11 October 2008

Serious advice to developers in tough times

Filed under: Economics, FOWA, openness, regulation — David Wood @ 6:57 pm

As I mentioned in my previous article, the FOWA London event on “The Future of Web Apps” featured a great deal of passion and enthusiasm for technology and software development systems. However, as I watched the presentations on Day Two, I was repeatedly struck by a deeper level of seriousness.

For example, AMEE Director Gavin Starks urged the audience to consider how changes in their applications could help reduce CO2 emissions. AMEE has exceptionally large topics on its mind: the acronym stands for “Avoiding Mass Extinctions Engine“. Gavin sought to raise the aspiration level of developers: “If you really want to build an app that will change the world, how about building an app that will save the Earth?” But this talk was no pious homily: it contained several dozen ideas that could in principle act as possible starting points for new business ventures.

On a different kind of serious topic, Mahalo.com CEO Jason Calacanis elicited some gasps from the audience when he dared to suggest that, if startups are really serious about making a big mark in the business world, they should consider firing, not only their “average” employees, but also their “good” employees – under the rationale that “good is the enemy of the great“. The resulting audience Q&A could have continued the whole afternoon.

But the most topical presentation was the opening keynote by Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer Tim Bray. It started with a bang – with the words “I’m Scared” displayed in huge font on the screen.

With these words, Tim announced that he had, the previous afternoon, torn up the presentation he was previously planning to give – a presentation entitled “What to be Frightened of in Building A Web Application“.

Tim explained that the fear he would now address in his talk was about global economic matters rather than about usage issues with the likes of XML, Rails, and Flash. Instead of these technology-focused matters, he would instead cover the subject “Getting through the tough times“.

Tim described how he had spent several days in London ahead of the conference, somewhat jet lagged, watching lots of TV coverage about the current economic crisis. As he said, the web has the advantage of allowing everyone to get straight to the sources – and these sources are frightening, when you take the time to look at them. Tim explicitly referenced http://acrossthecurve.com/?p=1830, which contains the following gloomy prognosis:

…more and more it seems likely that the resolution of this crisis will be an historic financial calamity. Each and every step which central banks and regulators have taken to resolve the crisis has been met with failure. In the beginning, the steps would produce some brief stability.

In the last several days, the US Congress (belatedly) passed a bailout bill, the Federal Reserve has guaranteed commercial paper and in unprecedented coordination central banks around the globe slash base lending rates. Listen to the markets respond.

The market scoffs as Libor rises, stocks plummet and IBM is forced to pay usurious rates to borrow. There is no stability and no hiatus from the pain. It continues unabated in spite of the best efforts of dedicated people to solve it.

We are in the midst of an unfolding debacle. It is happening about us. I am not sure how or when it ends, but the end, when it arrives, will radically alter the way we live for a long time.

Whoever wins the US election and takes office in January will need prayers and divine intervention.

As Tim put it: “We’ve been running on several times the amount of money that actually exists. Now we’re going to have to manage on nearer the amount of money that does exist.” And to make things even more colourful, he said that the next few days could be like the short period of time in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina had passed, but before the floods struck (caused by damage brought about by the winds). For the world’s economy, the hurricane may have passed, but the flood is still to come.

The rest of Tim’s talk was full of advice that sounded, to me, as highly practical, for what developers should do, to increase their chances of survival through these tough times. (There’s a summary video here.) I paraphrase some highlights from my notes:

Double down and do a particularly good job. In these times, slack work could put your company out of business – or could cause your employer to decide your services are no longer necessary.

Large capital expenditures are a no-no. Find ways to work that don’t result in higher management being asked to sign large bills – they won’t.

Waterfalls are a no-no. No smart executive is going to commit to a lengthy project that will take longer than a year to generate any payback. Instead, get with the agile movement – pick out the two or three requirements in your project that you can deliver incrementally and which will result in payback in (say) 8-10 weeks.

Software licences are a no-no. Companies will no longer make large commitments to big licences for the likes of Oracle solutions. Open source is going to grow in prominence.

Contribute to open source projects. This is a great way to build professional credibility – to advertise your capabilities to potential new employers or business partners.

Get in the cloud. With cloud services, you only pay a small amount in the beginning, and you only pay larger amounts when traffic is flowing.

Stop believing in technology religions. The web is technologically heterogeneous. Be prepared to learn new skills, to adopt new programming languages, or to change the kinds of applications you develop.

Think about the basic needs of users. There will be less call for applications about fun things, or about partying and music. There will be more demand for applications that help people to save money – for example, the lowest gas bill, or the cheapest cell phone costs.

Think about telecomms. Users will give up their HDTVs, their SUVs, and their overseas holidays, but they won’t give up their cell phones. The iPhone and the Android are creating some great new opportunities. Developers of iPhone applications are earning themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars from applications that cost users only $1.99 per download. Developers in the audience should consider migrating some of their applications to mobile – or creating new applications for mobile.

The mention of telecomms quickened my pulse. On the one hand, I liked Tim’s emphasis on the likely continuing demand for high-value low-cost mobile solutions. On the other hand, I couldn’t help noticing there were references to iPhone and Android, but not to Symbian (or to any of the phone manufacturers who are using Symbian software).

Then I reflected that, similarly, namechecks were missing for RIM, Windows Mobile, and Palm. Tim’s next words interrupted this chain of thought and provided further explanation: With the iPhone and Android, no longer are the idiotic moronic mobile network operators standing in the way with a fence of barbed wire between developers and the people who actually buy phones.

This fierce dislike for network operator interference was consistent with a message underlying the whole event: developers should have the chance to show what they can do, using their talent and their raw effort, without being held up by organisational obstacles and value-chain choke-points. Developers dislike seemingly arbitrary regulation. That’s a message I take very seriously.

However, we can’t avoid all regulation. Indeed – to turn back from applications to economics – lack of regulation is arguably a principal cause of our current economic crisis.

The really hard thing is devising the right form of regulation – the right form of regulation for financial markets, and the right form of regulation for applications on potentially vulnerable mobile networks.

Both tasks are tough. But the solution in each case surely involves greater transparency.

The creation of the Symbian Foundation is intended to advance openness in two ways:

  1. Providing more access to the source code;
  2. Providing greater visibility of the decisions and processes that guide changes in both the software platform and the management of the associated ecosystem.

This openness won’t dissolve all regulation. But it should ensure that the regulations evolve, more quickly, to something that more fully benefits the whole industry.

9 October 2008

In search of software glamour

Filed under: developer experience, FOWA, passion — David Wood @ 8:51 pm

I keep running into the “glamour question”. Scott from Mippin raised it again the other day, in a shrewd comment in response to Roger Nolan’s recent analysis “Symbian’s open source challenge”:

I think that one inherent disadvantage for Symbian compared to Apple and Android is the glamour factor. This can be demonstrated by looking at the comments stream to this excellent post. If it had been talking about Apple or Android it would have people crawling over themselves to comment. Symbian just does not elicit the same excitement. This means – more meaningfully perhaps – that developers gain more kudos for developing for one of the glamour platforms than for Symbian (despite its market share).

Scott suggests that one reason for the reduced excitement over Symbian lies “the complexity of Symbian. It is just too complex and developers stay away“. Previously, I’ve offered my own list of “Symbian passion killers” that can hinder developers from becoming fully inspired (and therefore fully productive) about creating software for Symbian OS. As I’ve said before, the plans for “Symbian 2.0” in the wake of the creation of the Symbian Foundation include several important projects to address passion killers.

I heard quite a lot more, today, about developer passion. I was attending Day One of FOWA – the Future of Web Apps expo, taking place at London’s ExCeL conference centre. I experienced considerable déjà vu at this event, since the annual Symbian Smartphone Shows were held there from 2002 to 2007. The layout of the keynote hall and the so-called “university sessions” reminded me a lot of similar layouts from bygone Smartphone Shows. The audience seemed of comparable size too. But whereas the motivation of many who attend the Smartphone Show is to make business connections and to promote the success of their companies, the motivation I sensed from many of the FOWA attendees was rather different: it was to explore new technologies, and to exult in new products and new processes.

For example, Edwin Aoki, AOL Technology Fellow, included the following remarks in his keynote speech “Web apps are dead, long live web apps”:

What drives developers? It’s not just money. It’s building out communities. It’s building pride. It’s dedication and passion, not dollars and pounds.

And I couldn’t help noticing how frequently speakers used words like “amazing”, “exciting”, “awesome”, “kickass”, and “cool”. At first I wondered if they were joking or being ironic, but then I realised they were un-selfconscious. They were simply being enthusiastic.

Blaine Cook, ex Chief Engineer at Twitter, and Joe Stump, Lead Architect of Digg, performed a dynamic two-hander on the subject of “Languages don’t scale”. Taking turns, they ripped into features of programming languages that, in their words, made the languages “suck”. Thus “here’s why PHP sucks…” and “here’s why Ruby sucks…” and “Python sucks as well…”. But this was just a prelude to their main theme, which is that you should beware asking committed developers to switch from one language to another. Language choice is often personal – and often heartfelt. According to the speakers, scale performance issues that sometimes bedevil web applications, only rarely come down to language issues; instead, they usually depend on hardware architecture or network architecture. Hence the advice:

Value happy coders! Happy coders are productive coders. Let them work with the languages they love!

Many of the speakers oozed passion. I was particularly impressed by Francisco Tolmasky, co-founder of 280 North. His presentation title hardly sounded earth-shattering: “Building Desktop Caliber Web Applications with Objective-J and Cappuccino”. However, the delivery was captivating and uplifting. (And the technology of their product does look attractive…)

All this brings back to mind the glamour question: To what extent can Symbian’s developer events match this kind of enthusiasm – an enthusiasm driven by love of product and love of technology, rather than (just) love of market opportunity and commercial reward? To what extent can Symbian OS become viewed as glamorous and exciting, rather than just some kind of incumbent?

Happily, there’s a lot of fascinating technology on Symbian’s roadmap. There are also new tools that should appeal to various different kinds of developers. For those who value choice of languages, there’s a growing range of language options available for Symbian OS. For those who are interested in the hardware, there are literally scores of new phone models in the pipeline. Some of this will fall under public spotlight in under two weeks’ time at the 2008 Smartphone Show.

This year, the show has moved from ExCeL to Earls Court. The more significant change is that, this year, there’s a “Mobile Devfest” which is running alongside the main show:

Mobile DevFest is Symbian’s premier conference for developers and has been designed to provide developers with deep technical training and information on building mobile software solutions for the next generation of mobile phones powered by Symbian OS.

Mobile DevFest is the ideal developer event for anyone engaged in building, or interested in building mobile applications on Symbian OS.

Mobile DevFest is the best way to stay ahead of today’s mobile technologies. It provides in-depth technical sessions, delivered by industry experts in the mobile development space.

I’m eagering looking forward to taking part – and to gauging the degree of passion at the show. And in the meantime, if you think your own new product or solution for the Symbian space is particularly exciting, I’ll be pleased to hear about it!

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