Is Zend really the PHP company?

I’m at Yahoo! Hack day in London – not hacking, but here for sessions on topics such as YUI (Yahoo! User Interface Library) and PHP.

I had a brief chat with Rasmus Lerdorf who is speaking later. I asked him about Zend, which presents itself as the PHP company (that is actually the slogan on its web site). Is it really?

Lerdorf says Zend has no special status. While acknowledging its contribution, he says there are 1300 PHP committers, and only 6 work for Zend. He emphasises that PHP is a community project and that decisions are made by consensus, influenced by who is actually willing to write the code, not by Zend or any company.

I also asked about PDT (PHP Development Tools), the Eclipse-based open source IDE. Lerdorf says there are lots of PHP IDEs, and people who use generic editors for PHP, and none has any more status than any other; he doesn’t use PDT.

From my perspective as press, there are only two organizations who ever encourage me to write about PHP. One is Zend; the other is Microsoft, keen to establish Windows as a credible PHP platform (Lerdorf says PHP on Windows has made enormous progress in the last couple of years). Zend does seem to do more than any other company to promote PHP for commercial and corporate development.

Lerdorf is not surprised. We’re developers, he says, we don’t do PR.

Zend’s effort is broadly beneficial to the PHP community – provided that it does not give a false impression of who owns PHP.

Silverlight: developer win, designer fail?

I posed this question in a post over on itjoblog. There are several reasons why Silverlight struggles to get designer attention, including:

1. Designers are pragmatic and target the runtime that is already deployed most broadly, ie. Flash.

2. Flash is already good enough so why bother?

3. The tools: Adobe’s designer tools are a de facto standard, target Flash, and run on the Mac.

Developer is another matter. The cross-platform .NET runtime is Silverlight’s big advantage; and this time the tools tip the balance towards Microsoft (Visual Studio) – not for everyone, but for the substantial Microsoft platform community. That’s going to be further reinforced by Visual Studio 2010 which gets full visual designer support, plus of course Silverlight 3.0.

Microsoft does have a problem with Silverlight out of the browser. Developers need a way to have these run with more local permissions, subject to user consent, otherwise they will turn to Adobe AIR. Actually the whole Silverlight on the desktop story is confused, since you can also do Silverlight Mesh-Enabled Web Applications, or stick Silverlight content in a desktop gadget or other embedded browser. No, not the one in AIR (nice idea though): Adobe only includes Flash support and the PDF plug-in.

The tension behind this is that ultimately developers and designers need to work on the same applications, so this remains a fascinating contest.

The end of the Borland story: acquired by Micro Focus

It is not unexpected, but still sad to see loss-making Borland acquired by Micro Focus for a knock-down price of $75m. Borland’s release says little beyond the financial details. Micro Focus, which is also acquiring Compuware’s ASQ (Automated Software Quality) tools (such as QADirector, DevPartner and Optimal Trace, I presume) says:

Acquiring Borland and the Compuware Testing and ASQ Business will give Micro Focus a leading market position in the highly complementary Application Testing / ASQ market. This market is estimated to be worth c.US$2 billion a year and is logically adjacent to Micro Focus’ core application management and modernization business.  The move into the ASQ market is consistent with Micro Focus’ stated strategy of extending in logically adjacent segments to expand its addressable market.

Why sad? Well, if you were around in the eighties and nineties you will remember a bold company which came up with a series of excellent products: Turbo Pascal, Borland C/C++, Quattro Pro, Paradox, and of course the incomparable Windows development tool Delphi. The visual development model in Delphi was successfully transitioned to Java in the JBuilder product, which in its early versions used a Delphi-compiled IDE.

These developer-focused products live on, of course, mostly in the hands of Embarcadero. The Borland that has been acquired is what was left when, in my developer-centric opinion, the best parts had already left.

What went wrong at Borland? It is mostly the victim of changes in the industry, made worse today by the economic downturn. It was a tools company, and the tools market was hit by the double blow of excellent open-source competition on one side (Eclipse, GCC) and vendor-subsidised tools on the other (Visual Studio).

Still, there were some spectacular own goals along the way. The 1991 acquisition of Ashton-Tate, at the time the market leader in PC database managers, was one, mainly because dBASE IV was not very good and did nothing to help Borland transition to Windows; in any case, Borland already had a better product in the form of Paradox.

Talking of Paradox, Paradox for Windows was another disaster. Wonderful product, but mostly incompatible with its DOS predecessor, and probably a tad too complex as well. It also had to compete with Microsoft Access, which was both cheaper and part of the impregnable Microsoft Office suite.

The company made up for it with Delphi; but even that under-performed relative to its quality. Enterprises felt safer with Microsoft’s Visual Basic. JBuilder did well at first; but its market share diminished rapidly in the face of competition from Eclipse and NetBeans. In retrospect, Borland should have made its core Java IDE free much earlier, to build a community round it, though competing with free is never easy.

Since it was so hard making money out of compilers and IDEs, Borland changed tack in order to target Enterprise ALM (Application Lifecycle Management). It could have worked, but it wasn’t actually a great fit with the independent developers who formed a large part of its customer base, and who tended to ignore large, complex and expensive supplementary tools in favour of just getting on with coding.

The nadir was 1998 when Borland changed its name to Inprise, to reflect its Enterprise focus. “Many thought Borland had gone out of business”, says Wikipedia. It was changed back to Borland in 2001.

Another mis-step was the way Borland (then Inprise) handled InterBase, its client-server database. In 2000, with a burst of community enthusiasm, the product was made open source. A couple of years later, it changed its mind and continued to develop InterBase as a proprietary product; but by then FireBird had been born, based on the open source code.

Thought for the day: Borland paid more for TogetherSoft in 2002 (around $185m, including $82.5m cash), than Micro Focus is paying now for Borland.

Windows 7: why you should keep User Account Control at the highest level

Windows 7 makes it easy to adjust the settings for User Account Control, the system protection feature introduced in Vista. You can access User Account Control Settings from Control Panel, whereupon you see a slider with four settings:

1. Always Notify

2. Notify me only when programs try to make changes to my computer – don’t notify me when I make changes to Windows settings

3. Same as (2) but without the dimmed desktop

4. Never notify

The default is (2). This means Windows 7 is not too annoying, but 3rd party applications still have to prompt in order to do things like writing to a location in Program Files.

Sounds good? Not really. Leo Davidson has an extensive write-up; but all you need to know is actually in the online help for option 2:

It is usually safe to allow changes to be made to Windows settings without you being notified. However, certain programs that come with Windows can have commands or data passed to them, and malicious software can take advantage of this by using these programs to install files or changes settings on your computer.

The problem lies in what Microsoft means by “make changes to Windows settings”. In reality, this is just a whitelist of applications which get elevated permissions automatically, and as online help hints, these are “certain programs that come with Windows.” Davidson observes that it is possible for malware to inject data into one of these processes and have it do whatever the malware wants without a prompt.

Microsoft’s point is that malware shouldn’t be running on your PC in the first place. Very true; but the simple slider control is less than honest about the implications of the default option.

The solution is to move the slider to the highest level. I am sure this should be the default: Microsoft: even at this stage it is not too late to change it. Let the user relax the security if they want; though this stuff about “Windows settings” should be replaced with something which better describes what the option means.

I am not all that worked up about this. UAC will still be achieving its main goal, which is to make 3rd party developers follow the rules more often – though it is still possible for developers to subvert this. And even when fully enabled, UAC is nothing like a complete security solution.

Still, bearing in mind that Microsoft is unlikely to change the default, I’d suggest that users move the slider to the highest setting. It is not painful at all, and at least gives you the same level of protection as Vista.

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First baby steps for Moonlight 2.0: Silverlight for Linux

Miguel de Icaza has announced the first preview release of Moonlight 2.0. This is the one that counts, in that it brings the .NET runtime to Silverlight applets running on Linux:

This is the ECMA VM running inside the browser and powering C# and any other CIL-compatible languages like Ruby, Python, Boo and others. You can use Moonlight/Silverlight as a GUI (this is what most folks do) or you can use it as the engine to power your Python/Ruby scripting in the browser.

The download page has plenty of health warnings:

Keep in mind this preview release is not feature complete. Most importantly not all security features are present or fully enabled in this release. Even existing security features have, at this stage, received only minimal testing and no security audit of the source code (mono or moonlight) has yet been done.

Undeterred, I installed it into FireFox 3.0, running on Ubuntu Linux. The download is under 9 MB. My first effort was unsuccessful; the plug-in appeared to load OK, but no Silverlight apps displayed. My second attempt in a VM worked. Naturally I went along to my Silverlight database example which as it happens runs on Mono. Here it is:

This is what it should look like (Silverlight on Windows):

Well, it is only an alpha preview, and it shows. On the plus side, the data is displayed, the search works, and the buttons operate. It is a considerable achievement. But don’t plan to move your users onto Moonlight applications just yet.

Windows 7 XP Mode dialogs confuse virtual with real

I was impressed with the integration between XP Mode virtual applications and native Windows 7, as I explained in this review. I’d suggest though that Microsoft needs to do better in distinguishing dialogs that come from virtual XP from dialogs displayed by native Windows 7. This may seem perverse – integration is about disguising the difference, not accentuating it. But let me give you an example of where this is a problem. I started Access 2000 as a virtual application, which worked fine, and behind the scenes Virtual XP kicked into life. Then I saw this dialog on the Windows 7 desktop:

This dialog does not mention Windows XP. It just says Windows. How am I to know that it relates to a virtual instance of XP, and not to Windows 7 itself? Well, if I am awake I might spot that the window close gadget is XP-style, and not the Windows 7 style which is wider and with a smaller X. I am sure that is too subtle for many users.

Here is another example:

In this case, Windows 7 has popped up a notification saying my computer might be at risk, on the arguably dubious grounds that no antivirus software is installed. The balloon has (Remote) in brackets. So what does that mean? Actually, it means the virtual instance of XP, but the word Remote is not a clear way of saying so.

If I click the balloon, I get the XP security center, with no indication that it relates to virtual XP rather than to Windows 7 directly.

I’d like to see more clarity, even if it makes integration a tiny bit less seamless.

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the charts they are not a’changing

Dylan is at number one with Together Through Life, reports the BBC, showing his enduring appeal:

Dylan now holds a record, previously held by Tom Jones, for the longest gap between solo number one albums.

No denying Dylan’s long-term appeal (and he deserves it), but I’m guessing it shows something else, too: that the age profile reflected in the charts is older than it has ever been, and album charts are no longer a reliable measure of musical taste.

Flex Builder for Linux on hold: another sign of financial stress at Adobe?

On 21st April Adobe’s Ben Forta told a user group that Flex Builder 3 for Linux is on hold, citing lack of requisition, which is corp-speak for lack of demand.

Note that the Flex SDK does run on Linux. It is just the official IDE that is in question.

Linux is a free operating system, and this could be evidence that users of a free OS are less likely to purchase software than users of a paid-for OS. Or it could simply reflect poor market share for Linux outside servers. Even if it has just hit 1%, as hitslink reports, it is still barely more than 10% of the Mac share and a little over 1% of the Windows share. Some of those Linux machines will also be netbooks – secondary systems for users with a Windows or Mac for serious work such as design and development.

Nevertheless, I suspect there is more to it than that. I suspect Adobe would like to support Linux, because it wants to portray Flex as an open platform – the SDK is open source, though managed by Adobe, but the runtime engine is closed-source and proprietary. This may be another sign of Adobe’s financial stress. The company reported reduced quarter-on-quarter revenue for the the 3 months ending February 2009, and has been cutting staff numbers.

The backdrop to this, in contrast, is that Adobe is having great success with its Flash platform. There is no sign of Microsoft’s Silverlight denting the popularity of Flash on web sites, either for applets or media streaming.

The recession then? Partly; but this is also about Adobe’s business model. Adobe does not break out its figures in detail as far as I know: the last financial statement merely shows that its revenue is nearly 95% from product sales, the rest being services and support. Still, I’d guess that the largest component of its product sales must be Creative Suite. In other words, its business model is based on selling tools and giving away runtimes. When 47 million people watch Susan Boyle on YouTube, Adobe doesn’t make a penny, even though they are almost all using Flash to do so.

The tools market is a difficult one for various reasons, including competition from free products and the fact that the number of people needing development or design tools is always much smaller than the number needing runtimes. In a recession, deferring a tools upgrade is a obvious way for businesses to save money. Remaining primarily a tools company is a limit to Adobe’s growth and ultimately its profitability.

This is of concern to all Flash platform users. Adobe has proved to date a good steward of the technology. Some of us would like the balance of proprietary vs open tilted further towards open, but I doubt many would welcome a takeover or merger such as we have seen with Sun and Oracle (and there are a few parallels there).

There would also be many cries of “foul” if Adobe sought to further monetize Flash by starting to sell, say, a premium version of the Flash runtime.

Adobe is still a profitable company, and maybe when the economy recovers all this stress will be forgotten. Still, I’d guess that long-term Adobe will want to shift away from its dependency on sales of tools; and how and what it does to achieve that will have a big influence on the future of its RIA (Rich Internet Application) platform.