Web advertising goes outside: digital signage using force.com and Media RSS

In the last 10 years or so video advertising screens have replaced static posters in busy public places like the London Underground. This is known in the trade as digital signage or Digital Out of Home (DOOH) advertising; and I was interested to speak to a company at the recent Salesforce.com Service Cloud 2 launch which is running digital signage systems on the Salesforce force.com platform. The company is signagelive, run by http://www.remotemedia.co.uk/, and and its secret sauce is to use the internet and commodity technology to run 10,000 displays around the world cheaply and efficiently. As I understood it from my brief conversation, a force.com application provides customers with dashboard for managing their screens, usable from any web browser. Content is served to the screens over the Internet using Media RSS. This is well suited to the purpose since it is easy for customers to update, and fail-safe in that if the system fails or the connection breaks, screens just carry on displaying the last version of the feed which they retrieved. Since Media RSS is a standard, the content can also feed desktop applications; and of course it doesn’t have to be advertising though often it is.

A sinagelive display could be a low-powered network-connected device attached to a display; or a display alone with enough intelligence to retrieve a Media RSS feed and display its images; what you can do in the home with something like a estarling connected photo frame or a PhotoVu wireless digital picture frame but with bigger displays. The company is looking forward to displays which include on-chip Adobe Flash players since this will enable animation and video to be included with little extra cost. The media itself is currently stored on company servers, but is likely to move to Amazon S3 in future – which makes sense for scalability, pay as you go, and for taking advantage of Amazon’s global network, reducing latency.

If you want to see an example, apparently the London Dockland Light Railway screens are driven by signagelive; they are also in Harrods.

CEO Jason Cremlins has a blog post about the future of DOOH. My further thought is that if you had devices able to run Flash applications, you could put this together with touch screens and add interactivity to the mix.

The boundaries between internet and non-internet advertising are blurring. Ad networks such as those run by Google can be extended to networks using this kind of technology in a blink. Why shouldn’t advertisers be able to select airport lounges or underground stations alongside Adsense for websites?

The less compelling aspect of the technology is that as the costs of running these advertising networks come down, the likelihood of intrusive advertising screens invading every possible public space increases.

I also found this interesting as an innovative use of the Salesforce platform. As I recall, it hooks into other force.com applications to handle billing, customer record management and so on, and shows the potential for Salesforce to move beyond CRM. With the Adobe Flash aspect as well this example brings together a number of themes that I’ve been mulling over and I enjoyed hearing about it.

A year of writing about Windows 7

I’ve written quite a bit about Windows 7 over the last 12 months. Some of it is practical how-to stuff, some review, some comment. I started trying to round it all up then realised there is too much, believe it or not what follows is not complete.

Why so much? The reason is the level of interest. Although Microsoft is the company we love to hate, many of us use its stuff day-in, day-out and want to track what it is up to.

Windows 7 early promise- Passes the Vista test October 28 2008 in The Register

Windows 7 may be less than a year away 29 October 2008 good prophecy on ITJOBLOG

Windows 7 preview, October 30 2008 in The Guardian. “this release promises to be one users will actually enjoy.”

Should you wait for Windows 7 before buying a new PC? 8 Jan 2009 “Yes, you should – even though the suggestion will dismay PC manufacturers and retailers who would prefer that you buy something now to help their sales.”

How good is Windows 7? I argue that, well, it is still Windows. On ITJOBLOG

First Windows 7 beta puts fresh face on Vista The Register 8 Jan 2009

Apple Dock vs Windows 7 taskbar 12 January 2009

Review of Beta 1 in The Guardian, 15 Jan 2009

New in Windows 7 RC- Windows XP Mode, Remote Media Streaming 25 April 2009

Windows 7’s XP Mode — Virtually worth the effort The Register 1 May 2009

Windows 7 XP Mode dialogs confuse virtual with real 4 May 2009

Windows 7- why you should keep User Account Control at the highest level 5 May 2009 still good advice

Review of RC1 in The Guardian 7 May 2009

One thing that is not better in Windows 7- Movie Maker 12 May 2009 Live Movie Maker is now much improved but some still miss the Vista one

EU responds to questions on Microsoft’s plans for Windows 7 25 June 2009 my dialog with the EU on browser bundling

Microsoft’s limited Windows 7 offer a lesson in how to annoy customers- 23 July 2009 bet there are folk wishing they’d snapped up Microsoft’s £49.99 offer back in July

Microsoft’s new EU Windows 7 proposal – will IE now be the default- 24 July 2009. We’ve not yet seen this for real.

Windows 7: the challenge for developers July 27 2009. On ITJOBLOG

No more Windows E – Europe will get full Windows 7 plus upgrade editions 1st August 2009 sighs of relief all round

In-place upgrade adventures with Windows 7 8 August 2009 – the in-place upgrades worked so well I’ve left them alone since

Windows 7 tip- use Group by to merge and manage library views 10 August 2009, could be helpful for those puzzling over this strange UI

It got boring saying nice things all the time so

Hands on Windows 7 multi-touch – will Apple get this right before Microsoft- August 17 2009

Getting picky about the Windows 7 Taskbar – real-world flaws- 21 Aug 2009. Ed Bott disagreed!

Windows 7- Microsoft’s three missed opportunities The Register 25 Aug 2009

Hope for old PCs with Windows 7 26 Aug 2009 about surprisingly good results on old PCs

and the inevitable Windows 7 vs Mac comparison

Windows 7 vs Snow Leopard – The Poison taste test The Register 2nd September – the fun bit about this one is in the comments

Windows 95 to Windows 7- How Microsoft lost its vision The Register 22 October – I argue that Microsoft has gotten conservative with Windows, some of the comments misunderstand but at least it sparked a discussion

A Year with Windows 7 – my launch day piece. Today. Although I’ve cooled towards some ideas, like the hiding of notification icons, my overall feeling about the OS hasn’t changed radically over the year. I’m not sure if that is good or bad, but at least it is consistent.

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Traditional IT is a scam, says Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, introducing Service Cloud 2

Yesterday I attended the London launch for Service Cloud 2 from Salesforce.com. A weary but still ebullient Marc Benioff showed off his new book Behind the cloud – sure to be a bestseller if only for the copies his own company has purchased – and introduced a demo of Service Cloud 2.

There are several elements to Service Cloud 2, which puts customer service alongside CRM as a core Salesforce offering. Traditional call centres are last-century technology, says Benioff, and today’s customers go to Google, Facebook or Twitter before picking up the phone. Salesforce Knowledge is a multi-tenant knowledgebase – a specialist type of content management system – that hooks into a customer service online dashboard as well as being exposed to Google etc. Salesforce Answers is a:

complete, customisable website that facilitates question/answer style conversations between customers

The idea is to promote interaction with customers and to feedback customer knowledge (since they often provide the best support) into the knowledgebase. Salesforce Answers can be published as a Facebook site as well as on the Web. Another feature is the ability to monitor twitter, pick up what people are saying about your product, and intervene as appropriate. You can also have a twitter account to which customers can address queries.

If customers do in fact pick the phone, the same information along with customer details can be used to offer support.

We saw an impressive demo based on Dell.com’s Salesforce application – Dell is a big Salesforce customer and CEO Michael Dell a friend of Benioff. A customer calls in and all their details, purchase and support history pops up automatically based, presumably, on their incoming number. A few quick taps and the representative is able to answer their question. You would imagine that every competent call centre has a similar arrangement – having said which, we’ve all had experience of call centres where you are passed from rep to rep repeating our details and our problem with each new contact. We also saw a Facebook page and Twitter encounter where a customer got quick and accurate responses. Of course the demo problems were nice easy ones like “How do I fit more RAM”, not more intricate ones like “why does Windows freeze every third time I boot”.

The core of the Salesforce proposition is that multi-tenant applications are more cost-effective than traditional in-house IT. The most striking statistic Benioff offered is that they support 63,000 customers on just 1500 Dell PCs. “What a scam traditional IT is”, said Benioff, referring to the low utilisation of most in-house servers – though virtualisation also goes some way towards solving this problem.

One of Benioff’s tips for success is to bring customers and prospects together for informal marketing, and this launch was an example. It was hosted at the London Stock Exchange, a great location for a business-oriented presentation, and I was surrounded by men in suits, unlike the informal attire at the more technology-focussed events I attend.

At the party afterwards there was a piece of marketing genius. Smiling staff circulated the party with armfuls of Flip video cameras. Guests were asked to say something about Salesforce.com into the camera – questions like “How has using Salesforce impacted your business” – and to agree to allow their piece to be used in marketing. In return they got a camera. I wonder if the company will disclose that last piece of information alongside the comments?

Disclosure: I got a Flip too.

While most customers are positive, I did hear some grumbles as well. Cost is one: while you save on infrastructure cost, the Salesforce model is not necessarily cheap, and extras like training are a significant cost. I also heard how the system sometimes fails, not with downtime as such, but with things like scheduled data exports (for backup) failing to run; I presume these are resource hogs and get shunted out of the way to keep the system responsive for immediate transactions. I also heard that the platform now has its own legacy and that some things work in odd ways because they are too difficult to change.

Another worry is lack of control. If something goes wrong, there is nothing you can do beyond harrying support. One customer said it was like being on a train that is late. If you are between stations you cannot even get off the train.

Still, I believe the cloud is the future because of sheer economics; it is more cost-effective. Further, when it comes to multi-tenanted applications Salesforce.com is undoubtedly the leader in its segment.

I spoke to another customer about a particularly interesting use of the platform and will post about that separately.

A year with Windows 7

It’s nearly a year since Microsoft unveiled Windows 7 at PDC 2008 – to be precise it was 26th October 2008 when I attended the pre-briefing a tried it out for myself on a loaned laptop. I’ve been using it since on numerous PCs, and used little else – well, aside from the Mac and a little Ubuntu – since it went gold in July. What’s my long-term view?

Well, the pre-brief was impressive, and guided by Steven Sinofsky the team has delivered what it promised. I guess Microsoft should do this sort of thing in its sleep; but the fact that it did not do for Vista, and that other departments such as that for Windows Mobile seem to move with glacial pace, makes the achievement impressive. Even the suggestion that Windows 7 would work fine on older hardware has proven true. I’ve installed it on a seven-year old Pentium 4 and it is perfectly usable; I never dared to put Vista on that machine.

So it works, but do I like it? Generally, yes. The souped-up taskbar is now where I usually launch applications. I don’t bother putting icons on the desktop as they are usually hidden behind applications. I like Aero Peek. I think the Jump List and ability to have controls in thumbnail preview windows will be neat features when more applications come out that properly utilise them. Most important, Windows 7 hasn’t got in my way and most of the time I don’t think about it – which is as it should be.

I’m delighted with Libraries. I find them very useful. They enable me to think less about where a document is stored; it’s something that the user should not have to worry about at all. The UI for grouping and merging is not quite right and will trip up some users; but libraries work, which is what I care about more.

I have a few quibbles. The light shading applied to taskbar icons when the applications is running is too subtle; I’d like some more obvious indication. The taskbar behaves badly when full, as I’ve noted before, and the “small icon” option is terrible.

I think the decision to hide notification icons by default is a bad one. It is detrimental to usability, especially for apps that rely on that icon as the normal point of interaction. I don’t think it will help that much with making Windows “quieter”, as vendors will find other means to intrude if they insist on doing so.

I’ve noticed that the upgrade from Vista to Windows 7 makes Office invisible. I’ve had users complain that they cannot find their email because of this. It is purely a matter of moving icons back onto the taskbar or top-level Start menu, but this could be better.

These are minor gripes. My main further complaint is that by Windows 7 Microsoft really should be further along with creating an advanced client operating system in the Internet era. The main reason I reckon is the technical problems and loss of confidence that ensued after the original plans for Longhorn fell apart, and I’ve written further about this in a piece to be published shortly. Another factor is time wasted on semi-failures like Tablet PC; much was right about it, but it took Apple and the iPhone to show us how a touch (not stylus) UI should work.

I still think Windows 7 deserves to be a huge success, just as I did twelve months ago.

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Blast from the past: how Adobe praised XAML at PDC 2003

I’ve been trawling back through material from Microsoft’s Professional Developer’s Conference in 2003 for a piece that will be posted shortly. I believe that the vision that was presented at PDC 2003, and how it fell apart, sheds a lot of light on why Windows is as it is today.

In doing so I came across this snippet about Adobe’s participation in the PDC keynote. It’s still online in Microsoft’s PDC press release:

Adobe Systems, a leading developer of software for consumers, creative professionals and enterprises, demonstrated the possibilities for ISVs created by integrating the new "Avalon" presentation technology and declarative programming techniques for Windows. Using these technologies, a prototype version of Adobe After Effects showed how developers could unify documents, cutting-edge graphics and media. For example, developers would now be able to build animated charts and graphs that are linked to back-end data sources to produce a smart solution that displays stock prices, sales and other information within a high-end professionally designed format.

"Many developers have not taken the visual design of their applications seriously enough, with the most innovative work restricted to creative professional software and games," said Greg Gilley, vice president of Graphics Applications Development at Adobe. "Longhorns new Avalon technology brings the designer and developer closer, so they can truly collaborate on creating software applications that are as beautiful as they are functional."

The odd thing is, this quote could come from the Adobe MAX 2009 conference from which I have just returned. “Animated charts and graphs … linked to back-end data sources” is what we saw in applications build with Mosaic, Adobe’s new framework for LiveCycle ES2 clients.

The difference: Adobe is doing all this with Flex and MXML, not XAML, and the client platform is the Flash runtime, not Avalon running on Windows.

Gilley of course was speaking before Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia (and Flash and MXML) in 2005. Furthermore, nobody at PDC in 2003 could have guessed how long it would take Microsoft to deliver XAML.

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Visual Studio 2010 to launch March 22 with Azure, Team Foundation Server for all

Microsoft has announced more details about Visual Studio 2010 and .NET Framework 4.0. Beta 2 of both products is available round about now, at least for MSDN subscribers, while thee are a few interesting packaging changes:

  • No more roles – there will be three paid-for versions of Visual Studio, Professional, Premium and Ultimate. I’ve been told that Premium will be pretty much the current Development and Database editions combined, while Ultimate has everything.
  • Team Foundation Server comes with every version, meaning that all Visual Studio developers will be able to use it if they choose. General Manager Jason Zander has the details of TFS Basic, which can even run on the client machine.
  • There will be a number of Azure hours bundled with each edition, so that developers can get started with Microsoft’s cloud platform without further payment. For example, Visual Studio 2010 Premium will come with 750 Azure hours initially, though this will supposedly reduce to 100 hours at a later date.

Visual Studio 2010 includes a new editor based on WPF, and users have complained of performance problems. Apparently this has been addressed, though now that beta 2 is out we will soon discover for sure.

I’ve also learned that the price of Visual Studio is increasing, by around 9%. To soften the blow, Microsoft has a special offer for those with current MSDN subscriptions when Visual Studio 2010 is released. These subscribers will get an automatic upgrade, not only to the equivalent 2010 edition, but to the one above. Thus, Professional subscribers will get Premium, and Team System subscribers will get Ultimate.

There is also an MSDN redesign, though it looks minor to me, and the most important section, the reference library, seems little changed. There is a ton of useful material on MSDN, but I still find Microsoft’s plethora of development and technical sites confusing to navigate, especially with specialist sites like Silverlight.Net offering overlapping content.

Ars technica has a handy product matrix.

Is Apple iPhone now unstoppable in the mobile platform wars?

I’ve been reflecting on a chat I had with a mobile application developer at Qt Developer Days last week. He thinks that Apple has all-but won in the battle to dominate the SmartPhone platform.

His reasoning is based on a couple of things. The first is that Apple is easily outpacing others in application availability and number of app installations. I guess there are many ways of counting this, but have a look at these figures. Handango, which has been in this game for over a decade, reported in January that it had over 140,000 apps and 100 million all-time downloads across a number of SmartPhone platforms. Apple reported this month that it has 85,000 apps and 2 billion downloads.

His second point is that Apple is one of the few companies to understand that users like consistency better than choice. “If I pick up an iPhone, my fingers know what to do,” he told me. This makes users reluctant to switch, except to another iPhone. By contrast, Nokia has a zillion different devices supposedly tailored for the needs of different customer segments, but as a result there is no sense of a consistent platform and users can easily switch away. Windows Mobile has the same problem but with multiple vendors as well as frequent design changes from each vendor.

These are points well made. If the much-rumoured Apple tablet appears, we can expect the App Store concept to extend its reach to larger devices as well. No wonder Adobe is so determined not to be left out on this platform, announcing a compiler to convert Flash applications to native iPhone code, as well as stepping up its campaign for Flash in the iPhone browser.

That said, I can think of counter-arguments. One is that iPhone isn’t yet, as far as I know, strong for corporate development. Windows Mobile has some advantages here, for Microsoft platform companies, while Java (not available on iPhone so far) is also appealing to corporate developers.

Another is that Google Android will give strong competition and take advantage of Apple’s weakness, its reluctance to abandon premium pricing.

Third, the consistency argument only goes so far. If you look at today’s iPod touch, for example, compared to the first iPods, there are huge differences. Users will in fact switch if there is convincing value in what is new.

Fourth, the more iPhone grows in importance, the more discontent over the closed nature of its platform will grow.

It is still early days for SmartPhones as a development platform; and while it is fun to speculate, things may look very different in a couple of years.

Still, let’s acknowledge that right now it is advantage Apple.

See also: What’s your choice in the mobile battleground?

and this great rant from a frustrated Symbian/Nokia developer:

Calling all Nokia & Symbian geniuses: Am I wrong?

Silverlight data, image upload example code

Some time ago I created a simple example of CRUD (Create, Retrieve, Update, Delete) in Silverlight with ASP.NET – you can view it online here. I originally posted it in April; see this post for details. Several people asked me for the code and I’ve not done so until now – mainly because of the hassle involved in making a Visual Studio solution portable as a demo. The Silverlight app was originally written in Visual Basic and I’ve now ported it to C# for convenience. The version on this site runs on Mono, but the demo code is for Visual Studio 2008 on Windows – there really is no difference apart from the database code.

One issue I had with the demo was providing a database. I wanted something easier than just providing the SQL to create a database, ideally a solution that would just open and run immediately. I tried using SQL Server Compact Edition but Microsoft has actually hard-coded something that stops you using this for an ASP.NET application and I got an exception accordingly. I’ve therefore used Access. I wouldn’t consider this for a real web app, but it is convenient for a demo.

The code is somewhat retro – no entity framework, no WCF, no LINQ – except an expression to filter the datagrid – and old-style ASP.NET Forms Authentication. It would be good to convert it to use RIA Services, which I may do if I can find the time. This may mean the code is no use to you at the moment.

Although it is a simple app and not production-ready, I found it interesting to do. Silverlight code is easy to write, but interacting with remote web services for all the content is more challenging. There are flaws – for example, I’ve not handled what happens when multiple users edit the data simultaneously.

There are a few little hacks too. For example, I have an edit form where you can upload an image. I want to have the image display as soon as it is uploaded, but found that if I try to display it in the WebClient’s OpenWriteCompleted event handler it fails; somehow the file is not quite ready to be served. I use a timer to insert a small delay.

Another issue was faking synchronous web service calls.

Anyway, I’ve now uploaded the code and you can find it here. If there is enough interest I’ll put it in a repository to make it easier to add bug-fixes and so on.

IntelliJ IDEA goes free and open source

Yesterday JetBrains announced that its core product, the IDEA IDE for Java, is becoming open source under the Apache 2.0 license. There will be a free Community Edition and a commercial edition with more features. This list of additional features not in the free edition is rather extensive, including UML class diagrams, code coverage, Android support, JSP debugging, JavaScript debugging, support for other languages such as Ruby, SQL, HTML, JavaScript, ActionScript, PHP, support for additional version control systems including Team Foundation Server, ClearCase and Perforce, and above all specific support for frameworks and technologies including Rails, Spring, EJB, Tomcat, JBoss and WebSphere, and even Adobe AIR.

In other words, the free part is the core IDE plus a few features; the commercial edition adds a lot of value for most users.

CEO Sergey Dimitriev remarks:

Open source has become the mainstream, and we continue to embrace it as an exciting challenge. In brief, we’re not changing direction — we’re moving forward.

IDEA is an excellent and popular IDE and last time I looked I found it more productive and enjoyable to use than its obvious alternative, Eclipse. I imagine that IntelliJ is hoping to strengthen the community and availability of add-ons for IDEA, as well as attracting new users.

Although this is welcome news – and I’d encourage any Java developer to try the product – it would be interesting to know more about why JebBrains is taking this step. Borland’s JBuilder was once highly successful, until the free Eclipse offering eroded its market share. Seeing how important the add-on community was in Eclipse, Borland belatedly issued a free JBuilder and sought to make it an alternative IDE platform for third parties, but by then it was too late. JBuilder was discontinued and a new product of the same name appeared in its place, built on Eclipse; it is still available but is now a niche product. I’ve not got any up-to-date figures but I’d expect JBuilder’s market share to be tiny now.

Unlike JBuilder, IDEA has remained popular despite Eclipse. Comments on stackoverflow, for example, show how well liked it is:

Eclipse was the first IDE to move me off of XEmacs. However, when my employer offered to buy me a Intellij IDEA license if I wanted one it only took 3 days with an evaluation copy to convince me to go for it.

It seems like so many small things are just nicer.

The problem is that the free Eclipse, or free NetBeans, or free Oracle JDeveloper, are good enough to get your work done, making it hard to compete; and I am not sure whether the addition of free IntelliJ IDEA to the list is a sign of strength or weakness.

My guess is that serious users will still want the commercial edition with its many additional features, so this may not be as radical a step as it first appears.

Microsoft says it will recover Sidekick data – but we still need to know more

Hopeful news at last for customers of T-Mobile Sidekick, who were told that their cloud-stored data had been lost. Roz Ho, Coporate Vice President of Premium Mobile Experiences – how hollow that sounds right now – says:

We are pleased to report that we have recovered most, if not all, customer data for those  Sidekick customers whose data was affected by the recent outage.  We plan to begin restoring users’ personal data as soon as possible, starting with personal contacts, after we have validated the data and our restoration plan. We will then continue to work around the clock to restore data to all affected users, including calendar, notes, tasks, photographs and high scores, as quickly as possible.

That’s the best outcome from a bad situation, though even considered as an extended outage it is unacceptable service, but leaves many questions unanswered. Microsoft still has not really told us how the problem occurred. Ho says:

We have determined that the outage was caused by a system failure that created data loss in the core database and the back-up. We rebuilt the system component by component, recovering data along the way.

Sure; I think we all know that there was a “system failure that created data loss.” However, we all also suspect that there was a human failure that caused normally failsafe systems to fall over.

I read in the LA Times:

Microsoft is now emphasizing that the data loss, and the problems that led to it, were limited to a segment of the company’s network that is separate from its core cloud infrastructure. 

“The Danger Service platform, which experienced the outage, is a standalone service operating on non-Microsoft technologies, and is not related to Microsoft’s cloud services platform or Windows Live," Microsoft spokesperson Tonya Klause wrote in an e-mail.

Sorry, that is not good enough. Danger has been part of Microsoft for long enough that customers cannot reasonably be expected to distinguish it from other services run by the company. The technology is uses is an internal matter.

This AppleInsider article about the Microsoft’s mobile strategy and the Danger debacle is devastating, if true. The writer claims to have “engineers familiar with Microsoft’s internal operations who spoke with us,” one of whom said, “no one really grasps how dysfunctional Microsoft has become.” It paints a picture of a mobile device and OS strategy in disarray, a failed acquisition of a company with a promising product and service, and incompetence in handling the Danger service.

All this is rumour and maybe these sources are just disgruntled employees or ex-employees with grudges to settle. In the absence of facts though, rumours will fly. Currently we have just one fact: a catastrophic system failure for Sidekick customers.

Tell us more, or we will assume the worst.


Another version of the story via Mary Jo Foley, who quotes “one of my Microsoft sources”:

(T)he data loss issue was caused by a hardware update on the existing Danger service that had NOT been ported over to a Microsoft platform and the issue was NOT part of a transition to an MS back end. It was an Oracle dB and Sun SAN solution that got a bad firmware update and the backup failed.

though she adds:

I’ve also heard that foul play has not been ruled out because the failure was so catastrophic and seemingly deliberate.