Microsoft released Windows 8 in October 2012, with its key feature being a new tablet-friendly user interface and store-driven app model, though a slightly improved desktop lives alongside it.
It is not going well. Here is a user comment on Gizmodo that says a lot about the majority reaction to Windows 8:
Im still using a computer with win7 on it, so I had not had much experience with win8. That changed when I helped my girlfriend buy a new computer for her mom. In all honesty, we found the win8 interface a huge pain. It took forever to figure out how to use it, and in the end we did everything we could to get back to a normal non-tile setup. Heck, it takes like 3 menus just to get to the shut down screen! Its insane, and the overall experience for the 3 of us was negative (two of which are very experience computer users).
Spelling and grammar left as-is! Note a few features of this comment:
The business world is different, of course, and here things like Hyper-V virtualisation or Windows To Go secure deployment are more likely to be appreciated. People are not so different though, whether they are at work or at home, and given that most Windows users spend most of their time on the desktop (hard to avoid however much you like the "Modern UI") I've noticed similar reactions from business people trying out Windows 8.
That is, if they have tried it at all. Most businesses I encounter are sticking with Windows 7.
With PC sales in probably permanent decline, in favour of other computing form factors, is Windows now set to become a legacy workhorse operating system? Will it ever break through on tablets?
Microsoft's official position, as far as I can tell, is that everything is fine. Leaked builds of the next major update, known as Windows Blue, show only minor changes:
Of course there will be more to come; the recently announced Build conference in June is when we will find out more. The stage is set for Blue to be generally available by the end of the year.
I am guessing though that Microsoft does not intend to implement what many users would like, things like:
I do see Microsoft's thinking here. There is not much point in making a brand new platform, and then designing it so users can easily ignore it.
It is also true that if Windows 8 had simply been like Windows 7, but a bit better, that would have done nothing to stem its decline.
On the other hand, Microsoft's attitude to the problems people have with Windows 8 seems to me denial. More could be done to help desktop (that is, most) users get to grips with Windows 8. For example, I would like to see small visual clues to the presence of menus and "Charms" features (the right-hand menu which hides many settings, search and sharing features), an easier way to raise the Charms menu with the mouse, and a visible Start button on the desktop.
Windows 8 usability is fine if you make the effort to learn it, but making that effort is hard to justify when the world of modern apps is uninspiring. This is the second and most important area that must be improved, if the world is ever going to want versions of Windows beyond 7. There are few delightful apps, and a large part of the reason is that the built-in controls available to developers for building apps tend to be blocky in appearance, inefficient in use of screen space, and short on important features.
Miguel de Icaza, of Mono, Gnome and Xamarin (C# for mobile) fame, said on The Register that "the new Windows basically has no style. The style is DOS with large fonts." A little unfair, but he has a point.
We also need to see further unification of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. The phone side does have some momentum now, and the app story is better. Why not enable Phone apps to run on Windows 8, as iPhone apps do on the iPad, as well as making it easier for developers to target both phone and tablet with new projects?
Finally, it is time Microsoft came up with inspiring examples of Windows Store apps that really are a joy to use. There are a few good ones. I still like the weather app, and Fresh Paint is a good effort though sadly has not made me into an artist. More is needed though, and I am guessing that Microsoft's own developers have the same problems that third parties have faced in trying to code for the new platform.
Yes, Microsoft does need to fine-tune the Windows 8 user interface to make it more enjoyable for upgraders; but what is even more important is that Windows "Blue" needs to improve the Windows Runtime platform. That is the thing to watch for at the forthcoming Build.
Developer conferences are a great way to re-energise yourself and your work with new ideas, partly thanks to the content from the front, and partly because you get to engage with other developers. Technology changes constantly; but if I reflect on events I have attended I notice some common themes. Occasionally there are compelling technical insights - I think of the first time I heard Ryan Dahl describe the thinking behind Node.js, for example - but more often the most acclaimed talks are not about technology as such. Rather, they are about how we work together: communication, and simple truths about human nature.
This proved the case again at the Monki Gras recently, an unusual London event run by analysts Redmonk.
Craig Kersteins and Matt Thompson from Heroku asked a question: how often are you interrupted at work? Software development is partly about keeping a lot of information in your head so that you can see patterns and make connections, and avoid bugs by remembering exactly how the code you are working on fits into the application. Getting a summons to a meeting or a call from a colleague in the midst of that kind of concentration is costly. They even put a figure on it. 76% of the worst-performing engineers are frequently interrupted, they said.
How often is frequent? That was not stated; but they did suggest aiming for 4 hours of uninterrupted work each day. That still leaves plenty of time for meetings; and I have little doubt that 4 hours of good work counts for more than 8 hours of choppy work that leaves you feeling that you should not have bothered to turn up.
More human factors: Mazz Mosley and Nick Stenning from the UK Government Digital Service advised us not to recruit "rock star" developers who become a single point of failure, as everything stops if they become unavailable. A team with collective intelligence is better.
Ted Nyman from GitHub weighed into managers. They do not have any. I was reminded of a comment from Joyent's Bryan Cantrill at Monki Gras 2012: "it is very hard for middle management to add value".
Do I think that most companies remove all their managers? That is neither realistic nor likely to succeed. As another attendee observed, companies with managers generate a lot of revenue.
The point though is this: the way developers are managed impacts their productivity. That human factor matters more than whether they use Java or C#, or which tools they use.
I hear similar insights from the QCon conference in London each year. Coming up in March and recommended.
Shanley Kane from Basho spoke about honesty in software development. Roadmaps are a lie, she claims, because attempts to map features to a timeline will always fail. When roadmaps fail that erodes trust in the team. Interactive "what we're working on" documents work better, she said.
I will leave the last word to Cyndi Mitchell from Logscape and Thoughtworks, who remarked at Monki Gras that "Software is fundamentally a human, interactive activity. If you don't understand that, forget it."
Could 2013 be the year that RIM recovers and BlackBerry becomes an important mobile platform again? January 30th is the key day, when the new BlackBerry 10 smartphone platform is launched.
We have seen a kind of preview of BlackBerry 10 in the unsuccessful PlayBook tablet, released in April 2011. This is the first RIM product based on the QNX operating system. QNX Software Systems was acquired by RIM a year earlier, in April 2010. That said, the PlayBook runs the PlayBook OS, not (yet) BlackBerry 10. BlackBerry 10 SmartPhones will have a new user interface and many new features.
I spoke to William Vablais, Head of Developer Relations EMEA for RIM. "We've been very successful in changing the sentiment of developers," he claims. "The interest level has been rising significantly."
One would expect him to say nothing less. But what is distinctive about the BlackBerry 10 platform; what does the it give you that couldn't easily be done on iOS, Android or something else?
Vablais points first to the diversity of development approaches it supports.
"We have SDKs for C/C++, we have entry points for designers and developers for HTML and CSS, we have entry points for Adobe AIR," he says.
There is also an Android runtime which makes it possible to repackage Android apps. Vablais observes that it can pay to offer your app on a minority platform.
"There's a community out there that developed for Android who don't have any exposure or visibility in that world because it's such an overcrowded market," he says. "They can take their application, port it to our platform, and suddenly they get visibility, generating revenue."
Fair enough, but what does the BlackBerry 10 platform give you that cannot easily be done on some other platform?
Vablais points to two key BlackBerry 10 features that he believes will draw users to the platform. One is social netwok integration. "We have the social network capabilities built into the OS," he says, referring to BlackBerry Flow and BlackBerry Hub:
BlackBerry® Flow is a new user experience that allows seamless navigation across open applications and the BlackBerry® Hub. All messages, notifications, feeds, and calendar events come into the BlackBerry Hub and no matter what the user is doing with the device, with a simple gesture, they can peek into the Hub at any time.
says the press release,
More important to business users though is security. "What no-one else has is that the OS and the framework has been based on security. The user interface and some of the components allow you to split out work related data from your personal related data."
This is the feature called BlackBerry Balance. Again, here is the official description:
BlackBerry® Balance™ offers the most elegant way to satisfy both customer and corporate needs without compromising on either. With BlackBerry Balance, personal apps and information are kept separate from work data, and the customer can switch from their personal to work profile with a simple gesture. The work profile is fully encrypted and secure, enabling organizations to protect their content and applications, while at the same time letting customers get the most out of their smartphone for their personal use.
In the era of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), this does sound like a great feature. The industry is only just coming to terms with the idea that smart devices are personal; they do not live in the office and they will be used as home as well as at work. If BlackBerry 10 makes sense of maintaining work and personal data on a single device without compromising security or the user experience, then it could indeed be a game changer.
The success of the original BlackBerry phones was primarily based on its appeal to business users, and RIM already has tools for deploying internal apps in a managed and secure manner.
Even an excellent platform counts for nothing if you cannot market it successfully in a world now dominated by iOS and Android, as Microsoft has discovered with Windows Phone. Whether RIM has enough resources to establish yet another mobile ecosystem must be an open question.
At the same time, there is a lot to like. QNX has long been an excellent embedded operating system, and if the devices are excellent and the security lives up to its promise, BlackBerry 10 could be a significant platform for mobile buisiness apps.
Mark January 30th in your diaries and watch with interest.
Microsoft launched Windows 8 late last month, to a storm of controversy and uncertain initial sales. What is going on with Windows and should you care about Windows 8?
The controversy comes as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Windows 8 is two operating systems in one.
On the desktop side it is a slightly upgraded Windows 7: slightly faster and quicker to boot, revamped File Explorer, better Copy function, improved Task Manager, Hyper-V virtualisation, and a few other things, though a little less pretty thanks to the removal of the transparent Aero theme in favour of a plainer appearance.
These are nice improvements, but the real innovation is in the new Windows Runtime platform, in which apps are sandboxed, support touch control, run full screen, and are easily installed from the Windows Store or by distributing an application package, which is called sideloading. Sideloading is mainly restricted to developers or enterprise deployments.
Microsoft ensured that the tablet personality would not be ignored by replacing the Start menu with the Start screen, a new-style app. This also ensured that newcomers to Windows 8 would find it unfamiliar and difficult to navigate.
Another contentious issue is that Windows Runtimes apps - officially called Windows Store apps - look stupidly large and bold on large desktop displays and do not work at all across multiple monitors.
Underlying Windows 8, especially in the new tablet personality, is a design concept with a couple of notable features. One is "content before chrome", the idea that content rather than screen furniture should be foremost. This has led Microsoft to have many essential controls hidden by default; you have to right-click or swipe to see them. You can see the point, but unfortunately this is bad for learnability.
Another is a grid layout, giving rise to the tiled appearance which characterises Windows 8. It is neat and logical, but constantly looking at boxes can be wearisome.
That is the preamble. What is the business impact of Windows 8? Here are a few observations.
One is that the learnability issues in Windows 8 are sufficient to deter upgrades, both in the consumer and business market, even though it is an improvement on Windows 7 once learned. Bearing in mind that the desktop improvements are relatively minor, most IT administrators will conclude that Windows 8 is not worth the hassle.
Therefore, we can expect only a slow uptake by businesses.
Against that, Windows 8 does work much better than Windows 7 on a tablet without keyboard and mouse. What if you have a project which is suited to tablet deployment, or users who simply prefer to use a tablet, does Windows 8 make sense then?
In many ways it does, with easy app deployment and a touch-friendly user interface - provided you stay away from the desktop side. However, it is up against Apple iPad and Google Android which are more mature as tablets, and already well understood by users.
The availability of Office and compatibility, in the case of the x86 version of Windows 8, with existing applications may swing it for Windows 8 in some instances, though since existing applications are generally not designed for touch control that compatibility is less useful than it first appears, if what you want is a tablet.
Windows 8 strikes me as a decent version 1.0 of a new tablet platform, though with some of the weaknesses that you associate with a 1.0 platform. The modern-style Mail app is poor, for example, which is surprising given how critical it is.
Considered as a tablet OS, Windows 8 is already usable and has plenty of potential; but the hard question is whether Microsoft is able to establish a third tablet platform at this stage in the game. The company has the money and the resources, but has struggles to engage its developer community, OEM partners or retailers to fully understand and support Windows 8. In this context, the unexpected departure of the key executive driving the platform at Microsoft, Steven Sinofsky, looks like a disaster.
Microsoft's biggest problem may seem nebulous, but it is real. The Windows brand is strongly associated with desktop, keyboard and mouse; the name also brings to mind unwelcome associations like forced reboots, virus warnings and troublesome setups. The new Windows 8 tablet platform is designed to escape that legacy; but changing public perception is not easy. In addition, it has to support its legacy since much of the world's business runs upon it.
The task of making Windows a successful tablet platform may be as hard for Microsoft as for Polaroid or Kodak trying to make the transition from film to digital; and those stories do not end well.
This translates to a whole lot of uncertainty, which is not what businesses want to hear.
Personally I like Windows 8, but its success and in particular the success of its tablet aspect is by no means assured.
That brings me back to the current state of play. Windows 8 is out, and it is controversial. Where is the Start menu? Why are there so few decent apps?
Since these issues were well flagged in advance, you would think that Microsoft was prepared for them, and ready to suffer some difficult quarters while building up the app ecosystem, working with its partners to help them with the transition, and energetically preparing service pack 1 with performance and usability fixes.
The alternative scenario is that Microsoft allowed itself to believe that the world would be instantly won over and when disappointed will respond with a lurch in another direction which would be fatal.
It is all fascinating to watch, but from a business perspective the right word is caution.
Microsoft is "trying to ruin the PC as an open platform", according to Markus Persson, creator of the popular Minecraft game, commenting on Twitter. Shortly after I saw a tweet from developer Casey Muratori, "I am very sad to say that Windows 8 is apparently going to be a closed platform. Why isn't anyone covering this?"
The issue has been covered, of course. Microsoft was clear about this (with the exception of one aspect) from the first detailed unveiling of Windows 8 in September 2011. In the Windows 8 dual personality, the desktop side is an updated Windows 7 and apps are installed in the same way, from setup files obtained from anywhere, but on the touch-friendly side formerly called Metro, apps are, for most of us, only installed from the Windows Store.
The ARM version of Windows 8, called Windows RT, is where the lockdown really bites. No desktop applications can be installed at all, so it is Windows Store or nothing for consumers.
The rules are different for businesses deploying custom apps, and this is where Microsoft has not been quite so clear. Deploying apps without the Store is called sideloading, and is possible subject to certain limitations. Sideloading is described here. In summary:
The immediate conclusion then is this:
Since Windows 8 on Intel is open on the desktop side, smart people will likely soon work out how to overcome app restrictions on the tablet side as well. Windows RT may be more challenging, but I imaging jailbreaks will come along for that as well. The rules still make a difference though, because only a minority is willing to hack their machines.
Is this the beginning of the end for Windows as an open platform? That is an interesting question, and I have seen predictions that the desktop will wither away, such as this from former Microsoft employee Hal Berenson:
The Start menu, and indeed the entire desktop, are legacies that will have to be removed from Windows over time. While the desktop itself is probably with us for a couple of additional major Windows releases (though there may be truly desktop-free editions sooner than that) ...
Still, even if Berenson is right, desktop Windows on Intel will be with us at until Windows 10 in say four or five years time, which means maybe six or seven years before a potentially desktop-free Windows 11. None of us can see that far ahead though. If Windows RT takes off, we could be thinking of Windows as mainly a tablet OS much sooner than that.
On the other hand, if the tablet personality in Windows 8 fails to achieve its goals, desktop Windows may remain the main version forever until Windows fades away.
Nobody knows, though it is fun to speculate. However, it is interesting to examine why Windows is becoming less open and whether or not this is a bad thing.
Microsoft could not get away with this so easily without Apple, which came up with the "App store only" model for the iPhone and iPad. That makes them closed platforms, and makes Apple a ton of money from store fees, but users are happy because app store prices are generally low, plenty of apps are free, and there is no uncertainty about "where do I get apps for my iPad?", and the App Store is curated so that it should be malware-free, and if malware were to sneak through, it would soon be removed.
In a business context, where administrators want full control over which apps are installed for security and stability reasons, a closed platform is mostly a good thing. A closed platform in combination with the sandboxing of apps on the tablet side is a very good thing.
What about open source? What about consumers? There are fundamental objections to closed systems, which inherently put too much power in the hands of the platform owners. How can we be sure that Microsoft, for example, will not favour its own applications over competitors for things like Office? This is already the case with Windows RT, which comes with Office pre-installed and no way to install an alternative on the desktop side.
On the other hand, the openness of Windows, once a benefit as it encouraged a strong application ecosystem, has become a disadvantage. Users love the performance, stability and clean user interface they get on an iPad, versus Windows machines which more times than not are spoilt by apps running on startup that are not needed, mysterious toolbars that appear unasked in web browsers, along with adware and sometimes malware.
Anybody looking at Windows today would conclude that the system needs to be brought more under the user's control; and that is hard to do without lockdown. Windows Store apps in Windows 8 are easy to install and, more important, easy to remove.
There is every likelihood than that both businesses and consumers will see the lockdown in Windows 8 more as a benefit than a burden; which is actually a good reason for those who may in consequence lose out (like Valve which runs a games store for Windows) to shout loudly about the issue.
The case is not simple though, and on balance most users may well be better off with a less open system than they currently enjoy.
Finally, remember that Intel Windows 8 on the desktop side remains as open as ever, and will be for the foreseeable future.
Windows 8 has been released to manufacturing, along with Windows Server 2012 and Visual Studio 2012. There is also a major new version of Office, Microsoft's other mainstay, due for completion around November this year.
These releases are more than just the usual round of updates. On its tablet-friendly Metro side, Windows 8 has a new runtime and user interface which is almost a platform within a platform. Microsoft consciously reformed the Windows API, with much of it unavailable from the Metro side, applications sandboxed, and asynchronous programming enforced.
If you do development in Microsoft Office, you will find a new application model there as well. Called Apps for Office, this is a way of embedding web applications either in a document (only supported in Excel at the moment) or in a task pane alongside a document (supported in Excel, Word and Project). Outlook 2013 does not have a task pane, but uses a similar approach for new-style Mail apps, a separate pane that displays alongside an email.
The significance of Apps for Office is that being web-based, they also work in Office Web Apps. This means that an application developed for the new model will run on platforms where the Office 2013 client is not available, including tablets and Macs.
There is a lot of sense in Microsoft's approach, whether or not you like the blocky Windows 8 Start screen, or the washed-out user interface in Office 2013. That said, it is a big ask for developers. The problem is not only the amount that developers will have to learn, but also what they need to throw away.
When Visual Studio 2010 was released, frameworks including Silverlight, Windows Presentation Foundation and XNA (for games) were positioned as strategic APIs in which developers could invest their time and effort with confidence. A few years later, and all those frameworks look like legacy.
If Windows RT (that is the ARM version) takes off, developers have to come to terms with a wave of Windows devices that do not run their desktop applications at all.
On the mobile side, loyal Microsoft-platform developers have endured a rollercoaster ride trying to keep up with how the company says you should develop today. Windows Mobile 6: C/C++ is in. Windows Phone 7: C/C++ is out. Windows Phone 8: C/C++ is in again.
The question developers will be asking as Windows 8 and Office 2013 roll out is this: how can we be sure that innovations like the Windows Runtime or Apps for Office will still be worth developing for by the time Visual Studio 2014 comes around?
I am inclined to agree that the Windows platform needed reform, and despite a few jarring changes there is a lot to like in the 2012 wave. But what the company now needs is a period of consistency and consolidation, otherwise its developer community will simply lose faith.
Cloud computing, Infrastructure as a service (IaaS): nothing new about that. Yet the month of June saw two momentous announcements.
The first was from Microsoft, which announced the addition of IaaS to its Azure platform, along with a new management portal that may prove equally significant, for reasons I will give in a moment.
The second was from Google, at its IO 2012 conference, when it announced Google Compute Engine (GCE), which lets you launch Linux virtual machines (VMs) on Google's platform.
Google may be a new player in the IaaS market but you would also think that managing this stuff will come naturally to a company which has built its own search and cloud services on a massively scaleable cloud. Google also has a good track record in terms of reliability, when you look at its existing Google Apps services. It is not perfect; but then neither are others such as Amazon or Salesforce.com, both of which have occasional service interruptions.
In fact, one of the advantages of major new entrants into the market is the possibility of building fail-safe solutions across several cloud vendors, making it less likely that cloud downtime will cause severe loss of business.
What about Windows Azure? This one has made a big impression on me, partly because (unlike GCE) I have been able to try it out, as well as speaking to Microsoft Corporate VP Scott Guthrie about the new features.
He told me how, soon after he moved to work on Azure in 2011, his team sat down and tried using the service, encountering numerous problems ranging from sign-up difficulties to problems finding documentation.
Since then Microsoft has released not only a wide range of new features, including durable VMs alongside the existing stateless VMs, but also a new administration portal that is a pleasure to use.
Does that matter, when what really counts is the cloud technology, its performance and reliability?
I think it does. A good user experience changes behaviour. It is now so easy to log in and create a VM on Azure, that I will be using this myself when I need to spin up a server to test some software. Click Virtual Machine - From Gallery - pick an operating system - type a name and password, select a machine size, and it is done. A few minutes later you can log in with remote desktop and get working.
With a bit of effort, you can even connect Azure to your internal network.
If it is easy to get started, users are more likely to try it out and, all going well, start using the service in anger. My expectation is that Azure will see a lot more activity as a result.
It has taken too long, but Microsoft is now a real contender in cloud infrastructure.
With Google also coming into play, you may wonder if Amazon will finally feel some heat. I actually doubt that. It is a growing market, and Amazon is the leader by far.
It seems to me that it is more the other, smaller cloud hosters who should worry, as well as those in the on-premise server market. Increasingly, you will not only be testing your new solutions in the cloud, but deploying them there as well.
Last week I met with Jim Highsmith at an event organised by ThoughtWorks, an IT consultancy for whom he works. Highsmith is one of the authors of the 2001 Agile Manifesto, which is so short I can quote it here:
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
That was over ten years ago, but Highsmith told me that his Agile journey because ten years before that. "I started doing first iterative development projects in the early Nineties," he told me.
Given the Manifesto's statement about tools, I asked Highsmith what he thought about the role of tools in Agile development today. I am aware, of course, that tool vendors frequently highlight their suitability for Agile (rightly or wrongly) as a marketing point.
"Vendors have come at it from two different directions," he said. "There is a set of vendors who basically had products, like IBM and their Rational toolset, who have essentially tried to reposition, redevelop or redesign those to do Agile, and then there are companies that have built up from the bottom, the Rally's, the ThoughtWorks, and built the tools out.
"As you have worked with organisations at scale, some of those tools have changed. So at one Agile team you can use a spreadsheet or just a storyboard, but if you've got a big organisation you have to have some additional complexity than that.
"All that said, I think vendors are overdoing it in some instances in order to appeal to organisations who may not be quite agile enough yet. For example I know one of the vendors was asked one time by one of their big clients 'We want you to do burn down charts by individual.' Their response was: you don't understand Agile and we're not going to do that.
"The Agile Manifesto said people and process over tools, but it didn't say instead of. The tooling is important, particularly around development stuff, automated testing tools, build pipeline tools, things that really help people operate in an agile manner."
How has his thinking about Agile evolved in recent years?
"It has not changed in terms of how to do Agile, but it has changed in terms of scale. Five years ago we were still doing bottom-up Agile implementations. Teams would come in and get dispensation to do an Agile project. In the last five years we've gotten a lot more top-down, we've got VPs of engineering and CIOs and CTOs coming in and saying, we want our organisation to be Agile. The largest one I've dealt with is 25,000 software engineers in China, at one company.
"So you get more of that which has its own problems and issues."
What are the biggest obstacles to Agile?
"One of the things that's happened, first with the movement to the web and now with the movement to mobility, and cloud, and big data, and those kinds of things, is that the technology changes are forcing people to look at business changes. So there is more interest. But I think there's still a lot of inertia in big companies, though you are seeing more and more big banks, big insurance companies, big manufacturing companies, that have realised the future is about responsiveness, that are moving to Agile." he said.
The question of scale came up repeatedly and seems to be a sign of maturity within Agile. It is no longer in any sense an underground movement, and Highsmith understands that change cannot only be bottom-up. His current topic is adaptive leadership, emphasising that top-down is also needed. "It is a mix ... It has got to be driven from the bottom in terms of delivering software, but if you don't also support it from the top you can't scale fast enough."
I have been spending some time with the recently released Sencha Architect 2. This is a development environment with three core components:
Ext JS 4.0 Framework: an HTML5 application framework for desktop browsers
Sencha Touch 2.0: an HTML5 application framework for mobile browsers
Sencha Architect IDE: a visual development tool for both Ext JS and Sencha Touch
Architech is a commercial product, but there are free and open source versions of Ext JS and Touch with various licensing and support permutations available.
I installed Sencha Architect on Windows, which works though I cannot quite describe it as Windows-friendly; there is a Mac flavour to the documentation and nothing quite works in Internet Explorer, Chrome or Safari is recommended.
What you get though is an elegant IDE which is focused 100% on applications, rather than general HTML design. It is not Eclipse-based, which I found interesting having recently also tried the latest Titanium IDE from Appcelerator, which is built on Eclipse. Although Eclipse is a wonderful thing, it does add complexity and overhead compared to a lightweight, dedicated IDE like Sencha Architect.
The frameworks are also interesting. Both Ext JS and Sencha Touch (which are similar in many respects) are based on a Model-View-Controller design, and this is neatly expressed in the IDE which shows Controllers, Views, Stores, Models and Resources in its Project Inspector. A store is essentially a collection of model instances, and might for example be an Ajax proxy retrieving JSON data from a remote URL. The image below uses this technique to show bars in London. The app is designed for a smartphone, though I am displaying it in Google Chrome to test.
These frameworks are not the easiest to pick up quickly, but I was struck by the clean design of both the code and the IDE. Further, Sencha apps generally look good and in many cases the visual components come close to what you can achieve with native code.
From what I can tell, the pressure on developers to create apps that play nicely with a variety of devices, from Windows desktops and laptops through to iPads and Android smartphones, will only increase. Sencha is worth a look.
Why would a company take its core product and mess with it so that a significant proportion of its customers will almost inevitably dislike it? Welcome to Windows 8. Microsoft has taken its familiar operating system and bolted on a Tablet OS called variously Metro-style, or the Immersive UI, or from the developer perspective WinRT (Windows Runtime).
I have been working with Windows 8 since the launch of the Consumer Preview at the end of February, both on a slate device and on my usual desktop PC. It has not been a bad experience, but it has been distinctly odd, and at times distinctly annoying.
Putting two disconnected web browsers with different user interfaces in Windows 8 is a usability disaster, for example. I find myself losing tabs, or right-clicking to raise the tab selection UI forgetting that I am in the desktop browser.
Another problem is that the taskbar, reliable task-switcher since Windows 95, is broken in Windows 8, since it does not show which Metro apps are running.
Presuming you are not using a slate, the pragmatic solution is to avoid the Metro side and just use the desktop. This is difficult too though, partly because of the Start menu which is Metro-only, and partly because some utilities are now Metro. Sometimes these also exist in their old versions, at least in the Consumer Preview, leading to a surreptitious Metro-avoidance search.
Take the new Remote Desktop Client, for example. Raise the Start menu, type Remote, click Remote Desktop, and off you go. Then you discover that the settings are minimal and hard to find, and that when you do connect, it only runs full-screen (like all Metro-style apps). What if you do not want it full screen? Maybe the old one is buried here somewhere?
So you press Windows+R for the Run dialog and type mstsc, and up comes the old one. Thank goodness, pin to taskbar.
This is all very well, but if you run a corporate helpdesk the prospect of constantly advising users on how to avoid Metro or work around its limitations is unwelcome. Unless Microsoft can work some magic between now and launch, businesses will be patting each other on the back for sticking with Windows 7 for years to come, at least until Windows 9 arrives.
That will a shame, since there are also plenty of good things in Windows 8, even leaving aside Metro. Hyper-V virtualisation is one, Storage Spaces another (though probably of little relevance to businesses), networks connect faster, and performance feels snappier overall.
So what is Microsoft up to? The problem it faces is encapsulated by a conversation I had with someone who works in the City of London the other day. "I am getting an iPad," he said. "It is changing the way we do meetings."
Apparently it is now common for documents to be sent out as PDFs and viewed on an iPad. Somehow, the difference in usability, portability and battery life between a laptop and an iPad is enough to tip the balance from paper to electronic documents.
Microsoft fears this, because it sees that as iPads and other tablets improve, and the apps become more powerful, the moment will come when there is no need for a laptop at all.
Put another way, it is touch-controlled tablets that will be the growth area in personal computing, not the usual cycle of Windows upgrades.
This is why Microsoft cares more about the tablet experience in Windows 8 than about the desktop experience. In particular, the Windows on ARM devices, which should be equally as lightweight and power-efficient as an iPad, will in theory be a compelling option for City users who want an e-reader for meetings. They get real Excel and Word as well as all the usual Tablet benefits.
That is the theory, though after using Windows 8 on a tablet at a conference last week I have concerns there as well. The snag is that it is even harder to avoid the desktop when in Metro, than it is to avoid Metro when in the desktop. Windows 8 has a much better on-screen keyboard than Windows 7, but all the fundamental usability issues of touch-control in Windows remain in the Windows 8 desktop.
The fix will be more and better Metro apps, but by the time Microsoft has it right, how far behind Apple and Android will it have fallen in this market?
I am reserving judgement, because despite the annoyances, Metro-style Windows does work well on a tablet, and I do value having a combination device that runs everything. Microsoft is apparently re-working Office for Windows 8, even though it remains a desktop application, and this combined with improved Metro apps should considerably improve the tablet experience.
The controversial Start menu becomes one of the best features when you are working with touch, and apps are easier to find and launch than on iPad or Android.
It is not all bad then; but there are plenty of reasons for caution when it comes to Windows 8 in business. Perhaps the real significance of Windows 8 is not so much Metro, Windows on ARM, and the debate about how well they will do, but rather the underlying trend which has caused Windows 8 to be what it is: the unexpectedly rapid ascent of tablet (and by implication, cloud) computing thanks to Apple's iPad.