Pressing Pause while Compile, Dammit Ramps Up

I know that my blogging here has been sporadic. And I'm not alone: a number of my colleagues were in the same boat. So Joe Rinehart, Nic Tunney, Marc Esher, Scott Stroz, Todd Sharp and myself have decided to pool our resources. We've started a group blog called Compile, Dammit.

This is an experiment, but so far it's going extremely well. Having multiple people working on the same blog means a lot more posts and a wider variety of perspectives. I think this is a very interesting idea that I haven't really seen tried before.

The focus over on Compile, Dammit will be in two main areas: server development (Groovy, Grails, Spring, etc.) and client development (RIAs, ExtJS, JavaScript, CoffeeScript, jQuery, etc.). This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, and we'll likely see content on a whole range of topics. But most of the content will probably fall under those two umbrellas.

So, I'll probably be pressing pause on this blog for a bit while I contribute to Compile, Dammit. If you're interested in topics like this, you should definitely add our new group blog to your reading list!

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Thoughts on Flex and HTML5

It has now been a little over a week since Adobe revealed its plans for the mobile Flash player and the Flex SDK. Now that the dust has started to settle and some additional information has been made available, I wanted to give my candid impression of what these announcements mean.

I'll begin by stating the obvious: Adobe did a very poor job of coordinating and delivering these announcements. Anything I say at this point will simply be beating a dead horse. This was a PR disaster and one can only hope they learn something (ideally, many somethings) from sifting through the wreckage. I won't dwell any further on this since we have no control over what happened and I'm interested in looking at what these announcements mean going forward.

I suspect that the news that Adobe was stopping work on the mobile Flash player didn't actually surprise very many people. Further, I doubt many people actually care much. Yes, it's nice to be able to view Flash content on my Android tablet. And yes, its easy to forget that the existing 11.1 player will continue to work for a long time and allow people to keep viewing the vast majority of Flash content. But no one was building browser-based mobile Flash sites. Why? Because you still had to create a non-Flash version of it if you wanted to target all mobile devices. Once the sting of all the "Steve Jobs Won" gloating wears off, I believe most people will see the wisdom of this decision. Some people appear to have a problem with this choice, but no one I know really cared at all about this part of Adobe's recent announcements.

So now we move on to the other big news: Adobe announcing that the Flex SDK would become an Apache project and would go forward under non-Adobe governance. This took a lot of people by surprise, to put it mildly.

First off, let me say that I don't have an issue with the idea of Flex going fully open-source. Yes, Flex was already "open-source", but we all know it really wasn't. You could view the code, but Adobe still exerted complete control over what changes were made. Anyone who ever tried to submit a patch or improvement can attest to this. Those restrictions are now gone. I firmly believe that if this announcement had been made at MAX, rather than in the middle of this PR breakdown, the cheering from the audience would have brought the roof down.

I know a number of the people on the Spoon project, many of whom will probably be part of the group which will govern the ongoing work on the Flex SDK. They're all very bright people and I have little doubt that the SDK will actually see some nice benefits from this move. So from a purely technical standpoint, I think this can and probably will be a good thing.

However, regardless of what you think about the SDK move, another portion of Adobe's announcement overshadowed even this news. In a post that will probably live in infamy, some of the Flex management stated "In the long-term, we believe HTML5 will be the best technology for enterprise application development."

How Adobe failed to predict the resulting uproar I have no idea. But apparently they didn't. As a result, we saw an explosion of questions and concerns that essentially boiled down to: Is Adobe saying Flex is dead?

I'll admit I wondered this myself. Given this statement, what was I supposed to tell the clients to whom I've evangalized Flex? Is my investment in Flex now ashes? I was angry and confused. Then I tried to detach myself from my emotional reaction and consider the situation objectively. I want to share a few of my thoughts and conclusions about this.

First, one has to consider the harsh reality that Adobe never really figured out how to make any money on Flex. Their only real revenue came from Flash Builder, and it seems highly unlikely to me that sales of FB offset the money they've spent on Flex. And even that revenue is further reduced by the presence of competing tools like FlashDevelop and IntelliJ IDEA. Considered in this light, Adobe's decision to reduce the amount of resources it dedicates to Flex does make some sense, even if we don't necessarily like it. Offloading part of that cost onto the community is one way they can try to make those numbers even out.

Next, I'm not sure about everyone else, but I for one always believed that eventually we'd be able to build Flex-like apps in HTML. Some of this can be done already, but it is disjointed, using a mishmash of libraries, and painful. Building RIAs in JavaScript is agonizing compared to Flex and AS3. But that's slowly changing as the tools get better and the libraries become more refined and standardized. My guess is that in two or three years we'll start seeing real parity with Flex on both features and tooling. I knew this before Adobe's announcement, so does it really change much? Or did the announcement, as poorly as it was delivered, serve as a stark reminder that Flex is in some ways a bridge between now and this eventual HTML-based future?

I think this may be where some of the pain is coming from. No one wants to be told that the platform they're heavily invested in is probably going to be supplanted in the coming years. But can anyone really look at the current situation and draw another conclusion? Adobe seems to have two options here: keep pouring resources into Flex and delay the switchover a bit, or start changing direction and begin the task of improving HTML tooling from a RIA perspective. It's clear which way they've chosen to go.

So where does that leave us? Like many folks, I poked around the web last week just to get an idea of the current state of HTML RIA development. It wasn't pretty. I found dozens of libraries, frameworks, UI components, tools, and workarounds to mimic proper OO features in JavaScript. To put it bluntly, it's total chaos.

We're a long way from being able to drop Flex and start building enterprise RIAs in HTML. Which is fine with me. The projects I'm currently involved in are multi-year efforts built with Flex, and these aren't going away. I'll be building and maintaining apps with Flex for quite a while.

On the other hand, the writing seems to be on the wall. This isn't going to last forever. Developers who have been around the block a few times know it is always a bad idea to put all of your eggs in one basket. So I'll be keeping my eye on the HTML RIA space, trying things out as that platform coalesces. GWT looks interesting, especially paired with Groovy and SmartGWT. So does Trying out new technologies is one of the things I love about programming, and that's certainly not about to stop.

Will this change on the horizon amount to a career and knowledge "reset"? Is everything we've worked so hard to learn going to be thrown out the window? From my point of view, absolutely not. Looking around at the HTML/JS world, I see a lot of people trying to solve problems that we've already gone through. Solid OO design? Rich client models? Real-time messaging? Persistent client state? Separation of UI from client-side logic? Large-scale event-driven applications? Architecting and managing huge RIA codebases?

Sound familiar? They should, because they're probably problems you've already dealt with a number of times. The programming language might change, and the UI component APIs may shift, but these fundamental problems aren't going anywhere. And I think experienced Flex developers are going to be very well suited to helping businesses and clients solve those problems, both now and in the future. Even if the platform eventually shifts to HTML5. As they say, the only constant is change. And honestly, life would be pretty boring any other way.

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My cf.Objective() Dependency Injection Presentation

Just a quick note that I've uploaded the Dependency Injection presentation which I gave at cf.Objective(). Feel free to let me know what you think! Thanks.

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Trog Bar Outlook Add-On

Trog Bar

I recently installed a pretty cool add on for Microsoft Outlook called Trog Bar. Not only does it offer some nice features that Outlook alone doesn't have, but it wraps a nice task management system as well.

To the left you can see what Trog Bar looks like. It docks to the edge of the screen, and can be set to autohide if desired. Across the top are quick links to mail, calendar, task list, contacts, compose, and send/receive.

The calendar is great for the simple reason that you can specify more than one calendar to show events for. The fact that the Outlook To-Do bar would only show events from one calendar always drove me crazy. I have a personal account and a work account that uses Exchange, and Outlook will only show one. People have been asking for this simple feature for years. It's great to see someone add this.

The main area is your task list. You can quickly search, view all tasks, view complete tasks, incomplete tasks, etc. If you use Outlook's categories option, you can also assign categories to tasks and view the list by category. Last but not least is a view called Task Sense. Trog Bar has some nice algorithms that populate this list automatically to show the most likely tasks to do at the current time. More on this in a moment. (And no, the tasks shown here aren't my tasks, I grabbed this screen shot off of the product page. Feed mammoth??)

The notepad lets you quickly type in new tasks and store them as "unprocessed". It's very easy to fire off tasks into this application (as it should be). When you have more time, you can click on the Unprocessed Tasks link to show the tasks that still need "processing".

If that sounds annoying or time consuming, don't worry, it isn't. Processing new tasks is really easy. You just click the task to open the task editor (see below).

For a task to be processed, you have to enter in a due date and ideally one or more Categories (think Tags) and Projects (a parent task containing multiple child tasks). This takes about 10 seconds, and then you save it. That's it. The way Trog Bar works is largely based on the Due Date you specify. It is smart enough to treat the Due Date as both a target date as well as an indicator of the urgency of the task. So you are free to treat it as a sort of strength indicator if you choose.

Trog Bar task editor

The Task Sense list seems largely based on this "urgency value". In other words, if you set the Due Date for two weeks later, it isn't that "worried" about you actually doing it on that date (though you can, of course). Instead, this is an indicator that the task is probably of medium-ish priority, and it places it in the Task Sense list accordingly. Three weeks out, lower priority. One week out, higher priority. You get the idea.

It is also has some extra configuration options which, if you choose to set them up, make this list more accurate. For example, you can define a category as an "80/20" category, meaning 80% result for 20% effort. In other words, biggest return on investment. Task Sense will rank these higher in your list. You can also set up an additional calendar containing high-level time blocks, like 8-5 M-F is Work, 6-12 is Home, etc. If tasks with a corresponding Work tag are created, Task Sense will weight them higher between 8 and 5, and Home tasks between 6 and 12. The point being that it builds up the Task Sense list in a fairly intelligent way.

Anyway, I've been using it for a few weeks now and I really like it. First, it is a handy, souped-up version of the Outlook To-Do bar. Second, it is a rapid task entry and organization tool. And third, it does a pretty good job of predicting and showing you relevant tasks at the right time.

The full version costs $35, and there is a free 30 day trial version available. To be clear, I'm not getting a free copy or anything, and am not affiliated in any way with the folks who make it. I just found it useful enough that it seemed worth a blog entry. ;-)

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66% Performance Improvement for Almost Any Desktop System for $279

I was recently contemplating the purchase of a new workstation, since my current system is about two years old. After some research, I ended up choosing NOT to buy a new system just yet, for a few reasons. Read on for an explanation of why, and how a small upgrade kicked up my system performance by two-thirds.

The main reason for the purchase delay has to do with SATA-III. While this new disk connection standard supports up to 6 Gb/sec transfer, and SATA-II is 3 Gb/sec, the reality is that right now the 6 Gb/sec speed is unusable in real life. No traditional hard drive comes close to saturating the SATA-II bandwidth, and they will NEVER get into SATA-III transfer speed due to the physical limitation of the spinning platters. And even the new solid state drives (SSDs) barely fill up the 3 Gb/sec pipe, and come nowhere close to 6 Gb/sec. So spending a bunch of money on a SATA-III motherboard and SATA-III drives is pointless right now.

Over the next 6 months or so, this will change. New SSDs will come out that have faster transfer, and more space, for decreasing price. But until an SSD comes out that actually uses the new bandwidth limit, SATA-III is little more than a marketing gimmick. Once they finally get to the SATA-III speed then I will reconsider.

In the meantime, what I did instead was drop about $279 on a new 600 Gb Western Digital Velociraptor drive. These spin at 10,000 RPM, compared to the normal 7,200 RPM, and this is the fastest non-SSD hard drive on the market. They are roughly 66% faster than a normal drive, basically approaching standard drives in RAID-0. Also, at 600 Gb in size, it can hold my existing system partition (which is about 400 Gb). It came with a program called Arconis TrueImage, so I used it to clone my existing 1 Tb system drive onto the 600 Gb Velociraptor, then pull out the old system drive and put the new drive in its place. Windows 7 boots from the new drive without knowing the difference. The cloning process took about an hour and worked perfectly. So I'm now running off of the 600 Gb drive.

Speed-wise, it's a big difference. I did a few real-world tests:

  • I timed the system boot time from POST until the desktop was fully loaded. By fully loaded I don't just mean seeing the desktop, but having ALL desktop widgets loaded, ALL system tray icons loaded, and until the CPU activity drops back to idle usage. It went from 180 seconds before to 110 seconds after. Result: 63% improvement.
  • I timed launching and building large Eclipse workspace. It went from 56 seconds before to 35 seconds after, a 60% improvement.

So basically, for $279 I've boosted my system speed by nearly two-thirds. That's pretty crazy, considering that swapping the CPU for a faster i7 or going from 1333 to 1600 RAM would probably only generate a 5% or 10% increase, and would cost way more than $279.

The surprising lesson is apparently: do NOT underestimate the impact that a really fast hard drive will have! This should be a nice boost to carry me forward until the SSDs get faster, bigger and cheaper.

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