Pros and cons of Adobe’s LiveCycle services in the cloud

Adobe has fully released LiveCycle Managed Services, offering a hosted platform for LiveCycle applications. The software is configured and managed by Adobe, but runs on Amazon’s EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) virtual servers.

LiveCycle is a suite of applications which I think of as two things combined. On the one hand, it forms a server platform for business process or workflow applications based on Adobe PDF forms and documents. On the other hand, it provides data services for Rich Internet Applications, usually but not necessarily to client applications on the Flash runtime, either in or out of the browser. It is a little confusing, but these two aspects are essentially the old Adobe Enterprise platform merged with Macromedia’s work in support of Flash, combined into one suite after Adobe’s takeover of Macromedia in 2005.

The usual arguments in favour of hosted services apply and this is a smart move from Adobe. Still, customers are currently forced to use Amazon for the actual virtual servers, even though others such as Rackspace Cloud Servers are substantially cheaper than Amazon EC2. Is that a problem? According to Adobe’s John Carione, senior enterprise product marketing manager at Adobe, “when we were evaluating vendors, we think that one of the areas Amazon excels in is around security.” I noticed that the security topic also occupies around one-third of this introductory video, suggesting that this remains a significant barrier to adoption for many potential customers.

So how will managed LiveCycle work? “We’re providing a fully managed service, and part of that is going to be delivered with what we’re calling  the Adobe Network Operations Center … which is going to provide 24×7 monitoring of the applications, backup and recovery, upgrades. They’ll be one contact at Adobe to talk to about everything,” says Carione. Apparently the Network Operations Center is based on a piece aquired with Omniture last year. Ominiture was a web analytics business which was based on hosted applications and services; maybe that was an important factor driving the acquisition.

When I asked Carione about ease of scaling, I got a slightly defensive answer. “This is a v1, we have the opportunity for customers to buy additional instances. In the future we’ll have more of that dynamic scaling.” Another issue is integrating with on-premise resources such as databases and directory services, which Carione says is a matter for business integrators; in other words, a significant challenge. And what if Amazon goes down? Carione did not answer directly, but said that 99.5% uptime is guaranteed.

Will your laptop run Windows 7?

I’ve recently upgraded two HP laptops to 32-bit Windows 7. In both cases I did a wipe and clean install. The laptops were of similar vintage, around two years old, a Compaq 6710b and a Compaq 6720s. However, if you search for drivers on HP’s site, you will find a full set of Windows 7 drivers for the 6710b, and none at all for the 6720s. That seems a bad omen for the 6720s; but after backing up the existing Vista install I thought I would give it a go anyway.

I was pleased to find that Windows 7, with the assistance of the Windows Update site, had no problem finding drivers for all the devices in 6720s. I suppose some intractable problem might show up later; but it seems to be an entirely successful upgrade.


Windows 7 worked fine on the 6710b as well.

It was worth it too. The combination of the faster, slicker Windows 7 with the usual benefits of a clean install is a big improvement in perceived performance and usability.

So how can you tell if your laptop will run Windows 7? It seems there is hope even if the vendor’s site suggests otherwise. The only sure way to find out is to try it, or to find someone else who has.

Google storage 10 times cheaper than Azure – but not as cheap as Skydrive

According to Jerry Huang of Gladinet, whose Cloud Desktop exposes a variety of cloud storage services as mapped drives in Windows Explorer, Google storage is “about 10 times cheaper” than Windows Azure. Since Amazon S3 has similar prices to Azure, I imagine Google undercuts that by some margin as well.

Gladinet compares Google and Azure using some other criteria as well. On speed, it gave the edge to Azure but observed that it might just depend which data center was nearest. On SLA, the two seem similar.  On API, it says Azure is easier if you use Visual Studio, but not if you work with “PHP, Ruby or anything other than .NET”.

In another post, Huang has a nice summary of accessing Azure storage from C#.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft Skydrive offers a relatively generous 25GB of storage for free, but there is no way to extend this limit.  There is also no official Skydrive API, though one has been hacked unofficially. Gladinet supports Skydrive too, using either this or the unofficial WebDAV support.

I am a fan of Gladinet. There is a free starter edition, or paid-for with extra features.


Explorer integration is a big deal, since it means any application with a standard open or save dialog can access the files. Imagine for example that you need to upload a document from cloud storage to a web site. Without Explorer integration, you have to extract the file from cloud storage to your local drive, then upload it from there. The same is true of SharePoint, which is why it is unfortunate that Explorer integration is so difficult to get working.

CDs to downloads: the noose tightens

I’ve just received my copy of David Bowie’s A Reality Tour, a double CD for which I paid £11.98 from – though if I’d waited a few days, I would have been able to buy a US import for £8.59 including shipping, at today’s prices.

For my money I get a tri-fold package with photos from the tour, and a 12-page booklet with more photos and credits.

The CDs between them have 33 tracks – not bad value.

Still, I could have downloaded from Apple iTunes for £9.99 – which is a little less, or a little more, than the CD price depending whether you compare with what I paid or the best current deal.

What is annoying though is that the iTunes download has two additional tracks:

  • 5.15 the Angels Have Gone
  • Days

They are probably nothing special; but it is irritating.

On the other hand, iTunes has its annoyances too. The tracks are lossy-compressed; and even if you don’t think the difference is audible, that is still a disadvantage if you want to convert to some other format, as generational loss creeps in. I miss out on the packaging (though there may be some digital booklet, I’m not sure). In addition, the rights I purchase are non-transferable, so if I decide I don’t like the album, I can’t stick it on eBay to reduce my loss.

The end result of each purchase is similar, as I rip the CD for streaming anyway.

On balance, I think the CD is a better buy; but I can see where this is going.

Adobe Flash getting faster on the Mac

According to Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch:

Flash Player on Windows has historically been faster than the Mac, and it is for the most part the same code running in Flash for each operating system. We have and continue to invest significant effort to make Mac OS optimizations to close this gap, and Apple has been helpful in working with us on this. Vector graphics rendering in Flash Player 10 now runs almost exactly the same in terms of CPU usage across Mac and Windows, which is due to this work. In Flash Player 10.1 we are moving to CoreAnimation, which will further reduce CPU usage and we believe will get us to the point where Mac will be faster than Windows for graphics rendering.

Video rendering is an area we are focusing more attention on — for example, today a 480p video on a 1.8 Ghz Mac Mini in Safari uses about 34% of CPU on Mac versus 16% on Windows (running in BootCamp on same hardware). With Flash Player 10.1, we are optimizing video rendering further on the Mac and expect to reduce CPU usage by half, bringing Mac and Windows closer to parity for video.

Also, there are variations depending on the browser as well as the OS — for example, on Windows, IE8 is able to run Flash about 20% faster than Firefox.

Many of us are not aware of these kinds of differences, because we live in one browser on one operating system, but the non-uniform performance of Flash helps to explain divergent opinions of its merits.

I would be interested to see a similar comparison for Linux, which I suspect would show significantly worse performance than on Windows or Mac.

What’s new in Visual Studio 2010 – more than you may realise

I’m beginning to think Microsoft has under-sold Visual Studio 2010. Of course it is a huge product, as I observed back in October, especially since it includes a major new release of the .NET Framework as well as updated tools, but I thought I had discovered most of the significant new features. Still, when I sat down recently to write up an extended review, I found a lot that I had missed.

One of my reflections on this is that Microsoft has done of poor job of communicating what is new. I attended the Professional Developer’s Conference in 2008 and 2009. The developer-focused keynote on the second day last November should have hyped the best of what is new; but instead we got Steven Sinofsky on Windows 7 quality control – hardly the most exciting of topics – a sneak preview of IE 9, an unconvincing tour of Sharepoint and Office 2010, and Scott Guthrie on Silverlight 4. Guthrie was fantastic, leading us blow by blow through Silverlight’s new capabilities, but much else was neglected.

It doesn’t help that Microsoft’s home page for Visual Studio 2010 has meaningless headlines. “Set your ideas free”, “Simplicity through integration”, “Quality tools help ensure quality results.” Pure fluff, which saps your will to read further.

Here are a few things that I found interesting – nothing like comprehensive, just features that perhaps have not had the attention they deserve.

Microsoft F# – a new language from Microsoft Research, integrated into Visual Studio with remarkable speed. The people I’ve spoken to who have taken the time to discover what it does are truly enthusiastic. Some of its strengths are parallelism, asynchronous programming, graphics manipulations, and maths. You probably won’t write a complete application in F#, but it will be great for assembling libraries.

Windows Workflow Foundation 4.0 – potentially a new and effective approach to visual programming and long-running state management. Flow charts are often used to teach programming, since they express common concepts like if conditions visually. WF lets you draw a process as a flow chart – or there are other types of chart – using the nice new WPF design tools, and then execute it in the runtime, which is part of the “Dublin” extensions to IIS, now known as Windows Server AppFabric (I have no clue why this confusing name was chosen). To get the idea, I suggest reading David Chappell’s Workflow Way. For applications that fit this kind of model, it is a compelling approach, and integrates well with Windows Communication Foundation for messaging.

Dotfuscator – I know this is a third-party thing, but this is no longer just a tool for obscuring your .NET assemblies in the hope of preventing decompilation. The new Dotfuscator does runtime analytics, and can report back to a portal when your application runs, what features you use, what operating system it is on, whether it crashed, and so on. It also supports application expiry, known as “shelf life”, and can detect if assemblies have been tampered with. Some of this sails close to the spyware wind, but this is a matter of getting informed user consent. These are interesting features for Windows desktop developers, if there are any left, and even the free edition is quite capable.

Test and Lab management – a challenge to set up and configure, but when it works, amazing. Lab Management uses Visual Studio, Hyper-V and System Center Virtual Machine Manager to automate deploying an application over one or more VMs, so you can run tests against it. This hooks into Team System so you can file a bug report with a link that actually shows the bug happening at runtime, with a snapshot of the virtual environment.

Step backwards through code – IntelliTrace is a new feature of the Visual Studio debugger. Configure it to collect IntelliTrace events and call information, and you can then step backwards as well as forwards from a breakpoint, examining variable values as they change.

Team Foundation Server Basic – what this means is that even a solo Visual Studio developer can have TFS running locally or on a networked machine for source code management, issue tracking and so on. It’s worth considering because of the way it integrates with the IDE. I admit, I still like Subversion which I have on a remotely hosted server, since it acts as an effective off-site backup, but I’d much rather use TFS Basic than nothing.

UML – Microsoft has finally done what it should have done years ago, and implemented a wide range of up-to-date UML diagram tools. Nothing revolutionary, just useful.

Not everything is wonderful in the new Visual Studio. Deploying to Azure remains clunky in Beta 2 – when is this going to get better? SharePoint is another one; I appreciate the value of F5 debugging, but you still need SharePoint installed locally, with great potential for mucking up IIS, and the whole thing feels unwieldy.

Adobe Flash vs Apple iPad: RIA in the balance

Adobe evangelist Lee Brimelow has posted some images of well-known sites that break if Adobe Flash is not enabled. His point: if Apple’s iPad does not support Flash, none of these sites will work correctly.

While true in the short term, I do not think this is an effective line of argument. 

Let’s presume that you run one of these Flash-dependent sites. Now along comes a popular computing device that no longer displays Flash content. It’s already happened with the iPhone; but iPad is more serious because it has a full-size web browser, and many of us tolerate strange behaviour in a mobile web browser because we are used to it. Further, I’m guessing that some of these sites already adapt their content for iPhone.

What happens now? One of two things. Either Apple is persuaded to add support for the plugin; or the site owners fix their sites, detecting iPad/iPhone and substituting Quicktime or HTML5 content in place of Flash. In the case of the major sites such as those Brimelow lists, I doubt that second process would take long.

Result: people complain less, the pressure is off Apple and on Adobe.

I do not take the success of iPad for granted; but it is plausible; and if the device does become popular it is going to make Flash-centric web developers re-think their strategy. Further, if it fails, I doubt it will be for lack of Flash. Users do not care about Flash, they care about content, and the iPad will provide plenty of that.

The problem for Adobe is that much of its strategy is now built on the Flash runtime and its presumed ubiquity. If you compare Creative Suite 4 to Creative Suite 3 you can see how Flash is more pervasive, in several different roles ranging from rendering capabilities to code execution. It will be even more so in Creative Suite 5.

Applications built with Flex are equally affected. And note: if Flash is struggling to get over the wall into Apple’s orchard, Oracle Java will struggle more, and Microsoft Silverlight more still. It is not just Flash, but much of what we think of as RIA (Rich Internet Applications) that is at stake.

It is not over yet. If Apple is primarily concerned about browser stability, rather than controlling the platform, then Adobe may yet satisfy its requirements. Second, the iPad might fail – not completely, but enough to make it an unimportant niche. iPad is expensive and most users don’t get the tablet concept; it is not a sure-fire winner.

If neither get-out comes to pass, what can Adobe do? There are a couple of mitigating factors. One is that Adobe has already been thinking about how to deal with Apple devices. At the Adobe Max conference last year we saw its Flash to native code compiler, which will be in Creative Suite 5. It only targets iPhone; but no doubt iPad can be added. It raises the possibility of more Flash applets becoming native applications in the App Store. Money and control for Apple; but at least your code will run.

We also saw, in the Max sneak peeks, how Flash can be rendered server-side, and served to the browser as video. It’s an interesting thought if you simply must get your Flash content working on the iPad.

Another point is that Adobe is at a design tools company, and it can adapt its tools to be less focused on Flash. Another feature we saw at Max was an Illustrator to SVG converter. It is now in Adobe’s interests to work more intensely to advance HTML standards, to make them better clients for rich content.

Still, Apple has come up with what may be a significant roadblock to Adobe’s ambitions for what it calls the Flash Platform.

Web standards people may cheer this, on the grounds that a Flash-free web is less broken. I am not cheering though. Vendors locking down their devices is not a healthy way to advance web standards. Further, Flash is an amazing runtime. Flash enabled YouTube to succeed. The BBC iPlayer project did not deliver on its promise until it converted to Flash. Flash provides web developers with a consistent runtime that has value in entertainment, in education, and in general applications. One of the first things I install on Windows, Mac or Linux is Adobe AIR, which lets me run a desktop Twitter client.

Here’s my vote for Flash on iPad – and Silverlight and Java too, if the user wants their capabilities.

Amazon gives in to Macmillan thanks to power of Apple

In a posting on its forum, Amazon has declared defeat in its disagreement with Macmillan over ebook terms – one most likely influenced by Apple which is offering better terms to publishers for its forthcoming iPad:

Macmillan, one of the "big six" publishers, has clearly communicated to us that, regardless of our viewpoint, they are committed to switching to an agency model and charging $12.99 to $14.99 for e-book versions of bestsellers and most hardcover releases.

We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it’s reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book. We don’t believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.

While Amazon is focusing on the higher price, what really counts here is who sets the price and how much money goes back to the publisher. It’s not clear to me why any publisher would not do the same as Macmillan, since it is to their advantage.

I am surprised Amazon gave in so easily. Its PR has has been clumsy – first, to withdraw titles from sale thus ensuring strong opposition from frustrated authors, and coming over as a bully; and second, to state so clearly, early in the battle, that “we will have to capitulate” – not language you normally hear from a major corporation.

It is evidence of Apple’s extraordinary power to disrupt markets.

If you missed the background, see yesterday’s post.