Tag Archives: Computing

Attacking social networking

A couple of fellow bloggers have noticed the BBC’s apparent attack on social networking tools. Dennis and Euan both highlight reports such as yesterday’s one about bloggers getting sacked for their postings. When I read that, I did think to myself that it was scaremongering… clearly people need to be aware about what they write, but I have a fair amount of faith in the common sense of individuals, and besides, responsible companies have blogging guidelines to enable people to navigate this scary new world of the editable web…

Then, of course, we have Stephanie Booth’s appearance on News 24 this week, answering typical alarmist questions about the “dangers” of the Internet (and a good job she did of replying to them, too).

As I drove in to work this morning, I heard a very silly story on the Today programme on Radio 4. Their journalist, Rory Cellan-Jones, was investigating whether Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and Twitter were any use. His conclusion appeared to be that he was too old for them, since he didn’t end up with any friends once he’d signed up (apart from the ubiquitous Tom on MySpace, and the founders of Bebo, once he’d pleaded with them to be his friend!). He also derided Twitter, commenting that people seemed to talk too much about mowing the lawn – ironically I do have one friend who talked about his lawn this week, but I typically find Twitter far more useful than that. He could have mentioned the status broadcast, IM, location awareness and microblogging features, but presumably those would have been too advanced for the Today audience to cope with. It was a very bad item. I was shouting at the radio by the end of it.

The one good thing about the story was that the Bebo folks did make the point that the age profile is getting older as users grow up. I had a similar conversation with a local authority who came in to IBM Hursley today – I was presenting on Virtual Worlds and talking about the fact that youngsters are driving the technology change and bringing social networking tools, and ultimately “games technology” and virtual worlds, into the enterprise.

Of course the week began with alarmist reporting about the dangers of wireless networks. Suw twittered and bsag wrote a commentary on that programme, so I won’t go into it myself.

So, in essence, we’ve now had a week of “the BBC beats up on social networking and the Internet”. A concerted effort? I do have to wonder. And to what end? The BBC already makes a big deal about its own blogs and talks a lot about Web 2.0, and then lays into the tools that are out there. Weird.

Partly as a reaction to today’s news story, I finally signed up for Facebook. Within a couple of hours of Twittering my presence there, I have a bunch (well, 10) friends – and those are only a few of my contacts from other networks. I really need to go and explore some of the groups and look up old friends and contacts from elsewhere – I’ll do that once I get some time.

(annoyingly, onxiam.com is not currently accepting my new identity – hope they get that fixed soon!)

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Hostnames and MQ Explorer

I haven’t blogged about my day job for a while, but an interesting technical issue came up today.

A customer was trying to add a new queue manager to MQ Explorer. However, they could not enter the hostname into the relevant field in the GUI.

It turned out that the hostname had_an_underscore character in it. The entry field in MQ Explorer prevents the user from entering this character.

This restriction makes sense. As per several RFCs (RFC952, RFC1035, RFC1178) and the Wikipedia entry on hostnames, underscores_are_not_valid characters in hostnames.

… hostname labels can only be made up of the ASCII letters ‘a’ through ‘z’ (case-insensitive), the digits ‘0’ through ‘9’, and the hyphen. Labels can not start nor end with a hyphen. Special characters other than the hyphen (and the dot between labels) are not allowed, although they are sometimes used anyway. Underscore characters are commonly used by Windows systems but according to RFC 952 they are not allowed…

So, now you know.

A solution could be to reference the IP address of the queue manager in question, or possibly to alias the hostname in the hosts file so that it does not contain underscores. Note that I have not tested the latter solution, but it should work.

Playing around with Skitch

I’m sat in Edinburgh airport and thought I’d have a play with Skitch.

Skitch is a new screenshot / drawing tool for OS X. It is currently in closed beta. The application is by plasq.com, the makers of Comic Life. It is ridiculously easy to use – and very cool.

The interface takes a little getting used to, as it departs from some of the UI conventions that we’ve come to expect. No menu bar. Preferences on the “back” of the window, more like a Dashboard widget. The tools and features are kept to a minimum. But, no problem – when you first start it, a small screencast leads you through the features and the way the tool works. It really is very easy.

You can quickly grab the screen, part of the screen, or take an iSight photo… and then resize it by dragging the window corners, which physically resizes the image inside it. To crop or expand, you grab the edges of the image inside the window, and drag. Once you’ve got something to play with, there are a series of simple drawing and shape tools, and a limited palette of colours. There is also a very cool text tool – simply start typing and your text will appear. To resize the text or change the thickness of the lines, there is a size slider on the left of the window.

Skitch-Editor-1

Even cooler is the fact that all of the stuff that you do to the image is automatically done on layers, so text and lines can be moved around later – Skitch also keeps an image history so that you can quickly find stuff you’ve edited before.

To save, you simply “rip” off a tab at the bottom of the window, having typed a filename and chosen from one of the formats (JPG, PNG, SVF, PDF or the Skitch format which preserves layers, so that you can exchange the editable file with friends). There is also the ability to email, or you can upload to a web service like Flickr, an FTP server, or Skitch’s own mySkitch site at the click of a button.

I love it. It’s so simple. It took a little bit of getting in to, but now I’m using it more, I find it so quick and easy. Definitely one to watch, for Mac users.

As for Firefox, he’s not my friend anymore. Why use 70% of my CPU when there’s no network connection and the application is minimised and idle?

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RIA will lead to bad user interfaces?

Web Worker Daily makes the excellent point that the new wave of tools and technologies for building web applications could lead to some bad user interfaces:

With the wave of tools like Apollo, Microsoft’s Silverlight, and Sun’s JavaFX coming out, we’re going to have powerful visual design tools in the hands of developers who have little or no idea what works in graphic design.

Tools like widgets / gadgets have already made the whole desktop user experience much more fragmented. Does this matter?

I’d argue that too many application UIs have been built by low-level developers in the past, and have been far too complex. Back in the days when I produced software for UK schools[1], I used to think we[2] were good at this, but the fact is that we were developers and advanced users, and those kinds of individuals rarely understand what makes a good interface design.

Desktop environments like OS X and GNOME have tried to enforce consistency via user interface guidelines. I’ve read that Vista has a bunch of contradictory interfaces (“standard” buttons in different places with different icons and behaviours in different applications), but I haven’t played with it enough to know. Apple’s interfaces, and tools such as Adobe Lightroom, are far more user and task-centric (in my opinion), which is what makes them nice to use.

Will Rich Internet Applications make the computing experience more confusing for users, or will they be an unqualified success? I think there is certainly going to continue to be a case for understanding good interaction patterns and graphics and UI design.

[1] 15 years ago, fact fans…

[2] PTW Software, which I’m sure none of my readers will be aware of… we wrote educational software for RISC OS / Acorn computers

Speaking the language of business with SOA

Walking through terminal 2 at Heathrow on Monday morning, I saw one of the What Makes You Special* adverts near my gate.

I’ve been reading Sandy Carter’s recently-published book on Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), The New Language of Business: SOA & Web 2.0. I’m about halfway through, so it’s possible that my opinions will change before I reach the end… but I thought I’d make a few points about it anyway.

The book is divided into three parts. The first talks about the business context – driving home the key point that SOA is all about business as well as IT. The second section talks about flexible IT to enable a flexible business, and has chapters covering the key concepts of SOA, governance, service granularity, and how Web 2.0 relates. The final part of the book (that I’ve not fully read!) is about how the concepts can be applied, and uses IBM as a case study as well as presenting some key “don’ts” for SOA implementations.

I have to say that it has struck a lot of chords with me. It probably all started with the fact that the first case study (on the importance of business processes) used a banking payment processing example, and I’ve done a significant amount of work in that area in the past five years! I’m also impressed by the business focus. As a techie I need to consciously switch my mind away from “hey, look at this cool new product feature!” towards “how can we use this stack of technology to improve business effectiveness”, and Sandy makes some great points in the early chapters that helped me to to do that. In particular, chapter 3 covers Component Business Modeling, which is an important concept in helping to align business and IT.

Quick aside: driving home from Sheffield last week, I listened to the recent Redmonk Radio episode about “Incremental SOA with NetManage”. I’ve been consulting on Enterprise Service Buses (ESBs) – yes, pretty exclusive in the form of WebSphere MQ and Message Broker, but the specific form shouldn’t matter too much – for several years now, and a lot of what the guys talked about on the podcast made sense to me. It is common sense stuff. Although SOA is a potentially revolutionary model, trying to implement something as a “big bang” is generally not going to work – pick a smaller chunk of the business and technology, implement a small project (possibly one that does some form of wrapping of some legacy code to enable it as a service, as Archie Roboostoff of NetManage mentioned on the podcast – that can be a good demonstration of the value of the middleware), and build up from there.

Why mention that podcast? Well, as I listened to it, I was thinking “surely this incremental thing isn’t news?”, and I also decided in my own mind that SOA could be revolutionary, but it needed to be evolutionary too[1].

Sure enough, Sandy’s book talks a lot about choosing a place to start and building out from there. In the introduction to the book, IBM’s Steve Mills states that

An SOA is an evolutionary approach to building IT systems that is focused on solving business problems.

In a later chapter Sandy goes on to state that SOA is an evolution not a revolution (which made me jump since I’d essentially had the same thought last week – but again, this is common sense stuff to me). She also writes

A key to any SOA entry point is to start with a discrete project and then progress over time.

There are some pretty handy checklists in the book, too. Picking just a few of the “10 secrets for success” in implementing SOA, we have some of my favourites: #1 Get executive sponsorship, #2 align the troops (i.e. get people educated as to why the business is going down this road), and #7 … hop on the ESB!

Tying all of this into the Web 2.0 world, one example of flexible business that I picked out from the early chapters was

… the ability to … provide consistent multichannel access for customers to increase customer loyalty …

A couple of years ago, this was all about portals. Today the portals are still there as the user interface to the SOA, but enhanced with feeds, mashups, and other technologies which enable the access and improve the user experience.

If you are new to the concepts of SOA and wondering what the fuss is about, this is a useful book. It’s also a good summary / distillation of some of the key issues that we’ve come across over the past few years. Overall, worth a look.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to reconfigure an ESB for someone 🙂

Related link: Books by Sandy.

Disclosure: I received my copy of this book at no cost, but was going to buy a copy anyway.

[1] an unfortunate by-product of this is the way in which many of the standards are layered on top of one another, or reinventions of previous concepts – as an industry we seem never to want to throw anything away, so it gets wrapped, and then something newer comes along, so we wrap that last thing… still, at least XML has made this both easier, and more verbose 🙂

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