Head in the Clouds: SaaS, PaaS, and Cloud Strategy

October 4, 2016  10:52 AM

It’s time for developers to become experts in artificial intelligence

Joel Shore Joel Shore Profile: Joel Shore
Application development, Artificial intelligence, Windows Azure

We’ve written many stories over the past year about cognitive computing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence — which are all, for lack of a better term, kissin’ cousins of modern-day computing. These are all growing in importance and taking on a larger presence. That means the big boys are going all in.

This week’s entry into artificial intelligence (AI) is Microsoft, which just launched its new Microsoft AI and Research Group, staffed with more than 5,000 people. This follows closely Microsoft’s late-August acquisition of AI startup Genee and September’s revelation that field programmable gate array chips are now deployed in its Azure datacenters worldwide. That translates into highly scalable AI.

If you are an applications developer, You must add AI, cognitive computing, machine learning, and analytics expertise to your skills portfolio.

According to Microsoft, the mission behind this major investment is the “democratization” of AI for individuals and organizations, broadening accessability, increasing its usefulness, and “ultimately enabling new ways to solve some of society’s toughest challenges.” Keep that word, democratizing, close at hand; Microsoft is using it frequently in its corporate communications.

The buzzword is fine, but what does democratization encompass? According to the company’s statements, it’s comprised of four key aspects, agents, applications, services, and infrastructure. That doesn’t seem very different than the garden-variety cloud computing we’re all dealing with today, suggesting natural evolution.

  • Agents, such as Microsoft’s digital personal assistant Cortana, is intended to harness AI’s capabilities to change human and computer interaction.
  • Applications, ranging from smartphone photo apps to Skype and Office 365, will be infused with cognitive capabilities — vision and speech — though what that means in practical terms isn’t clear.
  • Services, including the aforementioned vision and speech, along with analytics, will be made available to application developers.
  • Infrastructure, essentially on Azure-based AI supercomputers, will be available to any individual and organization.

What’s really going on here? A likely underlying strategy is to inject new life into the Windows universe. We are living at a time where the importance, influence, and ubiquitousness of Windows is on the wane. With the failure of the Windows phone platform (several times over), it’s easy for businesses to go all in on iOS and Android for their mobile computing needs. The Microsoft Surface hardware business is a last gasp effort to keep Windows alive other than on the desktop.

We are living at a time where the importance, influence, and ubiquitousness of Windows is on the wane.

The path to future career success is coming into clear focus. Even the White House is requesting more information about AI, a clear indication of the technology’s importance. If you are an applications developer, You must add AI, cognitive computing, machine learning, and analytics expertise to your skills portfolio. Microsoft itself is going into a hiring frenzy to transform its AI vision into reality.

What is your comfort level with AI? Are you currently working on projects that involve AI and cognitive computing? What do you expect the future to look like? Share your thoughts and concerns; we’d like to hear from you.

September 19, 2016  2:10 PM

Who should build tomorrow’s cloud and mobile apps?

Joel Shore Joel Shore Profile: Joel Shore
Cloud Applications, Development tools

It hasn’t taken long — only about a year — for so-called no-code/low-code application development tools to go from loathed to loved. But, as someone who makes your living as a professional software developer, how do you feel about departmental, line-of-business employees using NCLC tools to build applications? Is NCLC a boon or a threat?

The opinions I’ve heard from developers span a wide spectrum.

The current thinking is that if we can shift the building of mundane reports, query apps, or other batch processing to LOB workers who have some understanding of IT, let’s go ahead and do it. The LOB department gets what it wants (or at least what it thinks it wants) and IT’s developers are freed from the mundane to do development on projects that are genuine more interesting or crucial.

Sure, this makes sense, but there will always need to be a degree of oversight from IT, perhaps to make secure connections to the corporation’s databases or implement access control. And there’s the matter of who pays for the compute resources and whether they are provisioned in the most effective and economical way.

Do this and, the theory says, everybody wins. That could be especially true for the IT director or CIO who can change his or her image from one of recalcitrant obstacle to forward-thinking innovator.

I’ve also heard opinions that building applications is the domain of developers and should remain that way. While that was nearly always the case in the ancient days of IT before the cloud, that view, in my opinion, is simply out of step with the times. In an era when apps are sometimes updated nearly daily (compared with perhaps every two years in the old mainframe world), whatever tools and staff get you there with speed and competence are going to win the day.

Python, Java, Swift, C++, R, Scala, and a horde of other languages are not going to meet their demise anytime soon, but it’s clear that NCLC tools , built on a foundation of templates, microservices, and APIs are insulating LOB departments from the raw plumbing that you and I know makes all of this go.

So, professional applications developer, let’s hear from you. What do really think of NCLC tools? Do they free you from tasks you don’t like doing so you can work on more-interesting projects? Are they threatening the security of your organization’s data and infrastructure? Are NCLC tools dumbing-down the art form of application development to a point where anyone can do it? None of that sugar coating — tell us what you really think; we’d like to hear from you.

September 7, 2016  3:39 PM

Hit the road, jack

Joel Shore Joel Shore Profile: Joel Shore

It’s official. I’ve just returned from watching Apple announce the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. And yes, the headphone jack is gone. This is a family-friendly blog, so, I won’t say what I’m really thinking about that change. There is news for developers, however. And that news is good.

While the talk was about the new Apple Watch, and the vast improvements to the camera and audio aspects of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, applications developers did get recognized: APIs were mentioned twice. Granted, this was a product launch, not a developer seminar, but any mention of APIs in a mainstream discussion is darn good.

The first major change of note to developers is with the iPhone’s Home button. It has been completely redesigned to make it, in Apple’s words, “customizable and more responsive.” Beginning with the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, the Home button is now force sensitive and works with a new taptic engine to provide feedback. To accomplish that, the button is no longer the push-down/pop-up mechanical affair we’ve dealt with for the past several years. It’s all solid state. Fewer mechanical parts means fewer things to break and fewer places where water can infiltrate, helping Apple achieve an overall design goal of dust and water resistance that complies with the IP67 protection standard.

Developers can leverage the new Home button’s taptic capability through the Apple Taptic Engine API. That means, according to Apple, that third-party developers can “create new feelings and experiences,” whatever those might be. I’m not imaginative enough to conjure up how an app might use this new Home button capability, but, it’s there if you can find a use for it.

The second mention of APIs came during the presentation of several amazing new camera capabilities. In addition to supporting a wider color gamut than before, the iPhone 7 models (at last) support RAW and DNG (digital negative) formats.

JPEG is no good for serious photographic work because it is an 8-bit file format that uses the small sRGB color space and compresses the image every time it’s saved, throwing out data. RAW, on the other hand, is simply an unprocessed, uncompressed pass-through of what the camera sensor sees, essential for high-quality work. It’s usually in 16-bit format that contains 14 bits of data. And RAW doesn’t compress the vast range of colors the sensor sees into the miserably small sRGB color space. On top of that, DNG is Adobe’s attempt to place a standardized wrapper around the many hundreds of proprietary RAW formats that exist industrywide for various camera models.

That Apple is supporting RAW and DNG is thrilling to serious photographers. Even better, if you’re a developer of a photo-editing, post-processing, or special-effects app (and there are many, many hundreds of them), this is a golden opportunity to recast your application as something that’s on the leading edge of smartphone photography. Yes, indeed, Apple is opening up a whole new vista for app developers.

Curiously, not one word was said during Apple’s event about how the new iPhones function as telephones. That function seems to have been forgotten as smartphones evolve into communicators, controllers, music players, and game platforms. Yes, lots of games were demonstrated, including the arrival of Super Mario and Pokemon Go to the iPhone platform for the first time ever. If you are a game developer, the new, powerful graphics engine is right up your alley.

As for elimination of the headphone jack, I don’t like it one bit, even though there will be an audio-jack-to-Lightning adapter bundled with each phone to support legacy analog earpods and headphones. That doesn’t solve my desire to keep the device plugged into a charger and into my stereo system simultaneously. It’s partially a push to sell Apple’s new $169 wireless earpods. No one has explained to me how you’ll protect against loss if one (or both) pop out while you’re jogging.

What do you see as the app development opportunities in the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus? Have you been working with the iOS 10 SDK? Share your opinions; we’d like to hear from you.

September 1, 2016  10:22 PM

Apple App Store gets a long-overdue scrubbing

Joel Shore Joel Shore Profile: Joel Shore
Apple, IOS

When technology vendors do dumb things, you can pretty much count on reading a gleeful retelling of the sordid details in this space. After all, if there’s one thing I’m never short of, it’s opinions. Conversely, when those same vendors do something laudable, I feel obligated to play it both ways and say well done. Today, it’s Apple’s turn over a smart move it’s making in the App Store.

Starting Sept. 7, Apple is pulling the plug on apps that appear to have been abandoned, are multiple iOS versions behind in compatibility updates, or simply don’t measure up to Apple’s grand vision. That’s good news all around. In Apple’s own words, “We are implementing an ongoing process of evaluating apps, removing apps that no longer function as intended, don’t follow current review guidelines, or are outdated.” I urge you to visit that link and read the information carefully.

If you’re a lazy developer who hasn’t invested the necessary time to keep your app up to date for changes in screen sizes and resolution, or leverage features added to iOS over the last several years, you don’t deserve to have your app listed. If that’s you, it’s time for some Swift action lest your app get the boot. Existing users will not lost any app functionality, services will not be interrupted, and in-app purchases will remain enabled. As for new users, well, there won’t be any.

For developers who do invest the time, this is great news. With more than two million apps currently listed and roughly 100,000 new app additions or updates submitted weekly, culling the catalog should help make those that remain a bit more discoverable. And, as you know, the inability for apps to be discovered easily has plagued the App Store for years.

If the long arm of Apple reaches out to you, be warned. You have but 30 days to make it right. After that, the app is zapped. There’s also an even more potentially dire situation for you: If it’s discovered your app crashes on startup, it gets removed from the app store immediately with no grace period.

But wait, there’s more. In the letter that Apple sent to developers (and made public by iOS developer and good samaritan Jake Marsh) the company said app names can no longer exceed 50 characters in length. That means no more stuffing desirable search terms in an app name, regardless of what that app does. It’s a good way to bring some discipline to a Wild West app shopping environment.

Though I don’t know what pushed Apple toward this posture, it’s welcome, especially if you’re a developer hoping and praying you can generate a revenue stream from your beloved app that just can’t seem to get noticed.

Do you develop for the Apple App Store? What do you think of Apple’s desire to clean house? Are your apps up to date? If not, why not? Share your thoughts with us; we’d like to hear from you.

August 18, 2016  9:00 AM

Ransomware is reaching for new targets. Protect thyself.

Joel Shore Joel Shore Profile: Joel Shore

No doubt you’ve read news stories about individual consumers, police departments, and now even hospitals having their computers and data victimized by ransomware , an exploit in which the attacker “kidnaps” and encrypts the victim’s data, demanding payment for the decryption key. As a developer, is there anything you can do about it? The short answer may be no.

So far in 2016, hospitals in California, Kentucky, Maryland, and Kansas have been hit with ransomware attacks. In February, according to NBC News, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center had no choice but to fork over $17,000 to the bad guys in order to get its systems back. That’s a big jump from the typical $300 that an individual consumer might be forced to pay. Even a NASCAR team was victimized, forced to pay up to get its data back. It’s enough to drive you in circles, or ovals in NASCAR’s case.

How widespread are ransomware attacks? Consider this June 2016 statement from security software maker Kaspersky. “The number of users attacked with encryption ransomware is soaring, with 718,536 users hit between April 2015 and March 2016: an increase of 5.5 times compared to the same period in 2014-2015.” Yikes. During the same period, users attacked with blockers (ransomware that locks screens) decreased by 13.03%, from 1,836,673 in 2014-2015 to 1,597,395 in 2015-2016, according to Kaspersky.

There’s more. Cisco warns that businesses are unprepared. Security vendor RSA says cloud service providers are becoming a popular target. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services went so far as to publish information on ransomware, including how to tell if HIPAA has been violated.

Unfortunately, the ubiquitous nature of the Internet of Things technology makes it a completely new fertile ground for ransomware attacks. Earlier this month, two security researchers demonstrated how a residential thermostat can be taken over by ransomware, locking it until a ransom was paid in the form of a Bitcoin. Keep in mind this was nothing more than a proof-of-concept demonstration. But, you know where this is likely headed.

The only way to deal with ransomware is to prevent it in the first place, according Malwarebytes Labs. That means running security software, resisting the urge to click alluring links, and backing up one’s data frequently and regularly. Unfortunately, as an applications developer — and an honest one at that — there isn’t really any proactive or anticipatory defense you can build into an app.

As an app developer, are you advising your organization about the dangers, causes, and prevention of ransomware? Have you or your company been a victim? Share your thoughts; we’d like to hear from you.

August 2, 2016  2:58 PM

SiriKit, iMessage open new vistas for mobile app developers

Joel Shore Joel Shore Profile: Joel Shore
Apple iOS, Application development

Ask Siri “does this make me look fat,” and she’ll answer, “It seems like humans are preoccupied with this. In my dimension, we are more concerned with grey matter that corporeal matter.”

Sigh. I would be nice if developers of mobile apps had access to such profound insight. And now you do. At last, the forthcoming iOS 10 includes SiriKit and an API. You’ll also be able to create app extensions that let users interact with your app directly within messages.

As Apple puts it, “SiriKit enables your iOS 10 apps to work with Siri, so users can get things done with your content and services using just their voice.” But wait, there’s more. “In addition to extending Siri’s support for messaging, photo search and phone calls to more apps, SiriKit also adds support for new services, including ride booking and personal payments.”

Through SiriKit, your app builds an extension that communicates with Siri, as Apple explains, even when your app isn’t running. That extension registers with specific domains and intents. As an example, Apple discusses a messaging app that would register to support the Messages domain, and the intent to send a message. Siri does the heavy lifting, handling the user interaction, including voice and natural language recognition.

Six areas are predefined by Apple for third-party Siri interaction, including ride booking, photo search, VoIP call initiation, messaging, payments, and workouts.

To jump in the fray, you’ll need to download the Xcode 8 beta, which includes the iOS 10 SDK. At the bottom of the SiriKit page, you’ll also want to check out links to SiriKit programming guide, intents framework reference, intents UI reference, and tutorials.

As for messages, according to Apple, “Users will have easy access to your apps without having to leave Messages. They can conveniently share content, edit photos, play games, send payments, and collaborate with friends within a custom interface that you design.”

I certainly don’t care about the game play aspect or the ability to paste in stickers, but collaboration with work colleagues could provide powerful new capabilities for enterprise-class applications. Editing photos can also be leveraged for applications in, say, the insurance industry, where an adjuster can make annotations when photographing a damaged vehicle.

There’s a ton of documentation for creation of applications with iOS 10, including code samples, framework references, DemoBots for games, and much more. Time to get reading. And coding.

Have you already started building new apps or updating existing apps for iOS 10? What capabilities are you adding? Let’s get the discussion going; we’d like to hear from you.

And no, I don’t think it makes me look fat.

July 26, 2016  1:38 PM

Survey says: Be careful what you ask for

Joel Shore Joel Shore Profile: Joel Shore
Application development, SaaS applications, Surveys

With the ability to quickly conjure up an online interactive survey thanks to software as a service (SaaS) technology, any developer or business can almost instantly start polling potentially hundreds or millions of respondents with dozens of questions. Do you really need all that data?

Designing surveys whose questions do not introduce bias or ambiguity on the part of the survey sponsor is not an easy task. It’s a skill, a profession. You’ve got to figure out what questions to ask and how to word them properly. You need to provide for all possible answers (including “prefer not to answer” and “don’t know/don’t care”). You can’t allow answer choices to overlap (0-10 and 10-20 instead of 11-20). If you’re tasked with building a survey, you might want to brush up on the seven sins of survey question writing and how to avoid them. Of course, there are hundreds of other online resources.

Questioning the questions might not be an app developer’s job, but your logical mind is likely better-suited for finding the kinds of mistakes that could render a survey’s results useless.

What got me thinking about applying a developer’s keen eye to the logic of survey questions? It’s the surprisingly invasive nature of a survey I just took on the subject of interchangeable lens DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras.

At 40 minutes, the survey was way too long and complex. But, what really bothered me was the invasive nature of some introductory questions: race, marital status, household income, number of children, technology devices in my home (including Segway — really?), and my favorite, “general statements about different attitudes you might have toward life in general.”

Are these really germane to a survey on cameras and lenses? Perhaps. Even if they are valid from a statistical analysis perspective, they sure seem nosy. Let me put it another way. If this was a survey about which cloud application development tools you like best, would you be willing to answer those very same questions?

Have you been asked to build surveys for your company? Did you find logic errors or other problems with any of the questions? If so, did you speak up? Share your thoughts; we’d like to hear from you.

July 19, 2016  12:21 PM

Android fragmentation: An app developer’s worst nightmare?

Joel Shore Joel Shore Profile: Joel Shore
Android, Fragmentation, IOS, Mobile Application Development

When you write an app for Apple’s iOS there’s no ambiguity. To say the operating system and its distribution are tightly controlled is an understatement. It’s Apple’s way or the highway. Not so with Android. Fragmentation and lack of corresponding offerings from device makers is out of control. It’s a complete mess for developers.

How bad is it? It’s bad enough for Salesforce to declare that it will support only Samsung Galaxy and Google Nexus devices. That’s pretty drastic and should send a clear and frightening message to all that play in the Android space to get their acts in sync. Indeed, Android fragmentation is hurting its case for widespread enterprise adoption, a problem that iOS does not face.

The problem is years in the making. With each maker of devices that run Android able to tweak the user interface as they see fit, and their power as to when — or even if — to launch any new version, the permutations in terms of the operating system, its many versions, and the cornucopia of devices on which it runs are likely in the thousands. It’s not something app developers should have to put up with.

Consider some recent research from Statista. For the period May 2 to May 9, 2016, the distribution of Android versions that accessed the Google Play store looked like this: KitKat 4.4, 32.5%; Lollipop 5.1, 19.4%; Lollipop 5.0, 16.2%; Jelly Bean 4.1.x, 7.2%; Jelly Bean 4.3, 2.9%; and smaller numbers from Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich, and Froyo.

Yes, it’s a mess. It’s a lot of different versions being used actively and concurrently. What really sticks out is that the largest group, KitKat, is two generations behind the most-recent Android version.

For the very same weeklong period, the breakdown of iOS devices that accessed the Apple App store looked like this: iOS 9, 84%; iOS 8, 11%, all earlier versions, 5%. (That last group includes my iPod touch 4th generation, which ceased getting updates after iOS 6.1.3.) As long as your app is compatible with iOS 8, you’ve got 95% of the market covered.

This is especially problematic because developers are writing for a base of billions of devices — 7.1 billion mobile phones in 2015 worldwide heading to 8.6 billion in 2021, according to Ericsson. That doesn’t include tablets, which adds nearly another two billion. This does contrast with legacy corporate applications that were intended to run on only one mainframe computer.

Fragmentation is an old story

OS fragmentation isn’t anything new. Many years ago, at a trade event at the New York Marriott Marquis, between mouthfuls of baby lamb chops and jumbo shrimp, I asked Bill Gates about his perception of the then-current state of Unix and what it meant for developers. “Unix is a hundred different things that don’t talk to each other,” he said.

The sentiment, if not the exact number, was right, of course. With Hewlett-Packard’s HP-UX, IBM’s AIX, Silicon Graphics’ IRIX, Sun Microsystems’ Solaris, Compaq’s Tru64, Apple’s A/ux, AT&T’s System V, SCO’s UnixWare, and others all in competition with each other, writing an application that ran well on all platforms bordered on impossibility. Add the messy ownership wars with Unix Systems Labs and Novell into the mix, and it gets even uglier.

As a mobile app developer, what are the roadblocks you run into when developing for Android? Does the proliferation of different versions from different vendors create problems? And in comparison, what is your experience with iOS? Share your thoughts; we’d like to hear from you.

June 28, 2016  8:10 PM

It’s prime time for API management

Joel Shore Joel Shore Profile: Joel Shore
API management, Application development

My grandson is just a tot, but he already understands the concept of multisource integration. Chicken nuggets from here, ketchup from there, a fork from, well, somewhere, and you’ve got yourself a comprehensive system. Call it the day-care version of APIs.

For us grown-ups, APIs make the world go round. My standard example is a culinary recipe app that pulls in data from numerous sources — weather, geographic, day of year, time of day, locally available farm-fresh veggies, supermarket promotions, user’s likes and dislikes — to recommend a recipe of the day to the app user. It’s a data integration example I can explain to anyone. And, of course, APIs make it possible.

Last week, Red Hat proved the increasing importance of APIs in app development beyond any doubt with its acquisition of API management tools vendor 3scale. In my exclusive joint interview with Mike Piech, Red Hat’s vice president of middleware, and 3scale CEO Steve Willmott, they explained why everything that developers touch is predicated upon APIs.

Willmott said over the last 18 months he had witnessed APIs becoming the backbone of many infrastructures, but that IT often lacked the means to manage, track, and secure their APIs. Piech agreed, saying that as recently as two years ago, API management rarely came up as a top-level requirement. That has changed as disparate infrastructures and services — on-premises, public and private cloud, software as a service, analytics as a service, data storage as a service, etc. all have to interoperate.

If it can be summed up in a single sentence, Willmott gets the gold medal, “APIs are the glue between on-premises and cloud-based components,” he said. I’ve thought of APIs more along the lines of conduits than glue, but Willmott is spot-on with his assessment.

The message here is not that APIs are hot or necessary. We all know that. What we’ve collectively not done superbly is manage the ever-growing collection or public and private APIs that enterprises purchase, subscribe to, or develop internally. Just as you need to know what keys are on that keychain in your pants pocket or handbag, you also need to know that your keychain is secure. API management is no different.

Cloud consultant David Linthicum is also an advocate of creating and instituting an active API management strategy. “API management should be a priority for any organization using the cloud,” he writes. He’s right.

It’s time for a robust discussion about APIs. What has APIs enabled that you could not do before? Who is testing your APIs for accuracy and security? And, to leverage the message of Red Hat’s 3scale acquisition, how are you managing your API portfolio. Share your thoughts; we’d like to hear from you.

June 13, 2016  9:52 AM

Bluetooth 5 is coming. Will your mobile apps leverage its new power?

Joel Shore Joel Shore Profile: Joel Shore
Bluetooth, Mobile Application Development

Wi-Fi is what we all talk about. It’s what we all write about. It’s built into every wireless device. Your apps depend on it. But, what about Bluetooth? If you haven’t recently thought about leveraging the power of Bluetooth in your apps, the time to think anew is here.

The launch of Bluetooth 5 is just a few days away (June 16). This is a big deal. Bluetooth 5 offers the promise of up to double the range and transfer speeds up to four times faster than the current incarnation of the technology.

According to Mark Powell, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (the organization that oversees the Bluetooth standard, its trademarks, and licensing), BT 5 will, “double the range and quadruple the speed of low energy Bluetooth transmissions.” But, that’s not all. BT 5 will also broaden its capabilities for connectionless services, such as location-relevant information and navigation.

That’s great news. A year ago, I wrote about how Florida’s Sarasota Memorial Health Care System was using Bluetooth Low Energy with iBeacon to pinpoint people’s precise current locations within the sprawling multistory facility and display that information on a tablet or smartphone using cloud-resident maps. Think of it as an interactive “you are here” handheld map to help prevent visitors from getting lost. Bluetooth works because it is highly precise. GPS, for example, doesn’t work nearly as well for determining elevation — which floor of a multistory building you’re currently on.

BT 5 is also beefs up its so-called “advertising packets” technology. This isn’t about product advertising, but about a device, such as a Bluetooth speaker being able to more easily say “I’m a speaker and I’m nearby,” in essence advertising its presence. This will help devices that aren’t already paired to more easily find each other.

I don’t yet know if BT 5 is an upgrade to existing hardware, or if new hardware will be required. If it’s the latter, the impact won’t happen until phones and other devices go through a couple of refresh cycles. The capability might be in Apple’s next set of phones, or not until 2017. It’s too early to know. Either way, Bluetooth shouldn’t be overlooked in your next mobile app development project.

Share the ways you’ve leveraged the power of Bluetooth and how extended range and faster transfer speeds could alter your thinking. We’d like to hear from you.

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