And another thing 69

by Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball mulls over the 180 second rule, and how Apple might react to the Xamarin revolution.

HardCopy Issue: 69 | Published: June 1, 2016

I recently gave a talk to some clients about software development and the changing expectation of users, especially away from the corporate IT space. Many of us who have been in this business for some decades will remember when, back in the early nineties, a licence for Microsoft Word cost some £450. Today, of course, the price is down almost to something you get in your packet of breakfast cereal.

There is a point of view that back then things were much simpler. Indeed, it could be argued that all you needed was Office-Plus-Three. By that I mean that just about any workload could be covered by an installation of Office plus three specialist applications of your choice. These could include AutoCAD or Photoshop, or some medical information package. But Office-Plus-Three was a totality of a solution that was almost a miracle compared to what had come before.

NAB and 4K HDR

April sees me back in Las Vegas for the NAB show (National Association of Broadcasters). This is a fascinating week, seeing where the film industry is going, along with the pro video and audio worlds too. It’s intriguing to see what is about to impact on the domestic marketplace too, given that most users consume TV, film and audio, while the pro market sets the wire formats and data requirements.

It is also a hugely price sensitive market, with hardware vendors pushing the value for money equation harder than almost any other out there. For example, BlackMagic Design released its new SD card recorder: take one 4K HDR video feed, encode it with H265 within the hardware of the unit, and write it simultaneously to 25 SD cards for immediate distribution. Maybe you are running a seminar, or a wedding, or a live concert. Link multiple units together and you can write to hundreds of cards at once. And the cost for this amazing hardware? Around £1,500.

Or Atomos, who have a video/audio recorder which can handle 4k60p video in full HDR, and display it on an eye popping 1500-nit screen, at a similar price to the BlackMagic unit. Data rates are going through the roof, as are storage requirements, and this will be coming to a network near you soon. From boardroom to training centre, the writing is on the wall.

Today the world has changed, and the try-consume-discard mentality brought on by the smartphone revolution has impacted all aspects of software development. Hence the new rule seems to be ‘180 seconds’: in other words, you have just 180 seconds to engage and connect with the user – to prove your worth – because the decision to keep or discard will be made within those 180 seconds. When I mentioned this in my speech, there was quite a lot of uncomfortable shuffling and nervous coughs, because it is clear that too many developers are still not thinking about that 180 seconds in a clear and coherent fashion.

You might argue that this isn’t fair; that the depth and richness of an application cannot be conveyed within 180 seconds. I wouldn’t disagree with you, but fairness isn’t part of the equation. If you think about it, too much software is somewhat of a dog’s dinner, landing everything on your lap from the outset. This is especially true of software which has started as a good idea, and then ‘benefitted’ from the addition of multiple extra bits and pieces over time. If you apply the 180 seconds rule, then it is clear that your app must make a clear and coherent case for itself – to express what it does, how it will do it, and what benefits it will bring to me as the user. The stark reality is that the general public does not have the patience to invest in applications any more.

This is the underlying issue, of course. Investing time and effort in software only works when there is a real payback, and when you are sure that a package is something you will use for a long time.

For example, anyone wanting to get to grips with Wolfram’s Mathematica, or Autodesk’s AutoCAD, knows that they will be investing in tools which will form part of their professional skillset for years to come; possibly for the rest of their working lives. These days, end users are simply not prepared to make any sort of investment at all.

The same applies to websites and other online portals. Make it complicated, and the vast majority of users will turn off, tune out and go elsewhere. This problem is not getting any easier, and I suspect that it will get worse, not better. And if users are already applying this to their personal software, they will soon be applying it to what they are asked to use in the business workplace too. I am absolutely not advocating toy-like simplicity where depth and capability are needed, but the mind-set behind “slap a few wizards in there and it will do fine” couldn’t be further from what is needed moving forward.

 

Xamarin

The news that Microsoft has acquired Xamarin caused me to gulp my morning coffee, if only because I had presumed, quite wrongly, that Xamarin was already part of Microsoft anyway, and if it wasn’t, why not? But no, Microsoft has decided to bite the bullet and bring the Xamarin toolsets in from the cold to bathe in the warm glow of Redmondian love.

Xamarin, and the underlying Mono platform, has intrigued me for years. I have spent time, along with my good friend Tim Anderson, with Miguel de Icaza, who always struck me as being deeply intelligent and thoughtful about the whole development arena.

So I am pleased that his tireless work has been recognised by Microsoft. As you would expect, this has caused, or been caused by, significant changes in the way Microsoft wants us to develop mobile applications. Much of that loudly-trumpeted exhortation for application compatibility layers, subsystems, magic potions and other rub-on creams to get Android and iOS developers to target Windows is going to be put to one side. Instead, in Xamarin you have the toolkit to make all of this simple. Write to the Xamarin platform, and it will push out iOS and Android and Windows applications to your heart’s content.

Which cloud?

As cloud services continue to plummet in cost and blossom in capability, it has never been a better time to think about how cloud services impact our users and allow for entirely redesigned ways of working. Indeed, the train has already left the station – and the whole question of ‘BYOD’ is really rather passé. Solutions which place artificial restrictions on what the user stores where will wither and die. The big players know this, and that interoperability is the key. I might be running on Box today and decide to move to Dropbox, and I don’t expect my line of business apps to place unnecessary roadblocks in my way. The same applies to my VMs too. I will place them where I want, when I want and for why I want. This is a clear sign of vendors moving into a new era of maturity, and allowing for the emergence of a new tier of trusted middleware players. So demand more, and expect them to deliver!

On the one hand, I really would like this to work, despite some of the underlying promise reminding me rather of the “write once run everywhere” mantra from Java in the past, which if one is being somewhat unfair about the whole thing, turned into “Write once, debug everywhere, write more bits, run in some places.”

But it is clear that repurposing code for multiple platforms is a Holy Grail for many developers. Indeed, Microsoft itself claims that the vast majority of the codebase that is used for Office for Android and Office for iOS (and presumably the full touch Office for Windows too) is all just the same code, with wrappers which are platform specific. And if Microsoft can make that work, then surely we can too?

And yet, and yet. Whilst I can see this working well for Windows and Android, I am not sure what Apple’s reaction will be to this sort of thing becoming mainstream. Apple is incredibly protective, verging on the outright petty and vindictive on occasion. And given Apple’s professed push towards developers uploading part-compiled code which Apple might want to compile for delivery, it is not hard to see Apple doing its best to spoil cross-platform technologies such as Xamarin.

Finally, I have this question. Without doubt Xamarin will be pushed to the foreground by being a Microsoft property. If it is so good, and the concept of open sourced development tools and underlying frameworks are so compelling, then why didn’t Microsoft bring de Icaza and his unquestionably clever team into the Microsoft family years ago? So, what appears at first look to be a sensible and well overdue move raises a number of questions too. The proof will be in the pudding, and I look forward to seeing Xamarin-developed apps coming to the wider Android and iOS marketplaces in the coming months.

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