microsoft and google

Fast Track blog: Signs you should replace Access with an online database

Many of us started out with database software with something like Microsoft Access. It came included as part of the Office suite, was fairly easy to get started and infinitely customizable for light database programming. But with all these advantages, it might be time to look elsewhere for alternatives, especially for citizen developers who want to build more sophisticated online database applications.

You can read my post here about ways to recognize when your Access is running out of steam.

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Fast and furious under the sea

 

When the Internet was first getting used by ordinary commercial businesses back in the early 1990s, those businesses didn’t own any of the underlying infrastructure besides their own connection to the nearest peering point. My how times have changed. This week, Microsoft and Facebook announced they are building the next transatlantic cable to exclusively carry their own Internet traffic between their American and European data centers.

When you think about this, it isn’t that surprising. After all, it represents the next step in the evolution of how private companies have built their computing systems on top of the public Internet. It isn’t the first such private cable: Google has been partnering with telcos for years to share their bandwidth, and a new connection from the US to Japan went online earlier this year. Facebook (and others) are even building their own servers, routers and racks out of specialized spare parts, since they need so many of them to run their online businesses.

Another result of this is how many businesses are running without any data centers at all, using private clouds and co-locating their servers at peering points. What used to be all about the connection to the Internet is now about owning the entire stack, down under the sea if you are big enough to afford it.

Certainly, the cost of Internet bandwidth has plummeted in the 25 or so years that a business could buy it. In the early 1990s, if your business was big enough, you purchased a T-1 digital line that topped out at the then amazing speed of 1.5 Mb/s. If you had a lot of demand, you could get a T-3 line that was 30 times as fast.

Of course, when you tell folks today about these early speeds, they look at you strangely and start thinking you date back to the days when there were payphones with actual dials. Given that today the worst DSL speed you can get from your local phone company still gives you a better connection than that old T-1 line it is pretty amazing how fast and far we have come. Today a cable Internet connection can deliver at least 10 Gb/s rates (at least in the download direction). Google and other fiber providers are talking about 100 and 1000 GB/s speeds in both directions, and there are cities (such as Chattanooga) where you can get a gigabit connection at every address. These places have realized that supplying a ultra-fast Internet is an essential part of their municipal services, just like supplying water and staffing the fire and police departments.

And that Microsoft/Facebook undersea cable? It will start out carrying 160 Tb/s, which is at least twice as fast as older cables. I can’t even think at those speeds.

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Microsoft, the uber ISV

KL_InApiWeTrust-1000This week several thousand IT managers, developers ISVs, and others who work with Microsoft’s operating systems, tools, and software products are gathered in Houston for the annual TechEd conference. I couldn’t make it, but I have been talking to a number of independent software vendors and Microsoft channel partners for a custom consulting research project.

In the course of doing the research, I was reminded of why Microsoft is such a powerhouse when it comes to understanding developers and having such a rich ecosystem that continues to be self-sustaining and an expanding universe. When you look behind the scenes, there is usually a Microsoft API that is lurking about, and that people are using to build something, which is being used as the basis of some other software developer who is building there thing, which continues on and on.

As an example, take a gander at the Azure Store (it is under the “Add-os” tab at the top level menu for Microsoft’s cloud computing site. It has add-on tools that range widely across the SaaS and IaaS spectrum, and can be used to manage Azure VM collections, setup and provision Azure servers, or access particular datasets. The store is still very much a work in progress, and its search function is somewhat limited. And sure, Amazon’s Web Services has more activity, because it has been around longer. But the idea is catching on, and the ISVs are coming to sell their stuff, and others are taking notice. The extensibility of Azure will be untouchable in a few years.

We saw this movie already with the first wisps of .Net and Visual Studio: there was a time that people used those tools to just build standalone apps that had nothing to do with the Internet or Web services. Those universes were eventually mind-melded together, and now no one thinks it odd when someone builds a Web app with .Net.

Look at what you can do with using Excel as a query tool for all sorts of databases, some that aren’t even on your own hard drive. Again, it is all about extending the things we know and love (or at least tolerate) well. The same thing happened when Windows Explorer became Internet Explorer, even if IE is now a malware distribution mechanism of the first order.

I realize that you could make the same claims about building-on-top-of-the-builders with the open source movement: just look at the 57 different Hadoop-oriented projects (if not 1057 by now) that have been spawned by that Big Data database. And yes, there are other claims to the uber-ISV throne too.

But it is what Microsoft is best at doing and you would be wrong to sell them short in this area. Yes, their actual software dev tools aren’t the best on the block. And there may be better desktop environments better than Windows. And yes, more people are buying Apple’s iThings because they are just cooler, no doubt. No one is going to ooh and aah over a Windows Phone anymore, no matter how honking many megapixels its camera can consume. But that is missing the point.

With Microsoft, it is all about the API-enabled ISV, who can sell to other API-enabled ISVs, who can use all these interfaces to build powerful apps with just a few lines of actual code. There are lots of other things wrong with the company, but this is one they continue to get right.

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How Microsoft can become a center for innovation
With its new CEO Satya Nadella, there has been a lot of focus on the I word in Redmond. Many of you might scoff at the notion that the software giant can innovate. The company does have a rich history of being late to many tech parties over the years. But I want to remind you that there have been some glimmers of innovative thinking in several products down through the ages.
For example, back in 1989 Microsoft introduced Office on the Mac OS, a year before it came out for Windows PCs. Indeed, Word was available on the first 1984-vintage Macs and one of the main reasons people bought Macs back then, when Multimate and Word Perfect were the major DOS word processors. It wasn’t the first to have a way to create documents on a graphical OS but it did become the standard, largely through the integration of Powerpoint and Excel. You would be hard pressed to find anyone that hasn’t used these products today.
Several years later, they released a new version 6 of DOS that included the ability to compress data in software before it was written to a hard drive. Now that desktop and laptop PCs have terabyte drives, it is hard to imagine that anyone cares about disk compression. But back then saving a few megabytes of disk space was a big deal. The problem was that this disk compression was already being done by Stac Electronics in a product called DoubleSpace. Lawsuits and counter-suits followed, and Stac was able to win and receive a large investment and royalty from Microsoft as a result. Was this innovative or more combative? Still, a memorable Microsoft moment.
And in 1995, Microsoft wasn’t the first to integrate the desktop with the Internet browser, but they helped to blur the lines on how you stored your files. Remember Netscape? They failed miserably at the task with the same browser code base. Today most of us switch between the desktop and online pretty much effortlessly, and we even have Chromebooks that have almost no local storage for our files.
Then there is Kinect, Microsoft’s innovative motion sensor peripheral to its Xbox game console. While it still hasn’t taken off for business computing, there are lots of people trying to incorporate it into their products. I just saw a demo from a new company a few weeks ago that is trying to use Kinect for physical therapy exercises.
So what is my wish list for future innovation for Satya? I feel like we should be on a first name basis, with all the press videos that have been posted this week. Here goes:
1. How about making Windows the most secure desktop OS in history, rather than the most exploited? Enough with making it more Metro-sexual.There is a reason why a lot of folks have stuck with XP all these years: it works just well enough.  Let’s lock it down and get rid of the world’s botnets once and for all. While they are at it, do the same for its IIS web server security too.
2. How about finishing off the half-hearted integration of Hyper-V and Azure so that Windows can be the VM Switzerland and be used to run virtual machines from either VMware or Amazon’s Web Services? Let’s take another look at the lessons learned from Netscape.
3. Let’s give up the ghost on Windows Phone: it is time to realize that the world has moved on. Maybe that few billion for Nokia is largely an academic exercise. Is there still a mobile play that Microsoft could benefit with combining forces with Apple’s iOS? Like making Office work really well on that platform? Think about what Word did for the new Macintoshes back in 1984.
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FedTech: Review of Microsoft Office Pro Plus 2013

Microsoft Office has split into two distinct personalities, Office 2013 (which you get via a CD) and Office 365 (that comes via the browser and the cloud). The two share several common features and will make it easier for federal government users to collaborate without having to serially email documents back and forth. There is also tighter integration into your Microsoft account for reading emails and adding contacts and calendar entries.

For more on my review of MS Office Pro Plus 2013, read it in FedTech Magazine’s latest issue here.

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The dark side of Google

In the past several years, Google has become more evil. Despite its goal of purity and widely-heralded philosophy at its founding, it has become just another corporation trying to make a buck. While it employs some of the best and brightest engineering talent, it has taken over the Internet in ways that even a monopolist such as Microsoft can only admire from the sidelines. What happened? It was a gradual evolution and just being better than its competitors, but also being such a big presence in so many places around the Internet too.

Let me count the Googles in my own life. First and foremost is email: Gmail is probably the best webmailer that I have ever used, and I have used many of them. I use Google to host all of my email now from my various domains. I first started using their email service because it was free, but it still offers better features than most for-fee services. Their group emailing list services still is substandard, something that Yahoo does much better after all these years (Yahoo bought eGroups long ago, one of my favorite services).

Then there is search. All my searching is done on Google, too. I have tried Bing and while it has some appealing features, I keep coming back to Google. Yahoo? Oh yeah, there is Yahoo too.

How about video streaming? Certainly the go-to place for that is You Tube. I have used them as one of my many places where I put my own videos online, and have noticed that as You Tube has become part of the Googleplex it has gotten harder to use and lags behind features of some of the smaller video streaming service providers.

SaaS-based storage? While Google Docs is not as good as many, it does work to share documents and other stuff online. They bought Etherpad and have tried to incorporate the real-time editing service, but it has been a botched effort to date.

Maps? Got that covered. I particularly like the walking/biking directions. The mobile maps could use some work, which is one of the reasons why Apple is moving to their own app for their iThings. And let’s not even go into the whole sad saga of how they collected this mapping data and recording the open Wifi hotspots along the way, or the scary future of what they intend to do with their 3D plans, outlined here.

Social networking? There is Google+. (And Orkut, if you live in Brazil. And Wave and Buzz, which thankfully never took hold.) I know folks who love it and use it and profit from it greatly. I am not one of them. Facebook and LinkedIn are fine by me and enough work to keep up with them.

Photos? Google bought Picasa and has been dismantling it over time, making their offering less compelling for sharing photos online and wanting folks to use Google+ for this purpose.

Phones? Android is now the dominant smartphone player in the world.

Browsers? There is Chrome. I still try to resist, using the other ones.

Are you sensing a trend? Google isn’t as good at incorporating a small development group into the ‘Plex. Their offerings often lag behind the competition, even when the small dev groups are ahead of the market. As James Whittaker, one former Googler has said:
“The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.”

Google now competes in so many places that many of my colleagues are moving to de-Google their online lives. And they are finding that the effort is considerable. Mainly because Google is like the Borg: it wants to assimilate your online life.

It does this through the Google Account. Take a look for a moment at accounts.google.com. You can see an impressive amount of information about your online activities, if you allow Google to do so. If I choose to, all of my social media posts of Twitter are tied to my account. All of my searches are saved in their archives, if I turn that option on. And the number of options of what to reveal to the world and what not are as complex and ever changing as the equivalent Facebook choices.

There are options presented as a way to “improve my search experience” and accuracy, and I am sure that they do. Trouble is, I have no idea if they are also adding to the things that Google can track about my online life. My guess is that they do, which totally creeps me out.

Where do we go from here? I don’t honestly know. I am not prepared to entirely de-Google my life yet, although I do keep in mind some of the alternatives and watch what they are doing. I do think Google has gotten more evil over time, and is seeing some of their best and brightest engineering talent leave for other places as their own frustrations increase. It is too bad, because we all had such high hopes for them.

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Hanging with the kids at the Microsoft Imagine Cup

For the past several days I have been in Sydney as one of the judges in Microsoft’s annual student software contest called the Imagine Cup. This is the tenth year of the event that brings together several hundred mostly college students from around the world. I got to see dozens of presentations and talk to dozens of other geeky kids. To say that I was in my element is an understatement. It gives me lots of hope for our youth.

The kids had to write apps that were around a theme of “imagine a world where technology solves the world’s toughest problems” and they didn’t shy away from tackling many of them head-on. There were more than five different apps to try to help blind people navigate their neighborhoods, and other apps dealt with poverty, hunger, health, and the environment. Each team had to prepare a pitch video for the initial judging round and then do an in-person presentation and demo of their technology.

This year’s competition was a fifth female contestants, and I got to see several all-women teams from Oman (pictured here), Qatar and Ecuador. That gives me a lot of hope: back when I was in engineering school, the women could be counted on one hand.

Some of the projects were very elaborate, using Kinect sensor data being fed to some cloud-based service and being controlled from a smartphone. Others were fairly traditional software projects. Of course, Microsoft encourages the teams to use the broadest possible selection of its own software tools, and there are different contests for general software development and gaming and phone-based projects. The gaming judges had a tough assignment: they actually had to spend time playing the games. I had to settle for Powerpoint and demos with my teams.

Part of my job as a judge was to make sure that the demos actually were working code. For those of you that have ever demo’ed something to me, you know I like to kick the tires and pull wires to make sure that the stuff is real. I was very pleased with one team, when I noticed they were running it from a local Web server, brought up their code to show me that they had done the work, they just didn’t trust the local Internet connection to give them the bandwidth they needed. That was delicious.

Many of the teams didn’t really understand the business context judging requirement: talking to old hands who have been to prior contests I found out that the Imagine Cup rules see-saw back and forth between technical and business achievements. But then others got some of the business flavor almost instinctively, as you see in this photo of the Omani all-girls team. The red head scarves are coordinated with the logo on their shirts and their logos on their slide deck: all had to do with their blood bank software. I daresay there are few established corporations that could match that level of polish.

And given that kids came from all over the world, we got to listen to some very heavy accented English. I could tell that the best teams had their techie lead speak English. Those that relied on having a marketing person as the “face” (or better yet, voice) of the team had problems when it came time to answer the judges’ technical questions and had to lose time in translating them into the native language and then explaining the answers to us.

You could also see that the countries that have a longer history of educating their kids in English were doing better: Singapore, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. Given that the contest is held in English, this is no surprise. What I found interesting is that almost all of the engineering schools around the world have English classes. Even in China and Germany: one professor told me that “we have to be competitive and English is the universal language of software.”

Here are some pictures from Sydney and here is the link to the video submissions for some of the teams.

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Going to Sydney in July for the Imagine Cup 2012 Finals

I have been asked to be one of the judges for Microsoft’s 10th Imagine Cup software competition. This brings together students in high school and colleges from around the world to compete in several different categories, including best software for mobile phones, Xbox games, and general IT apps. You can see a full list of the finalists here.

Some of the code is pretty, well, imaginative. Team FlashFood from the United States created a real-time food recovery solution for families in need, using web-applications and smart phones to coordinate same day food donation deliveries. This year, many of the teams have created prototypes addressing health issues. For example, the Australian team developed a cloud-powered, mobile-hybrid stethoscope (pictured) for early detection of pneumonia, the #1 early childhood killer. Other teams, such as the Software Design team from Canada, were passionate about addressing environmental concerns; this team created a sensor system that will determine when to turn fans and lights on and off. Controlled by sensor or by voice this system is already proven to save electricity in their lab at school and the voice control also makes it suitable for someone with a disability to control their environment.

If you are going to be part of the competition or near Sydney in early July, let me know!

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Things that weren’t sold this past holiday season

The announcement of a long-expected Verizon iPhone has highlighted my own frustration with handheld gadgets. And while it is too late (or way too early) to compile a holiday shopping list, it does seem as if the tech industry is MIA this past holiday season. To wit:

— I want a smartphone that I can use as a Wifi hot spot to easily tether (as the term is called) at least a couple of computers to use its broadband Internet connection. The word “easily” is the challenge. Yes, there are Android phones that can do this, but the process is fraught with bad software. Yes, there is the Sprint MyFi that is yet another separate device and data plan. And I don’t want to hire a lawyer and an accountant to figure out what the charges and which data plan I will need to do this, either.

— I want an eReader from someone other than Amazon that allows me to effortlessly add and share my eBooks with others. The Barnes and Noble Nook comes closest, but its sharing features also require the lawyer to read all the fine print, exceptions and limitations. Why not just buy the Kindle and wait until Amazon gets its sharing act together? I want to give someone else a chance and support my local bookstores at the same time. The Google eBooks uses Adobe rights management, which is also bad software. For some eBook downloads, I need three separate accounts to start reading my selection. This is a mess. None of these devices will keep Borders afloat.

— I want a 7-inch tablet from someone other than Apple (yes, I know the iPad has a bigger screen but it is only a matter of time before they have something smaller) that doesn’t require a data plan or a two-year subscription to reduce its $600 price tag. It defies all things reasonable that I can I buy two netbook computers with bigger screens for the same money, just because they are running the non-touch versions of XP or even Windows 7.

— I want Google to figure out which browser-based OS is going to win: Android or Chrome. They need to put all their might behind one of them if they are going to get anywhere with Microsoft. This perplexes me and I wonder why no one else has raised this issue.

Yes, I know I am being ornery and difficult. But it does seem that the tech industry really continues to miss the mark. I shouldn’t complain, because these misses just mean more work for me to explain why all this other stuff doesn’t work as intended.

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SearchVirtualDesktop: Windows Intune shows promise at first glance

Windows Intune is Microsoft’s cloud-based antivirus software, and like other cloud antivirus products on the market that I reviewed earlier for Techtarget, it’s a bit rough around the edges. The product is a combination of Windows Defender anti-malware protection and the Windows System Center and Forefront management services. You can read my review published this week here.

 

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