Manage your privacy online through cookie settings? You must be joking.

Since the deadline passed for the enforcement of the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Register) most major web sites have revamped their privacy settings with new privacy policies and more options for controlling how your personal data is used. Unfortunately, the options offered are in many cases too obscure, too complex and too time-consuming to be of any practical value.

Recital 32 of the GDPR says:

Consent should be given by a clear affirmative act establishing a freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous indication of the data subject’s agreement to the processing of personal data … this could include ticking a box when visiting an internet website … silence, pre-ticked boxes or inactivity should not indicate consent.

I am sure the controls on offer via major web properties are the outcome of legal advice; at the same time, as a non-legal person I struggle on occasion to see how they meet the requirements or the spirit of the legislation. For example, another part of Recital 32 says:

… the request must be clear, concise, and not unnecessarily disruptive to the use of the service for which it is provided.

This post describes what I get if I go to technology news site zdnet.com and it detects that I have not agreed to its cookie management.

Note: before I continue, let me emphasize that there is lots of great content on zdnet, some written by people I know; the site as far as I know is doing its best to make business sense of providing such content, in what has become a hostile environment for professional journalism. I would like to see fundamental change in this environment but that is just wishful thinking.

That said, this is one of the worst experiences I have found for privacy-seeking users. Here is the initial banner:

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Naturally I click Manage Settings.

Now I get a scrolling dialog from CBS Interactive, with a scroll gadget that indicates that this is a loooong document:

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There is also some puzzling news. There are a bunch of third-parties whose cookies are apparently necessary for “our sites, products and services to function correctly.” These include cookies for analytics and also for Google ad-serving. I am not clear why these third-parties perform functions which are necessary to read a technical news site, but there we are.

I scroll down and reach a button that lets me opt out of being tracked by the third party advertisers using zdnet.com, or so it seems:

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I want to opt out, so I click. Some of the options below are unchecked, but not many. Most of the options say “Opt out through company”.

It also seems pretty technical to me. Am I meant to understand what a “Demand Side Platform” is?

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I counted the number of links that say “opt out through company”. There are 63 of them.

I click the first one, called Adform. Naturally, the first thing I see is a request to agree (or at least click OK to) their Cookie Policy.

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I click to read the policy (remember this is only the first of 63 sites I have to visit). I am not offered any sort of settings, but invited to visit youronlinechoices or aboutads.info.

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Well, I don’t want anything to do with Adform and don’t intend to return to the site. Maybe I can ignore the Adform Cookie Policy and just focus on the opt-out button above it.

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Currently I am “Opted-in”. This is a lie, I have never opted in. Rather, I have failed to opt out, until I click the button. Opting out will in fact set a cookie, so that Adform knows I have opted out. I am also reminded that this opt out only applies to this particular browser on this particular device. On all other browsers and/or devices, I will still be “opted in”.

OK, one down, 62 to go. However scrolling further down the list I get some bad news:

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In some cases, it seems, “this partner does not provide a cookie opt-out”. The best I can do is to “visit their privacy policy for more information”. This will require a search, since the link is not clickable.

How to control your privacy

What should you do if you do not want to be tracked? Attempting to follow the industry-provided opt-outs is just hopeless. It is mostly PR and attempting to tick legal boxes.

If you do not want to be tracked, use a VPN, use ad blockers, and delete all cookies at the end of each browsing session. This will be tedious for you though, since your browsing experience will be one of constant “I agree” dialogs, some of which you may be able to ignore, or others for which you have to click I Agree or endure a myriad of semi-functional links and settings,

Maybe the EU GDPR legislation is unreasonable. Maybe we have been backed into this corner by allowing the internet to be dominated by a few giant companies. All we can state for sure is that the current situation is hopelessly broken, from a privacy and usability perspective.

Is Ron Jeffries right about the shortcomings of Agile?

A post from InfoQ alerted me to this post by Agile Manifesto signatory Ron Jeffries with the rather extreme title “Developers should abandon Agile”.

If you read the post, you discover that what Jeffries really objects to is the assimilation of Agile methodology into the old order of enterprise software development, complete with expensive consultancy, expensive software that claims to manage Agile for you, and the usual top-down management.

All this goes to show that it is possible do do Agile badly; or more precisely, to adopt something that you call Agile but in reality is not. Jeffries concludes:

Other than perhaps a self-chosen orientation to the ideas of Extreme Programming — as an idea space rather than a method — I really am coming to think that software developers of all stripes should have no adherence to any “Agile” method of any kind. As those methods manifest on the ground, they are far too commonly the enemy of good software development rather than its friend.

However, the values and principles of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development still offer the best way I know to build software, and based on my long and varied experience, I’d follow those values and principles no matter what method the larger organization used.

I enjoyed a discussion on the subject of Agile with some of the editors and writes at InfoQ during the last London QCon event. Why is it, I asked, that Agile is no longer at the forefront of QCon, when a few years back it was at the heart of these events?

The answer, broadly, was that the key concepts behind Agile are now taken for granted so that there are more interesting things to discuss.

While this makes sense, it is also true (as Jeffries observes) that large organizations will tend to absorb these ideas in name only, and continue with dark methods if that is in their culture.

The core ideas in Extreme Programming are (it seems to be) sound. Working in small chunks, forming a team that includes the customer, releasing frequently and delivering tangible benefits, automated tests and continuous refactoring, planning future releases as you go rather than in one all-encompassing plan at the beginning of a project; these are fantastic principles and revolutionary when you first come across them. See here for Jeffries’ account of what is Extreme Programming.

These ideas have everything to do with how the team works and little to do with specific tools (though it is obvious that things like a test framework, DevOps strategy and so on are needed).

Equally, you can have all the best tools but if the team is not functioning as envisaged, the methodology will fail. This is why software development methodology and the psychology of human relationships are intimately linked.

Real change is hard, and it is easy to slip back into bad practices, which is why we need to rediscover Agile, or something like it, repeatedly. Maybe the Agile word itself is not so helpful now; but the ideas are as strong as ever.

Microsoft announces Visual Studio 2019, but pleasing developers is a tough challenge

Microsoft’s John Montgomery has announced Visual Studio 2019, in a post which is short on any details of what might be in the product, other than to continue evolving features that we already know about, such as Live Share, AI-powered IntelliCode, more refactorings and so on.

The acquisition of GitHub is bound to impact both Visual Studio and Visual Studio Team Services, but Montgomery does not talk about this.

Note there is already a Visual Studio roadmap which gives some clues about what is coming. A common theme is integration with Azure services such as Azure Key Vault (for app secrets), Azure Functions, and Azure Container Service (Kubernetes).

It is more illuminating to read the comments to Montgomery’s post. Montgomery says that Visual Studio 2017 is “our most popular Visual Studio release ever,” which I presume is a count of how many times it has been downloaded or installed. It is not the most reliable though; one comment says “2017 has been buggier than all of the bugs 2015 and 2013 had combined.” I imagine every Visual Studio developer, myself included, has to exit and reload the IDE from time to time to fix odd behaviour. Other comments include:

– Reporting components have to be added per project rather than being integrated into the toolbox

– SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT) lagged behind the 2017 release and still have issues

– the XAML designer has performance and behaviour issues and the new XAML designer in preview is missing many features

In general, Microsoft struggles to keep Visual Studio up to date with its constantly-changing developer platform while also working well with the older technologies that are still widely used. The transition from .NET Framework to .NET Core is a tricky issue for the team to solve.

User Benjamin Callister says this:

I have been developing professionally with VS for 20 years now. honestly, the experience seems to get worse with each new release. the amount of time wasted in my day working with XAML alone makes me more than frustrated. The feeling is mutual among my peers as well – and it has been for years now. VS Code is such a fresh breath of air because of its speed. VS full has become so bloated, working with UWP/XAML so slow, and build times so slow. Also, imo profiling tools should be turned OFF by default, with a simple button to toggle them back on when needed. As a developer, I don’t want them on all the time – rather, just when I want to profile.

The mention of Visual Studio code is an interesting one. Code is cross-platform and has an increasing number of extensions and will be an increasingly popular choice for developers who can live without the vast range of features in Visual Studio.

Asus Project Precog dual-screen laptop: innovation in PC hardware, but missing the keyboard may be too high a price

Asus has announced Project Precog at Computex in Taiwan. This is a dual-screen laptop with a 360° hinge and no keyboard.

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The name suggests a focus on AI, but how much AI is actually baked into this device? Not that much. It features “Intelligent Touch” that will change the virtual interface automatically and adjust the keyboard location or switch to stylus mode. It includes Cortana and Amazon Alexa for voice control. And the press release remarks optimistically that “The dual-screen design of Project Precog lets users keep their main tasks in full view while virtual assistants process other tasks on the second screen,” whatever that means – not much is my guess, since is the CPU that processes tasks, not the screen.

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Even so, kudos to Asus for innovation. The company has a long history of bold product launches; some fail, some, like the inexpensive 2007 Eee PC which ran Linux, have been significant. The Eee PC was both a lot of fun and helped to raise awareness of alternatives to Windows.

The notable feature of Project Precog of course is not so much the AI, but the fact that it has two screens and no keyboard. Instead, if you want to type, you get an on-screen keyboard. The trade-off is extra screen space at the cost of convenient typing.

I am not sure about this one. I like dual screens, and like many people much prefer using two screens for desktop work. That said, I am also a keyboard addict. After many experiments with on-screen keyboards on iPads, Windows and Android tablets, I am convinced that the lack of tactile feedback and give on a virtual keyboard makes them more tiring to work on and therefore less productive.

Still, not everyone works in the same way as I do; and until we get to try a Project Precog device (no date announced), we will not know how well it works or how useful the second screen turns out to be.

Microsoft and GitHub, and will GitHub get worse?

Microsoft has announced an agreement to acquire GitHub for $7.5 billion (in Microsoft stock). Nat Friedman, formerly CEO of Xamarin, will become GitHub’s CEO, and GitHub will continue to run somewhat independently. A few comments.

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Background: GitHub is a cloud-based source code repository based on Git, a distributed version control system created by Linus Torvalds. It is free to use for public, open source projects but charges a fee (from 7$ to $21 per user per month) for private repositories.

First, why? This one is easy. Microsoft is a big customer of GitHub. Microsoft used to have its own hosting service for open source software called CodePlex but abandoned it in favour of GitHub, formally closing CodePlex in March 2017:

Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of amazing options come and go but at this point, GitHub is the de facto place for open source sharing and most open source projects have migrated there. We migrated too.

said Brian Harry.

Microsoft also uses GitHub for its documentation, and this has turned out to be a big improvement on its old documentation sites.

Note also that Microsoft has many important open source projects of its own, including much of its developer platform (.NET Core, ASP.NET Core and Entity Framework Core). Many of its projects are overseen by the .NET Foundation. Other notable open source, Github-hosted projects include Visual Studio Code, a programmer’s editor that has won many friends, and TypeScript, a typed superset of JavaScript that compiles to standard JavaScript code.

When big companies become highly dependent on the services of another company they may become anxious about it. What if the other company were taken over by a competitor? What if it were to run into trouble, or to change in ways that cause problems? Acquisition is an easy solution.

In the case of GitHub, there was reason to be anxious since it appears not to be profitable – unsurprising given the large number of free accounts.

Second, Microsoft is always pitching to developers, trying to attract them to its platform and especially Azure services. It has a difficult task because it is the Windows company and the Windows platform overall is in decline, versus Linux on servers and Android/iOS on mobile. Therefore it is striving to become a cross-platform company, and with considerable success. I discuss this at some length in this piece. Note that there is a huge amount of Linux on Azure, including “more than 40%” of the virtual machines. More than 50%? Maybe.

If Microsoft can keep GitHub working as well as before, or even improve it, it will do a lot to win the confidence of developers who are currently outside the Microsoft platform ecosystem.

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Will GitHub get worse?

The tricky question: under Microsoft, will GitHub get worse? The company’s track record with acquisitions is spotty, ranging from utter disasters (Nokia, Danger) to doubtful (Skype), to moderately successful so far (LinkedIn, Xamarin).

Under the current leadership, I doubt anything bad will happen to GitHub. I’d guess it will migrate some infrastructure to Azure (GitHub runs mainly from its own datacentres as I understand it) but there is no need to re-engineer the platform to run on Windows.

Some businesses will be uncomfortable hosting their valuable source code with Microsoft. That is understandable, in the same way that I hear of retailers reluctant to use Amazon Web Services (since it is a platform owned by a competitor), but it is a low risk. Others have long-standing mistrust of Microsoft and will want to migrate away from GitHub because of this.

Personally I think it is right to be wary of any giant global corporation, and dislike the huge and weakly regulated influence they have on our lives. I doubt that Microsoft is any worse than its peers in terms of trustworthiness but of course this is open to debate.

Another point: with this acquisition, free GitHub hosting for open source projects will be likely to continue. The press release says:

GitHub will retain its developer-first ethos and will operate independently to provide an open platform for all developers in all industries. Developers will continue to be able to use the programming languages, tools and operating systems of their choice for their projects — and will still be able to deploy their code to any operating system, any cloud and any device.

It is of course in Microsoft’s interests to make this work and the success of Visual Studio Code and TypeScript (which also come from the developer side of the company) shows that it can make cross-platform projects work. So I am optimistic that GitHub will be OK.

Update: I’ve noticed Sam Newman and Martin Fowler taking this view, a good sign from a people I respect and who are by no means from the usual Microsoft crowd.

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Official announcements

Press release: https://news.microsoft.com/?p=406917

Chris Wanstrath’s Blog Post: https://blog.github.com/2018-06-04-github-microsoft/

Satya Nadella’s Blog Post: https://blogs.microsoft.com/?p=52553832