Colin's Journal: A place for thoughts about politics, software, and daily life.

ExpenseClam
Easy-to-use business expense tracker for Android.

ExpenseClam for Android

August 31st, 2010

Publishing to the Android Market

Stonehenge

Stonehenge

Two weeks ago I published my first application to the Android Market.  LibraryThingScanner is an extremely simple application that speeds up adding books to LibraryThing.  The app launches the Barcode Scanner application to scan the ISBN, followed by the web browser to bring up the relevant LibraryThing search page.  The app does so little I’ve been in two minds as to whether it was worth publishing at all, especially as the LibraryThing website does not work particularly well on an Android phone (for example continuously popping up the virtual keyboard).

Once I’d coughed up the required $25 for the privilege of publishing to the market I found the process very straight forward.  There are certainly some quirks, such as being able to upload two screen shots or no screen shots, but the level of information required was very low.  It’s peculiar that I find uploading my software to the internet at large, with a potential audience of nearly two billion people, a minor step, whereas publishing onto the market felt like a more significant thing, despite the comparatively small potential audience of a few million.

I’m glad that I did take the plunge.  There was an initial spike in downloads as soon as I published the application, reaching 126 downloads and 97 active installs in a matter of a few hours.  Since then things have levelled off and the application is averaging 17 new active installs per day out of 35 new downloads.  I don’t know how accurate the statistics are for Android market application installs, but they are much more useful than any number of downloads for other software I’ve published online.

Seeing the number of active installs slowly creeping up, seeing the ratings (very slowly) coming in and now receiving my first comment (thankfully positive) makes the feedback loop from users much more satisfying than the very occasional email I receive regarding my other software.  It’ll be interesting to see how things carry on longer term and what kind of reaction anything else I may publish receives.

June 15th, 2010

It’s not fragmentation – it’s progress

There have been a lot of articles recently accusing Google of dropping the ball with Android by creating “fragmentation” within the Android platform.  This references either the number of base O/S versions (currently three versions make up 99.5% of active Android phones) or the fact that HTC, Motorola, Sony and others often put some of their own software on top of Android.

Yorkshire Windmill

Yorkshire Windmill

This trend of complaining about fragmentation has now extended as far as complaining about the iPhone OS (recently re-branded as iOS).  This new complaint is that Apple has also somehow fragmented their platform by introducing new devices with different hardware capabilities, in particular screen resolutions and densities (think iPad versus iPhone 4).

While it makes developer’s lives easier to have a single hardware platform to target, it’s also something that we are not used to.  From the earliest days of home computers there has been a huge variety of hardware and software to contend with.  Today’s desktop landscape is no different – developers need to decide which basic platform (Windows, MacOS, Linux) and what versions (Windows XP, Vista, 7?) of those platforms they are willing to support.

The development of larger and higher resolution screens isn’t fragmentation – it’s progress.  The Android platform provides a set of easy to use mechanisms that mostly make the extra size and screen density transparent to the developer.  Similarly the SDK makes it easy to know when you are using a feature that does not exist on earlier versions of the platform.  You can then either make it optional, or if you truly need such a feature, drop support for older phones and be glad that Google’s rapid pace of development makes your application possible at all.

When considering the mobile application environment today I think there are far more pressing issues than additional phone screen sizes to be concerned about.  The 30% cut that Apple and Google take from every application sold, Apple’s active censorship of artists and arbitrary banning of applications are far bigger and more pressing issues.

June 6th, 2010

Android, the beginning

In some respects I’m rather late to the Android / smart phone game. Many of my colleagues carry an iPhone, with a small (but growing) number carrying an Android phone some sort. After the first few weeks of using the HTC desire I can now say that I would struggle to go back to a normal phone.

The killer app for me is not the broad selection of applications, many of which fail to live up to their initial promise, but rather those few applications that keep me in better touch with the world. From news applications for the New York Times, Evening Standard and Guardian through Facebook, Twitter and email it’s much easier to keep up with the world as well as friends. When sharing a photo with the world is two taps away the barrier to doing so is hugely reduced in comparison to the desktop experience of going home, plugging in the camera, finding the right photo and finally uploading it.

The software on the desire has a few glitches on occasion, but for such a young platform with such grand ambitions, it is very usable and achieves a great deal. For example the automatic synchronisation of phone numbers from Facebook into the phone provides a huge amount of value. The amount of alternative software available for core functionality is less surprising than how well it integrates with the overall platform. It’s only rarely (and usually from HTC’s customization) that new software fails to fully integrate with existing apps.

In summary I’m extremely pleased to have caught up with the world and joined the throngs of start phone toting individuals.

January 7th, 2010

Enterprise Systems versus the Web

Leaf in a frozen puddle.  Taken in the Petit Jean Park, Arkansas, USA.

Leaf in a frozen puddle. Taken in the Petit Jean Park, Arkansas, USA.

Tim Bray’s assertion that IT professionals are implementing Enterprise Systems wrongly is a fairly seductive argument at first.  The one sentence summary of his argument is:

The community of developers whose work you see on the Web, who probably don’t know what ADO or UML or JPA even stand for, deploy better systems at less cost in less time at lower risk than we see in the Enterprise.

He goes on to list companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc as examples of doing it the right way.

I don’t agree with his analysis.  As commenters to the post were quick to point out, comparing a list of failed enterprise projects (including ones such as the NHS National Programme for IT that stretches beyond software solutions) to those few internet firms that have thrived is not instructive.  For every Twitter (rumoured to be barely making a profit) there are hundreds of failed internet start-ups.  IT department do not have the luxury to fail projects as frequently as start-ups fold.  While governance of enterprise projects is often slow and cumbersome, it’s designed to improve the odds of success above this base level.

The assertion that UML and other enterprise IT tools and techniques are not used by internet firms is unsubstantiated.  A quick search reveals that Google, Amazon and eBay have the enterprise role of “architect” among their job descriptions.  I suspect all of the mature internet firms have similar roles, and use many of the same enterprise techniques as more traditional institutions.

As Erik Engbrecht points out, comparing the legacy-system ridden architecture of a typical enterprise to the “internet app is our company” environment of Twitter is also not useful.  In many cases the quick dirty approach used to develop internet applications is the technique that creates the spaghetti architecture found within many enterprises.

There are undoubtedly lessons from internet companies that could be learnt by enterprise system professionals.  Many of the technologies used in the enterprise are overly complex in comparison to internet based solutions.  For example the poor use of SOA while integrating systems brings additional cost with limited benefits.  However such learning is not a revolution, and will not reduce the complexity of implementing enterprise systems substantially.

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Copyright 2009 Colin Stewart

Email: colin@owlfish.com