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December 16 2011

Developer Week in Review: HP sets webOS free

Hard to believe there's only 15 days left in 2011; it's flown by so quickly. Next week, I'll be putting out the much anticipated Developer Year In Review, highlighting the ups and downs of the industry over the last 12 months. But for the moment, enjoy these pre-holiday tidbits:

HP gets into the spirit of the season

HP WebOSEvidently, Meg Whitman was visited by three ghosts recently because she opened her window last week and shouted for the boy downstairs to run to the butcher and buy the big goose in the window so it could be delivered to Bob Cratchit's house. Except in this case, the goose was the source code to webOS, and the lucky recipient was the open source community.

It's certainly a magnanimous gesture on the part of HP, and it's likely to lead to any number of interesting spin-off projects. It will also provide an interesting contrast to the current open-source tablet darling, Android. Exactly who will administer the project and which license it will be released under is still uncertain. Hopefully, it will be a relatively permissive license so it can freely cross-pollinate.

For HP, this is definitely making the best of a bad situation. As readers may recall, I've harped on several occasions about how Oracle has been shedding itself of many of the assets it acquired when it purchased Sun. But as far as throwing away money, Oracle is bush-league compared to HP. It's taken less than two years for HP to relegate the $1.2 billion it paid for Palm to the "capital losses" column in its tax return.

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And speaking of Oracle ...

Anyone who has ever been involved in the negotiations for an outside vendor to deliver a software solution knows that it's an inexact science, at best. There always turns out to be requirements that were missed or technical complications that turn up during deployment, and customers are usually (reluctantly) willing to pay the piper because they have already committed to the solution.

Montclair State University evidently decided to try plan B when Oracle went over budget and missed deadlines on the university's new ERP system. They are taking Mr. Ellison's yacht-funding enterprise to federal court, accusing Oracle of rigging the demo and trying (in the words of the university) to extort money by threatening not to complete the work unless paid millions more in fees.

It may be dicey to figure out if Montclair understated its requirements or if Oracle low-balled the bid since I've yet to see a requirements spec for a fixed-price contract that was worth the paper it was written on. Oracle can at least take comfort from the fact that Montclair doesn't have a law school, so there won't be any pro bono faculty members on the legal team.

On the other hand, T&M has its perils, too

Some companies prefer to bid contracts as time and materials (T&M), rather than fixed price. This is a good deal for the contractor because it won't get caught underfunded if things turn out to be complicated. For the customer, it offers the benefit of being able to pull the plug if things aren't working out or to add and remove requirements without having to renegotiate. The downside for the contractor is that it can't profit from finishing early.

Of course, this all assumes that the contractor is actually working on the project. In a recent case, your tax dollars (for all you American readers) were going to pay someone to watch movies, hang out in bars, and ride roller coasters. California-based Aerospace Corp just paid the Department of Justice a nice round $2.5 million to settle allegations that not only was it billing time for an employee who was moonlighting at another firm, but that he spent his days at leisure while billing both firms.

Incredibly, this went on for five years, despite such stunts as billing for more than 24 hours of work in a single day. You almost have to admire the chutzpah of Mr. William Grayson Hunter, who also inflated his high school diploma into a doctorate from Oxford. He also managed to die of natural causes before the long arm of the law could bring him to justice, presumably with a smile on his face and a Six Flags hat on his head.

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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.

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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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