February 2010

Counting Down to Seven (Mar 15th at MIX 10): A series about ideas for mobile apps

Welcome to another installment of Counting Down to Seven, a series of articles about mobile app development that I’m writing as we count down the days to MIX10, when we reveal more about the up-and-coming Windows Phone 7 Series.

You’re going to have to wait a couple more weeks before I can tell you the specifics of Windows Phone 7 development. In the meantime, I thought I’d write about mobile development in general. If you’re new to mobile development, this series will be a nice overview of the field; if you’ve built apps for mobile phones before, think of it as a refresher course, but you might learn something you didn’t know before.

Mobile Design and Development, by Brian Fling

Cover of "Mobile Design and Development" The O’Reilly book Mobile Design and Development is a worthwhile read for anyone who’s planning to build and sell mobile applications. It’s written by Brian Fling, the owner of the “mobiledesign” mailing list (which could use a little love and attention these days), advisor to big brands getting into the mobile space and someone who (according to his author bio) has “worked with a lot of well funded companies that have failed miserably”.

Mobile Design and Development is probably the best general book on mobile development available right now. You’re not going to learn any specific phone’s API from this book; instead, you’ll learn about the industry, its state as of the time the book was published (August 2009) and the sort of things you should be thinking about if you’re developing mobile apps for an audience. While the ever-changing nature of the mobile world means that some of the information in the book has a “sell-by” date, many of the ideas covered in the book will be applicable for much longer.

“The 7th Mass Medium”

By happy coincidence, the version number of our soon-to-be-unleashed mobile OS, 7, keeps popping up in discussions of mobile technology.

The number 7 makes an appearance in Mobile Design and Development’s third chapter, titled Why Mobile? In it, Fling refers to mobile technology as “The 7th Mass Medium”, an term he attributes to Tomi T. Ahonen, author of the book and blog Communities Dominate Brands.

You were probably wondering what the 6 previous mass media are. In chronological order, they’re:

  1. Print
  2. Sound recordings
  3. Cinema
  4. Radio
  5. Television
  6. Internet

The interesting thing about the 7th mass medium is that it encapsulates the previous 6. Although we’re only just beginning to do so, we read, listen, watch and surf on mobile devices.

The 7 Unique Qualities of the 7th Mass Medium

Man on mobile phone: "Yeah, I'm posing for a stock photo right now..." Mobile Design and Development cites an old blog entry of Ahonen’s, in which he lists 5 unique qualities of mobile as a medium. Ahonen wrote a later article, bumping that number up to 7. They’re things worth keeping in mind when you’re designing mobile apps. Depending on your point of view, some of the qualities may be good things or bad things, but no matter what you think of them, you have to account for them. They are:

1. The mobile phone is the first personal mass medium.

We share books and magazines, listen to the radio and dance to DJ en masse, watch TV shows and movies with others, and many households have a computer used by more than one person. But for most people, their mobile phone is theirs and theirs alone.

Ahonen points to a 2006 survey by the advertising agencies BBDO and Proximity in which that 63% of the people surveyed wouldn’t lend their mobile phone to anyone else.

2. The mobile phone is a permanently carried medium.

According to a Morgan Stanley survey from 2007, 91% of the respondents said that they kept the phone within a meter of them day and night, even when in the bathroom or asleep. Many people use it as the 21st century equivalent of the pocket watch, and when I travel, I’ve found it to be a very reliable alarm clock. It’s the computing, communications and media device you have with you all the time.

According to BBDO/Proximity 2006 study cited in the previous point:

  • People in China were choose between retrieving a forgotten wallet or phone at home; 69% chose the phone.
  • Women in Japan have daytime and evening phones, in the same way they have daytime and evening handbags.

3. The mobile phone is the only always-on mass medium.

There may be times when we turn off the ringer and vibrate functions, but the only time most people turn off their mobile phones is when they’re on a plane (and if you fly often, you know that many people turn on their phones moments after the plane’s wheels touch the ground). The closest any other medium comes to always-on is the internet that subset of people who keep a computer with broadband powered up all the time, followed by falling asleep with the TV or radio on.

According to BBDO/Proximity 2006 study cited in the previous point, 81% of youth between the ages of 15 and 20 sleep with their mobile phones turned on.

Woman on mobile phone: "That's odd...I'm posing for a stock photo too!" 4. The mobile phone is the only mass medium with a built-in payment mechanism.

Between the “app store” model for delivering applications and the fact that they’re tied to a networking provider that also acts as a billing agency, mobile phones are the first mass medium with a built-in toll booth. Even people too young to have credit cards can be billed; they can pay for purchases made via their phone through their phone bill with cash.

5. The mobile phone is the only mass medium available at the point of creative inspiration.

This is a direct by-product of mobile phones being always-on and always with us. Even those of us who carry our laptops everywhere have them tucked away in a carry case or bag, and I’m the rare person who always has a camera handy. While popular with the “lifehacker” crowd, not everyone carries a Moleskine notebook for jotting down ideas. But many people carry a mobile phone in an easy-to-reach place. It lets us create content in the form of writing, photos, and audio and video recordings in near real time. This is the basis of citizen journalism (whose effects were recently felt here in Toronto during the recent “cold war” between passengers of our rapid transit system and its employees).

6. The mobile phone is the only mass medium with accurate audience measurement.

“The internet gave us a false promise,” Ahonen writes, but audience measurement wasn’t what its creators had in mind. However, the mobile phone, it’s possible to know what every subscriber does since each is uniquely tied to a specific ID.

According to Ahonen:

  • TV audience measurement can catch 1% of audience data
  • Internet audience measurement can catch 10% of audience data
  • Mobile phone audience measurement can catch 90% of audience data

7. The mobile phone is the only mass medium that captures the social context of media consumption.

By “social context of media consumption”, Ahonen means that with mobile phones, we can measure not just what people use, but with whom. It’s the next generation version of Amazon’s “recommendations” system and a direct result of mobile’s always-on, always-with-us, and audience measurement qualities.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Cloud Cover, Episode 1

by Joey deVilla on February 23, 2010

Get Microsoft Silverlight
Don’t have Silverlight? Get it here or download the video in MP4, WMA, WMV and Zune formats.

Cloud Cover is a new show on Microsoft’s Channel 9 that covers the Windows Azure platform. In this first episode, hosts Ryan Dunn and Steve Marx show you:

  • Azure’s Service Management API and how to use PowerShell cmdlets to manage your cloud services, and
  • How to get started quickly with Windows Azure.

They also talk about updates to SQL Azure, Windows Azure drives, new Windows Azure storage management tools and Azure Reader architecture.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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EnergizeIT: Coming to 20 Cities Across Canada

by Joey deVilla on February 23, 2010

EnergizeIT: Anything is Possible - March/April 2010

Whenever you do anything where money changes hands, from getting cash from the ATM to buying anything – movie tickets, groceries, a new pair of shoes or a new car to booking a flight and hotel room, chances are that there’s some Microsoft technology involved. It could be an SQL Server database, an app written in Visual Studio, a site living on IIS or Azure or a business process powered by SharePoint, and more likely than not, someone was using Office as well. From devices that fit in your pocket to cavernous data centres, the Microsoft platform helps millions of people across a broad spectrum of industries get real work done every day.

Want to know what’s possible with the Microsoft-based platform? Want to know how it all fits together? That’s what the EnergizeIT 2010 tour is for. In March and April, we’re visiting 20 cities across Canada – as far west as Victoria and as far east as St. John’s – to host free local gatherings where we show you how you can take advantage of our tools and technology to drive your business and your career.

EnergizeIT will comprise different sorts of events in different cities, all of which are listed below.

The “From the Client to the Cloud” Full-Day Events
(Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal)

City skylines: Vancouver (YVR), Edmonton (YEG), Calgary (YYC), Ottawa (YOW), Toronto (YYZ), Montreal (YUL)

In Canada’s six largest cities, we’ll hold our EnergizeIT From the Client to the Cloud full-day events, where we’ll cover the Microsoft-based platform in detail. And yes, even though it’s full-day, it’ll still be free!

In the morning, we’ll talk about the big picture. We’ll show you a scenario featuring the Microsoft-based platform as seen from different points of view: the customer, the information worker, the developer and the IT professional. You’ll see our latest and greatest as well as our up-and-coming developer goodies: Silverlight, .NET 4.0 and Visual Studio 2010. We’ll show you Windows 7 and Azure in action, talk about Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010, and tell you how all of Microsoft’s stuff works together.

Just as the morning session answers the question “What’s the latest technology?”, the afternoon sessions answer the question “How do I get to the latest technology from where I am now?” These sessions, split into two tracks – one on infrastructure management and deployment, one on the development process – will cover what you can do with our tools and technology in a little more depth. They’ll show you what you need to implement what you saw in the morning session and provide a roadmap you can follow to learn more and take action.

For more details about From the Client to the Cloud events or to register (it’s free!), visit the EnergizeIT From the Client to the Cloud page.

The “Community Connection” Evening Events
(Many Cities Across Canada)

A scene from EnergizeIT 2009 in Mississauga

We’ll also hold Community Connection events in the evening in many cities across Canada, where we’ll do the “big picture” session (the morning session) of our From the Client to the Cloud events.

The Community Connection evening events will take place in the following cities:

  • British Columbia: Vancouver, Kelowna and Victoria
  • Alberta: Edmonton and Calgary
  • Saskatchewan: Regina and Saskatoon
  • Manitoba: Winnipeg
  • Ontario: Ottawa, London, Kitchener and Mississauga
  • Quebec: Montreal, Quebec City and Trois-Rivières
  • Atlantic Canada: Halifax, St. John’s, Moncton and Fredericton

For more details about Community Connection or to register (it’s free!), visit the EnergizeIT Community Connection page.

Office 2010 Installfests
(Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, Montreal, Mississauga)

Microsoft Office 2010 logoI’ve been using the beta and release candidate versions of Office 2010 in my day-to-day work for the past couple of months – PowerPoint for my public speaking stuff, Outlook for email, scheduling and get-things-done stuff and OneNote for my copious note-taking. We’d like you to take it for a spin!

Join us at one of our Microsoft Office 2010 Installfests and we’ll hook you up with the latest build of Office, show you some of our favourite features and demonstrate how to get the most out of our productivity suite.

For more details about the Office 2010 Installfests or to register (it’s free!), visit the EnergizeIT Office 2010 Installfest page.

Academic Sessions

We’ll also be passing through a number of colleges across Canada, talking to students about getting ready for the working world and showing them resources that they can use to fire up their careers.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Ignite Your CodingIt all starts next week on Thursday, March 4th: Ignite Your Coding, the live webcast where we interview some of the biggest brains in the industry, and then hand over the interview to you!

In Ignite Your Coding, my fellow Developer Evangelist John Bristowe and I will talk to developers who’ve made their mark on the industry and ask them how they got started, what sorts of projects they’re working on, what interests them, where they see the industry heading, all with an eye towards helping you make sense of the changes happening in the world of software development. We’ll ask the questions for the first part, but then it’ll be your turn to ask them. The webcast will take place on Thursdays in March and April, and it won’t cost you a thing to catch them.

Our First Guest: Andy Hunt

Andy HuntAre you into agile programming? Andy Hunt co-authored the Manifesto. Does The Pragmatic Programmer occupy a special place on your bookshelf? (And really, it should.) Andy co-wrote that too. Have you ever coded using Ruby on Rails or ASP.NET MVC? Chances are you picked up some knowledge, either directly or indirectly, from a book published by Andy’s book publishing company, The Pragmatic Bookshelf.

We’re quite fortunate to have Andy as our first guest, and we’re looking forward to the interview! Our live webcast with Andy will take place on Thursday, March 4th at 2:00 p.m. Eastern (11:00 a.m. Pacific) and run for an hour. To catch the webcast, all you have to do is register – it’s free!

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning

There are all sorts of books out there that talk about how to get the most of your programming tools, from IDEs to utilities to languages to frameworks to methodologies. But of all these tools, the most important tool is the one that’s largely ignored: your brain. Enter Andy’s latest book, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, which I declared “My Favourite Geek Book of 2008”. There are many books and tools for refactoring your code; this one’s about refactoring your brain. First, it presents the brain in a way that a programmer can grasp:

Diagram showing a "Dual core" model of the brain

…and then talks about the many ways you can refactor it:

  • Cover of "Pragmatic Thinking and Learning"Taking advantage of R-mode (often called the “right brain” in pop psychology), which often gets ignored because of its non-linear, non-linguistic, unpredictable and even “artsy” nature. It’s actually an amazing problem-solver, so much that PT&L suggests that you should “lead with R-mode and follow with L-mode”, or more colloquially, “write drunk; revise sober”.
  • Working around the bugs in your brain. And there are many, from the primitive “lizard brain” that likes to override our higher cognitive functions to cognitive biases to generational affinity.
  • Learning deliberately: what learning is and isn’t, how to plan to learn, figuring out what your learning style is and how to best take advantage of it, and harnessing mind maps, documentation and teaching in order to learn.
  • Gaining experience, which includes understanding the importance of fun and how pressure kills cognition, learning the “inner game” and why your mantra shouldn’t be “learn to build”, but “build to learn”.
  • Managing focus, a very important topic since there are so many things vying for it, from office interruptions to the siren song of the internet, with email, IM, Twitter, Digg, Reddit and LOLcats. One of my favourite bits in this section was some research whose results indicated that constantly checking your email lowers your effective IQ more than smoking a joint.

Get the book, then meet the author! Register for Andy’s Ignite Your Coding session!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Windows Phone 7: Challenge Accepted!

by Joey deVilla on February 22, 2010

Hands holding Win 7 Phone that reads "You'll find out at MIX10! (Mar 15)"

"Counting Down to Seven" badge Over at Wired’s Gadget Lab blog, there’s an article titled Microsoft’s Challenge with Windows Phone 7 is Wooing Developers. They saved the most important line for last, and in case you missed it, I’ll repeat it here:

The company plans to preview its development tools at its MIX developers conference next month.

If you can wait three weeks, you’ll get a fuller story. If you attend MIX (Monday, March 15th through Wednesday March 17th at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas), you’ll even get development tools and support!

I agree with the title of the article. Complete changes of direction and the circumstances that dictate them are never easy (but then again, that’s why I signed on with Microsoft: for the challenge). We will have to work hard to gain mobile developers’ interest and trust, and it’s quite clear that we’ll have to reach out to the same sort of independent developer coding away at a kitchen table, cafe or converted warehouse office – the kind who made the apps that made the iPhone what it is today. From what I’ve seen of the developer outreach plans for Windows Phone 7, I think it’s doable.

I’d take the quotes from the people interviewed in the article with a big grain of salt. The writer took the “cover all bases given your deadline” approach and quoted a whopping three people whose collective opinions cover the full spectrum of reactions: one positive, one negative, and one (mostly) neutral. None of their titles suggests “developer”: two are CEOs and one is a COO. The negative guy completely misses the point in his remark about hubs and a cool-looking UI, and the neutral guy seems to be drinking deeply of the anti-RIA kool-aid, dismissing technologies like Flash and Silverlight as made for desktops and not for mobile, while forgetting that other technology now considered to be mobile – like browsers and operating systems — have the same supposed limitations. They were, after all, originally made for the desktop.

I accept the challenge of wooing developers. I know what it’s like, speaking as someone who left Microsoft development in the wake of the dot-com bubble burst for other tools and technologies. But what brought me back were signs of a sea change at Microsoft, from the Xbox to SDL to its initiatives to better “get” the web to dynamic languages and much more, and I think that Windows Phone 7 is part of it.

In the end, the developer whose opinion matters most is you. To that end, I plan to use every resource at my disposal to get the toolkits, tutorials and techniques necessary for Windows Phone 7 development into your hands. I’m going to support your development beyond just the “download this, and here’s the code for Hello, World!” – expect stuff on how to build great mobile experiences, what people are looking for and how to sell your mobile apps. (And hey, if you have any ideas or suggestions, I’m open to them – drop me an email, a tweet or a comment).

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Counting Down to Seven: Lou Reed, Mobile App Designer

by Joey deVilla on February 22, 2010

Three Weeks to Go!

Counting Down to Seven (Mar 15th at MIX 10): A series about ideas for mobile appsWe’re three weeks away from the day when a lot more about Windows Phone 7 will be revealed. On Monday, May 15th, the MIX10 conference in Las Vegas is expected to open with a bang as developers and designers will learn about “WP7’s” programming and design models as well as the opportunities that Microsoft’s reworked-from-the-ground-up mobile phone OS will provide. As part of a team of evangelists who were picked to champion WP7, I’m looking forward to getting my feet wet developing for this new platform and sharing what I learn with all of you.

As good as the early indications are – the demos are impressive, and this is likely the first time that anything made by The Empire been described as “soulful” – WP7’s introduction won’t be without some significant challenges. As far as current-generation smartphones go, WP7 is a late entry into a fiercely competitive market featuring a rival who can boast about having an impressive 100,000 applications in its store. There’s the matter of the wait; the 7 Series phones won’t hit the market until later this year, and in the meantime, the Esteemed Competition will be releasing new models. There will also be the cries of “Too little, too late,” from the people who observed Microsoft squander an early lead with smartphones (I can understand the argument for “late”, but having seen some advance inside info on what these babies can do, “little” is not a valid argument).

The Real Challenge

Windows Mobile 6 user interfaceI think that the biggest challenge is going to be creating a new Windows Phone culture. I believe that one of the problems with the developer culture surrounding the old Windows Mobile was that they treated the mobile phone as simply a shrunken-down version of the desktop. As I’ve written before, the desktop is what made Microsoft a successful company, but it’s also turned into an albatross that has impeded forward movement. The company built their mobile OS in a specific way with a specific design philosophy for a specific audience: “suits”. The developers took their cues from those decisions and built applications to match. The end result wasn’t pretty in any way: business-wise, functionally or aesthetically.

We – that’s both Microsoft as well as the development community that we want to gather around Windows Phone 7 — need to create a culture that “gets” the smartphone and cares about software craftsmanship, both in the underlying programming as well as in the user experience. I want to see a development culture that encourages both technical and design chops, the way that the iPhone community does, as well as that the way web app developers like 37signals do. I want Windows Phone to set the standard for mobile applications.

To that end, I decided to write this series – Counting Down to Seven – as a way to get developers to start thinking about mobile applications. I’ve been looking at applications written for the Esteemed Competition’s phones, books and articles on mobile development for other platforms and ideas from the world of user interface and user experience design as well as from science fiction (a long-standing source of ideas for neat-o devices that fit in your pocket). My hope is to convince you not just to write apps for Windows Phone 7, but also to write apps that redefine mobile computing, do interesting and useful stuff and delight our users.

Take a Walk on the Phone Side

Lou Reed, in sunglasses, with a cigarette

There’s a mobile app that was designed by Lou Reed. Yes, that Lou Reed – the guitarist, vocalist and songwriter for the Velvet Underground, then Mr. Walk on the Wild Side and more recently, Mr. Laurie Anderson.

The app is called Lou Zoom, and although he didn’t implement it (that job went to Ben Syverson), he came up with the idea and co-designed it. That’s the sort of excitement that I’d like to see behind Windows Phone 7: so full of possibilities that even people who’d never think of designing applications start doing just that.

The idea behind Lou Zoom is quite simple: it’s a contact manager app, like the Contacts app that comes with the iPhone. The difference is that it has a couple of tweaks, no doubt born out of frustration with the current app. I’ve listed the tweaks below:

Tweak #1: Easy-to-Read Contact List

In the standard Contacts app, the list of contacts is shown as a standard list, with all entries the same size. In Lou Zoom, the list of contacts has variable-sized names: each name in Helvetica Neue, with the font size increased so that it is fills the width of the screen. Here’s a screen shot taken from the Lou Zoom page:

Screenshot of contact list from Lou Zoom app

This design might make the sort of designers who prize uniformity cringe, but think about this: phones have small screens and are often used in less-than-ideal reading conditions. If you’re going to remain under 30 forever, are guaranteed to always have 20/20 vision and vow to always remain stationary and alone in a well-lit room, you don’t need this feature. For the rest of us – including me, a guy in his early forties with standard issue Asian myopia, who finds himself squinting more and more at small type, who often uses his phone from places like dimly-lit cabs going over potholes at breakneck speeds or in crowded, dimly-lit conference spaces and having had a couple of caesars – this user interface tweak is very helpful indeed.

Tweak #2: Easy-to-Read Contact Pages

Just as the contacts are listed in nice big type, so is the info on each contact page:

Screenshot of contact info page from Lou Zoom app

As with the contact list, Lou Zoom goes for legibility and displays the information in large type. It goes one step further by displaying the text in high contrast. If the contact has multiple addresses, phone numbers or email address, a left or right swipe over the appropriate field will give you those alternates.

An Aside: Windows Phone 7’s People Profiles

The “Profile” page in Windows Phone 7’s “People” hub takes an approach that is stylistically similar to the way Lou Zoom displays contact info:

Screenshot of Windows Phone 7 profile page for a person in the "People" hub

…but it takes a markedly different approach to which items are displayed prominently. Windows Phone 7’s design is centered around what you want to do rather than with just throwing information at you. For example, the actions “call mobile”, “text mobile” and “call home” are in large type, while the person’s mobile and home numbers are in smaller text. This is a good idea — after all, what you really want to do is reach someone, not look up their phone number. The “address book” paradigm is a holdover from the days when phones weren’t smart enough to dial themselves.

Tweak #3: Search on Any Part of the Name

The standard Contacts app has a simple search function. Type in j and it will immediately present you with a list of all names in your contacts beginning with “j” (ignoring case, of course). If you expand that j to become john, you’ll get a list of all the names in your contacts beginning with “john”. The Contacts app will apply the search term you provide only to the leftmost end of the names in your contacts:

Screenshot of search for Lou Zoom app

Lou Zoom improves on search by letting you search on any part of the name. Typing in john gives you a list of all the names in your contacts containing “john” in any part of the name, such as “John Smith”, “Alice Johnson” or “Olivia Newton-John”.

The Lou Zoom site provides its own example:

Has Kate Bell recently become Kate Appleseed-Bell? Searching for "Bell" will still bring up her name in Lou Zoom. From there, her full info is just a tap away.

It’s also great for searching for people by nickname. For instance, typing in mclovin into Lou Zoom’s search will give you the name of your buddy, who’s listed in your contacts as Christopher “McLovin’” Fogell.

What Can You Tweak?

It’s time to take a page from Lou Reed’s book and find apps that could benefit from a little tweaking. Look around at mobile apps and if you find yourself and other people saying “if only it did this”. Those are opportunities! The best applications aren’t always brand-new paradigm-shattering ideas; sometimes they’re old ones with a couple of tweaks.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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“Our Fine Tradition of Clumsy Names”

by Joey deVilla on February 17, 2010

"Counting Down to Seven" badgeNice phone, shame about the name.

As I quipped in an earlier post, the name “Windows Phone 7 Series” is a bit long, and suggests that the people who do Microsoft’s branding get paid by the syllable. This is the sort of left-brain-lopsided mindset that has produced names like “Windows Server 2008 R2”.

My fellow Developer Evangelist John Bristowe pointed me to this Joy of Tech comic which attempts to ratiocinate the etymology of this unwieldy appellation:

"Joy of Tech" comic illustrating the meeting that led to the name "Windows Phone 7 Series"

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