Android front, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) is starting to show up on handsets, but depressingly few if you're an Android developer hoping to use the new features of the release. There's no word if there will be a follow-on to ICS anytime soon, which is probably a good thing, given how far behind handset makers are in getting recent releases onto their shipping products.

Fans of iOS can look forward to at least one new iPhone and iPad (if not more) in 2012, as well as iOS 6. We'll probably see the end-of-life for the iPhone 3 family since only the 3GS made it onto the iOS 5 supported list, and another year will have past. Rumors abound that there will be an integrated TV option for iOS as well — whether it will allow apps to be installed is a question mark at the moment. Siri on your TV could be fairly awesome; imagine just saying, "Record all new Patriots games" and having it happen.

The BlackBerry appears to be singing its swan song while those pesky P2ME feature phones continue to own much of the low-end cell phone market. The biggest unknown this year is if the Windows Phone platform will finally gain significant traction. Nokia and Microsoft are spending a boatload of money to promote it. They have the resources to buy market share if they want, and recent reviews of new Windows Phone devices have actually been pretty positive. The question would be, who would Microsoft steal market share from — Apple, Android or the low-end phones?

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

Clouds are gathering on the horizon

Much as the Internet rapidly gained mindshare in the early '90s, the cloud has now become the hot new concept that the general public grasps, at least in principle. What exactly the cloud is tends to depend on who you talk to, but the general idea of moving desktop applications to HTML5-based web applications is a done deal at this point.

The one big wrench in the plan could come from the legislative branches of the world. The more they pass SOPA-like laws, the more people are going to worry about how easily they could lose access to their private data if they move it to the cloud. It was bad enough when you had to trust Google not to be evil; expecting elected representatives to be evil is almost a given.

The increasing move to the cloud is only going to heat up demand for developers who know HTML5, jQuery, PHP, and other web-based technologies. At least in the short run, it's going to be a good time to be a web developer.

Offshoring loses its cachet

The stampede to move development jobs overseas seems to have encountered a roadblock, and many U.S. companies appear to be rethinking the economics of outsourcing projects. Some startups are trying new and innovative (and potentially insane) schemes to work around U.S. labor laws, and while this is unlikely to bring back the go-go days of the late '90s — when developers were courted like rock stars — it may perhaps stem the hemorrhaging of skilled jobs overseas. The challenge for the U.S. will be to produce enough high-tech workers to fill all those returning jobs, especially as more and more high school students rethink the economics of going to college.

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December 09 2011

Developer Week in Review: Developers are our most important asset?

I'm about halfway through the Steve Jobs biography (currently in the middle of the NeXT years), and I am continually struck by the dissonance of Jobs' incredible insight about some things and total blindness to others. It reminds me of an observation I used to make about some people: There's a reason Wisdom and Intelligence were two different stats in Dungeons & Dragons.

Not all of us are born to ascend to such lofty heights of fame, but it's nice to know that ...

Developers: Not just nameless cogs in the machine?

People who make a living making software have had reason to be nervous over the last decade. The trend seems to have been a race to the bottom of the salary scale, with generic talent in developing countries valued on par with highly experienced developers at home. Even when companies were willing to acknowledge that an external developer might not be as productive as an experienced one who has been working for the company for many years, the argument was made that since you could hire four or five foreign developers for the price of the stateside talent, the economics still made sense.

Now, an interesting essay in Forbes makes the argument that really good developers aren't twice or three times as valuable as the average, but 10 times or more. The essay's author, Venkatesh Rao, puts forward the proposition that smart companies such as Google recognize the value of retaining their high-end talent and deliberately shower them with lavish perks to keep them from straying. Rao argues that because developers require so little support infrastructure (as opposed to a biologist, for example, who needs staff and a lab), highly productive software engineers have a direct multiplier effect on the bottom like.

I've been noticing the beginnings of a backlash against the offshoring fad, as it seems have others. The question, of course, is whether average companies are able to look past the immediate cash-flow factor and evaluate the value of their staffs based on things such as the end quality of the product and (to quote Mr. Jobs) how insanely great the results are.

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

Data centers and the boonies economy

The news has been alight recently with stories of large companies (Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft) setting up massive data centers in out-of-the-way locations. The reasons for this are several, and they've resulted in a perfect storm of motivations for placing data centers in rural locations.

First off, data centers require a lot of square footage, and a million square feet in the greater San Francisco Bay area is obviously a lot more expensive than in the wilds of Washington state. Construction costs are likely to be lower as well. Tax rates tend to be lower, and small country towns are more likely to offer incentivized tax rates to bring in jobs.

Second, data centers don't really require a lot of high-end staffing, beyond a resident engineer or two to keep things humming. Security personnel and maintenance staff are non-skilled positions that can be hired as easily in the mountains of the Ozarks as in downtown New York. And once again, they are likely to work much cheaper because the cost of living in rural locations is so low.

Many rural locations also are close to low-cost power generation sources, such as dams. Since electricity is a major cost in data center budgets, getting your power locally can take a large bite out of operating budgets. In addition, there is a belt of climate that runs through areas such as Colorado that offers the ability to take advantage of open air cooling, rather than having to run costly air conditioning all the time.

There's also something to be said for geographic diversity. If The Big One ever hits San Francisco, it will take down pretty much any data center in the affected area. Scattering your eggs into multiple baskets is common sense.

The reason that this works for data centers, and less so for things such as manufacturing, is that all a data center needs to function is good connectivity. With so much dark fiber strung across the country, it's not that expensive to bring multiple "fat pipes" to even the most remote locations, especially when you factor in all the savings. Data centers don't need good rail infrastructure, highways, geographic centrality, or any of the other factors that drive location decisions for physical manufacturing.

Your mobile news roundup

Ignoring for the moment the continual cacophony of lawsuits and counter-suits that seem to be business as usual these days, there were actually some recent news items of note in the mobile space.

There's no publicly available API for developers to add their own mojo to Apple's Siri, but that hasn't stopped enterprising hackers from discovering a way to do a man-in-the-middle intercept and add their own functionality. Before anyone gets in a tizzy, it only works if the mobile user explicitly opts in by installing a self-signed SSL certificate so that HTTPS connections to the hacked Siri proxy succeed. It's not something that could be done behind your back. Once in place, you can insert your own Siri functionality by writing code in Ruby on the proxy server. I've tried it, and it's surprisingly easy to make Siri jump through hoops. Apple will probably close this loophole soon, but for the moment it offers a tantalizing look at how powerful general access to a voice interface could be. The word is that Apple is hiring two engineers to work on APIs for Siri. Evidently, Apple sees the potential, too.

In Android-land, Google announced that the ten billionth app had been downloaded from the Android Market. By comparison, the 15 billionth iTunes app purchase occurred this summer, as announced at WWDC. There's no question that Android's velocity is greater than iOS, due largely to the huge number of phones running Android now, most of which are significantly cheaper than an iPhone. Is it time to wonder if the iPhone is going to end up being the Betamax of phones, eventually done in by a flood of inexpensive competitors? Or will it end up being more like the MacBook, the choice of anyone who can afford them?

In Redmond, Microsoft is ramping up a developer infrastructure for its Windows 8 platform, and the company has decided to follow the app store model as well. It appears that Microsoft will be offering better terms for developers, something that shouldn't be surprising, given Microsoft's legendary loyalty to those who choose to follow the way of Windows.

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