Sold out QCon kicks off in London: big data, mobile, cloud, HTML 5

QCon London has just started in London, and I’m interested to see that it is both bigger than last year and also sold out. I should not be surprised, because it is usually the best conference I attend all year, being vendor-neutral (though with an Agile bias), wide-ranging and always thought-provoking.


A few more observations. One reason I attend is to watch industry trends, which are meaningful here because the agenda is driven by what currently concerns developers and software architects. Interesting then to see an entire track on cross-platform mobile, though one that is largely focused on HTML 5. In fact, mobile and cloud between them dominate here, with other tracks covering cloud architecture, big data, highly available systems, platform as a service, HTML 5 and JavaScript and more.

I also noticed that Abobe’s Christophe Coenraets is here this year as he was in 2011 – only this year he is talking not about Flex or AIR, but HTML, JavaScript and PhoneGap.

Financial Times thrives on HTML 5, paywall, and snubbing Apple iTunes

I spoke to Rob Grimshaw, Managing Director of FT.Com, shortly after Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where the FT web app won an award for “Best Mobile Innovation for Publishing”.


I was interested in speaking to Grimshaw for two reasons.

First, the FT is a publication which has successfully managed the transition from print to online. The latest published results , for the first half of 2011, report that FT Group sales were up 7% and profits up 10%, “enhanced by digital subscriptions.”

Second, the FT took the initiative to bypass Apple’s app store with its onerous subscription terms by remaking its app as HTML5, as reported here .
The award “was the icing on the cake for the whole process,” Grimshaw told me. “When we abandoned the native app and stepped out of iTunes, it was a big commercial gamble, and it was a rueful moment as well because we’d created a beautiful native app and won an Apple design award.”

Was the FT move all about subscription fees, or were there other factors? “It was not all about Apple,” said Grimshaw. “Certainly their 30% tax on subscriptions didn’t make sense to us, because we already have our own platform so why pay somebody else to use their platform? Second, they would have owned the relationship with the customer. That’s important for various reasons, but for example it makes it difficult to manage churn, which is a crucial aspect of a subscription business.

“There were some other reasons. The mobile market would have been problematic if we had to keep developing all our applications for many different  operating systems. The overhead is enormous. It doesn’t stop once you’ve launched the app, you have to keep ugrading and changing.

“HTML 5 offers a way out of that headache by producing code that runs across multiple platforms.

“When you add all of that together, it seems to be smart to go the HTML 5 route even though it was technologically risky because at the time nobody else had done it.”

So what has been the impact of the web app versus the native app?

“A lot of people said, if we leave iTunes we’ll disappear from the world. We haven’t found that to be the case. In the four month period after we launched the web app, from June through to October 2011, our traffic on the iPad and the iPhone increased by over 50%. 1.7 million people have now visited the web application, more than ever downloaded our old iPhone and iPad app combined.

“We have many tools and techniques which help us to promote and build audience in the browser, and they work just as effectively for the web app as they do for our normal web sites.”

Is the success of the web app a reflection of the type of app, which is content-dominated, or will web apps dominate more generally in the mobile space?

“I think that HTML 5 will dominate. The buzz around HTML 5 at Mobile World Congress reinforced that view. It feels to me that there is an unstoppable momentum behind it,” said Grimshaw, mentioning PhoneGap-style native wrappers as well as pure web apps. “The counter argument is that for some of the new features of phones and tablets you have to use native code. However, I think 90% of applications don’t need that kind of support. We produce a very sophisticated app, and HTML 5 covers all the functions that we would ever need to use.”

“Once people discover what they can do within the browser they will start thinking why would you develop in native when it creates all of these headaches.”

As form factors become more varied, do you see a convergence between what you do for mobile and what you do for the wider internet?

“I can see them coming together. I can imagine a day where a single set of HTML 5 code can power our site across the full range of smartphones, tablets and desktop. The only obstacle is that so many browsers on the desktop don’t support HTML 5 fully.

“That doesn’t make all the contexting go away. Now with our mobile development we are dividing screen sizes into four buckets, and the thinking is that we will have to design for those four screen sizes. Device manufacturers are going to carry on producing a device to occupy every possible niche, and as publishers we have to cope with that.”

How important is cloud and mobile to your business, what new opportunities does it offer?

“Mobile is incredibly strategically important. I’m personally convinced that mobile will be the main distribution channel for news in the future. People’s lives don’t stop when they leave their desks or exit their houses. They want to carry on their friendships, their business, their reading. If you have a powerful mobile device that can deliver that, you’re going to gravitate to that device, and pretty soon it does become the main channel.

“We already see the audience migrating onto mobile. About 20% of our page views now come from mobile devices. That could be over half within three years. Figuring out how to present our content, sell our subscriptions, deliver our advertising on mobile devices is hugely important.

“It’s a shift on a tectonic scale. For publishers this is a bigger shift than the shift from print to desktop, and it’s happening faster.

“It does create new opportunities as well. We have a new sales channel, we’re now selling our subscriptions through mobile devices. 15 to 20% of our new digital subscriptions every week are sold directly through mobile devices.

“It gives us the potential to reach new audiences. We’ve seen some good evidence from the mobile operators to show that our audience from mobile is much younger that our audience on desktop or on print. Devices are helping us to reach younger audiences and recruit readers who might be with us for the rest of their lives.”

What about social media and the relationship with the big web portals, Google, Facebook, Twitter?

“I see social media as a parallel trend to mobile. Mobile is the desire of people to take content with them physically. Social media is about the desire of people to take content with them virtually, and equally powerful.

“On the advertising side I find social media a little alarming because of scale. Facebook has a trillion page views a month, which makes them 400 times bigger than the BBC and 1500 times bigger than the New York Times. It’s scale which is unimaginable for most publishers, and they have tremendous insight into their audience. That’s a potent cocktail. And every time someone shares an FT article on Facebook, an extra bit of data builds up on their side that tells them about our readers.

“On the subscription side though it is all positive and they can be powerful sales channels for us. We have big communities in social media, 300,000 odd on Facebook, 1.2 million Twitter followers, and these are to some extend self-selecting marketing audiences, people who stuck up their hand and said we’re interested in the FT.

“We also believe we can find ways to allow people to consume content in the social media environment if they are subscribers. We’re working on finding ways to do that.”

What do you think of paywalls versus free content for newspapers on the web? Does the paywall only work because the FT is a niche publication, albeit a large niche?

“We are very much on the paywall side and unashamedly so, we think our content has tremendous value and people do not object to paying for it. We now have 270,000 digital subscribers and that compares to our newspaper circulation which is around 330,000, so we’ve been successful in building up a paying audience in digital which is now pretty close in scale to our paying audience. It’s been an enormously success business venture for us.

“When you look at the publishers that are giving all their content away, the reason they are giving it all away is in order to build up a bigger audience for advertising. But the scale of the competition in the advertising market is so huge that actually it is a fruitless exercise, unless you can acquire a scale which will give you billions of page views a month. It’s very hard to see how you can build a decent business just from online advertising. The numbers don’t stack up.

“My message to other publishers is not necessarily that you have got to have a paywall, but is that you probably need other ways to make money, other than online advertising.”

Two web browsers one too many in Windows 8 Consumer Preview

A few days in, and the reactions to Windows 8 Consumer Preview are coming thick and fast, mostly strong reactions, with love for Metro on a tablet and hate from annoyed Windows users looking for the Start menu.

For myself, I have it installed on a tablet (Samsung Series 7 Slate bought for the purpose) and on a desktop, where I am using it for my work.

It is going OK, though one annoyance to add to the list is coping with two instances of Internet Explorer. It sounds simple: Metro IE is the no-plugin version, Desktop IE is the full version. There is more to it that that though. Where are you going to put your favourites, in Metro or in Desktop? Except that Metro IE has no favourites, just the option to “Pin to start menu”.


More seriously, pages open in Metro IE are invisible in Desktop IE and vice versa, and the two browsers do not share cookies, so you might wonder why Amazon does not recognize you when you remember you signed in yesterday – but that was in Metro and you are now in Desktop.

Users are going to hate this, unless Microsoft can do some tweaking, or even (perish the thought) have a setting that says “Only use desktop IE”.

The IE problem is a consequence of the Windows 8 split personality, where one half almost literally does not know what the other half is doing. John Gruber says:

The recurring theme of these Windows 8 reviews: the brand-new Metro UI is elegant, clever, original and shows much promise; the updated classic Windows desktop is better than ever; the two environments don’t flow well together.

Nicely put, though I do not agree that Microsoft is trying to anticipate Apple supposedly converging OSX and iOS (read the rest of the link). I think Microsoft sees the future of the PC as tablet-shaped, or at least, that the non-tablet segment of the PC market is essentially legacy and will not grow. If some users stay on Windows 7 for ever, that will not matter much provided that Metro succeeds on tablets.

Microsoft could have put Windows Phone on tablets and matched Apple’s iOS and OSX split. It could have make Windows 8 the underlying operating system of both but maintained the split. It chose not to, except to the extent that Windows on ARM is pretty much iOS, where the desktop nearly disappears – it is relegated to a kind of runtime for utilities and Microsoft Office.

I do think Microsoft has work to do on the seams between Metro and Desktop, but I also believe that its main rationale in making Windows 8 dual personality is to force its uptake. The danger, if it had released Windows Metro as a separate OS, is that it would have won good reviews but failed in the market, as happened with Windows Phone in its first year. Microsoft is going for all-or-nothing: if Windows Metro fails, then Windows client fails with it.

PS the above grab is not a stitched screen, but an actual view of my dual monitor setup.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview tip: use compatibility mode for driver installation

I have a Kodak ESP 725o network printer, and was trying to set it up on Windows 8 Consumer Preview. The setup software detected the printer OK, then gave a strange error:


“The application called an interface that was marshalled for a different thread.” Hmm.

The solution is to run the installer in Windows 7 compatibility mode. Doing this in Windows 8 takes a few steps. First, find the setup app in the Start menu:


then right-click to show the options menu, or if using touch, drag the shortcut up slightly and release for the same result. Then click or tap Open file location.


This shows the application in Explorer on the desktop. If you prefer to get there by another route, that is fine too. Right-click the executable, choose Properties, and then Compatibility. Select Windows 7 and click OK.


Run the printer setup utility, and if you are lucky (as I was in this case) it will install the driver for you perfectly.


Windows 8 Consumer Preview annoyances

I have been running Windows 8 Consumer Preview on a dual-monitor desktop today. I encountered several annoyances. In no particular order:

The Start Menu

If you are working on the desktop, being dumped back in Metro every time you need the Start menu is disconcerting. It is not so bad on a touch slate, because the Metro Start menu is easier to use, but if you are using keyboard and mouse it is more annoying.

I am beginning to understand why this is. Conceptually, the Desktop is a Metro app, therefore it makes sense to start it from Metro. If Windows gets to the point where desktop apps are only used occasionally, this will work fine. Right now though, the desktop side is unavoidable. Explorer, full IE, Control Panel, even the Help app is a desktop app. This is a transitional thing that will be a long-lived annoyance.

This little issue also confirms Microsoft’s belief that touch and tablet really is the future of Windows. It is the big bet.

Horizontal scrolling

Windows 8 Metro has a lot of horizontal scrolling, the Start menu being one example. Swiping this with fingers feels natural, but using a scroll wheel on a mouse is odd because you expect that to give you a vertical scroll. There is a scroll bar as well, but the mouse wheel is easier.

App switching

App switching has been messed up in Windows 8. Long ago, users of Windows 3.1 used to complain that they lost the app they were working on. In reality, what used to happen was that Word would be running behind Excel, and they did not realise that Alt-Tab would bring it back, or forgot that Word was running. Sometimes users would open multiple instances of an app just to get it back. I wonder if we may see a return to this problem in Windows 8? The taskbar in Windows 95 was invented partly to solve it, but the taskbar no longer works because Metro apps do not appear there. If you are in Metro, you do not see the taskbar anyway, of course. Alt-Tab works fine, but users do not always think of that.

An interesting twist on this is that the desktop, from the Metro perspective, is a single app. Therefore, if you are in Metro and summon the column of running apps by moving the mouse to the top left corner and dragging down, only one desktop window shows even if you have several desktop apps running. Oddly, you can “close” the preview desktop app here, but it does not close the desktop or any desktop apps if you do, just removes it temporarily from the preview window list.


App menus and context menus

In Metro on a tablet, you raise application menus by swiping from the top or bottom. That works well, but when using the mouse you are meant to right-click instead. The snag is that right-click isn’t ideal for bringing up app menus as it might need to show a context menu. For example, in the Metro browser right-clicking a link brings up a context menu:


In this case then, the right-click does NOT bring up the app menus, such as the tabs and address bar in IE.

The Music app

The Music app looks great, but I have struggled to add any music to it.


My music files are on a network share. There is no setting in the Metro Music app to add a folder to the library. It looks like you are meant to go to Explorer on the desktop side and add folders to your Music library. However, when I tried to add the network share I got this error:


“This network location can’t be included because it is not indexed.” Follow the help links, and you eventually get to instructions for working around this problem by creating a local folder, adding it to the Music library, then deleting the folder and recreating it as a symbolic link to the network share. Hardly a user-friendly operation, but in my case even this did not work. I am now trying to index the share on the server, but it is still not working.

I do not see DNLA streaming support here either. Maybe it will come; otherwise you will have to go back to Windows Media Player, or a third-party app, to get full features.

Metro Mail problems

I have not yet managed to get the Mail app to work with Exchange. One of the annoyances here is that when it fails to set up the account, it does not give you a reason. A bit of research suggests that it is an autodiscover problem.

Another Mail issue is that you cannot modify the annoying signature, Sent from my Windows 8 PC:


Nor can you use POP3 or IMAP, or forward mail. I was relieved therefore to find this statement from Microsoftie KeithF on the Answers forum:

We aren’t anywhere near done with the app and, as you’ve seen, there are some things we haven’t gotten to yet.  One of those is supporting custom domains and aggregated POP accounts correctly.  We’re working right now on finishing this off the right way.

This is worth noting because it gives hope that more features will arrive in the other apps as well. Currently they seem only part-done.

Multiple displays

Multiple monitor support is odd. The taskbar now extends across multiple screens, but annoyingly it is not properly extended, just sort-of copied, so you cannot add more shortcuts without scrolling. There are some other options, like “Show taskbar buttons on Main taskbar and taskbar where window is open.”


There are oddities though. A Metro app apparently cannot be extended across two displays. The Start menu appears in one display, letting you work on the other, but if you have a desktop app stretched across two displays, the Metro side will overlay that part of the desktop app which is on its display.

Metro Messenger

Another app deficiency is that in the Metro Messenger app you cannot add a new contact, at least, not that I have seen.

Conclusion: not done yet

Windows 8 is not yet done. While I am not expecting any great change in the Start menu or essential mechanics and design of Windows 8, I do expect improvements in the Metro apps, the goal I suspect being to make this usable and enjoyable on a tablet without too many jarring visits to the desktop – though if you use Office, you will be going to the desktop a fair amount like it or not. We have yet to see what Microsoft will do in Office 15 to mitigate this.

A few days in, and I still believe that the Windows 8 compromise means that the Metro side is sub-optimal with Mouse and keyboard, and the Desktop side sub-optimal with touch.

There is a ton of promise though, and much depends on what Metro apps appear, and how successful Microsoft is at fixing deficiencies in time for the launch. Given the lead time needed by OEMs, there is not a lot of time left if this is going to be a 2012 operating system.

What’s in Windows 8 client for desktop users who do not need Metro?

Microsoft, rightly, is making plenty of noise about the Metro-style side of Windows 8, which is great for those using Windows 8 on a touch device. But has the company spent so much energy on that aspect, that there is little left for desktop users? That is arguable; but there are new features on the desktop side, as well as underlying operating system changes that benefit both sides of the dual personality in Windows 8.

Here are some that come to mind. The new copy dialog:


and the task manager:


and the Explorer ribbon:


and Storage Spaces, a new approach to disk management:


and SmartScreen which blocks your unsigned apps by default:


and Windows to Go that lets you run in isolation from a USB storage device, and other security features including Trusted Boot (malware-resistant boot which uses UEFI 2.3.1), Measured Boot (uses TPM – Trusted Platform Module), and AppLocker which restricts access to files as controlled by Group Policy.

Then there are performance improvements: faster network connections (I have already noticed this when working with the preview), faster boot, longer battery life.

File History is a variation on what we have had before with backup but presented with a common-sense user interface:


And Hyper-V, a big feature for power users:


What have I forgotten? And is it enough to mitigate being bounced in and out of Metro by the new Start menu – or maybe you like the Metro Start screen better than the old one?

Embarcadero updates Delphi XE2, full reinstall required

Embarcadero has released Delphi XE2 Update 4. The depressing news is that you have to uninstall RAD Studio completely before installing the update. The reward is a large number of bug fixes, listed here, as well as new features:

  • Printing support in FireMonkey OS X
  • Support for Free Pascal 2.6 in FireMonkey iOS
  • New FireMonkey types and methods
  • New VCL styles
  • 64-bit type library import, for using COM libraries in Delphi

Delphi XE2 was somewhat rough on first release, so upgrading is advisable. Maybe it is now sufficiently robust to attract those more cautious developers who do not like to use new products in their first incarnation.

Here comes Windows Server 8 beta: what’s new since the Developer Preview?

Following the release of Windows 8 Consumer Preview, Microsoft is now offering its server cousin. You can download Windows Server 8 beta here.

What’s new since the developer preview? Here are some highlights:

  • Metro UI screenshots to follow! There is a new Metro Remote Desktop client as well.
  • Voice over IP in Remote Desktop Services
  • SMB (Server Message Block) encryption, which you can turn on per share or for the whole server, encrypts all SMB data. SMB is the standard networking protocol for file access on a Windows network. The new feature is aimed at scenarios where data travels over untrusted networks. SMB has also been enhanced to reduce server/client round trips.
  • Always Offline is a new mode for offline files. Normally, if you use an offline folder in Windows then the local copies will only be used when the server is actually offline. In the new mode, the cached files are used anyway, giving local performance. By default the files will be synchronized every 120 minutes.
  • ReFS (Resilient File System) is implemented in the beta.
  • Hyper-V limits raised: up to 1TB in a VM, up to 64TB in a virtual hard drive.
  • Microsoft Online Backup: spotted as a non-functioning option in the Developer Preview, a new Online Backup Service is now implemented, You have to apply for an invitation if you want to try this out.
  • User Device Affinity is an enhancement to roaming profiles that lets you specify which computers a user may use for redirected data and settings.

This is new stuff since the Developer Preview; there a lot more that is new since Server 2008 R2

Farewell to Mobile World Congress at the Fira Montjuïc Barcelona

Mobile World Congress 2012 is over, and while the event will remain in Barcelona next year and for the foreseeable future, this was the last to take place at the Fira Montjuic in the centre of the city. Next year’s event will be at the Fira Gran Via, a modern venue with 240,000 m2 of floor space, four times more space that at Montjuic. 

It is needed; this year’s MWC was over-crowded, with every inch of the site taken up by stands and so many people that it was difficult to get from one hall to another. Nevertheless I am sorry it is moving, since the Fira Montjuic is a romantic venue that pleasantly contrasted the technical content.



That said, no doubt many unofficial events will still take place in the old part of Barcelona, like Huawei’s Device Night, spotted on the way back from another event. I have no idea why these people are in costume, or what Huawei mobile devices have to do with the Passion of Sailing.