Friendly to users, hostile to competition: get ready for more app stores

Jane is sitting at her computer doing her accounts with a spreadsheet. Hmm, this is tricky, she thinks. I wonder if there’s some software that would help? She clicks the App Market link, types in Accounts, and sees a dozen accounting applications. She checks out the prices, users ratings and reviews, selects Whizzo Accounts, and clicks Buy now. The app immediately downloads and installs, charging the credit card already registered with the service. Moments later, she starts the application and gets on with her work.

Why doesn’t it work like this today? Well, it does on the iPhone, with amazing success. Sun’s Jonathan Schwartz thinks the same concept will work for Java:

How will it work? Candidate applications will be submitted via a simple web site, evaluated by Sun for safety and content, then presented under free or fee terms to the broad Java audience via our update mechanism. Over time, developers will bid for position on our storefront, and the relationships won’t be exclusive (as they have been for search). As with other app stores, Sun will charge for distribution – but unlike other app stores, whose audiences are tiny, measured in the millions or tens of millions, ours will have what we estimate to be approximately a billion users. That’s clearly a lot of traffic, and will position the Java App Store as having just about the world’s largest audience.

The key here is that Sun supplies the standard Java runtime for Windows, and has also managed to get its Java update utility installed on millions of computers. There is the potential for seamless access to an online application store that could deliver a business model for Java at last.

Schwartz builds his case by reference to the success, in his terms, of the toolbar bundling deals Sun has made and which I detest (it’s foistware):

An aspiring search company (again, you can figure out who) outbid our first partner to place their toolbar in front of Java users (this time, limited to the US only) . . . The revenues to Sun were also getting big enough for us to think about building a more formal business around Java’s distribution power – to make it available to the entire Java community, not simply one or two search companies on yearly contracts.

Sun isn’t the only company thinking along these lines. Adobe also has a Marketplace; it’s currently free for publishers and lacks any payment support, but I’d imagine the company is looking hard at how this could become a source of revenue, particularly when it comes to AIR, the desktop runtime. Phase one is building the platform; phase two is making it more profitable.

What about Microsoft? Why isn’t an application store built into Windows? Actually it is, or was: Windows Marketplace is on the Start menu and was so unsuccessful that Microsoft has abandoned it:

Windows Marketplace has transitioned from an ecommerce site to a reference site. You will find links to sites such as Microsoft Store, Windows Vista® Compatibility Center, and other destinations with cool and compatible software, hardware and devices that support Microsoft® platforms.

The Microsoft Store is for Microsoft applications only. However, the company is having another go at the concept for mobile applications.

Why did Windows Marketplace fail, whereas the iPhone App Store is a wild success? Good question; and on the face of it a remarkable blunder. You would have thought that a competent application store built into Windows could not really fail. I’m guessing that the reason is a mixture of poor implementation, nervousness about anti-trust complaints, and concern about upsetting partners such as retailers and third-party developers.

Microsoft also operates Xbox Live lets you buy arcade games and older titles, but not the latest blockbuster releases, presumably because retailer support is too important to threaten.

Convenience always wins though, and I’m expecting more activity on this front from Apple, Microsoft, Sun, Adobe, and maybe others such as Amazon. Mobile vendors are clambering on board too. But these other efforts will not have the iPhone App Store killer feature: exclusivity. Unless you hack your device, the App Store is the only choice for both users and vendors. This puts too much power in the hands of Apple, and there are already complaints from 3rd party developers. Most other platforms will not be able to achieve this, though games consoles might.

That said, it is possible that a sufficiently compelling online store could dominate on a particular platform, whether Windows, Java or Adobe AIR. If so, I guess we’ll see the iPhone experience repeated elsewhere: great for usability, bad for competition.

New Visual Studio 2010 beta has WPF editor, Silverlight designer

I’ve just downloaded and installed the Visual Studio 2010 beta 1 release. I’ve not explored much yet – and it is rather slow in a virtual machine – but it does now seem to have the new editor and other pieces built with Windows Presentation Foundation.

A landmark for both WPF and Visual Studio.

I also noticed that the Silverlight visual designer now works as you would expect, though I had to download the developer runtime and SDK separately:

I’d welcome comments from anyone using the beta.

Adobe’s Flex Builder to Flash Builder name change does not go far enough

As expected, Adobe is strengthening its “Flash Platform” strategy by renaming the forthcoming Flex Builder 4 (codename Gumbo) to Flash Builder 4:

This change will provide better naming consistency for the Flash family of tools and position Flash Builder as the development tool for the Flash Platform.

This is only a name change, nothing more. Flash Builder will still be based on Eclipse, and the original Flash Professional IDE, also part of Creative Suite, will continue as before.

My question: why doesn’t Adobe go further in clarifying and promoting its Flash brand? The current situation is still confusing:

Flash Builder vs Flash Professional: the names give you no clue about the difference. Why not Flash Developer and Flash Designer?

Adobe AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime): non-techie people do not realise this has anything to do with Flash. Flash Desktop Runtime would be better, though I guess that would not reflect the option for HTML applications. It would do a lot to promote Flash as more than just a browser plug-in.

Flex SDK: why retain the Flex brand at all? I presume the name was originally a contraction of Flash and XML, but since it is a language that compiles to Flash, this could just be called the Flash SDK.

Name changes themselves are confusing of course, so I’m surprised that Adobe is not being more thorough now rather than risking more piecemeal changes later.

Delphi moving towards cross-platform, 64-bit

Embarcadero’s Delphi Live conference is running this week, and there are some interesting reports coming out. Robert Love has the best summary I’ve found so far. As I understand it, the next Delphi is codenamed “Weaver” and adds Windows 7 support, including the Touch APIs. More interesting is that this will be followed at some point by “Project X”, a cross-platform native code compiler for Windows, Mac and Linux. There is also mention of “Project Commodore”, which brings full 64-bit support.

Project X is the one that particularly grabs my attention. Cross-platform Delphi has been tried before, with Kylix, Delphi for Linux. Although promising, Kylix suffered on the technical side from Wine dependencies and on the marketing side from lack of demand for Delphi desktop applications. I do not have any technical information about Project X yet, but on the marketing side Mac OS X (and perhaps iPhone) is a great deal more promising than Linux.

After suffering from under-investment for many years, it is great to see Delphi now getting a new lease of life in its new home, and I’m looking forward to finding out more.

Exchange 2007 backup to be fixed at last

Microsoft’s Exchange team is including a VSS plug-in in Exchange 2007 SP2, which means you will be able to backup Exchange on Server 2008 without purchasing a third-party product. Details of how this works are here.

Note that this feature, which was first promised in June 2008, will likely be appearing just before Exchange 2010. SP2 is promised in the third quarter this year, and Exchange 2010 in the second half; interpreting this ship-date jargon I guess means Exchange 2010 around the end of the year. In other words, it has taken almost a complete generation of the product to ship the fix.

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Yahoo’s mindshare problem

Last weekend I attended Yahoo’s Open Hack Day in London.

It was excellent. I wasn’t hacking myself; but enjoyed the tech talks. I also had an opportunity to interview execs including co-founder David Filo, Cody Simms who does Product Management for Yahoo Open Strategy, and Sophie Major the head of the International Developer Network.

Highlights for me were Rasmus Lerdorf talking about smart PHP tricks, and a session on the amazing Yahoo Query Language which really does make the Internet look like one giant database which you can query.

I wrote up some of my interview for The Register, concluding:

Open Hack Day certainly showcased some impressive technology. The question is whether Yahoo! still has the marketing muscle to reverse its declining influence and truly to unsettle the likes of Google and Facebook and disrupt the market.

Events this week proved this exact point. During Open Hack Day there were talks on Microformats, RDFa and Yahoo Search Monkey. Search Monkey reads data on your site that includes semantic mark-up in order to present more meaningful search results.

On Tuesday Google announced Rich Snippets:

To display Rich Snippets, Google looks for markup formats (microformats and RDFa) that you can easily add to your own web pages.

So were the headlines “Google catches up with Yahoo”? Not at all; most of the world apparently thought Google had invented something new and amazing. Timothy O’Brien reported on it for O’Reilly and apparently was not aware of Yahoo’s earlier initiative. He added a postscript:

We’ve had some response about failing to mention Yahoo’s SearchMonkey which also supports RDFa and Microformats. Google is certainly not the first search engine to support RDFa and Microformats, but it certainly has the most influence on the search market. With 72% of the search market, Google has the influence to make people pay attention to RDFa and Microformats.

Correct; though I also suspect Yahoo could do a better job of marketing its technology. Talk of disrupting Google seems fanciful at this point. Having said that, Twitter is doing it just a little bit: somehow it is easier for a tiny organization with a bright idea than for a giant from the past.

In the meantime, take a look at YQL. It’s brilliant.

Whither Microsoft Vine?

I’ve been trying Microsoft Vine. I’m not in the US so strictly outside the area of beta coverage; but the application seems to work fine.

What is Vine? It’s hard to position it, since parts of the UI suggest that it is mainly intended for communication in disasters. You install the application, set up contacts, and you can then send alerts concerning your well-being and report on “situations”. A Live Maps mash-up lets you see alerts in your local area; I’m imagining “the fire has not yet reached this part of the city”.

I find the disaster idea a bit fanciful. The world is crashing down around me, so I boot up Windows XP or Vista – the only supported operating systems so far, though Microsoft says it will add other platforms – as do all my contacts, and start interacting with Vine?

Then again, perhaps this isn’t mainly for disasters. The alerts you can show on the map include Politics, Business, Sports and Entertainment. The Post Report drop-down includes “Looking for music” as an option. Maybe Microsoft is trying to compete with Twitter after all?

Third possibility: it is a prototype, a mash-up example to promote Microsoft’s Live services, on which it depends? In that respect, it is somewhat interesting. Yet the application looks polished, and has a fully-fledged beta program; it looks like this is something Microsoft cares about and wants to promote.

There’s a blog post from the team which aims to clarify Vine’s positioning:

Microsoft Vine is not just another Social Network site or tool. It provides a way to keep track of places you care about, your friends and family and ask for and receive help. We aren’t going to compete with these other tools and we sure don’t think of ourselves as Twitter on Steroids.

Sorry, I still don’t understand. It is as if your mobile provider offered you a second phone, specially tailored for use in emergencies, but which you could use it at other times as well. But you are never going to carry two around, just in case. The provider should add the emergency features to all its phones.

So why doesn’t Microsoft just add a couple of features to Live Messenger, instead of messing around with a new client? Further, if Microsoft really wants to help in emergencies, its client should be supremely lightweight and cross-platform, the service should be one any client can easily call on, and it should be doing this in concert with all the main telecom providers, device manufacturers, and social networks. If this is a problem that needs solving, that might yield useful results.

Then again, maybe the disaster stuff is not the real purpose of Vine; maybe that is a kind of emotional marketing to get us to use it.

Personally I am allergic to applications that want to run constantly in the background and occupy a space in the notification area. Vine has to be obviously and immediately useful to warrant it; and right now I’m not getting it.

In a real emergency, I will pick up my mobile, use SMS, turn on the radio, and possibly even consult Twitter – but only because I use Twitter all the time anyway.

One thing that is not better in Windows 7: Movie Maker

Microsoft does make surprising decisions on occasion. Here’s an example. Windows Movie Maker is a simple video editing application which ships as a free utility with the operating system. It was scorned when it first appeared in Windows Me, but has improved substantially, and in its latest guise is a popular choice for creating YouTube videos or touching up holiday footage. It is a significant factor in the Apple Mac vs Windows decision, since the Mac comes with a decent video editor called iMovie.

In Windows 7, Microsoft has removed Movie Maker from the Windows box and made it part of a Windows Live Essentials downloadable add-on. That makes some sense: it cross-promotes other Live products (though at risk of annoying users) and maybe helps Microsoft defend against allegations of anti-competitive tying of products to its Windows near-monopoly.

What does not make sense is that the new Live Movie Maker is completely re-written and currently nothing like as good as the old one. Key features like the timeline are simply missing, hence the strong comments to this official blog post:

That’s all fine and dandy (starting from the ground up and all), but if you don’t include the baseline functionality that was in Windows Movie Maker, this will be an abject failure.

says one of the more polite users.

Microsoft says there is more to come:

Hey guys – I’m the Lead PM on the new Windows Live Movie Maker project.  The beta is definitely not feature-complete; having said that, we are taking the product in a slightly different direction so it’s not going to have 100% the same features as the old Movie Maker.  Stay tuned – but please realize that we’re aware that we have work to do before final.

I think this is Mike Torres (warning: spam-ridden comments). In the meantime, the best anyone can offer is to download version 2.6, which is an older version of what is in Vista but apparently works on Windows 7. It strikes me as unlikely that Live Movie Maker will plug all these gaps in time for the release of Windows 7; but who knows, perhaps it will.

The bit that puzzles me: why doesn’t Microsoft stick with the older, better version of Movie Maker for Windows 7, until the new one evolves into a sane alternative?

New York Times switches from WPF/Silverlight to Flash and AIR for Reader 2

The New York Times has released Version 2 of its Times Reader, for seamless online/offline viewing of its content. It’s interesting from a media perspective, but hardly a breakthrough, since it is not new. What’s more interesting to me is that the Times switched from a hybrid approach using WPF (Windows Presentation Framework) on Windows and Silverlight on the Mac, to Adobe AIR. Switches like this are bad PR for Microsoft, since it gives the impression that the developers were sufficiently unhappy with WPF/Silverlight, or so strongly attracted to AIR, that they were willing to throw away much of their previous development effort.

I’ve been tracking Times Reader for some years. It was presented at Microsoft Mix07 and I wrote up a panel discussion on the subject:

I asked about the cross-platform issue. According to Bodkin a Silverlight implementation is on the way, which includes most of the features in the full version, in “a matter of months.”

That was optimistic; but a Silverlight version was delivered and I used it successfully on the Mac; though it lacked some features of the WPF edition. It also attracted hostility from Mac users who are Microsoft-averse, as I reported here, and apparently ran into further problems because of incompatibility with Safari 4.

I tried the new AIR edition and it seems pretty good, though my impression is that it is not quite as smooth as the old WPF version. I might be wrong, since I could not install both on the same machine. The new version does add video support. Here’s the old one:

and this is the new effort:

I think this is a fascinating case study which demonstrates a number of things.

First, that cross-platform support is not an optional feature any more (if it ever was) for this kind of public application. Let’s assume here that the WPF version was just fine for Windows users, but was not viable long-term for lack of cross-platform support. It was inevitable that the Times would eventually either use Silverlight on both Windows and Mac, or abandon both WPF and Silverlight for a cross-platform alternative.

Second, that Silverlight is not yet mature enough for this kind of application. Although the Times developers were able to deliver a Silverlight version, it required a bit of hackery for offline support (embedded Safari on the Mac) and apparently ran into version problems when Apple upgraded Safari. Silverlight is also known to be poor for text rendering – a Google search for “blurry text Silverlight” brings back plenty of hits. Adobe also made a big improvement to text handling in Flash player 10, with the new flash.text.engine.

Third, that offline support really is a big deal. Would Silverlight 3.0 have been good enough? Possibly, though I haven’t seen any suggestion that Silverlight 3.0 offline apps will be able to run in the background while showing just an icon in the notification area, to support continuous synchronization.

It is possibel that these problems may be fixed in Silverlight 4.0. That’s a long time to wait though, when you need your application out now (and your industry is in crisis).

It would be silly to extrapolate this case study into a broader statement about the superiority of Flash over Silverlight. For the specific needs of the New York Times though, it is easy to see why Adobe AIR appeals.

Bytemark failure illustrates value of Twitter

This site is hosted at Bytemark, which has a good track record for performance and service. On Sunday afternoon Bytemark and all its virtual servers became inaccessible. Seeking reassurance that this was a temporary problem and being worked on, I tried to get more information. This is a relatively small ISP and there is no 24-hr telephone support; there is an urgent email support address, but since this would be sent via Bytemark’s servers, which were down, I knew there was no point in using it.

I turned to Twitter search, where I found others tweeting about the problem, including MD Matthew Bloch:

is busy working out WTF is wrong with Bytemark’s core network, update on the forum as soon as it’s accessible again

re: Bytemark, both our Manchester core routers seem down, engineer is 20 mins away from data centre to help us with diagnosis.

tracking down enormous source of traffic on Bytemark network

wondering why the network is back up – still poring over switch configurations but things looking a little more useful.

and so on, with the directors demonstrating a degree of personal involvement that larger ISPs rarely display. The outage is still annoying of course; but knowing that it is being worked on with urgency along with a bit of information about the nature of the issue makes a huge difference.

When you need to search for the latest information, Twitter works well because it is rigorously sorted by time and date, which Google never is.

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