7.31.2009

A billion Firefox downloads, still waiting for Chrome

The Mozilla project says that as of today, Firefox — in all its versions and platforms — has been downloaded a billion times. That's pretty impressive.

I use Firefox for the Mac (current version 3.5.1) almost exclusively, though Apple's Safari serves when I want to have a second, independent, browser running.

Every so often (generally after a major update) I try to switch to Safari as my default browser, but then always switch back to Firefox after a couple of days. I know that Apple claims that Safari is faster, but Firefox is better.

What about Google's Chrome? I'd love to try it, but Google still hasn't released a version for Mac OS X. In June, Google offered a Mac alpha of the open-source version, called Chromium. You can download the Chromium alphas for Mac and Linux, but Google recommends:

DON'T DOWNLOAD THEM! Unless of course you are a developer or take great pleasure in incomplete, unpredictable, and potentially crashing software.

Even though I'm a developer, I'll wait, thanks.

7.30.2009

Anonymous Call Rejection needed for the iPhone

Someone keeps calling my mobile phone number. Their phone number is blocked from showing up on Caller ID. They hang up if I answer, and don't leave a message if I don't answer. It's happened six times so far today.

Amazingly, neither the mobile device (an iPhone 3GS) nor the carrier (AT&T Wireless) will let me filter out such anonymous calls.

Anonymous Call Rejection
is a feature available on most landlines and VoIP systems. If you call my landline office number, and your phone has Caller ID blocking, you'll hear a message from AT&T telling you that my phone won't accept your call.

However, at least in the U.S., no wireless service offers ACR at the carrier level. I don't know of any mobile phones that implement it at the device level.

This is a software limitation, not a telephony problem, since the iPhone displays "unknown" when someone without Caller ID phones me. Thus:

• AT&T Wireless knows there is no Caller ID — so why can't it filter the call at the carrier level?

• The iPhone 3GS knows that there is no Caller ID — so why can't it block the call at the device level?

There are plenty of settings on the iPhone that affect the AT&T Wireless service. For example, I have a setting, right there on the iPhone's control panel, to choose to block or transmit my own Caller ID information when placing a call.

But ACR? No. Sorry, said the representative at AT&T Wireless, we don't offer that.

(There are hacks that enable Anonymous Call Rejection on an iPhone that has been jailbroken, but that's not something that I wish to do. I don't want to hack my phone. I want a fully supported ACR feature offered by the carrier or by the device itself.)

Getting your kicks from CICS — after 40 years

IBM's CICS software is apparently going strong, even after four decades.

CICS means Customer Information Control System, and is pronounced "kicks." It's a mainframe transaction processing application. Massively scalable, massively reliable.

Back in the early 1980s, I worked with CICS on IBM System/370 mainframes, and did some integration programming around it. Haven't thought about it in years, until reading this story about the anniversary, "IBM Touts CICS Relevance 40 Years On," published by eWeek Europe.

To be honest, I don't remember too many details about CICS, but there are still some old manuals in my bookcase. Learn more about CICS on Wikipedia.

7.28.2009

Put a terabyte in your pocket

Yesterday, Western Digital announced a one-terabyte hard drive for notebook computers.

The WD Scorpio Blue SATA 2.5-inch hard drive — 12.5 mm, 5200 RPM, 1TB, $249 — blows my mind. It was only in April 2007 that the industry first saw a one-terabyte desktop drive in the 3.5-inch format. (Andrew Binstock and I had a wager whether we'd see one by the end of 2006. He lost.)

Only one week ago, I put a 1.5TB Seagate 3.5-inch drive into an old iMac. And now you can put a 1TB drive into a standard notebook or a server blade.

Western Digital also offers a USB-connected external version you can put into a briefcase, pocketbook or pocket for $299. And I thought my 500GB external drive (also from Western Digital) was impressive.

Once upon a time, a terabyte was a lot of storage. I remember how excited I was after adding up all the drives in all the servers in my test lab, and realizing that there was more than a terabyte there. And now you can put that much into your notebook, or your pocket. Wow.

Computers are cars

How often do you buy a car? Some drivers turn in their cars every couple of years and get a new model. Others drive them until the wheels come off. Others split the difference, trading in every five or six years.

Generally speaking, people change cars because something wrong with the car that they have, or because their requirements have changed, or because they just want a different one.

Something’s wrong with your car: You have an accident, so you’re in the market. Or your car needs major repairs that seem too expensive, given the value of the car. Perhaps you have reasons to stop trusting its reliability, and don’t want to be stranded.

Your requirements have changed: You have a new baby, and so a two-seater won’t work. A new hobby means getting a sports-utility vehicle. A new job’s commute calls out for something with better fuel efficiency. A teen driver means adding a vehicle.

You just want one: A bonus lets you buy the sports car you’ve always wanted. You want to make a statement by driving a hybrid, or by getting a Lexus or BMW. Your brother-in-law got a new truck, and so you want one too.

What about computers? People used to replace their computers because the new computer had essential features that the older computer’s didn’t have. It was enough faster to let you do more tasks. It had better connectivity. It supported more storage options.

The problem is that today’s computer hardware and software is so darned good that the regular upgrade cycle has collapsed.

Look at Microsoft’s terrible financial results, reported on July 23. The company announced that its revenue declined 17% from the same quarter of the previous year. You might say that’s because Microsoft is having its butt kicked by companies like Google and Apple. That’s part of the situations, sure. But that’s not why Microsoft, and other computer companies, are in such a funk.

Consumers and businesses used to buy lots of new “stuff” every year or two or three. New computers, going from a 286 to a 386 to a Pentium. New modems, from 1200 bps to 9600 bps to 19,200 bps. New printers. New flat-screen monitors. New scanners. New operating systems. New productivity suites. The changes in hardware, in operating systems and in major applications were so significant that the upgrade was perceived to be a good value.

Today, consumers buy computers because something wrong with the computer that they have, or because their requirements have changed, or because they just want a different one. Businesses only buy new desktops and notebooks if they absolutely must do so.

Apple and Hewlett-Packard have done a great job of tapping into the “just want one” segment of the computer market. Apple has positioned its iMacs and MacBooks as cool and sexy. HP has brought out compelling innovation with its TouchSmart desktop and cutting-edge design. That’s why they’re succeeding.

Other companies, from Microsoft to Intel, from Dell to Lenovo, aren’t succeeded in convincing consumers that they need new hardware or software. Got a 2.1GHz Core 2 Duo processor in your computer? That’s fast enough. Got Windows XP? That’s good enough. Got Office 2003? It has every feature you need. A quad-core chip, Windows Vista, Office 2007, aren’t going to move you… or move your credit card.

We’ll have to see if Windows 7, Office 2010 and eight-core chips can jolt consumers into wanting to upgrade. If not, be prepared for more sad earnings from the PC companies.

How long is your work unit: An hour, or a half-day?

This essay about meetings, "Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule," written by Paul Graham, is right on the money.

I find that I can either set up a work day for meetings, or set it up for being productive. That's why I like to cluster meetings all into one or two days a week whenever possible. That way, my "meeting days" are productive, because I have lots and lots of meetings. And my "productive days" are productive too, because my own tasks get done.

Paul writes,

There are two types of schedules, which I'll call the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule. The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it's merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you're done.

Most powerful people are on the manager's schedule. It's the schedule of command. But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started.

When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That's no problem for someone on the manager's schedule. There's always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker's schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

This is very very true, at least for me. Using Paul's definitions, I'm both a manager and a maker. It's hard to shift between the modes.

The concept of a "meeting," by the way, also includes handling interrupt-driven tasks that weren't on my agenda for that day. Dropping out of a project to "handle" what someone thinks will be a five-minute task can easily derail my creative productivity for hours. That also includes long instant-messenger chats, things like that. (I love caller ID, so I can let calls go to voicemail and then call back during a non-productive time.)

Paul continues,

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there's sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I'm slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning.

That's true for me as well. If it's 9:00 AM, and I know I have a 30-minute meeting at 9:30 AM, that half-hour is "wasted" with non-productive tasks because half an hour isn't enough time to do anything meaningful. If the next 30-minute meeting is at, say, 11:00 AM, then it's hard to start something between them. Then it's time to start thinking about lunch. Two 30-minute meetings killed a whole morning.

Days without meetings are a golden treasure. It would be nice to work out a business schedule where all meetings happen just one or two days a week. Most of everyone's time could then be blissfully interrupt-free and therefore more productive. Wouldn't that be perfect?

MSDN Magazine, TechNet Magazine, to be published by 1105 Media

Congratulations to the publishing team at 1105 Media. That company is taking over the production of Microsoft's MSDN Magazine and TechNet Magazine.

Those two magazines are owned by Microsoft's Magazine Group. For many years, they have been produced, under contract, by United Business Media. (The UBM division that produced the magazines used to be called Miller Freeman, and then CMP Media. It's now called TechWeb.)

Microsoft is shifting its contract for those two magazines to 1105 Media. After the November 2009 issues close, 1105 will take over.

According to a letter from UBM,

Microsoft’s Magazine Group remains a premium content provider committed to the value of MSDN and TechNet content for readers and advertisers. As a part of the Magazine Group’s increased focus on web content, they have made a shift in their magazine strategy. After much consideration, TechWeb decided that these changes diverge from its core business strategy moving forward. As a result, Microsoft has now selected a new media vendor for MSDN Magazine and TechNet Magazine.

Losing the Microsoft contract will leave UBM with an even smaller piece of the software-development publishing market. UBM had been the publisher of Dr. Dobb's Journal, and producer of the "SD West" and "SD Best Practices" Software Development Conferences. Those, of course, are no more.

We wish 1105 Media good luck and a lot of success with MSDN Magazine and TechNet Magazine.

7.25.2009

Sun sets on an era of wonderful innovation

I come not to bury Sun Microsystems, but to praise it.

Oracle’s purchase of Sun is not yet complete; the deal hasn’t legally closed. However, the end is near: The shareholders have approved the deal and, on July 16, Sun’s board voted to accept the US$7.4 billion acquisition offer. All that’s left are the legalities.

While I’ve been critical of Sun’s management for the past several years, I will still mourn its passing as one of the last great innovators of our era. (While I respect Oracle’s technology portfolio and marketing clout, its innovations are less fanciful and appear more in the boardroom than the laboratory.)

My first hands-on experience with Sun’s products came a billion years ago, with Sun workstations. (Don’t forget, Sun’s original stock symbol, SUNW, meant “Sun Workstations.”) I had the pleasure of owning a Sun 3/60, a powerhouse picked up secondhand in the early 1990s, and used it to get my own first-hand experience with Unix.

That speedy workstation, to me, meant Sun.

Later that decade, I had the pleasure to work with some big servers and was impressed by their speed and reliability. Wonderful, wonderful hardware. As the company’s focus shifted from the engineering desktop to the data center, those servers, to me, meant Sun.

In the meantime, of course, Sun was working on software. While the Java platform was first announced in 1995, it didn’t begin making a serious impact until Java 2 came out in 1998. (Coincidentally, the very first issue of SD Times, published in February 2000, covered the announcement of Java 2 Micro Edition, then called J2ME, now called Java ME.)

By the early 2000s, Java, to me, meant Sun.

And so it stayed. Despite the company’s pushes to broaden the appeal of Solaris, its success in expanding its hardware portfolio into storage, its open-source moves, and its creative devices like the Sun SPOT, Sun became known for unfettered innovation—and for the inability to make money out of its brilliance.

Cleverness is not enough. That message, to me, means Sun.

Alan's big fat floppy adventure

Remember 3.5-inch floppy disks?

While poking around the basement this morning, I found an old USB-attachable 3.5-inch drive. It came with a server— I forget which one — right around the time when servers stopped including floppy drives. This particular server manufacturer included a USB floppy drive to assist in loading up device drivers or booting up an operating system.

Looking at the drive, I thought to myself, "Hmm, I wonder if this will help me clear out that ancient box of floppy disks."

For about 15 years, I've had a big box of DOS floppy disks, containing old articles, financial data, and so-on. It would be nice to bring those files onto my computer, and toss out the floppies.

To make a long story short: It worked. Even though those disks are ancient (dating from 1989 to 1996, according to my neatly written labels), my MacBook Pro and the TEAC FD-05PUB "External Floppy Disk Drive Unit" were able to read nearly all of them. It took under an hour to copy everything over.

The only disks that were not readable were three single-sided floppies. Oh, well!

More interesting was that it was easy to read the data. Nearly all were archives, created either by ARC or PKZIP. Many were not readable by the Mac's built-in zip-file reader, but were rapidly processed by Stuff-It Expander. Some of the files were plain text or Word for DOS documents, and others were Excel spreadsheets — and there were even Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets. The most intriguing is a big text file containing CompuServe mail archives from 1990. Can't wait to browse through those memories.

After I was done, I mangled the floppies using tin snips, and then tossed them into the trash. If I could read the data, so could anyone else.

The only challenge is that my floppy disk box still contains media. There are still 15 5.25-inch floppies, containing even older data from the mid-1980s, as well as six Iomega Zip-100 disks with data from the late 1990s. What am I going to do with those?

7.24.2009

Spam Scam Watch — a new home for spammy scammy emails

For several years, I've been sharing e-mail spam scams with my ZTrek blog readers. The primary reason has been to warn people against responding to such messages.

My hope is that when people receive questionable messages, they're enter some parts of it into their favorite search engine — and my blog will come up. By seeing that I've received an identical message, the recipient will be assured that the message is indeed a scam.

My spam scam warnings work. I'm delighted to receive comments from those who have discovered my blog — and found that the "offer too good to be true" is indeed a scam.

However, some regular blog readers have asked me to post those messages elsewhere. They would prefer that my ZTrek blog can continue focusing on software development, technology and other topics, and not be filled up with "noise" in the form of verbatim scam messages.

I'd like to thank those who suggested this, because I took your advice. In June, I started a new blog called Spam Scam Watch, and it's at spamscamwatch@blogspot.com.

While it may take some time to become prominent in search-engine rankings — ZTrek does quite well — I hope that the Spam Scam Watch blog will continue to fulfill this important need.

You can help me by linking to Scam Scam Watch from your own blog. It is a commercial-free and ad-free blog, so I would appreciate the favor.

For those of you who have read and commented on my scam postings over the years — thank you. I hope you keep following them in their new home.

Catch my classes at the Niche Digital Conference

On my to-do list: Preparing to teach two classes at the Niche Digital Conference. The event is coming up soon — September 21-22, in Minneapolis.

This is going to be a great conference. Billed as "the first digital-only conference for the niche media world," it's put on by my friend Carl Landau, one of the smartest publishers I've ever met. (Carl launched Computer Language and AI Expert magazines.)

My colleague Ted Bahr (the "B" of BZ Media) was the keynote at Carl's Niche Magazine Conference, a few months ago.

The Niche Digital Conference has three tracks, for CEO/publishers, advertising directors, and content/audience developers. My classes are:

Names, Names, Names - Lead Generation for Dummies: If you don't have a lead generation program, you're leaving money on the table! Alan Zeichick will teach you how to do lead generation right... The right lists, the right technology, the right promotion and sales approach.

Digital Edition Landscape: It's a big digital world out there! We'll explore how "digital editions" can bring the magazine experience to your subscribers, offer new revenue opportunities, and fit into your overall business strategy. And Alan Zeichick will show there's more to digital publishing than Web sites and browsers! Learn how mobile devices, such as the iPhone and Kindle, can expand your business into new areas.

The early-bird registration rate is $895, and this expires on July 30. After that, the rate goes to $1,095. If you're in the publishing business, and you think that Web sites and digital publishing are important, you should attend this conference. Tell Carl that Alan sent ya!

7.20.2009

Reducing complexity

Last week, I was heading out with a friend, and she offered to let me pilot her Acura. Settling into the driver’s seat, I reached down, pulled down a lever, and adjusted the way-too-high steering wheel into a more comfortable position. My friend stared at me. “I didn’t know it did that,” she said. She’s only owned that luxury car since 2006.

Have you ever experienced frustration with a product, only to be told by a friend or colleague, “Oh, that’s easy to change.” It can be a car, or a digital camera, or a cell phone, or a microwave oven, or a photocopier, or an office chair… or software.

The fault is with the designer, not with the user. Acura should have made it obvious that the steering wheel is adjustable. Digital camera and cell phone users shouldn’t have to dig through menus to “discover” how to use the product. And don’t get me started about photocopiers.

All too often, important features, functions and settings are totally invisible. Some controls can only be reached if you know where to look for them. Sometimes you may not even know that customizing the product’s interface or accessing key functionality is even possible.

It would be easy to take a cheap shot here, comparing the relative simplicity of the Macintosh to the complexity of Windows to the super-complexity of Unix and Linux. That wouldn’t be fair. Current versions of the Mac OS X are more complicated than earlier incarnations of the platform. Windows Vista has made strides toward simplification (although some, like User Access Control, made things worse). Windows 7 continues that welcome trend. And Linux and Unix… well, sorry, can’t do much there. Despite their GUIs, they still have a long way to go to achieve real consumer-level usability.

For casual users, the rise of the WIMP (Window, Icon, Menu, Pointing Device) GUI is a vast improvement over the command-line interface, where you must know which commands to type. Configuration wizards and pop-up contextual help are valuable aids. Still, user interfaces are too complicated, both with native apps and also with Web applications.

How many of your friends or family have configured the privacy settings on their Facebook accounts? Probably few even know that they can—and even fewer have done them correctly.

As a community and as professionals, we software developers have done a lousy job with usability. We often choose inappropriate defaults and don’t help our end users understand which behaviors can be changed. Our software isn’t sufficiently adaptive, intuitive and robust. The end result is that our customers are driving our applications with the metaphorical steering wheels set to an uncomfortable position

7.12.2009

Miniature flowerheads will brighten your life

Do you have beautiful potted plants? Make them even happier with a little flowerhead.

These little wool miniatures can be placed anywhere you have a little spot that needs brightening. A flower pot, on your desk, anywhere. There are lots of adorable flowerheads, each cuter than the next.

Flowerheads are lovingly created by my cousin Jessyca, a mixed-media artist who lives in Oregon with her husband Erik and son Finn. You can buy them in her Etsy shop.

Roxy wins the Virginia Lottery!

My friend Agnes owns several Swiss Mountain Dogs. One of them — Roxy — was named a winner of Virginia's Lucky Dog Contest, sponsored by the Virginia Lottery! The photo is of Maverick and Roxy.

I'm not a Dog Person, but the Swissies are beautiful, beautiful animals, and under Agnes' care, they're very well-behaved.

You can see the 20 winners here, and also read the press release.

Lottery tickets bearing Roxy's photo will go on sale in Virginia on Sept. 15. I've asked Agnes to buy me one. I wonder if Roxy can autograph it? Woof!

7.08.2009

Google’s Chrome OS is less significant than it looks

My email inbox was filled this morning with questions and opinions after news came out about Google’s new Chrome OS. Was this another frontal assault on Microsoft by the Googleplex? Is Google becoming too big and powerful? What’s going on?

There’s less to this announcement than breathless pundits are panting. Nobody should be surprised that Google wants to enable the development of standalone Internet devices. Chrome OS is an obvious extension of what the company is already doing with the Chrome browser and Android mobile platform.

Think about the classic functions of an operating system. It’s a program loader. It provides an abstraction layer for hardware. It allocates shared hardware resources, like processor time, memory and storage. It manages IO devices, including the focus of input devices. It provides a consistent user interface. It provides security between different processes. Stuff like that.

If your focus is to provide Internet access for the masses, using devices like netbooks, nettops and handhelds, you don’t need the heft or bloat of full-featured, industrial-strength operating systems like Windows XP, Windows 7 or Mac OS X. You want something thinner.

The best thin operating system for smaller Internet-centric devices is Moblin. However, Moblin has one serious flaw: The project is driven by Intel, and the company’s primary motivation is to get the market to adopt its Atom processors. Thus, Moblin is designed to freeze out competing chips, such as anything based on ARM. Until Moblin (recently put under the auspices of the Linux Foundation) becomes truly hardware-agnostic, its potential is limited.

That brings us to Chrome OS. Is it a competitor to Windows or Mac OS X? I don’t see it. What I do see is that Chrome, when it appears, will be essentially a delivery platform for browser-based computing using the Chrome browser.

Currently, Chrome is in the second tier of browsers, along with Safari and Opera. Chrome OS will move it into the first tier. Software developers must begin making sure that their applications run cleanly in the Chrome browser – just like they must do today with Internet Explorer.

And that, my friends, is all that this announcement means.

7.06.2009

Announcing ESDC 2010: A new conference for developers

You’ll want to be in San Mateo, Calif., on March 1–3, 2010. Why? Because of ESDC 2010, the Enterprise Software Development Conference, a conference that we’re launching for development managers, software architects and developers, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

ESDC 2010 addresses a tremendous need in software development. Over the past few years, we’ve watched the proliferation of technology-specific and vendor-specific events. While such conferences play an important role in developer training and building community (we produce one as well, SPTechCon: The SharePoint Technology Conference), they don’t cover everything.

A too-narrow educational focus can lead to platform siloing and foster a monoculture mindset. That scares dev managers, especially those who live in heterogeneous real-world environments and who want to keep their options open when it comes to platforms, tool chains, methodologies and languages.

When TechWeb shut down SD West after the March 2009 event in Santa Clara, we heard — loud and clear — that the conference’s demise would leave a big hole. We’ve decided to step up to the plate and fill that need.

As conference chairman for ESDC 2010, I’m reaching out to the best and brightest software development experts and instructors in the industry. The goal is to assemble the best platform-neutral, technology-neutral educational and community-building experience for enterprise developers — ever.

Please take part in ESDC 2010. Here’s how:

• The conference is March 1-3, 2010, at the San Mateo Marriott. Registration will open mid-July; we’ll kick it off with huge “Wacky Early Bird” discounts available through Sept. 25, 2009.

• If you’re a software development expert and instructor, check out the Call for Speakers. The deadline is July 31, 2009.

• Stay up to date by following us on Twitter, or watch for the #esdc hashtag.

I hope you’ll join us at ESDC 2010 — and thank you for your support as we launch this new conference.

About Me

My Photo
Co-founder and editorial director of BZ Media, which publishes SD Times, the leading magazine for the software development industry. Founder of SPTechCon: The SharePoint Technology Conference, AnDevCon: The Android Developer Conference, and Big Data TechCon. Also president and principal analyst of Camden Associates, an IT consulting and analyst firm.