Friday, December 16, 2005

Firefox in the mainstream press



For those of you skeptics who can't understand why I am pushing Firefox, I am including this article from The Economist, a very well-respected and generally very accurate weekly European news magazine. It talks about the importance of another browser like Firefox to compete with the browser-monopoly-that-was Internet Explorer. It also gives you a little background information on the non-profit organization that builds Firefox.

Take back the Web!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

RIM and NTP saga



I have to quote this one little snippet from an Economist article which outlines why NTP's patent claims against RIM are stupid as I so boldly state without any backup in a previous entry (I was lazy and didn't want to compile the proof since I know my claim is true).
"RIM is generally regarded as the victim of an injustice. Founded 21 years ago by two engineering students who still help run it, the company is being held for ransom by a “patent troll”. The monster emerging from under the bridge is an entity called NTP, which doesn't actually make or sell anything—it doesn't even have a website, for goodness sake. But it has hired a handful of lawyers to enforce its patents and in settlement talks this week, it was demanding almost 6% of RIM's sales in America until 2012 when its patents expire—about $1 billion. NTP's threat of a legal injunction to shut down BlackBerry unless it pays up is viewed as little short of extortion."

Nice when I can just point to someone else's hard work. Sigh, if only the rest of my life was like that...

China's high-tech exports surpass US for the first time



In a previous blog entry entitled, "The Shifting Sands" I commented that America needed to learn how to play nice in the sandbox that is the world economy or no one would play with her. Further evidence of America's reduced dominance has surfaced as reported by the Economist in their weekly business brief of Dec 14;
The OECD reported that China had surpassed the United States for the first time in exporting information-technology goods, such as computers, mobile phones and related parts. China exported $180 billion-worth of IT goods in 2004, and is expected to keep its top position when figures are collated for 2005."
Partnerships become more and more relevant for a Super Economy such as she as economic power shifts. I have nothing against the US and in fact would welcome a more cosmopolitan attitude from our oh-so-near neighbour.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Why I'm prolific today

It's past 11 AM and I'm still in bed, reading and using my laptop because Daniel's Hockey (yes hockey is capitalized in our family) doesn't start until 3:30 PM today. Laura's in Hawksbury with David for a practice. She was up at 7:15 when the alarm went off, no actually it was 7:30, no 7:45, no 8 AM. I am still in bed. I am writing. I feel no guilt whatsoever (as my partner in crime can attest). Many weekends include my getting up for Hockey at 5:30 AM on Saturday and Sunday. Two weekends ago I spent 8 hours in the car, in arenas, and in changerooms. Let's get something else straight. I never played Hockey. I don't watch it on TV but I do think it's really good for my two older boys and support them in it. My only fear is that Michael our youngest may want to play soon...

I am in bed and feel no guilt. I am also listening to Rock Lobster, Dream Police, and Juke Box Hero is coming up next.

NTP's patent claims against RIM are stupid



This is plug for RIM and for one of my friends who works there. Maybe he'd like to post a comment?

Laura and I were talking about it the other night. That a company that doesn't even use the patent it's suing for can hold another company that has millions of users of systems based on this patent (untrue, but anyway) is criminal. That a court will help a company accomplish this is criminally negligent.

So much for my insightful analysis.

High tech content of posts is boring

I know, I know I am publishing more about technology than other more interesting subjects lately. Don't give up on me yet. Actually I had published many more non-tech posts on our home computer. It was running [Warning: the following paragraph may not be appropriate for the tech-challenged or phobic] Movable Type with Apache, PHP and MySQL and worked beautifully. Bell Canada's high-speed internet wireless router really sucked though. I should have been able to reliably set up a Dynamic DNS address to the PC. In actual fact the router kept losing the forwarding port to the site on our PC. I gave up and moved to Blogger. Then our PC (did I tell you we were running Windows XP on it?) decided it didn't want us to log in to it anymore... So I lost most of the content I'd written (not having backed it up - oops) [inappropriate content ends]. Hmm, let's see...first monopolistic Bell gives me problems, then Windows XP of the nefarious Microsoft Empire...

I'm planning articles on a book called "First they killed my Father" written by a survivor of the Cambodian atrocities. She was five at the time and lost half her family of eight. It's not a fun subject but her story really moved me and I'd like to write about it.

I am also in the middle of an article on knowledge work and knowledge workers based on a book I'm currently reading. Then I'd also like to write about, "Shake Hands With the Devil". This is particularly meaningful for me as it is written by Roméo Dallaire, a French Canadian from Montréal. He was the general responsible for the failed UN mission to Rwanda. Emotions evoked range across rage, pain and sorrow. The quality of writing is not great but the content and telling of the story is outstanding. A must read for all who care about the weak of the world and feel we are responsible for protecting them.

I've also recently read some fiction I'd like to review.

Shut down Internet Explorer and run to... Firefox!



I know I may sound like a Microsoft Bigot but actually I'm not. I do use Windows XP on my work laptop and home computer (because I have to). I am also the manager of an IT department which heavily relies on MS technologies so I can't really be called a bigot.

In this post, e-week point out:
"The zero-day exploit, posted by a U.K.-based group called "Computer Terrorism," could allow a remote hacker to take complete control of a Windows system if the victim simply browses to a malicious Web site."
It's a real security hole in Internet Explorer 6 that allows the execution of code on your computer by someone you don't know. In other words a cracker could load a program onto your computer to say, copy all of your word and excel files to their website. Do you feel good about that?

Neither do I.

Nor do I feel good about Microsoft knowing about this hole since May of this year and yet still not having fixed it . Software defects are a part of life - I accept that. But to willingly ignore a known problem for months is inexcusable. Firefox has had security problems in the past just like IE but they will issue a patch within days if not hours of learning about it. Version 1.5 is even better as it automatically checks for updates and installs them if there are any.

Switch to Firefox.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Firefox 1.5 released!



I've been using Firefox since...before it existed and was called Mozilla! Although I am late in posting this, Firefox 1.5 was released November 29th.

For those of you who don't know what Firefox is (a web browser, a replacement for Internet Explorer, your best friend[sad but true, admit it!]) you can read this post which discusses reasons for switching from IE. Did you know that the % of users that use IE has dropped from 85.8% in January of 2002 to 73.5% in November 2005. The percentage of Mozilla/Firefox users has grown from 0% in January 2002 to 22.2% November 2005 (see here for data). This may not seem like a lot but considering that IE comes pre-installed on 90% of computers used to browse the Web (same as previous reference but further down) it is remarkable. Firefox is also built by a non-profit organization with virtually no advertising dollars. The reason, therefore, for its growth is the positive press it has received in the industry and through word of mouth.

There are other reasons to use Firefox, and thereby support, the Mozilla foundation who created Firefox. Monopolies stifle innovation, give inordinate power to one organization and allow them to inflate prices beyond what is reasonable. The rise of Firefox has pushed Microsoft to, for arguably the first time since IE 6 was released in 2000 [I think], improve on IE's functionality in it's next release scheduled for 2006. Mozilla, has put out two browsers and new incremental versions, each of which had new and useful functionality in them, since 2002.

Competition is a good thing. Encourage it by adding yourself to the statistics of those who use Firefox and watch the numbers rise.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

$100 Laptop Project Advancing



I am not a big fan of technology. This may sound strange coming from someone who makes a living off the stuff but it's not. Take the laptop for example. The number of features and the power it currently offers, not to mention the price, is over the top for most people. Each version of OS requires more and more power and they deliver nothing new. With all that power what ever happened to the promise of effective speech recognition? Why are we still using keyboards to enter data? They come from the typewriter and still have the same layout for goodness sakes! Did you know that the layout was chosen to slow down the typist because the mechanical typewriters of the time couldn't keep up with fast typists? Stupid!

I fully support the One Laptop Per Child project because it's all about getting the right technology to the right people. You can read an article from the Wall Street Journal here. A basic laptop with the ability to compose documents, write programs, surf the Web, e-mail and IM; being delivered to third-world students. This is cool! There is all kinds of educational material available for free over the Web. For example, MIT has an initiative called OpenCourseWare to publish the classroom material of 1800 courses across multiple disciplines by 2007. Again - Cool! I know there are many hurdles like how to get the computers, training on how to use them, and Internet access to the students. There are many more but all of these 'issues' mean nothing without the possibility of affordable computing. Even without Internet access these laptops can communicate with each other via wireless networking. The students can still use them to program and compose. They even work with a hand-crank to power them when a power source is not available.

Cool.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Canada, Japan move towards free trade



It's high time we start strengthening our trade relationships with others than just our neighbors in close physical proximity (in reference to an article posted today in the Globe and Mail). We are not as bound by distances as we once were. We trade more in information today than ever before and Canada, being a country rich in knowledge workers, has a lot to offer to the rest of the world. Of course we will continue to trade in goods like lumber, oil and gas but our economy is run more and more on knowledge.

I have nothing at all against trading with the US but subscribe to the wisdom of not placing all of one's eggs in one basket.

The devil will be in the details, however. The benefit Canadians will reap from a free trade agreement with Japan will be determined by the deal that is brokered. Regardless of the short-term outcome, as it may need adjusting to achieve maximum return for us, to start negotiations is a step in the right direction.

Monday, October 31, 2005

IBM's Power processor versus Intel



In 2004, IBM booked less revenue in total hardware (which includes processors, servers, storage, and PCs) than Intel booked in processors alone (IBM 2004 annual report). What makes IBM think they can make the Power processor a successful competitor to Intel’s Pentium series of processors?

It’s true that IBM is looking to achieve a much broader adoption of Power technology than Intel has achieved. This ranges from embedded processors in storage devices, a Power processor driving every game console as of 2006, Power in small to large servers and even ‘powering’ the world’s fastest supercomputer. In a different light IBM has also taken a completely different approach from Intel. They have made the Power architecture an open specification - one that is, however, guided by a consortium of manufacturers including Freescale, Sony, and Cadence among others. This does not guarantee success.

SUN was one of the first large manufacturers to attempt an open-source style specification through the Java Community Process (JCP). It led to what many consider to be the feature-bloat of the language and some performance issues that Microsoft is not facing given their proprietary process. Microsoft, through greater control over the technology underlying dot-Net (including the OS) has arguably been able to squeeze better performance out of their design. Granted, IBM’s power.org model is slightly different from SUN's JCP but is it different enough?

The jury is out on whether open source models for large systems will work in the long run. In the end, as Linux is showing us, large vendors want more say in how an open source asset is evolved over time. Who do you think is contributing the most code and is exerting the greatest influence over how Linux evolves? Is it the lone hobbyist / researcher or the team of developers working for some of the large corporations with a stake in Linux (Red Hat, IBM, HP, and Novell to name a few)? It’s not just about corporate clout but about the practicality of ensuring Linux’ advancement and maturation. That takes great developers and Linux has to somehow do it without paying any of them. When RedHat offers engineering help will Andrew Morton, the current Linux kernel maintainer, say no? This may reduce some of the positive effect the OSS model experiences in innovation. Competing interests vying for control over a common resource invariably weaken its power. The JCP has not led the Java language to innovate as rapidly as it should have, using Microsoft as a benchmark and the rapidity with which they have successfully developed and deployed dot-Net.

In a market such as the design of mainstream processors that run small to large servers, cash is king. Whoever invests the most in R&D, wins.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The use of Java to build business systems



I have been a big fan of Java for several years. It all started 4 years after I standardized my applications development organization on Visual Studio and C++.

Let's start with why we standardized on C++ for UNIX and Windows. The year was 1999 and we were building an e-commerce site. We needed a platform to develop on. In 1997, the year we developed the core or CRM-portion of this e-commerce platform we had decided that Sun/Solaris would be our server OS since NT4 was about as stable as nitroglycerine. So Java made a lot of sense due to its cross-platform design as it would in time allow us to migrate our CRM application using middle-tier Java code. As we began our investigations into available technologies the first difficulty we encountered was a lack of 'advanced' IDEs. This was OK since I was hiring, get this, real programmers who could work without one, however it would affect our productivity and ever a dollars and cents man this did concern me. The second hurdle which is what really led to our choice of abandoning Java, was the rate at which the Java API was changing and the lack of backwards compatibility between versions. This was just not acceptable in a mission critical and yet cost sensitive environment. I couldn't afford to have to re-write my applications 2 years down the road. The last hurdle was the lack of availability of affordable (less than $ 1/2 million) Java-based e-commerce platforms - you know the shopping cart etc. piece of it. This was important as we had limited time and so chose a component-based build strategy.

I also needed to adopt a mainstream language, something I believed Java would become, and could not therefore adopt the use of more what I consider esoteric languages. Therefore an MS-based solution became our choice by default with both mid-tier and web server components running on Windows. Over the years we encountered the need to, and ensuing difficulties of, interfacing with a variety of systems including our IVR and CTI systems. Our clients also wanted hooks into our systems. We were building more and more server-side components and, in order to leverage the benefits of code and platform reuse wanted to migrate the CRM portion from a fat to a thin client. So I once again, in 2002, revisited the platform question. Java or Windows-based?

Over the past two years I have read more articles than I care to remember on the Java / .Net performance debate. Although this is a relevant issue I think it more useful to compare Java and other languages like C++ since they, like Java and unlike .Net, have been around for long enough for organizations to develop real-world versus laboratory experience with them, putting us in a better position to compare. I suggest you read The Java Performance Debate at (http://www.osnews.com/story.php?news_id=10729) since the author has gone to some lengths to provide many of the links that I am just too lazy to go back and find.

What it boils down to is that I buy into Java as a development platform because:
  • It is a cross-platform environment and means that I am not held hostage by any one vendor
  • It runs on different types of devices efficiently (cell phone, PDA, Blackberry, server, PC)
  • Multiple organizations contribute to its specification
  • It is more productive than C++
  • For BIG systems, vendor support includes many server management features not found in languages such as PHP or even .Net
  • There are numerous Open Source projects built on it
  • Large companies committed to Open Source contribute significant code to the free-as-in-freedom code base
There are drawbacks even with the above benefits such as the JCP (Java Community Process) getting bogged down in red tape and resulting in feature bloat and excessive complexity.

I'll continue this post at a later time. I have to assess my current organization's programming practices and standards and make a decision on direction. Lots of thinking to do.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Shifting Sands



The US doesn't get it.

What they helped to innovate, to invent, to conceive ‚– the business use of technology, has brought down the pan-global barriers of distance. That is why India has become an outsourcing and IT powerhouse. Available network and information bandwidth, using technologies such as MPLS with the ability to deliver QoS, tying in all developed world economies translates directly into their ability to deliver software to mainframes in the US, Canada, Europe instantly. The same is true for call centres and telecommunications networks. English has become the language of business around the world due almost exclusively to the US. Now, countries that have had to develop their English-language ability can do business directly with US corporations.

Future economic power will come through collaboration. The super power concept is fast becoming an obsolete one. Economies that obtain their power through the monopolies and through the spending power of their own citizens will be dwarfed by the new economic super-states. Not states in a political but an economic sense. As developing economies with billions of citizens become developed economies, they will have the buying power to influence the rest of the world. They also have the passion and drive of growing economies. These qualities come from the socio-economic pressures created by newly injected wealth after decades of subsistence-level living. They will not stop. Europe is also coming into her own. The formation of the EU is the beginning of a new economic power that may outstrip the US.

The US continues her foreign policy of unilateral action and self-interestedness. This is not popular and does not win her the future allies she needs (For an example read, ‚“How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”). As dependence on trade with the US weakens, as it already has, world economic powers will be less concerned with her policies and directives and will be less willing to deliver concessions. This includes security concerns but I think, especially, economic ones. Look at how America reacted to France's criticism of her involvement in Iraq - with hostility (albeit verbal). The US will not benefit from the trade deals between members of the EU and will suffer an increasing trade deficit, as it is already experiencing with China.

All of this will result in reduced US competitiveness world-wide and the reduced viability of the US socio-economic model. Individual Americans will be less wealthy. It is not hard to imagine the collapse of a heavily indebted society. US citizens carry a fairly large amount of debt. Once their ability to finance it is removed, due to lost jobs and lowered salaries, the society will tend towards bankruptcy and collapse.

Not just Americans but their country as well is heavily indebted. The country's current hundred-billion-dollar deficits show this. Who is financing her? How long will 'they' continue to finance her via foreign investments? In an article from TIME entitled, "Hey, Big Spender ..." of Jan. 2, 2006 they write:
"The $236 billion Clinton surplus of 2000 has become a $400 billion annual deficit. Setting aside Social Security, about a quarter of what the government has spent since Bush became President has been borrowed. And estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) show that if his tax cuts are made permanent--as he is advocating--deficits will persist for at least 10 years."



Canada needs to develop stronger political and economic ties with European and Eastern nations like Japan, China, and India if our's is to remain a viable economy in the coming 30-50 years.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Business Considers Open Source on Par with Commercial Software



You can see this post and the discussion it generated here on slashdot. At the International Conference on COTS-based Software Systems in Spain it was fascinating to hear large organizations talking about Open Source Software as being on-par with commercial software in some instances. Certainly Linux is the perfect example.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Collapse



As I read Collapse by Jared Diamond I am struck by the departure from long-standing values in a very short period of time. Technology brings about fundamental shifts in our culture. It impacts our communication (frequency, quality), our leisure (TV, Video games, music, multi-media), and our work. These in turn impact our relationships with other people. For example instead of coming home after work and spending time reading or talking we often drop in front of the TV – something that is by nature an isolating activity.

Technology also impacts our values. Children have access to violence, hate, and sex at a much younger age. Not long ago this was somewhat regulated by federal communications authorities that would filter or sensor content considered inappropriate for the public based on purportedly national values. We can clearly see that these values have become more liberal over the past decades. This liberalization does not stand on its own. The availability of multiple media types from magazines to TV to movies has greatly influenced it. It is in a capitalist society’s best interest to liberalize media as this in turn enables new business opportunities resulting in the financial gain that is its fundamental raison d’être. If you doubt this just consider the fact that for our economic system to be considered healthy it has to grow year over year, not in a linear but an exponential fashion. I’ll discuss this elsewhere because it is clearly an unsustainable model – nothing in the universe can sustain infinite growth. All systems stabilise either through crashes (Dot-Com bust) or through recessions / depressions.

There is yet another way that technology, tightly coupled with our economic model, influences our values. The quest for more. Early on in his book Collapse Diamond describes in detail the change in Montana’s environmental, economic, and social structures over a number of decades. He says,
“People used to expect no more of a farm than to feed themselves…”

When John Cook was growing up on a farm with his parents, “At dinnertime my mother was satisfied to go to the Orchard for asparagus, and as a boy I was satisfied for fun to go hunting and fishing. Now kids expect fast food and HBO; If their parents don’t provide that they feel deprived compared to their peers. In my day, a young adult expected to be poor for the next 20 years, and only thereafter, if you were lucky, might you end up more comfortable. Now, young adults expect to be comfortable early; a kids first questions about a job are, ‘what are the pay, the hours and the vacations?’
Technology; faster and more accessible travel, things to do with our time, demands more and more of our attention. Keeping up and doing what our colleagues at work or friends at school are doing takes up more and more of our time and financial resources. It is only recently that we have the leisure time we do. The farmer who was describing how he sometimes, at age 80, has to work from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m. is worried that his children won’t want to farm for that reason. Should they want to farm when easier, ‘less back-breaking’ work is available? Perhaps not. The point in this examination is not that we should return to “The Good ‘Ol Days” at all. There has been a shift in our socio-economic dynamic. We do not need to work long hours to earn a living. There is lots of time for leisure activities. The question I put to you and the reflection I ask of you is centered around how we are spending this newly acquired free time. Is a pure for-pleasure pursuit a valid, socially and personally beneficial, way to spend it?

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

War & Peace



War & Peace, a Russian novel, was written by Leo Tolstoy and published in 1869. His subjects include the life of the Russian privileged class, the War of 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia and continued all the way to Moscow, and Tolstoy's own points of view which becomes clearer and clearer as the book progresses.

The early parts of the book deal with daily life, Russian high society, the pressures, hopes, and motivations of both the young and old. The primary focus has been on men and women in their twenties and early thirties with an emphasis on the men.

Exquisite suffering is the phrase that has come to mind as I have been reading over the past few days. The lives of some of our major characters have started to unravel. All their naive hopes and beliefs in success and the future are being challenged in a very harsh present. It is true of all of us that as we start out in our twenties all is possible and there is nothing but promise on the horizon. As we age and pass in to our thirties and approach forty (yes, I am talking from my perspective) we experience failures, become aware of our flaws and weaknesses, and are let down by others, our own values/principals and even ourselves.

Tolstoy's expression of what these people suffered in a time when hundreds of thousands of Russian men died in the war is crystal clear. It captures so well what suffering can be and how different people deal with it that you can't help but love the latter part of the book. No, I am not either a sadist or masochist. What the characters experience in suffering is, however, far more real and human than what they experience as they go about their daily lives, trying to meet this and that expectation that others and society have for them.

He captures the division in our lives between fantasy and reality. Fantasy where the artificial constructs of the given social order cause us to respond in essentially mechanistic and constrained ways, removing us from who we uniquely are. Reality where trauma and suffering strip us bare of whatever external façade we have constructed. Leaving only that which is essential remaining - who we truly are. This is, for me, the real beauty of the book. The rest of it was just a prelude to this finale - not the one where all is well, the hero returns victorious and marries the bride who is waiting for him but the one where our characters go on with their lives profoundly changed, no longer the children they once were.

A book worth reading.