Microsoft lets go of IronPython and IronRuby

Visual Studio corporate VP Jason Zander has announced that IronPython and IronRuby, .NET implementations of popular dynamic languages, are to be handed over to the open source community. This includes add-ons that enable development in Visual Studio, IronPython Tools and IronRuby Tools. Of the two, IronPython is a more mature and usable project.

Why? Here’s a few reflections. For what it must cost Microsoft to maintain these projects, versus the goodwill it earns in the open source world, I would have thought they represent good value and I am surprised to see them abandoned.

On the other hand, it is easy to see that they are not commercial propositions. I’d guess that they were more valuable a few years back, before C# acquired dynamic features, and when dynamic languages were strongly in vogue and Microsoft was keen not to allow .NET to fall behind. To some extent dynamic languages are still in vogue, but we are now well past what is “the peak of inflated expectations” in the Gartner Hype Cycle, and few are likely to abandon .NET because it does not have an official Python or Ruby.

The other reason they are not commercial propositions is that Microsoft has under-invested in them. I recall Martin Fowler at ThoughtWorks telling me that JRuby, an implementation of Ruby for the Java Virtual Machine, is important to their work; it lets them work in a highly productive language, while giving clients the reassurance of running on a trusted and mature platform. JRuby performs very well, but IronRuby is a long way behind. Perhaps if Microsoft had really got behind them, one or both of these language could be equally significant in the .NET world.

The fact that F# rather than IronRuby or IronPython turned up as a fully supported language in Visual Studio 2010 is also significant. After talking to F# leader Don Syme – see the interview here – I understood how F# was important to some of Microsoft’s key customers in the financial world; and I’m guessing that neither Python nor Ruby had that kind of case made for them within the company.

Although it is a shame that Microsoft is withdrawing official support, the clarity of Zander’s statement is better than leaving the projects in limbo. The folk appointed as project leaders are also very capable – Mono guru Miguel de Icaza is on both teams and a great motivator, though it seems unlikely he will have much time to devote to them given his other commitments – and this may actually be good rather than bad news for the projects themselves.

Jim Hugunin, creator of both Jython (Python for Java) and IronPython, is leaving Microsoft for Google, and his farewell is worth a read. He says C# has evolved into a nicer language than Java, but notes:

I like to have a healthy relationship with Open Source code and communities, and I believe that the future lies in the cloud and the web. These things are all possible to do at Microsoft and IronPython is a testament to that. However, making that happen at Microsoft always felt like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – which can be done but only at major cost to both the peg and the hole.

Windows Phone 7 battles indifference in London

Today is launch day for Windows Phone 7 in the UK – but the hoped-for crowds of people waiting to buy the new phone failed to appear.

They are billed as the handsets that could topple the iPhone. Yet as Microsoft’s Windows 7 phones went on sale this morning there was not a queue in sight.

reported the London Evening Standard.

The device also suffered faint praise from the influential Wall Street Journal reviewer Walt Mossberg. Although he called the user interface “novel and attractive”, he complained about missing features:

Microsoft has inexplicably omitted from Windows Phone 7 key features now common, or becoming so, on competitive phones. These missing features include copy and paste, visual voicemail, multitasking of third-party apps, and the ability to do video calling and to use the phone to connect other devices to the Internet. The Android phones and the iPhone handle all these things today.

adding that

I couldn’t find a killer innovation that would be likely to make iPhone or Android users envious, except possibly for dedicated Xbox users.

Is he right? In some ways it does not matter; perception is reality. That said, none of his missing features strike me as deal-breakers for a majority of users. You can also argue that Microsoft has learnt from Apple not to put every possible feature into the first release, but rather to make the features it does implement work as well as possible and to build on that in the future.

The problem is that there is so much momentum around Google Android and Apple iPhone that the average consumer looking for a smartphone will need a lot of persuading before paying out for Windows Phone 7, or even really noticing it. Microsoft needed rave reviews, not so-so ones. There is a danger that the new phone may suffer the same fate as Palm’s webOS devices, well liked by those who take the trouble to explore them, but absent from the mainstream of consumer consciousness.

I’ve had a device for a few days, and it has been favourably received by people I’ve shown it to. Some of the games look great – The Harvest, for example, a Microsoft exclusive. The Facebook integration is also appealing to fans of that site, and feels deeper than Facebook apps on other devices. Windows Phone 7 does have distinctive features.

I’ll be reviewing the device properly in due course. What is more interesting than my opinions though is how the phone is received in the market. I had expected more interest from the curious on day one of retail release.

Update: Microsoft found a queue or two for its press release today. Big in Australia?

Apple deprecates Java

Apple has deprecated the version of Java that it ports and maintains for OS X:

As of the release of Java for Mac OS X 10.6 Update 3, the version of Java that is ported by Apple, and that ships with Mac OS X, is deprecated.

This means that the Apple-produced runtime will not be maintained at the same level, and may be removed from future versions of Mac OS X. The Java runtime shipping in Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, and Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, will continue to be supported and maintained through the standard support cycles of those products.

This is not altogether a bad thing for Java. Waiting for Apple to update its official version has been a frustration for Java developers on the Mac. If Oracle now takes responsibility for delivering the JVM for OS X, it may keep in step.

Unfortunately there is not currently an Oracle JVM for OS X. Nor does the open source Apache Harmony support it. In the light of Apple’s announcement I imagine both may address this lack; though a further complication is that IBM has recently abandoned Harmony in favour of the Open JDK.

Further, in making this statement Apple is further discouraging use of Java application on OS X. This announcement should be put together with this one, in the new developer agreement for apps submitted to the forthcoming Mac App Store, a desktop version of the iOS App Store:

3.3.1    Applications may only use public APIs and frameworks included in the default installation of Mac OS X or as bundled with Xcode as provided by Apple, deprecated technologies (such as Java) may not be used.

I doubt Apple will ever attempt to lock down desktop OS X, iPad-style. But I think we will see strong encouragement from Apple steering users towards App Store installs. There will be hints that it is safer and better, the true Mac way to get apps onto your machine.

Remember the early days of Java? One of the reasons it won support was that it reduced the industry’s dependence on a single vendor and its operating system.

Plenty to think about as Apple increases its market share.

[Updated to clarify non-availability of alternative JVMs for OS X]

Gadgets, gadgets: 5.1 headphones, and a multitude of iPod docks and USB drives

It’s the time of year when hopeful gadget manufacturers lay out their shiny new wares in the hope of a bumper Christmas season; so this evening I attended a multi-vendor press event for that purpose.

What I found both interesting and disappointing was the lack of innovation in what is on offer. There was table after table of iPod docks and USB drives. On the iPod side, it shows I guess the extent to which Apple has taken over the home hi-fi market as well as the portable market. Although Apple does not make the docks, it gets a royalty for use of its proprietary connector, as well as enhancing the value of its iTunes/iPod/iPhone ecosystem.

It is not quite all iPod. I did have a lengthy discussion with the man from Arcam about its new rDAC digital audio converter. “Don’t all DACs sound the same?” I asked him, whereupon he drew diagrams to convince me that there are still challenges in making a high fidelity DAC, that CD-quality sounds better and high resolution 24/96 audio better still through an rDAC. I am hoping to get a review sample in order to test his claims.

Another item that caught my eye was the 5.1 headphone set from Roccat, a Hamburg-based company you most likely have not heard of. The headphones are called Kave, are aimed at gamers – though I imagine they should also be fun for movies – and are not too bulky considering their six drives. They also include a microphone for live gaming, though they cannot connect to an Xbox without an adapter. I will be reviewing these – if they work as advertised, it is rather a good idea. Roccat also offers a range of gaming mice with extra switches and customisable lighting effects (honest). If you have the patience to set up commands and macros for the additional button combinations that are available I guess these can be productive for a variety of computing tasks, not just for gaming. Sorry Mac people; this one is Windows only.

I am not sure what FileMaker was doing at a predominantly consumer event; but I was glad to catch up a little with this Mac database business (owned by Apple). With both the Mac and the iPad increasingly making their way into business computing, FileMaker has the opportunity to grow its market share a little. FileMaker 11 has been out since March, and in the summer the company released FileMaker Go for iPhone and iPad. FileMaker Go is a client for FileMaker applications, and one of the things that intrigues me is that it does apparently run scripts that are part of the application. Doesn’t this breach Apple’s guidelines which prohibit runtime interpreters? It is a moot point, and  I suppose you can argue that FileMaker scripts are so specific to FileMaker database applications that it does not count as general-purpose scripting. Still, it strikes me as a sign of flexibility in Apple’s restrictions – unless it is only because FileMaker is owned by Apple and gets a special pass, which the man from FileMaker denied.

I took a quick look at the latest SSD (solid state drive) drives from Kingston and Buffalo. I would like to fit one of these in my netbook, for improved speed and battery life, but for a typical netbook, installing a 128GB SSD will more than double the price, so they are still a little expensive.

So what about all the USB and network attached storage, is there anything to say about it? Some of the portable USB devices have built-in encryption, which may be handy for businesses. “Try 10 times with the wrong password and the data is wiped,” one vendor told me proudly; I’m afraid I immediately thought of the case when it is your data and you have that forgotten the password.

I did like the storage solutions that offer access to files over the internet. Pogoplug is one; just attach a drive to the Pogoplug, connect the Pogoplug to your router, and then you can access your stuff from anywhere via the company’s web site. The innovation this year is a wi-fi model that no longer has to sit next to your router. There is even an iOS app for mobile access. You can also give access to specified external users.

Another variation on this theme is Hitachi’s LifeStudio, which supports backup to cloud storage. You get 3GB cloud storage free, with an option to purchase additional space by subscription.

Nuance was showing its Mac speech input application called Dragon Dictate. I have been trying Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11, which is most impressive, and spoke to Nuance about the difference between the two. According to the folk at the event, the Windows version is still a little ahead technically, but it is getting close.

Finally, VMWare and Parallels were there showing their desktop emulation solutions for running Windows on the Mac. VMWare showed me its physical-to-virtual utility, which lets you migrate your old PC to a virtual machine on your Mac. It is an excellent solution if you need to run Windows apps on a Mac.

Microsoft unveils Office 365, wins vs Google in California. What are the implications for its future?

Today Microsoft announced Office 365, though it is not really a new product. Rather, it pulls together a bunch of existing ones: Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), Office Live Small Business, and Live@edu, the cloud  . It also impacts the desktop Office business, in that with at least some varieties of Office 365 subscriptions, users get the right to download and install Office 2010 Pro Plus edition.

This rebranding is a smart move. I have long been mystified by the myriad brands Microsoft users for its online offerings. I hope this will all integrate nicely with the new Small Business Server “Aurora”, a forthcoming version of SBS designed to bridge the cloud and the local network. If it does, this will be attractive for small businesses – who will pay $6.00 per user per month, we were told today – as well as for larger organisations.

Enterprises will pay between $2.00 and $27.00 per user depending on which services they buy, and can get extra features such as unlimited space for email archiving.

I also find it interesting that Microsoft has won what sounds like a bitter battle with Google for the migration of the State of California to online services.

Why would anyone choose Microsoft rather than Google for cloud services? Google was born in the web era, has no desktop legacy weighing it down, has helped to drive browser standards forward with HTML 5 and lightning-fast JavaScript, promotes open standards, and has a great free offering as well as subscriptions? Further, with Android Google has a fast-growing mobile platform which it can integrate with its services.

No doubt Microsoft can make a case for its cloud offerings, but I suspect a lot of it is the power of the familiar. If you already run on Office documents and Exchange email, moving to online versions of the same applications will seem a smoother transition. There is also the document format issue: you can import Office documents into Google Apps, but not with with 100% fidelity, and the online editors are basic compared with Microsoft Office.

When Microsoft seemingly had no idea what the cloud was about, it was easier for Google to win customers. Now Microsoft is slowly but surely getting the idea, and the value of its long-standing hold over business computing is being felt.

Google is also winning customers, of course, and even if you accept that Office 365 is the future for many existing Microsoft-platform businesses – and, Microsoft will hope, some new ones – there are still a host of interesting questions about the company’s future.

One is how the numbers stack up. Can Microsoft as cloud provider be as profitable as Microsoft has been with the old locally installed model?

Second, what are the implications for its partners? In today’s press announcement we were told that customers migrating to BPOS report a 10%-50% cost saving. The implication is that these companies are spending less money on IT than before – so who is losing out? It could be Microsoft, it could be hardware suppliers, it could be integration partners. Microsoft does include potential for partners to profit from Office 365 migrations, presuming it follows the BPOS model, but partners could still be worse off.

For example, if support requests diminish,because cloud services are more reliable, and if Microsoft does some support directly, there is less opportunity for partners support services.

Finally, what are the implications for developers? The main one is this. Organisations that migrate to online services will have little enthusiasm for locally installed custom applications, and will also want to reduce their dependence on local servers. In other words, custom applications will also need to live in the cloud.

Ray Ozzie no longer to be Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect

A press release, in the form of a memo from CEO Steve Ballmer, tells us that Ray Ozzie is to step down from his role as Chief Software Architect. He is not leaving the company:

Ray and I are announcing today Ray’s intention to step down from his role as chief software architect. He will remain with the company as he transitions the teams and ongoing strategic projects within his organization … Ray will be focusing his efforts in the broader area of entertainment where Microsoft has many ongoing investments.

It is possible that I have not seen the best of Ozzie. His early Internet Services Disruption memo was impressive, but the public appearances I have seen at events like PDC have been less inspiring. He championed Live Mesh, which I thought had promise but proved disappointing on further investigation, and was later merged with Live Synch, becoming a smaller initiative than was once envisaged. Balmer says Ozzie was also responsible for “conceiving, incubating and shepherding” Windows Azure, in which case he deserves credit for what seems to be a solid platform.

Ozzie may have done great work out of public view; but my impression is that Microsoft lacks the ability to articulate its strategy effectively, with neither Ozzie nor Ballmer succeeding in this. Admittedly it is a difficult task for such a diffuse company; but it is a critical one. Ballmer says he won’t refill the CSA role, which is a shame in some ways. A gifted strategist and communicator in that role could bring the company considerable benefit.

Adobe Acrobat X puts the focus on security and usability

Adobe has announced Acrobat X (pronounced Acrobat ten), the latest PDF document creator with its associated free reader, which will be available in November.

The Acrobat product is a bit of a chameleon. The PDF format – now an ISO standard – has three distinct roles.

The first and original role is as a means of distributing electronic documents that look the same everywhere. This has never been a goal of HTML, which was designed to give the browser, or “user agent”, flexibility over how to render documents. Word processor formats are also compromised in this respect, because they are for editing, whereas PDF is for output. This is how most users encounter PDFs – a document format which is somewhat annoying, especially when it opens to a full page view and you cannot read a thing, but which does show each page as originally designed.

The second role is for print professionals. This is a logical extension of the first role: the same characteristics make it ideal as a format for delivery to a printer. If terms like Preflight, Calibrated CMYK, Trap presets and Job Definition Format mean anything to you, this may be how you use PDF.

The third role is as the forms client in Adobe enterprise workflow systems. When I attended Adobe’s Partner Conference in Amsterdam, this usage was the area of focus. I saw case studies such as processing applications for planning permission, invoicing, and health insurance applications.

Is there any conflict between these roles? I believe there is, though Adobe will disagree. There are features in Acrobat and Adobe reader which exist to support its role in enterprise systems, but do not matter to the more common use of PDF, for distributing static documents. In particular, the ability to execute script and host Flash applications has value if you think of PDF as an application client, but if you just want to read a document it adds bloat and security risk.

Still, we should not complain too much. PDF is both useful and, for most of us, free – particularly now that PDF export is a standard feature in Microsoft Office and in many Mac applications.

After that preamble, what is new in Acrobat X? I’ve been trying a late pre-release, and from what I have seen the changes are more in the realm of the user interface, usability and security, than in new capabilities, though I would still describe this as a major update. Here are the highlights.

First, Adobe has responded to PDF security issues by introducing a new protected mode on Windows, which according to Adobe is the only platform where significant malware attacks via PDF occur. All write calls are sandboxed by default, making it hard for malware to infect a PC. Apparently this is just the first phase, and a future version will restrict read calls as well. Another weakness in the current sandbox is that it does not protect the Windows clipboard.

Second, Adobe has polished and simplified the user interface. In a web browser, a PDF appears without any additional controls or toolbars other than a small toolbar that appears if you hover the mouse around the bottom centre of the page.


Adobe’s intent is to make moving from HTML to PDF so seamless you hardly notice, further embedding the format into the web.

Acrobat’s user interface has also been revamped. There are a few basic commands on the traditional menu and toolbars, but most of the features are accessed through a tabbed right-hand column, with tabs for Tools, Comments and Share. It is similar to the old Office task pane. I think it is successful, making features easier to find and use.


One of the sections in the Tools pane is called Action Wizard, which is a new macro feature in Acrobat Pro. “Macro” is not quite right; it is more of a wizard authoring tool, with some pre-prepared wizards that you can use as-is or modify. The following illustration shows one of these wizards in edit mode.


The Action Wizard should both speed up repetitive tasks, and ensure that important steps are not omitted. The focus is on preparing documents, for example for review, distribution, or web publishing.

Third, Adobe is having another go at the portfolio feature, introduced in Acrobat 9 but perhaps not used as much as the company had hoped. Portfolios let you combine multiple documents into one, for single file distribution with some added features in the container. If you are nostalgic for the Microsoft Office Binder, you will like Portfolios.

Acrobat X makes portfolios easier to create, and adds features like layouts and visual themes, so you can achieve slick effects with little effort. Organisations might create their own themes so as to promote their brand.


It is cool stuff, but if the portfolio feature in Acrobat 9 found little use, I am not sure that this new improved version will make much difference. Maybe the need for gathering multiple documents into one is not as great as Adobe imagines.

Other features include Microsoft SharePoint integration, enhanced OCR (optical character recognition), and improved copy and paste from PDF to editable documents such as Word and Excel, while preserving formatting – this last quite an important feature since this is a common source of frustration.

I am not sure about portfolios, and have some concern that Adobe has pushed too many features into Acrobat. Nevertheless, I found myself liking the new Acrobat. The usability effort has paid off, and I found it more enjoyable to use than previous versions. Performance seems better as well. Taken together with security improvements on Windows, this is a welcome upgrade.

Update: UK price details are as follows

  • Acrobat X Standard is expected to be £278 ex VAT (£132 upgrade)
  • Acrobat X Pro is expected to be £444 ex VAT (£190 upgrade)
  • Acrobat X Suite (includes Acrobat X Pro, Photoshop CS5, Presenter 7, Captivate 5, Media Encoder CS5, LiveCycle Designer ES2) is expected to be £953 ex VAT (£635 upgrade)

Which mobile platforms will fail?

Gartner’s Nick Jones addressed this question in a blog post yesterday. He refers to the “rule of three” which conjectures that no more than three large vendors can succeed in a mature market. If this applies in mobile, then we will see no more than three survivors, after failures and consolidation, from the following group plus any I’ve missed. I have shown platforms that have common ownership and are already slated to be replaced in strikeout format.

  • Apple iOS
  • Google Android
  • Samsung Bada
  • Maemo MeeGo
  • RIM BlackBerry OS BlackBerry Tablet OS (QNX)
  • HP/Palm WebOS
  • Symbian
  • Windows Mobile Windows Phone 7 and successors

Jones says that success requires differentiation, critical mass, and a large handset manufacturer. I am not sure that the last two are really distinct. It is easy to fall into the tautology trap: to be successful a platform needs to be successful. Quite so; but what we are after is the magic ingredient(s) that make it so.

Drawing up a list like this is hard, since some operating systems are more distinct than others. Android, Bada, MeeGo and WebOS are all Linux-based; iOS is also a Unix-like OS. Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7 are both based on Windows CE.

While it seems obvious that not all the above will prosper, I am not sure that the rule of three applies. I agree that it is unlikely that mobile app vendors will want to support and build 8 or more versions of each app in order to cover the whole market; but this problem does not apply to web apps, and cross-platform frameworks and runtimes can solve the problem to some extent – things like Adobe AIR for mobile, PhoneGap and Appcelerator. Further, there will probably always be mobile devices on which few if any apps are installed, where the user will not care about the OS or application store.

Still, pick your winners. Gartner is betting on iOS and Android, predicting decline for RIM and Symbian, and projecting a small 3.9% share for Microsoft by 2014.

I am sure there will be surprises. The question of mobile OS market share should not be seen in isolation, but as part of a bigger picture in which cloud+device dominates computing. Microsoft has an opportunity here, because in theory it can offer smooth migration to existing Microsoft-platform businesses, taking advantage of their investment – or lock-in – to Active Directory, Exchange, Office and .NET. In the cloud that makes Microsoft BPOS and Azure attractive, while a mobile device with great support for Exchange and SharePoint, for example, is attractive to businesses that already use these platforms.

The cloud will be a big influence at the consumer end too. There is talk of a Facebook phone which could disrupt the market; but I wonder if we will see the existing Facebook and Microsoft partnership strengthen once people realise that Windows Phone 7 has, from what I have seen, the best Facebook integration out there.

So there are two reasons why Gartner may have under-rated Microsoft’s prospects. Equally, you can argue that Microsoft is too late into this market, with Android perfectly positioned to occupy the same position with respect to Apple that worked so well for Microsoft on the desktop.

It is all too early to call. The best advice is to build in the cloud and plan for change when it comes to devices.

PyCharm: JetBRAINS IDE for Python and Django

JetBRAINS has released PyCharm, an IDE for Python and the Django web development framework.

The company is best known for the IntelliJ IDEA Java IDE, and indeed PyCharm is mostly written in Java, but now has other tools for languages including PHP and Ruby and Rails. It also does add-ins for .NET developrs working in Visual Studio.


PyCharm has a small number of refactorings, lots of code search and assistance features,  integrated support for CVS, Git, Mercurial and Subversion version control, unit testing with a graphical test runner, graphical debugger, built-in deployment to Google App Engine as well as error highlighting for GQL queries, and editing support for HTML, CSS and JavaScript as well as Python.

A useful Windows Phone 7 app in a couple of hours – Where’s my Train

I was interested to see that National Rail Enquiries has published a web service for its live departure boards. These give you reports on the next trains to depart from any given station, including information on late running.

Given that this is Windows Phone 7 week, I could not resist trying it out. I have a minimalist UI – you type in a station and hit Go. In version two you will just press Enter. It fetches the live train departures and displays them in a list. Version two might have a scrollbar too. Still, I’m pleased with the results, which could actually prove useful when I am running for a train.


Confession: it is currently hardcoded for just a few stations. That’s because you need to look up the station code in this table. I need to embed this database in my app somehow.

The coding is pretty simple though. It may help that the National Rail Enquiries web service is based on .NET, which is also why it does SOAP and WSDL, to the disappointment of those looking for REST. All the hard stuff is done by Add Service Reference in Visual Studio. The web service call is asynchronous, but there is a code completion wizard to add the necessary event handler.

Could be a money spinner if I can get it out quickly – but unfortunately the terms and conditions appear to prohibit its distribution:

This Web Site is for your personal and non-commercial use. You may not at any time modify, store, copy (including for example screen scraping), extract, reutilise, distribute, transmit, display, perform, reproduce, publish, license, create derivative works from, transfer, or sell, distribute or create any information, products or services obtained from, linked to or using this Web Site and any data therein or that may provide users with the ability to do the same.

These terms are bit puzzling, because on one interpretation they do not permit any use of the web service, even though it is stated that:

For the purposes of these Terms & Conditions the term Web Site also includes the web services, XML and any other data source supplying the Web Site.

Oh well. It still shows how quickly you can knock together a client for a web service and make something useful, although mine is really only a proof of concept. I reckon it would be almost as easy in Adobe AIR too – and then it would run on Android.

There is a National Rail Enquiries app for iPhone which costs $7.99 and likely uses the same web service.