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.

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!

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.

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.


Mediablather: Are Google’s Best Days Behind It?

Has Google’s time passed? A recent article in Forbes Magazine suggests that it may have. Google has been unable to combat the Facebook threat with a social strategy that has captured users’ fancy, despite its recent attempts to acquire knowledge in this area.. The company’s stock has been stagnant for nearly three years and its growth rate is slowing. Does this mean Google is over the hill?

In our MediaBlather podcast this week with Paul Gillin, we talk about this and how Google has failed to capture any juice with social media.  You can download the show here.

I have a dream (c. 2010)

Nearly thirty years it has been and our desktops are still not free. For thirty years, our lives are still sadly crippled by the manacles of frequent crashes and by numerous security problems. Thirty years we have lived on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. We are still languishing in the corners of American society and find ourselves exiles in our own technological land.

So I have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. Windows has to go from our desktops. It is time for Linux and Apple’s OS X to play a more major role, and for Microsoft to get with the program and fix this broken buggy whip.

I say to you today, my readers, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of productivity. I have a dream, that all PCs will live up to their original marketing potential, and free their owners from the devils of DOS and frequent application crashes. I have a dream that one day our desktop PCs, sweltering in the heat of their overclocked CPUs, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and reliable operations.

I have a dream that one day all of my applications will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood and play nicely on my PC, no matter what version of drivers, browser add-ons and video adapter is inside my computer.

I have a dream that your and my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the version of operating system running on their desktop computer, or by which browser they use to access the Internet, but by the content of their Web sites and emails.

I have a dream today.

This is my hope. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day from frequent reboots, free from infected bot nets, free from crashed applications and inexplicable blue screens and error messages.

How I wish most of us could free ourselves from the tyranny of Windows and have a desktop operating system that didn’t crash frequently, could support our legacy browsers, were easy to install and wasn’t a security sinkhole. Dream on.

Maybe some day we will be able to say “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free of Windows at last!”

I first penned this column eight years ago, in honor of Dr. King’s famous speech at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial back in August 1963. I thought you might enjoy the column, as my way of showing my respect for his memory and fantastic oratory. Sadly, I had to change very little of the text between then and now.

Tom’s Hardware: Visual Studio 2010 for Serious Web-Based Apps

After parts of it were in>beta for almost a year, Microsoft’s Visual Studio 2010 is now available for download here and purchase in a variety of versions. Visual Studio 2010 runs on all versions of Windows since XP with SP3. It contains a long list of innovations and improvements, not the least of which is full support for multiple monitors. The full kit takes up more than seven gigabytes on your hard drive, and installing it is very easy, almost a one-click process as it loads the dozens of supporting tools and interfaces.

You can read the entire review here on Tom’s Hardware.

ITworld: XP to Windows 7 migration: 6 tools to help you make the move

If you skipped the big upgrade to Vista you can now consider yourself fortunate that a number of vendors have stepped up to help you migrate your desktops from XP to Windows 7. Microsoft doesn’t make it easy to make the move from XP without some pain and suffering, but does have one tool that can automate the process, along with at least five other vendors.

In a story I did for ITworld, I review the tools here.