Is it Mainframe time again?

by Frank 22. January 2012 13:04

We have all suffered and suffered from network issues and outages and failing servers. One reason is the unparalleled complexity of Microsoft server-based networks and the other is the very low availability of really talented, knowledgeable and capable server and network specialists. The core problem is complexity; if the environment wasn’t so incredibly difficult to setup and debug we wouldn’t require so many really clever people.

Even large enterprises, presumably with all the resources they need, are not immune. We have all seen and suffered from major outages at banks and airlines in 2011. If the big guys with all the money and resources can’t keep their networks up and running what chance do the rest of us have?

If it seems too complex it is too complex.

The level of complexity now bedevilling most of us has slowly crept into our business and home systems since the early days of networks and servers starting around 1980. Whereas there were some weird and hard to configure networks in the early days the offerings thinned out as the market made up its mind about standards and we were eventually left with mainly Microsoft-driven networks from about  1990 onwards. These same Microsoft Windows driven networks have gotten a little more complex year on year until they are now almost unmanageable by ‘ordinary’ IT personnel.

As always the industry counters by proposing more and more training and certification. In other words, let’s not solve the complexity problem let’s instead address the symptoms of complexity by throwing more money and time at it. All the while the problem is getting worse and there are fewer and fewer people who really understand it. We don’t have a skills shortage; we have an overly complex environment to manage.

There is another serious problem and that is security. The Internet has exposed more evil and people of ill purpose that ever existed in Sodom and Gomorrah. These evil people are able to penetrate our networks because the networks are too complex. Windows is too complex, way more complex than it needs to be. Every time we plug a hole we open two more because of the complexity of Windows. Battling evil is a never ending task and a losing battle because we cannot win using the current tools we have. In my opinion, there is no way we can ever make our current IT environments, and even our home computers, really secure and immune from attack.

If you want evidence that what I say is correct just look at the massive security industry that has built up around Windows. There are multiple billion dollar companies like Symantec that only exist because Windows is insecure and will always be insecure. IT security is a multi-billion dollars industry because Windows is rubbish.

I liken Windows to the tax system. The tax system has been played with and modified thousands of times over many, many years until it is now so complex that no one understands it and you need to go to court to get a judgement. The advice of a trained tax accountant isn’t enough to ensure compliance. Even the tax office can’t rely on its own advice and nor can you. The current tax legislation is not fixable; we need to start afresh and produce something new and simple replacing tens of thousands of pages with 50 or 60 pages. The tax system and Windows suffer from the same problem, the more you try to fix it the more complex it becomes and the more fragile it becomes.  To use the common vernacular, “there are holes in the tax system and Windows you can drive a truck through.”

If it was up to me I would replace our current tax system with a simple flat tax system (say 17% on gross income) and do away with tens of thousands of pages of tax legislation, deductions, exemptions and rulings. It would take five minutes to do your tax return and it would not require a tax accountant and thousands of dollars in fees. (Of course this won’t happen because tens of thousands of accountants and public servants rely on the tax system being complex otherwise there would be no need for their services.)

I would like to do the same thing with Windows. It too can’t be fixed and it needs to be replaced with something far, far simpler. My educated guess is that the crooks and the Windows security industry won’t like this proposal either; both have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. We are in the ridiculous situation the opposing parties both benefit from the system not being fixed. Is it only me that thinks this is crazy? How did we let it happen?

When I go home at night I don’t switch on my Windows PC anymore; I just turn on my iPad. It is quicker, easier to use, infinitely more secure and it provides access to all of the information I require. I do have to switch on my Windows PC at least once a month to download all the updates and use up large chunks of my broadband GB allowance. This process also wastes many hours of my time for no discernible benefit other than to ‘protect’ me against the latest round of attacks from the army of crooks on the Internet.

Multiply the time I spend keeping my PC up-to-date to avoid the crooks by the hundreds of millions of Windows users around the world and you have the largest single productivity black hole the world has ever seen (and the largest chunk of unpaid work). Now add all the time government agencies and corporations spend keeping Windows up to date and battling the crooks and you have enough wasted time to probably double the world’s GDP output. Again, is it just me that thinks this is a stupidly ridiculous situation and a massive waste of manpower?

I have over twenty years’ experience programming, supporting and managing mainframes so I have a little knowledge of this genre of computers. Most people think mainframes are dead but I assure you they aren’t. There are still mainframes out there and they are still doing what they have always done, quietly, efficiently and securely processing huge numbers of transactions and rarely failing. The following Wikipedia link provides a good introduction to modern mainframe computers:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mainframe_computer

I think we need to reconsider the path we have taken with both network servers (and clusters) and home PCs. We need to move away from Windows before it starts consuming 25 hours out of every 24.

Microsoft isn’t going to fix Windows, it is going to ‘improve it’ with even more features and functions and complexity, just as it has done year after year. Microsoft is not listening to its consumers. We want less complexity and greater ease of use that’s why we all rushed out and bought iPads, millions and millions of them.

We need servers like mainframes, built to do a specific job and brilliant in doing that specific job. Similarly, we need something a hundred times simpler and less complex and easier to use than Windows for our PCs. It is time for a fundamental and seismic change in how we access and process information. We have followed the Microsoft pied piper for way too long and it is time to wake up and follow a different leader and move to a different model.

Long live the mainframe and the iPad, they could be our salvation.

Estimating the cost of your next imaging job

by Frank 15. January 2012 13:00

This article is designed to be used as a guideline by the records manager or business owner when considering having paper records digitized; that is, scanned to create digital images of the original paperwork. It includes most of the things you need to think about and allow for and it should help you when formulating budgets and negotiating with vendors.

Overview

The safest approach is an end-to-end one where the vendor handles everything and takes responsibility for the final product. That is, starting with the paper documents and doing all the preparation work involved to make your paper ‘scannable’, capturing all contextual Metadata and the attachment/linking of same to the scanned images. It should also include the design and configuration of the best way to index and organize the images (and Metadata) in the final product (e.g., your electronic document and records management system – EDRMS). There is little point in digitizing a mass of paper if the results are not easily and conveniently searchable using your preferred terminology or Taxonomy.

For peace of mind you really want the vendor to handle everything required including the importing of all scanned images and Metadata into your EDRMS so you end up with a working and ready-to-use solution.

The cost is always an issue and no one in my experience ever really means it when they say, “We have to have this at any cost.” There will always be pressure from someone (usually the resident bean counter) for you to take on some of the workload yourself to help lower the costs. I caution against this because it absolves the vendor of some of the responsibility for the final product and additionally, I have to assume that you and your staff are already busy in your usual day jobs and that taking on extra work isn’t always possible.

The usual processes involved are:

Data inspection

The vendor will want to analyze the data to be scanned and determine what preparation is required. The vendor will double check your estimated volumes and make recommendations based on the characteristics and properties of the data to be scanned. Most vendors (that is all reputable vendors) will be reluctant to provide you with a fixed price quotation until after the data inspection is completed. An example, based on local government Development Applications, of the things what will be discovered in a data inspection follows:

  • There is a need to back-capture Development Applications (DA);
  • That each DA is stored in a file folder;
  • That there are 8,000 DA file folders, each containing on average 130 sheets of letter paper – totalling 1,040,000 sheets of paper;
  • That each DA file folder contains seven different document types;
  • That the images are required to be indexed via the file folder number & document type (i.e. each file folder has to be scanned and indexed into 7 multi-page images – one for each document type);
  • That most pages are single sided but some are duplex (double-sided); and
  • That documents are generally not stapled (approximately 11% are stapled) and don’t require repair (5% do require repair).

Data Preparation

This normally involves removing pages from a cardboard file folder, removing staples, smoothing paper, orienting paper, etc. The objective should be to organize the pages into documents and batches to facilitate faster scanning using automatic document feed scanners. The most important component of any scanning quote is the time estimate (duration) and data preparation time is a key component of this.

Data preparation costs are sometimes called ‘handling’ costs. You want a fixed cost quote from the vendor for handling costs, that is, the vendor takes the responsibility and risk, not you. The responsible vendor will do random sampling during the data inspection step to better understand the handling costs involved in your job.

Scanning

This is where all paper is captured as TIFF images and multi-page documents are captured as multi-page TIFF images. At this stage the vendor may offer to optionally convert all or some of the TIFF images to text via an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) process. Note that this is usually an option; do not assume your digitized pages will be searchable because TIFF images are not full-text searchable. There is an additional step required for images to be full-text searchable.

If full text indexing is a requirement then make sure it is specified in your requirements document and included in the vendor’s quote. Note that if you do mandate full text indexing that the final format of the digitized image won’t be TIFF, it will probably be PDF or even better, PDF/A (an internationally recognized standard).

The time to scan each sheet paper depends upon a few key factors like the quality of the original source document, whether it is single or double sided and its condition, i.e., wrinkled, folded, torn, stapled, etc. Expect a much higher cost when the quality of the source documents is poor.

OCRing the scanned images to create full-text searchable electronic documents

Whether or not this line item appears in your quote really depends on how the vendor handles it. Note that it does lengthen the time taken to process any page, in some cases easily doubling it or worse.

However, it is also usually an automated ‘background’, asynchronous process that consumes computer time and not much person time. It may double the time required to complete your job but it should not double the costs.

Verification – Scanning

This is where the vendor applies quality assurance processes to ensure that all pages have been properly scanned. This means the vendor should be able to confirm that all pages have been scanned at the agreed quality standard. Some form of quality control is mandatory in any scanning job and you need to ensure that you have specified quality control in your specification and that it is included as part of the vendor’s quote.

Capture

This is where the vendor imports the digitized images into your EDRMS and creates all the links and Metadata necessary for efficient and appropriate searching. As mentioned previously, there is no point in having a huge database of scanned images if it is not searchable in a manner appropriate to each organization’s business processes.

Verification – Capture

This is where the vendor sanity checks the capture process and confirms that all pages have been scanned and captured/exported into your EDRMS as per specification. If you begin with 100,000 paper pages then you should end up 100,000 scanned, indexed and readable images of pages in your EDRMS; this sounds simple but it often is not so. Please think about the metrics required to ensure this level of quality control; you can’t afford to lose information.

Final inspection and sign-Off

This is where you inspect the final product and approve the job for payment. Please make sure that inspection and sign-off acceptance steps are part of the requirement specification. When doing so, ask the vendor to provide signed copies of its verification paperwork and also have your staff do random sampling to confirm that nothing has gone awry. This is IT so things will go wrong.

Costs, specify quote format

To ensure you are comparing apples to apples you need to detail how you want the costs expressed in your requirements document. For example, what will be the travel, expenses or transport costs? I would always suggest that you give the vendor a standard cost schedule to complete with its response to ensure uniformity.

You can either specify the breakdown of costs (see example below) or just ask for a fixed price per scanned page. Please don’t ask for a fixed price per document (I have seen this many times) because the vendor will then have to assume an average number of pages per document and this will lead to significant variations in the quotes. Obviously a ‘document ‘ can be from 1 to several hundred pages so it is not a standard unit of measurement.

Even when asking for a quote per ‘page’ you need to specify whether your ‘page’ is single or double-sided because a double-side page takes at least twice as long to scan as a single-sided page.

Please also be aware of the issues of handling blank pages; you do not want to be charged for scanning blank pages. Most modern multi-feed scanners have a feature to ignore blank pages. This is especially important if your pages are a mix of single and double-sided.

Contents of the quote

If you ask for a detailed breakdown, the vendor should detail all of the professional services and costs required including solution design, project setup, paper handling, scanning, capture, transport costs (if the job is being done offsite), etc.

If you ask for a simple fixed price per page the vendor will bundle all costs into a single figure such as a flat cost per page, e.g., 12 cents. If this is the case you need to ensure that there are no exclusions, that is, no possible additional costs not included in the quote.

The following is a sample generic quote listing all components of the quote. In real life you are unlikely to get all of these lines items unless you specifically ask for them.

Data Inspection

$150 per hour for 4 hours = $600

Data Preparation

$40 per hour for 120 hours = $4,800

Scanning

$40 per hour for 200 hours = $8,000

Capture

$150 per hour for 4 hours = $600

Verification

$150 per hour for 20 hours = $3,000

Delivery and Installation

$150 per hour for 4 hours = $600

Standard costs per page scanned

If you specify a single fixed price per scanned page the quote will look like the following:

“Standard simplex, 200 dpi black and white, OCR creating TIFF/PDF = $0.13 per image”

Other Considerations

The main consideration is whether the work will be done on your premises or at the vendor’s site. In most cases, because of the volumes of paper involved and the danger of lost data if data is shipped back and forth, it is preferable to do the actual scanning at your premises. However, when this is not possible, the vendor will provide an alternative site but additional costs may apply (e.g., transport costs, office rental, etc.).

Love on the Net

by Frank 8. January 2012 13:02

This is a little article I wrote in 2003. I am republishing it today because it is still true, maybe even more so, and because it predicted that a replacement for email would shortly be upon us. That replacement is of course already taking over from email in our personal lives if not yet in our business lives. The replacement is of course two technologies, SMS and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

                                                                                                                                      

Today, many of us meet our partners on the Internet and profess our undying love and devotion via email.

The email, or “courriel” as the French now insist on calling it to stem incursion of English words into the French lexicon, is a wondrous and multifaceted thing. How blithely we regard it with no thought to the stupendous expansion of human-to-human communications it has facilitated within just one generation.

This now ubiquitous means of communication and expression would have been unthinkable to our parents or grandparents who struggled to compose two or three letters a year to distant relatives and friends and waited patiently for months, sometimes years for the ‘turnaround’ necessitated by steamships and railways and taciturn postal workers stoically slogging through the snow on foot.

With electronic communications traveling at the speed of light (or sometimes marginally slower if an older, lesser megahertz, aging and weary server blocks its path and slows its forward motion) we can conduct almost instant conversations with associates in distant climes with nary a thought to the wonder of it all.

Emails now easily comprise eighty percent or more of all business and personal communications. It would be a much higher proportion had not lawyers (the last bastion of all the paper supremacists); all over the world resisted the trend by insisting on non-standard paper lengths, unintelligible language and billing weight of paper. Would it be they discovered “Tools/Word Count” on the Word toolbar they could have abandoned this ancient form of revenue generation and made far more money be learning how to “cut and paste” and write voluminous, equally incomprehensible emails; charging by the word.

Have any of us really had time to think about the wonder of it all? Probably not, because the email revolution has snuck up on society slowly and inexorably over the last thirty years until it now permeates every facet of our business and personal lives. When I was young we met young ladies at church and dances, school, college and work. Today we meet our partners on the Internet and profess our undying love and devotion via email.

This new paradigm in human relationships came too late for me to enjoy but it would have been greatly appreciated in my youth. It is extraordinary difficult to mislead someone over your height, appearance or other facial or bodily characteristics when asking for a dance, rejection was my greatest fear and embarrassment as a young man competing for a partner. Via email we can be whatever we wish to be either innocently or fraudulently and all us men with “great faces for radio” can do far better than we could in the ‘olden-days’; at least until that fateful day when we and our true-love finally meet. Hopefully, ‘she’ has been as creative with the truth as we have so there is no great discrepancy in the ‘hope-versus-reality’ aspirations of both parties.

How would email have changed our past had it been available? How will email and its successors change our future? Will the human race retreat into a world of electronic communications eschewing face-to-face contact in an effort to avoid contagion from SARS, AIDS, Mormon missionaries, born-again-Christians, the homeless and relatives in need of money and advice about which computer to buy? Will the increase in communications further the advance of the human race or will the diminishing amount of human contact retard our development?

What will be the next big advance after email? Will we all have brain implants within 30 years and then communicate by direct thought as easily as we think of a distant friend or relative? Don’t laugh or discard this idea too quickly. I think back to my coal miner dad in 1952 in austere post-war Britain and try to imagine how he could have conceived something so extraordinary and far-reaching and revolutionary as email.

What’s next? Whatever it is you can be sure of two things. Someone has already thought of it and someone else has already begun designing the embryonic technology that will support the mind-mail system of the future. In laboratories around the world the next phase in human-to-human communications is already under development and it too will sneak up on us just as its predecessor did. The successor to email is out there; the majority of us just aren’t aware of it yet.

Will desktop virtualisation be the final nail in the computer room coffin?

by Frank 1. January 2012 13:00

For years those of us with computer rooms and racks of servers and switches have struggled to keep everything up to date and running. The complexities inherent in what should be a simple task are often huge road blocks to progress. For those who haven’t had to suffer I recommend upgrading from Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2007.

In today’s overly complex IT world even experts have to call in experts and I have not met anyone who is on top of every issue. I have a saying, “if it feels too complex and looks too complex then it is too complex.”  Somewhere down the track we have taken a wrong turn. We have continued on a path that is getting steeper and steeper and eventually we will have to stop and say, “What am I doing here?” Just understanding and managing the multiple layers of security is a mind-bogglingly difficult task made even more incomprehensible with all the rapid fire service packs and upgrades that only seem to make the problem more and more complex.

The task of managing a company’s IT resources is just way too hard. It is at least ten times harder than it should be and needs to be. It also costs way more money than it should. It is a major restriction on progress and mobility. “We can’t do that because we would have to upgrade the network.” “We can’t move to a new, lower cost office because the cost of downtime and moving the computer room make it just too hard and too expensive.”

Is it just me or do other CEOs find it outright annoying that the part of our company that is just supposed to provide IT services is now dictating what we can do or not do? How did we let this happen? Why is the tail now wagging the dog?

I think we now have a viable solution with the availability of proven technologies in data centres and virtualisation. You can sell your servers and rent servers at the data centre or you can rent rack space at a data centre and move your servers. Even better, you can move to a new generation of virtualised servers and ‘thin’ desktops supported by new generations of software from organisations like VMware and ‘cut-over’ your company’s IT infrastructure from in-house compute room to off-site managed facilities and services to minimize risk and downtime.

For a fully transportable and mobile solution I would also move from my in house PABX to a new generation VoIP phone system. It would also be smart to replace in-house desktops with the new generation of ‘thin’ desktops that can be centrally managed far easier than traditional ‘fat’ desktop computers like the Dell OptiPlex range.

You will still need a way to connect to the data centre so you will have at least one broadband connection to your office and a switch or wireless network to support your staff. But this is a fraction of what you require with an in-house IT system and computer room. For example, you don’t need expensive air-conditioning and fire systems and very expensive redundant power supplies. Depending upon the topology of your offices you may get away with wireless or you may need to cable but again at a fraction of the cost of equipping and managing a fully-fledged computer room.

What about disaster recovery? What about the critical requirement to keep running your business even if your building burns down? A note to IT managers, “backups are not a disaster recovery plan.” Every CEO has to ask the question, “How would we run our business if the building burns down?”

If you have moved all your servers to a professional and certified data centre, virtualised your desktops and moved to a VoIP phone system then you can continue to run your business even if your building burns down. Your staff can connect securely via your VPN from their home networks or even from Starbucks. You could also have equipped all key staff with broadband modems for just such an emergency so all they have to do is plug the modem into the USB port of their home computer or laptop and connect.

I am excited about the possibilities of this approach because like many CEOs I am tired of having to solve the ongoing problems of an in-house IT setup. I am tired of my in-house IT dictating what I can do and not do. I am tired of the tail wagging the dog. I am ready to change and I have already begun speaking to my friends at Dell about virtualising my whole IT operation in 2012.

What’s next? Well, once I have virtualised, moved my IT resources off-site and switched to the latest VoIP phone system  I can probably do away with a great deal of the office space I now occupy. There is no reason that most of the work my staff do couldn’t be done from home. I can rent meeting rooms and training rooms when I need them and maybe even maintain a small serviced office for my sales force in the city. Managers and their staff can meet once a week in a serviced office and we can communicate ‘visually’ using Skype or Facetime or any number of similar services. It just takes some thought and a little reorganization and some new policies and procedures but it is eminently doable.

Yes there is a cost of moving to the new virtualised environment but there are also significant cost savings to offset those costs. I am working on a plan and budget at the moment and I will let you all know how it works out in a future blog. We will get there in 2012 and I am looking forward to an interesting journey.

The ideal Xmas gift for geeks and ‘I must-have-the-latest’ trendies

by Frank 25. December 2011 13:00

This is my idea of the ideal gift but to be honest I am not sure if it exists or even if anyone is planning to manufacture it. If the answer is in the negative then hello Apple and Samsung, put down your swords and shields (lawyers to the rest of us) and start spending those wasted hundreds of millions of legal dollars on something useful you can actually sell.

Frank’s law of the perfect mobile device says it must:

  1. Be light, weight no more than a pound or 0.5 kilograms. It should be like a really big oversize watch or maybe, next generation iPhone (come on Apple, where is the iPhone 5?);
  2. Be really cool to look at;
  3. Feel great in the hand;
  4. Be really easy to use;
  5. Be able to connect via 3G, 4G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and whatever comes next;
  6. Have a minimum 24 hour constant use batter life;
  7. Accept verbal commands;
  8. Have great quality sound;
  9. Have no more than 3 buttons (have a look at the Apple TV controller for the best example of design excellence, simplicity to the point of elegance – the perfect combination of form and function);
  10. Have a USB 2.0/3.0 port (Apple, why don’t we have this now?);
  11. Have a micro card slot (Apple again, please listen to us users);
  12. Attach to my person in way that makes it hard to lose (i.e., like a wristwatch or pocket watch on a chain or lanyard);
  13. Support soft and external keyboards;
  14. Have a touch screen;
  15. Provide variable form factors, probably by projection of both screen and keyboard – Microsoft demonstrated this functionality a couple of years ago and then seemed to lose interest;
  16. Have the ability to connect to external monitors and TVs;
  17. Have a generous solid state hard drive, minimum 128GB;
  18. Have an accessible file system (are you listening Apple? How about this for the iPad?);
  19. Have a native email client (are you listening HP?);
  20. Have a fully Flash/HTML 5 compatible web browser that isn’t limited and crippled (this is for Apple again);
  21. Have a fully functional but easy to use and non-complex operating system (iOS is fine but so is WebOS – I am not so keen on Android);
  22. Cost no more than $500 for a 128GB version;
  23. Work as a telephone and accept SIM cards (this is for HP – tell me again why the Playbook isn’t selling unless you slash the price?);
  24. Have a 10Mb camera or better;
  25. Have a processor powerful enough to support my workload; and
  26. Have enough memory to support my workload, say a minimum of 4GB

This is the ideal device because it replaces all the mobile devices I currently carry around. That is, notebook, Smartphone and tablet. It obviously must also have the functionality within the operating system to perform all the tasks I need to do and would normally do on my 3 current devices.

I will be able to carry it in my pocket or wear it on my wrist or even wear it like a fob or pocket watch on a classy gold chain. Maybe waistcoats will come back into fashion.

Innovative organizations will jump on the bandwagon and design cool accessories for it like a projection screen in a pen that you can unfurl and stand on your desk and hang on the back of the airplane seat. They will also design roll up keyboards in a pen that connect via Bluetooth and that sit flat once you unfurl them using advanced fabric memory functionality.

It actually isn’t hard to design our ideal device because all you have to do is think about all the frustrating missing features of your current devices; all the functionality you would like and need that isn’t there yet. This is why we all carry multiple mobile devices; because none of them do all the things we need them to do.

The vendors cannot tell us that they don’t have the design talent or technology because they patently do. They can’t tell us they can’t afford to build my ideal device because right now Apple, Google, Samsung and Microsoft are spending billions of dollars on lawyers for stupid, non-productive legal cases over simply absurd patent disputes. They are trying to earn their income from lawsuits in lieu of product sales.

Here is my message to the vendors, “give us the products we want and need and you won’t have to worry about profits, you will be swimming in money like that Disney character Scrooge McDuck.”

So Apple, HP, Samsung and others, where is my Xmas present?

What will our desktop and notebook replacements look like in 2 years’ time?

by Frank 18. December 2011 13:00

I have written previously about the growing dominance in the business world of mobile devices. I have also written about the need for a new or variable form factor for a new generation of mobile devices.

As an iPad and Smartphone user I already see desktop PCs and notebooks as archaic devices saddled with being too big, too heavy and having too many cables and connections. To me, my DELL Optiplex Desktop PC and DELL Precision notebook look like big, ugly, bulky, awkward museum pieces taking up way too much desk real estate even though they are current technology.

Please note that I run a software development company and that I am heavily involved in designing and developing application software products for Windows so I and my staff have little current choice in what hardware and software we use for our core tasks. We have Windows 7 PCs and notebooks and Windows Server 2008 R2 servers. We use Visual Development Studio 2010 and use SQL Server 2008 as our relational database. We are, as they say, a Microsoft shop and our legacy products are solid Microsoft .NET smart clients based on Visual Studio 2008, SQL Server 2008 and the .NET Framework.

But, there are new boys on the block in 2011. We now also have Apple PC’s and develop in Xcode for the iPod, iPhone and iPad. We also develop Android applications for Smartphones and tablets like those from Samsung. We will shortly start adding our new apps to the Apple Store and the Android Marketplace.

Even in our Windows development projects we are moving away from .NET fat and smart clients and developing all future products as either web clients able to run in virtually any browser on virtually any operating system or native mode apps running under iOS and Android. None of my future products will require the Microsoft .NET Framework. In fact our current web based products no longer require the .NET Framework and are both browser and operating system independent; these are our models for all future developments.

These two changes (web and mobile) represent a paradigm shift of seismic proportions in the software development industry. The end result will be that my customers will shortly no longer need Windows PCs to run my applications. They will be able to run my applications on any device they choose. They won’t need Intel chipsets and they won’t need Microsoft’s desktop Windows operating system, Windows 7 for now and the much touted Windows 8 in the future. All my future products will be either web based clients or native mode mobile apps.

If most other software companies are following our lead then Microsoft has a very rocky road ahead come two years or so into the future.

True, we will still need Windows PCs and Windows Servers for software development and our customers will still need Windows servers; at least for the medium term.

There is an opportunity in the market for a non-Microsoft software development environment. That is, something other than Visual Studio and there is also a market opportunity for a new development language that allows common source code across multiple platforms.  No smart developer really wants to support multiple source code versions of its products; that is just redundant work and dumb.

Note that none of this is new. Fifteen years ago we were all developing thin-client applications using ASP and IIS. Twenty years ago we were developing applications for multiple platforms using common source code with languages like Pascal, C and MicroFocus COBOL. The pain in those days was the need to compile and test on all the different platforms we supported. We had white-coated acolytes running from one end of town to the other ‘borrowing’ different servers and operating systems to compile and build our products on all the machines and operating systems we supported. That part of the process I won’t miss and would not like to see repeated.

If Microsoft gets smart again, and in my opinion it is far from smart now, it will seize the opportunity and leverage off its best human assets to give us the truly platform independent language and development environment we all need. Maybe Bill Gates needs to come out of retirement and kick more than little ass at Microsoft; I for one would vote for that to happen. Microsoft’s future depends upon it changing its business model and getting ahead of the eight ball for the first time in a very long time. Winners aren’t chasers, winners are leaders.

Back to the topic; what will our desktop PCs and notebooks look like in two years’ time if everyone in the software development business follows our lead? The simple answer is they won’t look like anything because they won’t be on our desktops or on our laps at Starbucks. My end user customers will be using Smartphones and tablets and will have no need for clumsy, overcomplicated, heavy, antiquated PCs and notebooks. Home users will have also no need for PCs and notebooks and will no longer have to suffer because of all the troubles associated with these overcomplicated devices and unfathomable Windows. They too will be using Smartphones and tablets.

It will probably be another two years before us developers have alternatives to replace PCs for development and maybe another two years before we no longer need Windows servers. On this last matter the key factor will be Microsoft making SQL Server a cross platform solution as it should have done at least ten years ago. What we need is SQL server on Apple, SQL server on Unix, SQL Server on Linux, SQL Server on Android, etc. Mark my words; if Microsoft doesn’t do it, someone else will come up with a viable SQL Server alternative that is platform independent and software developers and customers will switch. Perhaps even Oracle will mend its ways and become a friendly partner? Then again, maybe it will snow in Sydney at Christmas.

Maybe I should have called this blog the future of Microsoft? The truth is that the only reason we are saddled with overcomplicated PCs and notebooks that suck up all our productive hours just keeping them running is because we all have to run the Windows operating system. Take away the need for Windows and you also take away the need for PCs and notebooks.

I think PCs and notebooks and Windows for that matter are already in their death-throes and I for one will not miss them; I have suffered for long enough. They are long past their use-by date and we have waited way too long for something smaller, faster, simpler and better.

The replacement devices will be the next generation of Smartphone and tablet devices probably powered by either iOS or Android; most of the current alternatives will simply die out.  Unlike today, we will have the choice of several form factors from pocket size to say 12 to maybe 14 inch (approx. 30 to 35 CM) diagonal. We may even have adjustable form factors using new technologies. We will have the option of wireless/Bluetooth keyboards just as we have now and we will probably use keyboards at work but not at home or when travelling, relying then on the soft keyboard. Everything will be Wi-Fi enabled and we will all be running much higher speeds than we are now. Everything will be lighter, easier to use and more stable. I can’t wait.

 

What is happening in Europe?

by Frank 14. December 2011 13:25

The following Morningstar article is worth reading because it is an excellent and timely analysis of the real problem and the EU’s total failure to do anything as well as its total inability to solve the problems of the European Union.

http://www.morningstar.com.au/funds.mvc/article/credit-crunch/4284/1

Basically, hundreds of billions of Euros in rescue funds but trillions of Euros of debt plus shrinking economies means the problem gets worse every day and can’t be solved other than by default which will bankrupt most of the major European banks. The tax revenues of European governments are falling far faster than their ability to cut costs. The longer they screw around with crisis summits and talkfests the bigger the problem becomes and the harder it will be to solve.

The European Union is finished and so is the Euro (an economically stupid and irrational idea to begin with; ignoring all the rules of currency valuations) – everything you see from the EU is just stalling and obfuscation in an attempt to keep the wolves at bay.

Europe will stagger along and sink lower and lower and end up with massive unemployment, over 25%, and deflation for at least the next 10 years.

My prediction is that Germany and France will negotiate a ‘deal’ that will screw all the weaker countries but try to protect Germany and France. It has already begun with the proposed changes pushed by Sarkozy and Merkel and rejected and vetoed by Cameron of the UK (he had no choice) – That’s why Sarkozy and Merkel are so mad at him; their plan wasn’t a rescue plan for Europe, it was a rescue plan for Germany and France at the expense of everyone else but the other European nations are both too stupid and too reliant on Germany and France to object.

Ergo, don’t rush out and buy a holiday home in Europe yet – much lower prices will follow soon but so will the massive social unrest that always comes with unemployment rates above 20% (which we are already seeing in countries like Greece and Portugal).

Australia is still the safest place to be because we are small and close to Asia and have lots of stuff Asia will want even with a slowdown in China and India. For once our isolation is a blessing as is living on the oldest continent on earth with all the mountains worn down and all those minerals close to the surface. The Chinese and Indian economies will continue to grow albeit more slowly (like 5% instead of 10% per year) because of their huge and rapidly growing populations.

Our biggest danger is our current government which is doing everything in its power to screw our mining industry and soon, every industry that is successful. I predict the next stupid thing they will try is a super profits tax on all industries (including banking) not just mining.

All the signals are flashing in the sky like a New Years’ fireworks show on Sydney Harbour. They are telling us to cut our costs and rein in spending before it is too late or we will end up in the same downward spiral as the European Union.  The time to begin was yesterday, not tomorrow.

However, just as in Europe, our politicians prefer to talk and spin and obfuscate and delay doing anything other than raise taxes and in doing so depress an already slowing economy. I think the only way to wake them up is by forcing another Federal election. Let the people have their say before it is way, way too late.

Message to Wayne Swann, the world’s greatest treasurer, “Wayne, just in case Treasury has not informed you, no one in history has ever taxed an economy out of a recession.”

Are we finally close to a paperless world?

by Frank 13. December 2011 13:42

Twenty five years ago I used to give presentations and seminars on how to achieve the paperless office. After a few years I stopped talking about the paperless office because it was patently obvious that it was not going to happen. I used to joke that unless governments outlawed fax machines, copiers and laser printers that it would never happen and so far I have been proven right.

We now use and store more paper than ever. All around the world off-site storage companies like Iron Mountain and Crown are building or acquiring hundreds of new off-site box storage warehouses each year as we continue to pulp trees into paper and then store the paper in boxes which we then ship off to warehouses and then forget about.

Even if we outlawed the storage of paper tomorrow we would still have trillions of pages stored for at least the next 50 years because of compliance reasons. We can’t even convert all this paper to digital images because the handling and conversion costs would be monumentally “this will bankrupt you” high.

So for existing paper at least it looks like we will be managing trillions of pages and hundreds of millions of archive boxes for a long, long time to come.

However, what about the use of paper in our normal working and personal lives? Will we still have newspapers and books and magazines and business letters and paper contracts in five years’ time?

Will we still buy paper tickets at bus and train stations? Will we still buy movie and theatre tickets? Will we still get paper receipts from stores and restaurants? Will we still use paper and cardboard for packaging and wrapping presents? Will we still take paper minutes to meetings and will we still print out documents to review? Not to mention the unmentionable, that is, what will we use in the bathroom to wipe our you know whats?

One of the reasons paper has not disappeared from our lives is that it is sometimes the absolutely best solution. In fact, paper isn’t bad; paper is a great invention with multiple uses and it has been of great benefit to mankind and it continues to be an invaluable, often irreplaceable product.

There is no doubt however that we use far too much paper in business and that much of it is unnecessary, wasteful and expensive. There is also no doubt that the digital technology necessary to replace a great deal of business paper already exists and in fact has existed for many, many years. The question is, why are we not utilizing it? This is the conundrum facing today’s businesses and government agencies; simply, “why are you not digitizing most of your paper processes when the technology is available and it would actually save you a lot of money?”

We thought the digital revolution would kill paper but it didn’t despite our best efforts over more than a quarter of a century. The pundits are now say that the mobile revolution will kill paper but will it? Will the iPad and iPhone and Kindle and mobile apps kill paper? Will the best efforts of the Obama government to digitize medical records and other areas of business kill paper in the USA? Has China mandated digital in lieu of paper; has India? What about the bankrupt nations of the European Union; where will they find the money to digitize their vast stores of paper?

The root problem with both business and government is that neither fixes things that aren’t broken and neither wants to spend money on something that won’t generate a profit in the short term. Both Wall Street and government bureaucrats have short attention spans; three months appears to be about the maximum time anyone wants to look ahead. For these reasons paper usage in both private enterprise and government is unlikely to change anytime soon; both have more important priorities and paper still ‘works’. So what is the future for our old friend paper in other areas of our lives?

Will we all be reading books on the latest Kindle in five years’ time or will the troglodytes stubbornly demand old-fashioned books? Will we all be reading the news on our iPads or Kindles in five years’ time or will there still be a place for paper newspapers and magazines? Will we all go to meetings with our iPads or Smartphones and forego paper minutes? Will retail establishments email or SMS receipts instead of printing them? Will we all have electronic signatures so contracts can be signed without paper and pen? Where will the raw material come from for paper airplanes and kites? How will we wrap our  birthday and Christmas presents? What will the English wrap their fish and chips in? Will we all have to follow the French or Japanese and install bidets or those awfully clever but worrisome robotised Japanese toilets (I certainly worry about all that mechanised hardware so near sensitive body parts)?

Personally I don’t think paper is going to disappear in a hurry. I do think usage will gradually fall, especially in business but I don’t see any “fall off the cliff’ sudden drop in paper usage in the next five years or so. In fact, I think paper manufacturers will continue to come up with clever and innovative ways to use paper.  How about disposable paper underwear, shirts, dresses and the like? How about electronic paper able to receive and display digital information? How about fibre-impregnated and baked paper car bodies? They would be cheap and easy to make and one hundred-percent recyclable.

We have to remember that if it wasn’t for the paper companies there would be far less trees in the world. Tree plantations provide the perfect sustainable resource and must surely meet every greenie’s best practice requirements. No, I do not have shares in any paper making company. I just happen to like trees and paper and I think paper is still a brilliant invention and often the absolutely best and most appropriate medium. I also don’t like reading books on the iPad or Kindle; give me a good old paper book every time thank you. I guess that makes me a troglodyte!

Maybe it will take a few future generations who don’t read books or newspaper or magazines but get all their information from the TV or their mobile device via RSS feeds to finally kill paper. If that happens it will be a sad time because then the population will be like trained rats; fed whatever information the powers to be want them to have.  

If this happens, we will have lost the ability and will to seek out and research information. The only information we will get is what someone else thinks is suitable for us (I could be talking about Google here) and that will be a very sad day for mankind. Let’s hope we do not allow this to happen. Unfortunately, these things have a habit of slowly creeping in over years so we don’t notice. I for one certainly don’t want to wake up in 5 years’ time and realize I am on a hundred-percent diet of ‘fed’ information and wonder how it happened. How about you? Maybe we should hang on to paper just a little bit longer.

What will be the real impact of the meltdown in Europe?

by Frank 8. December 2011 13:43

Banner headline today from Australian Financial Publications, “Spanish and Italian bond yields rose overnight after it was revealed that Italian banks had to borrow €153bn in emergency liquidity from the ECB in November, representing a 38 per cent rise on October and a near-quadrupling of requirements since June”.

“ECB may dig deeper into toolbox as leaders seek fiscal union” says new headline from Bloomberg.

“S&P warns about lowering credit rating amid Euro Zone Crisis” reports the French Tribune.

Listening to a variety of financial news channels and reading financial newsletters and publications only serves to depress us about the future of the Euro zone and Europe in general.

No one really expects Europe to avoid a major recession and no one really expects Greece or Ireland or Portugal or Spain to ever be able to pay back all the money they owe.

The more pessimistic of the experts warn of five to ten years of recession or deflation/stagnation and long term unemployment rates exceeding twenty-percent. The European welfare state is in its death throes but no one really wants to fess up how bad it really is. Germany is mad that those lazy southern Europeans are messing with its prosperity and France is mad because those same southern Europeans are screwing around with the new French empire; France being, as everyone knows, the heart and soul of Europe.

As Europe is the world’s biggest economy, bigger even than the USA, what does the current situation and even grimmer forecast mean for the rest of us who do not live in Europe? Will we still be able to buy a BMW, French wine and a Spanish sausage? Will they cost more or less? Will the boatloads of Asian refugees coming to Australia be replaced by fishing boats full of Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks?

I have already heard from my friends, relatives and business associates who have visited Europe recently that it has become outrageously expensive and more than one of them referred to places like Greece and Ireland as “rip-offs”. I recently read that 14,000 fewer young Australians were able to enjoy a working holiday in the UK (long an Australian tradition for adventurous young Australians) because there simply isn’t any work, even for eager, hard-working Aussie backpackers. So where do these 14,000 young people now go? Do they come back to Australia and exacerbate our unemployment problem? Do they go the places like Bali and get arrested for smoking funny cigarettes?

Do tourists stop going to Europe because all the new and higher taxes and ‘opportunistic’ additional charges have made it just too unpleasant? If so, what happens to all the businesses in Europe that depend on tourism? Does it mean yet more European boat people for Australia? Will they all be happy to move to the far northern deserts of Western Australia eating dust and digging up iron ore for export to China? But, what if the pundits are right and China’s economy is slowing down and it stops buying shiploads of iron ore every day? Then where do our new immigrants go and where do they find work?

It is all a conundrum and its makes my head ache. It would help a lot if the leaders in Europe would actually start trusting each other and telling the truth but you know what they say about politicians and lying, “You can always tell when a politician is lying because his/her lips are moving.” All we know is that it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

So we lucky Australians (and maybe a few lucky New Zealanders) need to start thinking ahead about how all of this will impact on our cosy lifestyles. We know we have the world’s greatest treasurer (he told us so) but he is a politician and I have already covered the trustworthiness of politicians in the previous paragraph.

It is not like we have somewhere better to go to. Right now Australia is the healthiest place to live by a proverbial mile but that also means there is no alternative, no escape hatch if the economy here starts to deteriorate. Greeks from Melbourne (once the world’s second biggest Greek city) certainly won’t be heading back to Greece any time soon and POME migrants like me (English to the uninitiated) sure as hell won’t be heading back to old Blighty.

With the exception of mining, agriculture and farming most Australian businesses like mine rely on the Australian economy. I own a software company and whereas we do sell in the UK, the USA and Canada most of our business is here in Australia. In the past when the Australian economy slowed down we could target overseas markets but that really isn’t an option now with most of the rest of the world in financial meltdown and the real costs of exporting higher than ever.

The bottom line is that those awful Europeans are going to continue to actually do nothing to solve the debt problems of European nations and their leaders will continue to obfuscate and pontificate until the house falls down. Unfortunately, our house is linked to their house so when Europe falls our economy will also be hard hit as the inevitable fall off in demand for Chines products from the world’s largest economy exacerbates the Chines slowdown and blows a hole in our mining boom. There go those billions of dollars the government is relying on from the new super profits mining tax.

Of course I could be wrong and I bet most of you hope that I am. I could have seriously misjudged the European leaders and a European boom could be just around the corner along with a surge in Chinese and Indian demand for our mining and agricultural products. There is also a chance I could wake up tomorrow younger, taller, better looking and smarter but to my mind both are pretty unlikely scenarios.

As we already live in the best country in the world, there isn’t a lot we can do other than work harder, work smarter, support Australian business (please, please stop outsourcing our jobs) and look after our family and friends. It is going to be a long hard haul but I believe in Australia and Australians so I am confident we will come out the other side a stronger and better country. In a funny way, this is our chance to grow in stature and become a much more important and powerful country. Let’s hope our leaders are up to the task.

What happens when all application work moves to mobile?

by Frank 7. December 2011 13:01

What needs to happen?

Just as dissatisfied end users drove the PC and networking revolution in the early 1980s (away from mainframe backlogs); end users are now driving the mobile revolution.

End users are telling IT departments what technology they want to work with and most IT departments have come to the conclusion that they have little choice in the matter other than to decide the security regime and hardware and software tools necessary to support the nominated mobile devices securely.

Software companies all over the world just like us are either shifting allegiances or covering their bets by investing in new genre mobile applications. In addition, a whole new software development sub-industry has sprung up that concentrates on new types of applications not previously seen on the traditional PC and notebook; it is a huge growth industry.

Traditional business application software developers are rapidly coming to terms with the new design paradigm for mobile apps, designed and architected to suit the capabilities of the Smartphone and tablet and slick enough and cool enough and easy-to-use enough to suit the demands of the mobile user. The message comes through loud and clear, make it too hard to use with too many options and too many steps and they won’t use it.

The mobile device has unique user interface requirements not just because of the characteristics of the device (e.g., the small form factor of a Smartphone) but the eminently reasonable and sensible demands of the experienced mobile user who wants something as slick and cool and intuitive as his/her other mobile apps. The app must also work seamlessly with the accepted and ‘standard’ way each type of mobile devices operates. If it runs on an iPad then it must look, feel and work just like every other iOS app; it cannot change the way a user works with his/her mobile device; it must employ a totally standard and familiar user interface.

The huge advantage of mobile apps is that no end user training is required. In fact, if an end user can’t figure it out immediately, the app will fail (back to the drawing board). I am not sure if industry has worked this out yet. That is, design the app properly and appropriately and no end user training will be involved. How many billions of dollars are we talking about in cost savings?

However, there is a caveat, and that is that when I talk about mobile apps I am talking about ‘native’ mobile apps; those that run under the mobile device’s operating system, e.g., iOS or Android.  I am not talking about what we call web apps or apps that run within the browser. Most web apps don’t look anything like the native apps and do not employ the same ‘native’ user interface. They look the same (or similar) under Safari on the iPad as they do running under IE9 on a Windows 7 PC. A lot do have special ‘cut-down’ versions to suit the much smaller form factor of a Smartphone but very few actually look like and work like true native mobile apps (e.g., something written in Xcode for iOS).

Web apps usually have significantly more functionality that native apps and they do require end user training, usually a lot of training.

Software developers will   eventually move away from now old-fashioned Windows application development (i.e., what we used to call ‘fat’ clients) but they cannot afford to move away from web application development because for a lot of applications, especially the larger and more complex applications like for example SAP, it is currently just not possible or practicable to convert all of the fat client functionality to native mobile apps; we just are not there yet.

Traditional fat client business apps are large, complex and have multiple screens, multiple menus, hundreds of features and thousands of options. This kind of application does not convert well to a native mobile app. For anyone who has ever worked with SAP, try to imagine re-implementing SAP functionality on a native mobile app and making it so easy to use it doesn’t require end user training. This could be what we euphemistically call a challenge.

In phase one of our mobile app revolution I believe we will see a hybrid model where big corporations and government roll out a combination of both native and web mobile apps. As the technology and tools improve we will see more and more appropriate functionality being implemented as native apps but not being removed from the web apps, at least not for a few years yet. This evolving paradigm needs developers and users to work together to discover what works best on mobile apps in native mode. We need to test and experiment but at least there will be little lost time waiting to see if end users accept our new ideas. The modern mobile user is adept at evaluating and deciding on an app within a few minutes and the weight of end user reviews will kill a bad native app faster than a live degausser resting on your hard drive.

The move to mobile apps also requires some significant improvements in communications. We are not going to be running our business over 3G; we must have at least 4G and/or high speed broadband and we must have the services universally available.

We also probably need the next one or two generations of mobile devices to be faster and smarter and to offer more variety and choice in form factor (i.e., screen size). The iPad screen may be fine for most things but its limited size makes it unsuitable for applications that require a lot of screen real estate.  Yes, you could always redesign the busy screen into several screens but that won’t suit the user who needs to see everything at once and there are lots of applications that need a lot of screen real estate to meet the particular needs of the end user; think stock markets analysis and financial trading and control monitoring applications (e.g., for a Power Station) that need single-view and very detailed dashboards.

There is also the unassailable fact that more and more of us are getting older and that presbyopia generally sets in at around forty five years of age. For the uninitiated, the first onset of presbyopia is usually when you discover that your arms are no longer long enough to read the morning paper. It is also when you start having trouble reading small print on any medium. The older you get the further out you focal distance moves until such time that you can no longer read fine print without the aid of eyeglasses. A little later, even the eyeglasses don’t help much and you really need bigger fonts and a larger form factor.

That is, just in case the makers of Smartphones and tablets are not listening, we older working folk would really like you to think about us when you are designing the screens and buttons of your next generation of mobile devices; thank you, your cooperation would be most appreciated. Thanks to the GFC a lot more of us older folk are going to be in the labour market for a lot longer.

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