Posts tagged: Coding Horror

Accepting Google

Jeff Atwood (Coding Horror) correctly points out that when we refer to search engines, we are really only referring to one – google. With its easy to use, efficient and most importantly effective search functionality, there really is no reason to use another search engine.

Jeff raises a couple of valid points. With no viable competition, where is the incentive for them to improve the functionality.  It’s pleasant to see that google still invests time and money into improving features including the ability to personalise your search results. However, the question of how long they will keep doing this is worth asking…

The more interesting point that Jeff raises is:

“I’m a little surprised all the people who were so up in arms about the Microsoft “monopoly” ten years ago aren’t out in the streets today lighting torches and sharpening their pitchforks to go after Google.”

My view on this is straightforward. Yes, google is a monopoly on the search market. There is no viable competition. Yes, it possibly uses this position in the market to push itself out more and more to the masses.

However, the reason microsoft got into the bad books (at least for me) is that while it provided (or provides) fantastic software – it doesn’t treat its customers fairly. Budling Internet Explorer with windows is fine IF it also bundled Netscape/Firefox which was/is a strong competitor and the only reason people did not use them was lack of experience / knowledge of the option.

The reason google is successful is because it is the only viable choice. There is no other option. If Internet Explorer had no competitor. Then, its fine to include that exclude the others.

Then there is the unfairness in how Microsoft priced the products in relation to the number of issues / bugs that were in the product. Not to mention the feeling that, as customers, you were paying for the privilege of beta testing software.

As a software engineer, I am well aware of the issue around bugs. They are present, and always will be. That’s the nature of software. The issue is not just the number of bugs that are present in software shipped but also the amount of time it takes to resolve them.

It’s not the monopolisation of the market that “got them”. It was their attitude. The monopolisation of the market was the tool used to get them. Kinda like Al Capone being arrested for Tax evasion instead of all the other crimes he commited since that was the only way to get him.

Breaking Software Down

Jeff Atwood likens software development to tending a garden. I can relate to this. In fact, I would like to ask, if you have a nice plant in one of your gardens, how complicated is it to “copy” that across to another one?

I realise that I am moving away from the analogy here but there is an important concept here. Libraries were born out of the desire to share and distribute code to be re-used.

The idea for Remote Procedure Calls dates as far back as 1976. Microsoft brought along OLE and then COM made this more generic and better.

RPC is widely in use these days and there are several other mechanisms for inter process communication including CORBA, REST & SOAP.

I don’t think software is broken down into small enough components. *nix is great in that you can tag a whole bunch of commands together on the command line to do some amazing things. I have personally piped data through a dozen or so commands and scripts to do some interesting things.

If we could break everything down into individual components that could be linked together, we would have a massive arsenal of interoporable tools that each user can pick and choose to put together very powerful solutions.

How many times have you found a piece of software that does one thing really well, but fails in something else. Then found another piece of software that does the other thing really well.

For example, the extensibility of Firefox is fantastic but I love the rendering of Safari. I love the Contact Management within Evolution and the Mail capabilities of Thunderbird.

Why don’t we break each software down into each of it’s individual components (and I am not talking about libraries here) and allow them to be deployed as services usable by other pieces of software.

In other words, release the contact management capabilities of Evolution as a product of it’s own right with a pre-defined API that any application can link into (including perhaps a web interface). Release the Mail management component of Thunderbird as a service, Release GUI’s as a component. Then we can pick any GUI we want, link into a specific mail component and another addressbook component.

Do one thing and do it well. In fact, let’s take it one step further and release a public API for each software component – an API for Mail, one for Contact Management and so on.

Each software component can then be a black box that delivers this API.

Choice can be a bad thing if it makes it difficult to choose – Subclipse vs Subversive is a good example of this. Let us however, not confuse choice with flexibility.

Let’s say that you want to find all the files within a folder modified within the last 3 days containing the text “abracadabra” and then replace all occurences in those files of the world “super”  with “hyper”.

To do this in linux, all you would do is chain find (to identify files modified in the last 3 days), grep (to identify only the files that contain “abracadabra”) and sed (to do the replacement).

If you know these commands well enough, you could chain something together in half a minute or so. You could probably figure out how to do this with the search tools in Windows within a minute or so but where this really shines is if there are thousands of files that needs to be processed. With other search tools, you would have to wait for the original search results to be returned before running to replace operation. This takes up the users time.

With the chaining of commands, I have run it and worked on something else while it completes.

Let me visualise a brave new world:

In this world, all software would be interoperable components. For example, there would be components for:

  • Mail account management (Perhaps genericised into configuration management)
  • Text composition (usage for mail, documents, plain text et al)
  • Text reading (again, usable for mail, documents, plain text et al)
  • Spam Filtering (already available to some extent)
  • Contact Management (optionally linked into organisation’s LDAP server)
  • Task Management (Standalone Mylyn if you know the product)
  • Scheduling (or calendering if you prefer that term)

If all of these components were interoperable, then there would a GUI that is generic and could bring all of these together. In this way, the people working on each of the components could concentrate on doing one thing and one thing well.

If we then start working on public API’s in a collaborative fashion, each of the component could be fleshed out to be as flexible and complete as necessary to gain maximum benefit.

If these components provided the services as a network based API, it would also allow for the components to be distributed across a network providing redundancy and efficiency. This makes it easier to turn each desktop into more of dump terminal concentrating purely on user interaction and getting closer to the invisible interface.

Software as a service has taken a step in the right direction. Can we take a leap and have software component as a service…

Invisible Interface

I am a fairly avid reader of Jeff Atwood’s Blog and the post on Is Email = Efail post was particularly interesting. This led me on to Tantek Çelik post and several other articles relating to this.

The HCI (Human Computer Interface) has always intrigued me. This was partly due to the fact that I never enjoyed working with it – adjusting all those widgets by a few pixels so things could fit and it might look that little bit cleaner. Thinking about where a particular field should go and how it would all fit together was a little too bothersome for my liking. Precisely the reason why I enjoyed web development. Someone else could work out all the aesthetics and all I had to do was plumb in the functionality behind that.

Of course, it is never quite that straightforward – there was often plenty of to and fro before the interface was nailed down. However, the worrying of where something should go could be left largely to someone else.

It turns out however, that (like with most everything else in life) – I am very much opinionated about the user interface and design. The only difference is that actually doing the work does not excite me – but the concepts do.

In Tantek’s original post, he points out:

“The fewer fields in an interface, the lower the cognitive load.”

This is something that is vital to Interface design but something that is easily missed.

It was pleasant when I went back to one of our first high profile projects – megabus and checked the user interface on there. The number of fields on there truly was minimal. In fact, there was originally only one field on there and this had a reasonable default value. All the other fields are drop downs. There are now three fields on the uk version and two on the us version of the site. All with sensible defaults.

The other advantage of the megabus system is that when you hit search, the results are usually returned under a second. This is with a very complex algorithm to calculate the availability/pricing and around two searches happening every second. At peak, we have handled up to around 5 searches a second with the results being returned in under two seconds.

After this page, there are no more fields for entry apart from when you make payment. The benefits from the simple user interface and fast search response is, at least in my view, one of the key reasons for the success of the site bringing in people from all walks of life. This includes students as well as old age pensioners who learnt how to use computers and the internet just to be able to book megabus.com tickets.

It did get me thinking thought about the perfect user interface… Is it possible to reduce the interface down to nothing…?

Installation of Thunderbird/Firefox has a good example of user interfaces that can be removed. In particular, I am referring to the import from interface…

Import Data During Thunderbird Install

Import Data During Thunderbird Install

While this is a useful step, why does Thunderbird not do this in the background, find out what other applications are installed, do the import anyway (if possible) from any and all applications, merge them together as sensibly as possible and give the user the option of whether they want to use it, or parts of it.

I realise this opens a whole can of worms…

Q. Does this not mean that Thunderbird thinks that it is smarter than the user (as per my reference to Windows being “smarter” than the user in Evil Linux)?

A. No.

  1. Thunderbird should inform the user of what it is doing – don’t miscommunicate.
  2. Have a cancel button, so that the user can cancel if the process is taking too long and they won’t be using that information
  3. If the process fails dramatically for some reason such that the install crashes, this should be detected on the next try and the installation should be “more careful” when trying again or skip that step entirely

Another example is the Microsoft Office Installation process, The name and the company of the user is already in the System somewhere (User Account Details). Why not just use this information instead of asking for it again.

Same goes for Eclipse! Why does the author information not pick up the users name from the account information?

To summarise, the point that I am trying to make is that applications should not ask the user questions if it can figure it out itself. Most modern applications can pick up most if not all the information it needs from the system itself. This even includes theming information (as per my post on Design). While the majority of the theming in most operating systems is fairly pervasive in terms of application look and feel, applications have enough control over their look and feel to be different.

While this customisation can be useful, it can also be a hindrance to productivity and an allure for procrastination!

If I have specified somewhere on my system that my name is Shri Shrikumar, every single application on here should then be able to pick that up instead of asking me over and over again per application.

I look forward to a day when I never have to type the same information more than once… 😀

Hello world!

Jeff Atwood asks in his blog:

“Until you’ve..

  • Written a blog entry about X
  • Posted Flickr photos of X
  • Uploaded a video of X to YouTube
  • Typed a Twitter message about X

.. did X really happen at all?

Kraya was a tiny company six months back with around 10 members of staff. We are now 20 strong and classed as a small company but as the artist formerly known as Prince once said

“I may be small, but so is dynamite”

Kraya has been instrumental to the dramatic success of megabus.com and not to mention the continuing existence of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

But then, as Jeff asks, since it hasn’t been blogged yet, did it really happen? While there are some pictures that could be published, there are no videos.

Besides, I’ve never been a big fan of Flickr or YouTube. Not that there is anything wrong with them but I use Facebook and that sates my desires for pictures and videos – for good or bad!

I never got into twitter either – the status updates within Facebook keeps me happy enough. Just as with Flickr, I don’t want to have to think about yet another website / system to update.

Now what I could do is add in the Facebook Apps for Flickr, YouTube & Twitter and this Blog into facebook and control my entire online presence from there. But then, do I really want “someone else” (Facebook) having so much control over my online presence.

Taking one step at a time, blog first, ask questions later…

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