What’s wrong with the mobile web?

Scott Karp has some of the reasons. Ryan Stewart says all we need is optimized rich internet applications. Problem is, what proportion of the Internet’s vast resources is ever going to be packaged as RIAs targeting devices? And what is the chance that your particular device will actually be able to run these RIAs where they exist? This is not only a technical problem; there is also the issue of telecom companies locking down their contract mobiles.

My take is different. Although I agree with most of Karp’s points, I reckon we have to change the devices, not the Internet. I am a relatively heavy mobile web user, and I actually have a problem with many sites that are supposedly optimized for mobiles. They tend to presume that I am using the tiniest possible screen – my mobile screen is bigger than some – and sometimes make it difficult to access the full content of the site. I end up trying to figure out how to get past the mobile-detection, pretending to be a desktop browser.

My preference then is for devices that do smart things with zooming, scaling and paging, so that the real Web is easier to use. Based on my brief hands-on test, Apple’s iPhone is fairly good at this. So is my Samsung i600, and so are the Nokia Internet Tablets that I’ve seen, to name a couple of others.

Site designers that really want to be device-friendly should never assume that the browser is capable of running Flash 9, Silverlight, or the latest Ajax libraries. After all, plain old HTML is fantastic for diverse devices – that is what it was designed for. Having this as an alternative alongside the latest Ajaxified or RIA-based UI is great for struggling mobile web users such as myself.

Zimki closure shows the perils of hosted web platforms

A couple of days ago, a low-key posting on the Zimki blog announced the closure of the service:

We regret to inform you that the Zimki service is to be withdrawn and therefore will no longer be available from 24 December 2007. We would like to apologise for any inconvenience that this may cause…There are no plans to opensource Zimki…We hope that Zimki has helped to increase your knowledge and understanding of the possibilities that utility computing and an online application framework can bring.

Zimki is a platform for online applications, and boasted rapid development, use of a familiar language (Javascript), fault-tolerance and scalability through use of a hosted platform:

There was also this claim in the documentation:

Zimki itself will be released as open-source software soon freeing you from fears of lock-in that having only a single-provider may cause.

Apparently this was a promise that counted for nothing. Anyone who seriously committed to Zimki has some rapid rethinking and migration to do. Zimki simply advises its users to remove their data and applications from its platform before it closes for ever in a few months’ time.

Well, there were plenty of warning signs. In July, parent company Canon Europe announced that it would cease to invest in the project – this Reg story has the details. But it strikes me that the Zimki story is thought-provoking for anyone contemplating a move to hosted applications. The concept makes huge sense, provided that the platform you choose does not run into problems beyond the control of its users. Just how big and financially stable does the provider have to be, in order to reduce that risk to reasonable proportions?

Amazon launches iTunes music store competitor

Amazon’s MP3 download store has launched. Unlike the otherwise similar service from emusic.com, Amazon’s store features many of the big names that form the pop mainstream, from Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen to Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and John Lennon (but not the Beatles). There are still big gaps, but this is a significant initiative.

The big selling point is the songs are DRM-free. I never expected to see this. Even iPod/iTunes users may appreciate what this means. For example, virtually any mobile phone will play MP3 files, whereas DRM-encumbered AAC files are restricted to Apple’s expensive iPhone. Amazon has included an iTunes/Windows Media Player integration applet, which automatically updates your media library.

Most of the songs are 256 kbps vbr MP3 files – probably a little better quality than Apple’s 128 kbps AAC files, and cheaper than the iTunes store for DRM-free files where they exist. You cannot replace previously purchased files, so watch those backups, or maybe upload them to Amazon S3.

This strikes me as the first commercial competitor to iTunes that stands some chance of success. A bigger problem for the music industry is Illegal downloads and file-swapping. In theory Amazon’s service could make illegal music exchange worse, by providing more files to swap; but the executives have possibly concluded that since the dam has already burst, a few more drops of water will make little difference. It seems that promoting competition for Apple has become more important than DRM.

Will I buy? It’s more attractive than the iTunes music store; but I would still normally buy a CD and rip it, because I prefer music files without lossy compression. Actually, Amazon has cottoned on to this as well, and publishes a how-to guide:

After you’ve purchased a CD (say, from the Amazon Music Store), you can quickly and easily “rip” them, or copy them onto your computer, by using software such as Apple’s iTunes or Microsoft Windows Media Player.

The problem Amazon faces is the seamless experience offered by iPod/iTunes. Competing will not be easy, but this is a start. If it succeeds, it will help to promote alternative hardware as well. It’s all welcome news for users – but not yet internationally. Amazon’s MP3 store is in beta and restricted to the United States only.

Ubuntu Desktop not used in business

I got a telling reponse from Canonical when I approached its Public Relations team looking for case studies of businesses that had switched from Windows:

… we find that the businesses using Ubuntu tend to use the server edition right now and so a windows comparison is not relevant. Ubuntu desktop is largely in the consumer space not business.

It hardly comes as a surprise to discover that most businesses use Windows, but I did think there would be a few examples. I’ve been running Ubuntu, mainly on my laptop, and find it perfectly solid and useable. In fact, it is possibly better suited for business than for consumers. The problem with Linux is that you always seem to run into one or two problems that require intricate, non-obvious steps to resolve. Well, they are obvious to Linux geeks, but not to the rest of us. In a business this can be mitigated by standardizing the hardware and providing a channel of support, but home users are more likely to get frustrated. Furthermore, in my experience home users install a greater variety of software. They get CDs from ISPs, or with their new scanner or camera, and expect them to work. They want to play games and enjoy DVDs. All these things can be problematic for home users, but are less relevant and more easily managed for business users.

I don’t mean to minimize the problems facing anyone switching to Linux. In the business world, that includes custom or niche software that is likely to be Windows-only. Every small business I encounter seems to have an Access or VB application that has become business-critical. Another snag is doing without Microsoft Office. Yes, Microsoft Office is over-priced (unless you are a home or academic user), but it is on the whole better to work with than Open Office, and if you are bashing out documents all day that makes a difference (I make an exception for Outlook 2007, which is infuriatingly slow). There is also the thorny problem of document compatibility, recently made worse by the format wars.

Another factor, under-appreciated by the media, is that Windows has a mature and very comprehensive administrative infrastructure for managing any number of desktops. For larger organizations this makes Windows the obvious choice.

Therefore I was not expecting very many examples, but I thought there would be one or two case studies, particularly as Canonical offers a table of prices for desktop support. I doubt many home users are taking this up. Of course Linux is mainly popular on the server, but Ubuntu has a particular desktop focus.

I am hoping that someone will read this blog and say, “this is nonsense, we use Ubuntu in business”. If that is the case, please contact me, especially if you are in the UK, and willing to be quoted. I’d also be interested in hearing from those who tried and failed, or explored the possibility and gave up.

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Why Open Office does not import/export Microsoft Office Open XML

Interesting opinion [Slashdot] from someone who says he is one of the founders of NeoOffice:

Yes, OpenXML import and export could be integrated into OOo [Open Office] today but engineering politics and Sun’s manipulation of the project to foment a document format war have kept this functionality out of OOo, doing nothing except harm users that need to seamlessly integrate with MS Office environments.

I’m inclined to agree. If niche player DocumentsToGo can implement this feature, is it so hard for Open Office? I doubt it. Now, I am sure that any such feature would not be perfect – but import/export features never are. Equally, I’d expect that it would work fine with the vast majority of documents that people email back and forth every day.

See also A Plague on both your houses.

PS Microsoft could also do a much better job with ODF import/export. These problems are more political than technical.

Update: note that according to this document “Office 12 import” is planned for the 3.0 release of Open Office, which is due in September 2008. There are no stated plans for export.

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Fixing Bluetooth on a Toshiba with Ubuntu

I’ve been running Ubuntu Linux on my Toshiba laptop. One of the few things that did not work initially was the internal Bluetooth adapter. Ubuntu knew it was there: it shows in Device Manager as “Platform Device (bluetooth)”. But all the utilities behaved as if no Bluetooth adapter was available.

It looked like a driver problem so I ferreted around looking for a driver. That wasn’t it though. The problem is simply that by default the Bluetooth adapter is turned off. It can only be turned on in software using a Toshiba utility. Toshiba does not provide this for Linux, but fortunately it has been reverse engineered. So the solution is to install toshset, which you can do easily from Synaptic Package Manager. Then you open a terminal and type:

sudo toshset -bluetooth on

and it all starts working. I installed gnome-bluetooth and successfully sent files to and from my mobile phone (Samsung i600).

Not difficult once you know; but it wasn’t obvious what to do after the initial install failed to give working Bluetooth. The pain of being in the minority.

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The battle for the dominant Web API

Thought-provoking post from Joel Spolsky on web client APIs. He says that whoever has the best AJAX library will be the next Microsoft.

Spolsky dismisses “the p-code/Java model” (which would include Flash and Silverlight 1.1 as well as Java applets):

Sandboxes are penalty boxes; they’re slow and they suck, which is why Java Applets are dead, dead, dead. To build a sandbox you pretty much doom yourself to running at 1/10th the speed of the underlying platform, and you doom yourself to never supporting any of the cool features that show up on one of the platforms but not the others.

I don’t follow his logic here. First, “sandboxes” may be slow compared to true native code, but they are faster than any browser-hosted Javascript, at least until Tamarin comes along. Second, AJAX apps are generally as much or more hobbled than plug-in applets.

I’m not dismissing the idea of compiling to Javascript though. There are interesting projects that do this already. In addition, Spolsky seems to be thinking along the same lines as Microsoft’s Eric Meijer, who told me about the misleadingly-named “LINQ 2.0”. But I think plug-in based apps will be important as well, both as entire applications and as rich components within AJAX apps.

Personally I hope there will not be a “new Microsoft.” I’d like to see diversity based on web standards.

IBM’s new Lotus Symphony

I’ve had a quick look at the beta of Lotus Symphony, IBM’s new Office suite. It’s built on the Eclipse Rich Client Platform (RCP), which is interesting in itself, and is another salvo in the office document format war.

Why would anyone want to use the new Symphony? I presume it makes some kind of sense in the context of an integrated workflow and collaboration platform based on Notes. Considered purely as an office suite, it does not yet come close to Microsoft Office, or even Open Office.

The FAQ claims some compatibility with “Microsoft Office files” (though there’s a long list of things that might not convert correctly), but studiously avoids any mention of the 2007 Microsoft Office document formats. It should say: compatibility with old Microsoft Office formats. Note that if you install Office 2007, save a document, and try to open it in Symphony, it will not work at all. Nor will Microsoft Office (any version) open Symphony documents, unless you take the trouble to export to a format other than Open Document. What a mess.

When I searched for Lotus Symphony on Google, I was amused to see what came third and fourth in the list:

Scott Guthrie on .NET futures

I’ve posted my interview with Scott Guthrie, from the UK Mix07. It covers topics including LINQ, Silverlight, the work with Novell/Mono on Moonlight (Silverlight for Linux), ASP.NET futures including MVC, and offline web applications.

Guthrie is a General Manager at Microsoft, responsible for most of the development teams working on .NET. He did some excellent presentations at the UK Mix, intermingling live coding and demos with slides, talk, and dealing with ad-hoc questions – not an easy task.

There were several things I found interesting in his answers to my questions. On a technical level, the way Microsoft’s various implementations of the Common Language Runtime share code is intriguing. In particular, I was fascinated to learn that Silverlight and the desktop CLR are built from the same code tree. There is a second code tree for the CLR, but it is for the Compact Framework, not for Silverlight. The implication is that the performance of Silverlight and its compatibility with other .NET code should be pretty good.

How then is Silverlight much smaller than the desktop CLR? The reason is that most of the Framework library is missing. That’s the trade-off.

Another point of interest is the strength of Guthrie’s reaction when I asked about offline web applications, and Microsoft’s platform versus other approaches such as Google Gears and Adobe AIR. When a spokesperson takes the trouble to trash the competition, it is often a sign of concern.

CodeGear’s Ruby on Rails IDE is released

CodeGear has released its IDE for Ruby on Rails. Called 3rdRail, it installs an instant Ruby on Rails environment, and features code completion, project management, refactoring and integrated debugging. The Eclipse-based IDE runs on Windows, Mac and Linux, and a 30 day trial is available. I’m downloading it now.

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