But it works on my PC!

The random thoughts of Richard Fennell on technology and software development

Why don’t I love my phone?

There seams to be loads of coverage at present over mobile platforms. Maybe I am just noticing it due to coverage of the CES show and the launch of the Nexus One, but the more mainstream media does seems to be taking a good deal of interest in the future of smartphones (or superphone as Google are calling their new one).

All the articles seems to Apple Vs. Android (and moving rapidly towards Apple Vs. Google). There is also usually a passing mention of Blackberry, then a ‘wonder where Nokia are?’ but usually very little on Microsoft. The article in this months UK edition of Wired is a classic example.

As a reasonably happy Windows Mobile 6.5 user (I have an HTC Diamond 2) I find this all very interesting. My phone works most of the time, does most of what I need and certainly does not need to be rebooted as much previous smartphones I have had. However, I have to say, it does not engender me with the missionary zeal iPhone (and I suspect future Nexus One) user have. They all seem to have a pure pleasure in the ownership and use of their device. My phone is a bit of kit that does the job most of time, I don’t love it or hate, it is what it is.

I do wonder if I moved to an iPhone would I be the convert so many others seem to be; or is it just my nature to not be such a devotee of any phone/car/coffee machines etc. or in fact objects and brands in general?

This all said, it is very noticeable that the Microsoft mobile platform (and actually the supporting eco-system e.g. the iPhone App Store) is lagging behind, the silence of Windows Mobile 7 just seems to drag on and on. Whatever comes out is going to have to make a big leap to catch up (let alone overtake) other vendors offerings.

Anyway whilst I was writing this post I see that Robert Scoble has posted probably a more consider review of the current state of the mobile space. Great minds think a like?

My Christmas Message to the world

Like the Queen, I have recorded a Christmas message this year. Now I have no prior knowledge of what her Majesty will speak about this year, but I will lay good odds it is not about using Typemock Isolator.

On the Typemock site you will find a short video on how we at Black Marble make use of Isolator to tackle testing problems that do no lean themselves to traditional mocking patterns.

So if you are at a loose end over the holidays why not curl up with your loved ones and partake in this festive IT video.

PDC Keynote Day 1 thoughts

So the PDC2009 day 1 keynote is over and what was the story? Well it is more of a vision thing, but then again this is a PDC not a TechEd so what do you expect. For me the two major themes were

  • Dallas – a centralised data service that allows unified access to both public and private via subscriptions. Thus allowing core data being used for any purpose the user requires within the EULA of the data in question. It will be interesting what will be published in this manner, is there a market for a centralised data clearing house? only time will tell.
  • AppFabric – Basically taking the operating model for the Azure services and allow a company to have a similar model in their own IT system. Thus allowing code to be written that can work on the corporate system or Azure cloud without alteration. This I see as being big.,

So what was not mentioned, well it was mobile. The only comment was a ‘come to Mix in the spring for stuff about the next mobile offering. Whatever is shown there is going to have to very good to address the momentum of the iPhone. I think a good bet is that leveraging the Azure fabric might be important for the mobile offering

Access Services in SharePoint 2010 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Access 2010

So what I have I been doing of late? The blog has been a bit quiet. Well I have been having a good look at Access Services in SharePoint 2010. This has been an interesting experience, as I am not historically what you might call an avid Access developer.

Like most .NET developers I had looked as Access as more of a file format than an application, something from the past. Something that I might use for a small data store, maybe in a web application hosted on a cheaper ISP that does not provide ‘a real’ SQL DB, or where an XML data files don’t seem right, often because I just can’t be bothered to work out the XPATH. When using Access as a data format it seems easier to get at my data using basic hand crafted SQL commands or maybe at most via a OLEDB Data Adaptor/DataSet. All very old old school. Thinking about Access in this way just seems an easy way out, playing it safe with the knowledge I have. I don’t for a second propose that this a good idea, you should not be looking at using any technology just because it is there and you already know it. There are obvious downsides, using Access in this manner meant that from the ADO.NET developer side I could not:

But equally, by treating Access as just a data format I was not able to make use of it as the Rapid Development tool it is. I was too hung up in the unpleasant idea of an MDB sitting of a server being poor at locking and saturating the network with unwanted traffic. I was not even considering Access as a front end to a MS-SQL solution, and it is not as if that is new technology, it has been around for ages. I was just sitting happily with my prejudices.

I don’t think this position is that rare for .NET developers these days. Access seems just looked down upon as something old in the Office pack that is best ignored, no good would come of using it in a business environment.

So enters Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 Access Services, for me this changes the game. For those who don’t know this technology, you can create an Access database locally on your PC then publish it to SharePoint. Tables become SharePoint lists, macros become workflows and forms well become forms. Access becomes a RAD tool to create data driven SharePoint sites.

So how has this new technology been working for me? Well I can’t say I have grown to love the Access client, but I think that is mostly down to that fact that I am still not thinking right for it. Access is all about data binding, you don’t have to think about what form fields need to be copied to which DB columns, the wizards make a really good attempt to design forms for you based on the relationship of the tables in your DB and this just all seem unnatural to me. I think this is because I am usually working with design patterns to reduces the linkage between forms and data to a minimum e.g. the MVC pattern, and so consider this good practice; automated data binding seems seems wrong. So in Access I keep wanting to build things from first principles, but this is just not sensible. Better to let the tool get you close and then you add the polish, put away any thoughts of implementing design patterns as you would in a language such as C# or VB.NET.

I think this is the key to the degree of irritation I feel with the product, if you have got used to architecting from the ground up, especially in a Test Driven Development style, you have to turn everything on it head. It feels like you are cheating, not doing the job properly.

But wait! look at the benefits. A while ago I was involved in a project to provide a resource management data driven web site that was hosted within SharePoint. It contained the usual things, data entry forms, links to SQL and reports. It took a couple of weeks to build. I think I could write the same system in Access with SharePoint 2010 in an afternoon, and would be happy to have a client’s business analyst sit next to me while I did it, in a pair programming style, to design the forms, report layouts and columns as I went along. For the smaller scale data driven site Access Services is a great tool, but obviously it is not perfect. I do keep hitting points where I think ‘if I were in C# I could just do that’ but then I remember ‘yes but it would take would have taken me three days to get here not an hour’. Most project don’t need that last 10-20% you can only reach on .NET custom code, the client with be far happier with 80% done quickly and flexibly rather than 95% done a lot later. Also we have to factor in my relative lack of experience with Access as a RAD tool, reducing the productivity that could potentially be achieved by a more experienced Access developer.

Actually the bulk of the time I have spent has been on looking at how you can extend Access Service to reach that last 20% of functionality, and it not that hard. The key to remember is that the Access Services are just built on standard SharePoint objects. Ok there is a new service running to render the pages, but underneath there are just SharePoint lists and workflow, and where these exist there are events that you can programmatically handle. I have found that by trapping events such as ItemAdd() for the Access created SharePoint lists there is no real limit to what you can achieve via the SharePoint Object Model. And this development process is made even easier by the new Visual Studio 2010 templates for SharePoint features. If nothing else the fact that all the templates create a WSP for deployment as standard makes for far more robust feature development.

There is one major difference between a standard SharePoint site and one created by Access, and it is that SharePoint Designer cannot open the Access site. I thought this would be an issue when I first heard about the limitation, but it turn out not to be. Anything you might have wanted to do in SharePoint Designer you can do quicker and easier in Access for this type of data driven site. Ok the range of things you can do is more limited, but again you get that 80% you need with much less pain.

So how has my experience with Access 2010 been? Exasperating, frustrating but undeniably productive. I am not sure it is the right product for an ISV style company who want to roll out single solution to many client sites (but it could be used for this if needed via the SharePoint site template gallery); but for a smaller data driven site (with or without custom extensions) written within an IT department it is a very strong contender. Taking Access in many ways back to it roots.

So if you need small data driven sites I would suggest you put aside your prejudices and have a look at the beta program for Office/SharePoint 2010, I think you will be surprised.

Your support can keep our industry's history alive

We had a company outing at the weekend to Bletchley Park for their Annual Enigma Reunion event. A great chance to see the place where Enigma was cracked and some of the equipment they used to do it, such as the working  rebuild of a Turing Bombe

Turing Bombe rebuild

Whilst down there we also took the chance to have a good look around the National Museum of Computing, which shares the site; you know are are getting old when a third of a museum is devoted to equipment you have worked on!

Black Marble at the Mueseum of Computing by Colosus

I would urge anyone interested in the history of our industry to take the time to drop by Bletchley Park to have a look at both the museums on the site. And if you can, donate to aid their upkeep as neither Bletchley or the Computing Museum get any governmental support. Think of them live steam preservation societies, full of keen volunteers, with loads of ideas and partially working equipment that just need a bit of money to save a history the UK led the world in.

Welcome to the past of software development

I was at an interesting meeting at my local BCS branch tonight ‘Opening The Black Box: An Introduction to Quality Driven Development’  by Tim Hunter. I had heard of TDD and DDD etal. but QDD was new to me.

What we got was a hour framed by the basic premise that ‘Waterfall is good - Agile is bad’ (or progressive methods as the speaker called anything that was not waterfall). As another attendee pointed out in the Q&A, this tone in the presentation tended to cloud the more balanced points, managing to get the backs up of a good few attendees by the speaker’s seeming lack of understanding of god agile practices. He seemed to see agile as developers messing around, no documentation, testing or general engineering discipline. He argued that without waterfall, and specifically quality gates, we could not write quality systems. This is not the Agile I know.

Agile, if adopted properly is very constraining from an engineering point of view. We have detailed specification by example, open reporting practices, regular re-estimation of remaining work, test driven development, pair programming, automated builds, regular potentially shippable products with quality gates to move products between states of publication so we don’t just release everything we build. The list goes on and on; OK no team is going to use it all, but the tools are there in the tool box. A team can set where on the agility spectrum they choose to sit.

I agree with the sessions premise that quality gates are important, but not that waterfall is the only way to enforce them. You can put the whole methodology choice aside and frame the discussion in how do we get staff who take pride in their work and are empowered produce quality products via their working environment. I would argue there is more hope for this in an agile framework where the whole team buys into the ethos of software craftsmanship, as opposed to any methodology where an onerous procedure is imposed, a system must be habitable as Alistair Cockburn puts it.

I felt the session was too pessimistic over the quality of people in our industry. The speaker wanting to make rules because he perceived people were of low quality and had to be forced to do a half way decent job. OK I am a bit pessimistic, not too bad a trait for a developer or tester, but we have to hope for more, to strive for more. This is something I think the agile community does do, they are trying to write better software and become better craftsman everyday. They care.

For me the key question is how can we bring more people along with us. Especially the people who have given up and just turn up to do their IT related job and avoid as much hassle as possible. They are the ones who don’t turn up to the BSC, community conference or any user groups or even read a book or blog on the subject. What can we do for them?

The setup story for TFS 2010

I have been looking at the various install and upgrade stories for the TFS 2010 Beta. I have to say they are very nice compared to the older TFS versions. You now have a SharePoint like model where you install the product then use a separate configuration tool to upgrade or setup the features required. There are plenty of places to verify your setting as you go along to greatly reducing the potential mistakes.

One side effect of this model is that it is vital to get all your prerequisites in place. The lack of these has been the cause of the only upgrade scenario I have tried that has failed. This was on a VPC I used for TFS 2008 demos. This VPC used a differencing VHD using the older 2004 format that had a 16Gb limit and this disk was virtual full. To upgrade to TFS 2010 I needed to upgrade SQL to 2008 and this in turn needed Visual Studio 2008 patched to SP1 which needed over 6Gb free space, which was never going to happen on that VHD. So my upgrade failed, but that said this is not a realistic scenario, who has servers with just 16Gb these days!