Always Get Better

Never stop looking for ways to improve

July 14th, 2014

Like it or not your clients want mobile and if you are a developer without experience in this realm you are behind the curve.

Having been mobile-centric for the past three years of my professional life, I have heard all of the different lines of thought around toolsets and approaches for creating software targeting these devices. Moreover, I’ve lived through a lot of those toolsets and approaches, and have spent time thinking about which worked well and which ones, well… sucked.

It all boils down to this:

Build native apps using the tools and languages provided by your platform.

Yes, this is the same position I held when I wrote about this almost two years ago, but I stand by it. I’ve had a chance to play and build with the likes of Adobe Air, PhoneGap/Cordova, SenchaTouch and Xamarin, but I always end up going back to Java (Android) or Objective-C (iOS) because…

Cross-Platform Isn’t Good for Anybody

Your app is iOS only… are your installed customers complaining about it not being on Android? No! Why would they care?

When talking about a new project one of the first things to come up is the idea of using X tool so we can build to a lot of platforms after writing the code once. I guess the thinking behind this is somewhere along the lines of “if we make our product available to more people, then it follows that more people will obtain it and we will make more money”. I don’t buy this.

Look at it this way – you’re up against a million apps. What sets you apart? How do you communicate that to all of your potential customers? Are downloads from the Windows Store equivalent to downloads from Google Play? Do they use their phones in the same way and monetize the same way? Are the demographics the same?

If everyone was the same, it would still be a bad idea to build your app around a cross-platform framework. Invariably these work in a lowest-common-denominator fashion meaning you get universal support by trading off native features. Yes, your app runs the same on all the platforms, but Android users are accustomed to navigating using their back button, which iPads don’t have. Instead of providing beautiful context-sensitive navigation using activities for Android and NavigationController hierarchies for iOS, you get uniform views.

“Universal” is a Lie

Okay, so most development kits come with a way to plug in your own native code for the device-specific goodness (better GPS, camera gestures, whatever). Now you’re writing native code anyway, and you’re on the hook to support all those platforms. So why would you want to go through the pain of hooking all that into a cross-platform tool instead of going directly to your platform in the first place.

Worse, your universal framework has bugs. I’m sure it’s great software but all software has bugs. When you hit a bug that stops you from moving forward, what are you going to do? When the underlying operating system software changes and your framework hasn’t been updated yet, are you not going to deploy until the author gets around to supporting the new requirements? When you choose a cross platform tool you are choosing someone else’s opinions and priorities and ceding control of your own product.

My recommendation is to pick a release target and excel at it. Will it be in the Apple ecosystem? If so, don’t be afraid to go all in. Learn how iPhone users are going to interact with your software and do everything you can to speak to them, please them, and turn them into paying customers. They don’t want a great Android experience, they want software they don’t even think about. They won’t patiently deal with your buggy software because you were so afraid of missing out on customers that you greedily deployed a boring app just to support some other platform. The “smaller” number of users is still a lot of users!

I get the fear factor, but the cross-platform tools are designed to make life easier for developers, not customers. The developer isn’t buying my product – I don’t care so much if he’s worried about synchronizing features in a future Android port of the app.

Speed is King

I want my app to load fast and I don’t want to wait around for it. You can’t get more performance than a well-written app build from native languages and tools. Don’t be afraid of XCode, Visual Studio and IntelliJ – embrace them and enjoy the barebones software you can build with them.

Thinking in New Paradigms

Suppose you do want to put your app on two different kinds of devices. Now you need to maintain your program logic in two programming languages, adding new features and squashing bugs in both places. That’s not really such a bad thing.

What if you have an ENORMOUS code base with hundreds of thousands of lines of code – how will you ever keep that synchronized between two development tracks? Well, you might a good candidate to actually use one of those cross-platform tools. Or you might be asking yourself if your work load is really appropriate for a mobile experience (something they won’t tell you — not every app belongs on a mobile device).

Apps don’t need to behave the same on different device formats. Every modern operating system has a different focus and enormous capability list that becomes adopted by its users – so evaluate what it is really like to use your app on each device. Especially for UI stuff – do you need backward navigation on Android when there is a hardware button for that? What buttons can you eliminate on iOS in favour of multi-touch gestures?

In the past 5 years I’ve added Java, Scala, Ruby, JavaScript (specifically, Node.js-style callbacks), Objective-C and lately Swift to the list of languages I’ve used extensively and thought deeply about. Each one has challenged me to look at programming differently and apply new practices to older thought patterns. Working withing multiple native environments is not a hindrance, it’s a huge boost to the quality of software you can create.

Streamlined Learning

When you use a cross-platform tool, you have an extra learning curve – that of the tool itself. I don’t buy into the thought that it improves your productivity, but I definitely see where it decreases your productivity. You need to be aware of bugs in your tool (as we mentioned earlier, your tool is great but it’s still software and software has bugs), you need to be aware of the capabilities of your tool including all the new features they add (which, by the way, just expose native features you should have been working with directly all along).

If you can avoid it, skip the cross-platform stuff and go right to your actual platform.

Putting it all together

As a programmer your job is not about writing code, it’s about connecting businesses with their objectives. A good technologist doesn’t get caught up in ideology over which approach they ought to take to build software – they decide which implementation detail will get them to their goal. So if a cross platform tool makes sense for your project, use it. Just be sure that you’re picking the right tool, and not the comfortable (for now) one

September 29th, 2013

This is a common situation: I needed to compare two strings with unknown capitalization – “country” versus “Country”. Since these words should be considered equal even though the second “Country” has a capital “C”, we can’t do a straight comparison on the two – we need to do a case-insensitive comparison.

Option 1: strcasecmp
Whenever possible developers should try to use built-in functions which are compiled code and (in general) run much faster than anything you could write. PHP has strcasecmp to case-insentively compare two strings. Sounds like a perfect match!


if ( strcasecmp('country','Country') != 0 ) {
// We have a match!
}

Option 2: strtolower
Always read the documentation, but draw your own conclusions. One commentator in the PHP documentation suggested developers never use strcasecmp, and use strtolower with regular equality like this:

if ( strtolower('country') === strtolower('Country') ) {
// We have a match
}

Test the Speed
Both methods accomplish the same thing, but do we really want to skip using strcasecmp()? Which is the better option?
I wrote this short script to run each option for 10 seconds and see which is faster:

And the results:

strtolower: Done 18440869 cycles in 10 seconds
strcasecmp: Done 22187773 cycles in 10 seconds

So strcasecmp has the edge speed-wise, but not so huge that I would care to favour one over the other.

Apparantly strcasecmp does not support multi-byte (e.g. Unicode) characters, but I haven’t tested this. Presumably that would give strtolower an advantage over projects dealing with non-English input, however that is not the case at all in my particular use case so I did not explore this avenue any further. I also didn’t try against non-ascii characters, such as latin accents; including those would be an improvement on this test.

May 27th, 2013

Glen Canyon Bridge & Dam, Page, ArizonaI continue to have an on and off relationship with Twitter. It’s been fun to talk with other developers and reach people directly, but a huge part of the network is sorting through the signal-to-noise echo chamber. It doesn’t make sense to sit on Twitter all day trying to respond to everything; work needs to be done too!

Then there’s my reading. I read a lot. And I run into all kinds of cool stuff I want to share, and Twitter is the most natural place to share it, but of course that always ends up with Saturdays where I dump four dozen links in the span of a few hours… I hate it when other people do that, so rather than spamming everyone who follows me I’ve pretty much stopped sharing.

Until now.

Buffer to Spread Around the Outbursts
I found an app called Buffer (bufferapp.com) that sits in front of your twitter account and collects your tweets into a “buffer”, then sends them out on a schedule. So you can have a backlog of messages filter out slowly over a day instead of shoving them all out at once.

So my workflow with Twitter now is to monitor it (using Growl, of course) and have conversations where I can. I’ve met some incredible people using Twitter and made more than a few fun connections, and hope to keep building that over time. Whenever I read something interesting I’ll drop it into Buffer, and anyone who is interested can see those links without getting spammed all at once. I think it’s win-win.

Present in More Time Zones
At first night times were lonely when I came out west, since 9pm for me is midnight for friends back home, it got pretty quiet fast. I’ve since made more friends on the west coast, but I came away with a fresh appreciation of how easy it is to get disconnected from our core tribes because of time zones.

Since I started using Buffer I’ve noticed more activity from my contacts in Europe and Australia. Of course I’m asleep when Buffer sends out one of my stored tweets at 3am, but sometimes it’s sparked conversations I’m able to pick up when I wake up in the morning. Although there is a high latency in those communications, I feel more connected than ever to some old friends who I might not have otherwise interacted with so frequently.

In the End, Connections Matter Most
The strongest takeaway theme that seems to be cropping up again and again lately has been the difference between technology and communication. It’s very easy, especially coming from a technical background, to fall in love with a design, a language, a piece of software. The magic comes from the conversations that get enabled by these advances. There’s no reason to put up a web site or build an application if it doesn’t solve some problem – if we build something for the sake of doing it, are we building something that will last?

January 1st, 2013

This has been one of my busiest and most productive years, but you wouldn’t know it from the infrequency of my blog updates.

The majority of my writing time was spent creating two books on Node.js which were released this year – Node: Up and Running and Building Node Applications with MongoDB and Backbone. I’ll use that as my excuse for not updating here – I’m not planning to take on any major projects like this in the near future because I want to get some of my “smaller” ideas accrued over the year out in article form.

Apart from writing, I pulled up roots and moved to the West Coast; it was an epic move since we have a larger than normal family, but the new environment and business opportunities have been well worth it. Now that we live on a mountain next to the ocean, I’m going to feel very reluctant to go anywhere else.

At the end of 2011 I predicted that mobile development would become a necessary tool for serious developers. It’s certainly been my bread and butter this year, and will likely be even more so in 2013. Desktop development will remain important, but I can see future world where the majority of “normal” customers will be consuming content on a tablet or handheld device. There is going to be a greater dichotomy between content creators (think – developers on laptops) versus content consumers – designing for mobile first will position you for that economy by keeping your focus on ease of use.

The top three posts this year were:

  1. Using DateTime in the Play! Framework
  2. Setting up WordPress with nginx and FastCGI
  3. log4php Performance
September 10th, 2012

With just a single mobile release under my belt now, I’m hardly what you might call an expert on the subject. What I can say for certain is the past year has been an eye opener in terms of understanding the capabilities and limitations of mobile platforms in general.

So having gone from “reading about” to “doing” mobile development, these are some of the “aha” moments I’ve had:

Design for Mobile First
The biggest revelation: Even if you’re not setting out to develop a mobile application, your design absolutely must start from the point of view of a handheld.

Think about it for a second – how much information can you fit on a 3.5″ screen? Not much! So when you design for that form factor you have to go through a savage trimming exercise – everything from type, to layout, to navigation must communicate their intent in as tiny a space as possible. In other words, there’s no avoiding the need to effectively communicate your message.

When you build all of your applications this way, mobile or not, it’s hard not to come up with a user experience that has laser focus and goes straight for the mark. Once you have a bare minimum experience, now you can augment it with additional navigation and information (including advertising) for larger form factors like desktop and tablets.

Don’t Fret the Framework
Just as in web development, frameworks are powerful tools that come with sometimes painful trade-offs. Especially when you’re getting started, don’t worry about which framework you choose – just pick the one that caters most to the style of development you’re already familiar with and jump in. If that means Adobe Air for ActionScript, cool. If it means PhoneGap for JavaScript, great.

Most of the new devices coming onto the market have more than enough memory and processing horsepower to handle the massive extra overhead incurred through cross-platform development tools. If you’re starting a new project or iterating a prototype, don’t hesitate to jump on board a tool that will get you to a product faster. This is one of those areas where the short term gain is worth the longer term pain…

Native Wins
We’ve known since the 80s, when developers had to release to a boatload of PC platforms – IBM, Commodore, Amiga, Tandy, etc – that software written directly for a particular platform outperforms and outsells similar software written for a generic platform and ported across to others. The same idea is definitely the case now, even though our cross-platform tools are far more advanced, and our globally-usable app much higher in quality that what we could produce 30 years ago.

Some of the compelling reasons why you would want to take on the expense of building, testing and maintaining you app natively:

  • The UI of your application will integrate seamlessly into the underlying operating system – iOS widgets look like they belong, Android layouts are laid out consistently compared to other applications
  • Raw speed – you don’t need to go through someone else’s API shim to get at the underlying operating system features, you don’t have to develop custom native code since all the code is native; all CPU cycles are devoted to your application, resulting in much higher performance, particularly for graphic-intensive applications
  • Operating system features – each mobile operating system has its own paradigm and set of best practices which cross-platform tools gloss over to give you as a developer a consistent response. So your application misses the subtleties of the user’s hardware experience – for example Android uses Activities as its interaction model, but the Adobe Air framework squashes that instead of forcing developers to program in an Activity-centric way

In other words, cross-platform tools exist in order to give developers the best experience, not to give the user the best experience. Your customer doesn’t care if your app is available on Android, Windows, iPhone, Playbook and WebOS if all they have is an iPhone.

I believe cross-platform tools are the best way to get your project off the ground and usable fast, but right from the beginning you need to be thinking about converting your application to native code in order to optimize the experience for your customers.

Market Fragmentation
I bought an Android phone and have been enjoying developing for it. But I don’t think I would enjoy developing for Android at large because of the massive amount of devices and form factors I would need to support. This is where Apple has an edge – although the learning curve for Objective-C is higher, once I have an iOS application, I know it will run on an iPod Touch, and iPhone or and iPad. Not only that, but my guess is people are more likely to want to spend small amounts of money on app purchases, since they’ve been trained to do so from years of iTunes.

Backward Compatibility
Moving to the web was a huge advantage in terms of software support because if you ever found a bug in your program you could patch it and release it without affecting any of your users. No one has to upgrade a web page.

This isn’t true of mobile applications – ignoring mobile web applications – once someone downloads your app they may be slow to upgrade to newer verions, or they may never upgrade at all. This means any bugs that get released with your bundle are going to remain in the wild forever. If you have any kind of server-based presence, your server code needs to handle requests from all of those old app versions – so you need to make sure you get it right, and have good filtering and upgrade mechanisms in place.

Choosing a Platform
One thing that held me back from diving into mobile development was my hesitation to start. This is totally my fault – instead of just programming for WebOS when I had the Palm Pre, I thought it would be better/more accessible to use a more open JavaScript toolset so I could deploy my app to other phones. But really, what would have been the point? I only had a Palm Pre to run my software on and I definitely wasn’t going to buy new hardware to test other versions. Instead of getting locked in analysis paralysis I should have just started programming for the Pre right away and transferred those skills to a more mainstream platform later.

So if you don’t have a smartphone, go get one – it will change your life, or at least the way you interact with your phone. Then start building apps for it. That’s all it takes to get into the game. Don’t wait another second.

photo by: osde8info
May 20th, 2012

Which data type should you use for time information on your Java models? The Date class is mostly deprecated, pushing us into the direction of the heavyweight Calendar class. Storing the milliseconds since Epoch in a Long is both database-friendly and easy to perform math on and convert at runtime. But if you really want a good experience, you are using Joda Time.

Joda Time is built into the Play! Framework, and there really is no excuse to use anything else. But when it comes to saving dates in your JPA Models, there is a big “gotcha” in that there is no default type converter to move a DateTime object into and out of the database. Oops.

But that can be fixed with an annotation in your model, like this:

@Type(type="org.joda.time.contrib.hibernate.PersistentDateTime")
public DateTime created;

Unfortunately, Play does not ship with Hibernate support for the DateTime object. So to make this work you need to include the Joda-Time-Hibernate library in your dependencies.yml file:


require:
- play
- joda-time -> joda-time-hibernate 1.3

After updating the dependencies file, run the play deps –sync command to pull in the libraries from maven. Your models will now save their date and time into MySQL, and your programming experience will be smooth as silk – at least as far as time-based functionality is concerned.

April 30th, 2012

In just two weeks, Node: Up and Running will be released by O’Reilly Media. Writing a book has been a lot of hard work but also a terrific learning experience that I would love to repeat.

The biggest takeaway for me was how often I make stupid mistakes in my writing. As a developer and manager, I rely on my speaking and writing abilities every day – so I take my ability to express myself for granted because I have to do it every day.

When a professional editor takes a piece of writing, they aren’t looking at it in the same way a co-worker would. A co-worker knows me, understands some of the subtleties of the context I’m writing about, and can subconsciously apply meaning to ambiguities in the text or conversation. A casual reader doesn’t have the same context, and the copy editor is able to filter that out and make adjustments to the text that leave my meaning intact but change the delivery.

In other words, the text that came out of the editing process makes me look really smart (I wish!). I’ve learned the secret to clear communication is in keeping the message brief. Especially in a technical book, the audience can’t be expected to deconstruct prose – it’s up to the writer to make their point and get out of the way.

I’ve also learned that I use the same turns of phrases over and over again. Reading 50 pages of my own writing in a row with the same sentence transitions is boring as heck, and I’m able to see this strikingly clear when it’s annotated by a totally impartial writer.