blist: online database, Flash application, beautiful but flawed

Today I was able to try out blist, an online database manager. This is a very different affair from Amazon’s SimpleDB. The focus is on usability, and it is aimed at end-users rather than application developers. It’s worth viewing the demo video to get an idea of what it does.

The UI is polished though a little cluttered. I found it easy to create my first list, by dragging column types from a palette to a grid. I made a list of programming languages with a rating for performance (please ignore the actual ratings).

The results looked stylish and I played around with a few other features. I found I could easily sort by a column, or create a filter/query called a lens. I created a lens called “Fast languages” limited to those with 5-star performance which worked fine.

I noticed that one of the column types is blist – that is, a blist within a blist. That looked interesting, so I created a sub-list called Implementations, with three columns: Name, Website and Open Source. The website column shows a lovely preview of the actual site when you hover over it.

Next, I tried to stress it a tiny bit. I created a lens to show me just the Microsoft languages. In other words, I wanted to filter on a value in the blist within a blist. The first time I tried, it didn’t work at all. I still saw all the languages. I tried again, and this time the filter worked, but didn’t display the fields in the sub-blist even though I had specifically selected them. The application also got dramatically slower, even though my dataset is tiny. I’m not sure how I would do more advanced queries, like “Show me the languages and all the implementations where at least one of the implementations is from Microsoft” – actually, I thought I might get this anyway; I wasn’t sure what to expect.

This is an early beta, so I’m not complaining. Still, it illustrates a point I wanted to make, which is that databases have an inherent complexity, and however stylish you make the user interface, the complexity tends to come back to bite you later. In my example, there is an obvious problem with repeated data in the Implementations field. If one of the companies changes their website, I will have to make repeated changes, or do search-and-replace, because the data is not normalized. I am not sure how blist could do this better, though I don’t actually like the idea of columns that are really tables, and would rather have a proper relational database.

Historically, highly usable database managers like Excel, Access and FileMaker tend to foster badly-designed and error-prone databases, if pushed beyond their limits.

Still, blist does look beautiful, and it is also an interesting example of a web application done 100% in Flash.

There are intriguing icons for features including transactions, users, and lens manager. There are also social or team features like discussions and reviews, which are not enabled yet. I presume that there will eventually be some web service API into blist, otherwise it will be of limited value.

I am not sure what the business model is, or whether blist is intended primarily as a business tool, or a social web site where users will place quick, fun and controversial lists to attract debate. The job vacancies mention a host of technologies including SOAP, REST and JSON (hope for web services), Ruby on Rails, JavaScript, Linux/Unix, Perl and Python; and include little exercises so you can prove your mettle.

Windows Server 2008 is done, embraces PHP

Microsoft says that Windows Server 2008 has been released to manufacturing.

Organizations will be naturally cautious about upgrading their servers. Nevertheless, I suspect that Server 2008 will get an easier ride than Windows Vista. IIS 7.0 is a major upgrade for Microsoft’s web server. Built-in Hyper-V virtualization lets you run multiple operating systems on a single server, Linux included. Server Core is a minimalist install that comes close to answering those critics who have always said, “Why do I need a GUI on a server?”

Here’s the most interesting part of the announcement, especially bearing in mind the Yahoo bid:

With Windows Server 2008, Microsoft is also embracing PHP hosting on Windows via the FastCGI module for IIS 7.0. PHP is a popular open-source scripting language used to build dynamic web applications. This allows IT Professionals to host PHP and applications side by side. As a result, the PHP community will be able to take advantage of the increased reliability of PHP on Windows and simplified administration available on the Windows platform.

Quick way to deploy all those PHP applications, eh?

I’m surprised at Microsoft’s choice of language here. Microsoft is not really embracing PHP, as far as I am aware. Its web development platform remains ASP.NET. This is about compatibility and easing migration. Note that Mainsoft can do a fair job of getting your ASP.NET application running on Java, and there is also Mono, so portability between the Microsoft and *nix platforms is improving.

PS I first blogged about IIS 7.0 in July 2005. Nobody can accuse Microsoft of rushing this one.

Finding the preview pane in Vista’s Explorer

I recently came across this (old but interesting) article on creating preview handlers for Vista.

If you have the preview pane showing, you can select a file in Explorer and see a preview of the contents. It is also used for email attachments in Outlook 2007.

This article explains how to use it to create a fast PDF preview based on Foxit, and another for previewing C# source with pretty formatting.

It occurred to me that I rarely see the preview pane in Explorer. It’s not enabled by default. So how do you enable it?

Explorer in Vista has a curious user interface. There are some handy features like favorite links, but adding links to this list is not particularly intuitive. Try drag-and-drop, or right-click the Favorite Links panel and choose Open Favorite Links folder. No, it’s not under Organize, where you would expect.

But I digress. In its default state, Explorer has a toolbar with two menus, Organize and Views. Other menus appear on a semi-random basis according to some broken algorithm which is meant to respond to the context.

If you dislike the capricious toolbar, you can show an old-fashioned menu bar, with top-level entries for File, Edit, View, Tools and Help. That is what I normally use.

Now you might expect that the option to show a preview would be under the Views option on the toolbar, and on the View menu on the menu bar. It’s part of the view, right?

Wrong. To get the preview pane to show, you need to select it under Organize and then the Layout sub-menu. It’s not in the menu bar at all.

Since it is on a sub-menu, it is not surprising that people don’t find it.

Further, I don’t get what concept Organize is meant to represent. It’s helpful to distinguish between things that change the view, like the preview pane or folder options, and things that change the files, like New Folder or Cut. So why is stuff in both categories on this single menu? Who would click Organize to find Delete? Alternatively, if Organize is about modifying files, what is Layout doing there?

Once you have found the preview pane, it’s probably best to turn it off most of the time. The problem is that when you select a Word document, for example, most of Word has to load in the background before it displays…slow. Still, if you have a bunch of Word documents with obscure names, and want to find out quickly what they contain, then the preview pane is really useful.

I hope a faster, more logical and more intuitive Explorer is high on the to-do list for Windows 7.

Microsoft will have to face its own demons

I enjoyed Rafe Needleman’s post on Microsoft vs Yahoo. He runs down today’s key web offerings from Microsoft and Yahoo, and tries to guess which one would survive and which would be killed after an acquisition.

It’s fun speculation, but also shows how painful it would be to push this lot together. Must be a difficult time for all those product teams, facing the possibility of scrapped projects.

Another thought is what this offer says about Microsoft’s existing web efforts. It’s as if Microsoft is saying to all those Live teams, “Sorry  guys, it’s not working. We have to do something drastic.” If the bid fails, and we get the announcement that “Microsoft is excited to focus on continuing to build its Live platform” or something like it, it will still leave that awkward question hanging:

What can Microsoft do with Yahoo that it cannot do without it?

Microsoft’s ambivalence towards cloud services

The irony here is that Microsoft’s Live efforts have likely been held back by its own unwillingness to cannibalise the sales of its desktop products. Actually, not only its desktop products, but also its server products. I wrote two years ago about Office live vs Small Business Server, then noted how various limitations made it impossible to replace SBS with Office Live. It is also often noted how careful Microsoft is to ensure that, however rich the Office Live web components become, you still need Microsoft Office on the desktop.

I was asked the other day about how to set up a Nokia mobile with Office Live email. Yes, you can use its tiny web browser, but what about the proper email client, which in this case supports both POP3 and IMAP? Answer: can’t be done, without a third-party web-scraper service like IzyMail. Further, you cannot set up forwarding from Office Live to external email addresses. Hotmail shares these limitations, unless you upgrade to a paid-for Hotmail Plus account. All this is aggravating, and drives users to Gmail or indeed Yahoo, which both offer these features (actually, I don’t think Yahoo does IMAP except in a limited manner for the iPhone, but it does POP3).

Why has Microsoft struggled to support basic internet standards like POP3 and IMAP? Isn’t it do to with the fact that Microsoft’s real email server product is called Exchange? Yes, there is also the matter of trying to keep non-paying users on your web site, where they can see ads, rather than using offline clients, but Google has figured that it is better to keep your customers happy, than have them use rival services.

Why would buying Yahoo fix Microsoft’s internal (and understandable) ambivalence towards cloud services? Personally I don’t think it would. Rather, it’s Microsoft that needs to take the bold step of making its Live services as good as possible, rather than as good as they can be without damaging Windows and Office.

What money can’t buy

I realise that what Microsoft thinks it is buying, to judge from its conference call, is market share in online advertising and search. Still, I can’t shake off the suspicion that adding Microsoft to Yahoo might form something rather less than the sum of its parts. I also can’t help thinking that what Microsoft envies at Yahoo is its freedom from a LAN and desktop legacy that saps energy from internet-based initiatives. Look at what Ballmer said in the conference call:

It really represents a transformation of our business. The Windows user wants to be live. The Windows experience needs to increasingly embrace the Internet. There will be a Windows Live office. There will be an Office Live as we continue to bring out innovations in which Office transforms and is transformed by the Internet.

Unfortunately that freedom is something that cannot be bought. Microsoft will have to face its own demons.

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Anders Hejlsberg: Languages are becoming amalgam

Ted Neward has some notes on Microsoft’s recent Lang.NET symposium. In his notes on Day One he  mentions a remark by Anders Hejlsberg that “languages are becoming amalgam”. I don’t have any more details on what was said but it chimes with what I’ve observed in the last few years. We’ve seen C# and .NET take on characteristics of functional and dynamic languages; we’ve seen C# and Java adopt similar features; we’ve seen JavaScript/ActionScript evolve into another similar language.

Neward adds:

if languages are slowly “bleeding” out of their traditional taxonomies, how will the vast myriad hordes of developers categorize themselves?

Personally I’ve long thought that good developers can adapt relatively easily to different languages. Maybe it is more interesting now to look at development methodologies, whether implicit or explicit.

Further, even if business/web development languages are converging, native code memory-juggling in C or C++ remains distinctive and necessary.

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Microsoft and Yahoo: it’s all about the ad platform

Just got off the conference call. One thing that is clear is that this bid is primarily motivated by the desire to build a bigger advertising platform. Microsoft talked about Google’s 75% market share in search advertising and the implication is that Microsoft is worried that it may never be able to build its Live brand into a serious competitor.

Microsoft says the offer is worth 44.6 billion dollars, split 50% cash, 50% equity, representing a 62% premium on yesterday’s closing price for Yahoo shared. It would like to complete the deail in the second half of 2008.

Ray Ozzie talked about information portals, the pivotal role of search, and plans to transform search from its current “10 blue links”. He mentioned natural language search and social platforms. He also mentioned Yahoo’s developer platform and said that Microsoft would extend it.

In answer to a question about the future of the MSN and Live brands after a successful acquisition, Microsoft talked about “a thoughtful process” involving a joint leadership team – Microsoft and ex-Yahoo. Nobody asked about PHP vs Window server technology but I suspect the answer would have been the same.

My initial reaction: I can see the sense of it though I doubt integration would be easy. I do think there is a cultural divide between Microsoft and Yahoo that would not be easy to bridge, though it is easier to envisage now than it would have been a couple of years ago. Reason: a formidable common competitor, and work Microsoft has done on open source and cross-platform technologies, such as supporting PHP on IIS, and creating Silverlight.

Will Yahoo bite? Will it have a choice, given that Yahoo itself is struggling and doesn’t have Windows+Office business to fall back on?

Currently Yahoo says:

The Company said that its Board of Directors will evaluate this proposal carefully and promptly in the context of Yahoo!’s strategic plans and pursue the best course of action to maximize long-term value for shareholders.

Not much, but not an instant rejection.

Microsoft wants to buy Yahoo

Microsoft is proposing to buy Yahoo and has sent a letter to its board of Directors.

Could this combination compete more effectively with Google? Would the Yahoo culture accept such an acquisition? Maybe a minor point in the grand scheme of things, but Yahoo is built on PHP and employs PHP’s inventor, Rasmus Lerdorf.

The combination will create a more efficient company with synergies in four areas: scale economics driven by audience critical mass and increased value for advertisers; combined engineering talent to accelerate innovation; operational efficiencies through elimination of redundant cost; and the ability to innovate in emerging user experiences such as video and mobile. Microsoft believes these four areas will generate at least $1 billion in annual synergy for the combined entity.

Listening to the conference call right now.

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