DDD8 – Apples, Boots and @blowdart

Major embarass @blowdart session!  #DDD8Today was the eighth annual(ish) gathering of four hundred of the Microsoft Development community for a day of free technical training. Once again it was spectacularly over subscribed – sold out faster than Glastonbury (all the places went within fifteen minutes) and with no Microsoft speakers had the usual mix of sessions, some of which perhaps you wouldn’t expect to see at Microsoft.

The day started off cold – although there was no snow it was definitely a case of scraping ice off the car, and if you were in any doubt, one look at Rachel Hawley’s footwear could tell you! Having said that, as has become traditional at these events, bacon butties to warm you up awaited those who got there early.

First off a couple of observations. For a Microsoft Developer Day, it was a very good advert for Apple! Of the five talks I attended, two were obviously running off Mac’s. One was about iPhone development, so using a Mac was a given, although the presentation was also given using Keynote (and all the more slick for it) and rather than messing around with font sizes as all the PC based presenters have to do Chris Hardy used the built-in OS X zoom gestures to quickly focus in on what he was showing. The other Mac based presentation given by Ian Cooper wasn’t anything related to Mac development at all, but was presented in MacOS X, using the Mac version of Powerpoint, with a windows development environment running in VMWare. It’s not so long ago that developers would buy a Mac, largely ditch MacOS X and stick Windows on it – it does seem that even with the advent of Windows 7 that isn’t always the case now… The other massive advert for Apple was not surprisingly the vast numbers of iPhones in evidence. I certainly think it would have been worth somebody doing the same as Scoble did at Le Web to get a ball park figure of how many there were. There were a good few Google Android phones around, but few if any Microsoft based phones in evidence. This was also reflected in the sessions – no talks on Windows Mobile development, but there was a talk on using MonoTouch to develop iPhone applications!

As is normal for these days, what I thought I would attend, and what I actually attended were slightly different. I initially thought I’d just take up residence in Chicago 1 for the day, but in the end I fancied a change of pace.

First up I attended a talk by Ian Cooper on Real World MVC Architectures. This in part was because I’ve just done my first ASP.Net MVC project, and I was half expecting to find I’d done it all wrong, as to a large extent I’ve put it together as felt right rather than following any explicit paradigm. To my relief it seems all the talk of proper architecture seems to be sinking in, and the way I’ve constructed it is pretty much as was suggested, even to the point that I’ve used particular techniques without having read about them as yet in my MVC book in that I understood why they were being used but didn’t recognise the idea by name! I suspect the session might have been pitched a bit too much towards the beginner end of things for experienced MVC programmers, but for me it was certainly a good reinforcement of the techniques.

Next I slipped next door for a change of gear, and a non-technical talk by Liam Westley who was talking about how to be a small software development outfit and not go bust. To be honest, the principles Liam outlined can apply equally well to large software houses, a number of which I’ve come across who don’t get this stuff right, and even to people in a corporate environment like me as getting these sorts of things wrong will at the very least have your internal customers looking elsewhere for their software, or at the worst put you out of a job. Liam gave us a set of broad principles that any software developer should be doing as a matter of course – things like delivering properly tested software, applying proper logging (even in a corporate environment fixing a problem before the users have got round to reporting it scores serious brownie points), and understanding your users, all go to making people happy to give you their software work, and not go elsewhere.

For session number three it was a first for me, in that it was the first time that I have heard Jon Skeet speak. His name will be familiar to anyone who frequents Stack Overflow – and as his reputation is testament to he sometimes seems to answer C# questions within seconds of them being asked. What is slightly more surprising is that his day job is at Google as a Java developer. Even more surprising he fits all of that in with being a Methodist Local Preacher too – but I suspect that stands him in good stead for being able to deliver material well, as from the experience today his reputation is well deserved. The latest version of C# brings in some interesting, but quite complex new ideas, and he did manage to put them over in a way that even with the early start on a Saturday I pretty well followed them. Having said that whilst I liked the presentation, and many of the new features, I was less than impressed by the return of the ubiquitous VB variant data type, in the guise of the dynamic type. Whilst I am well aware that the way the variant and the dynamic work are rather different, it’s much more about how it will end up being used, or more likely abused. I’m with Jon Skeet on this in that I much prefer a situation where the types can be validated at compile time. Whilst there are legitimate reasons for adding dynamic, and as an exercise in language design the implementation is very impressive, as with the variant I am quite sure it will end up being thoroughly misused, and will lead to many a difficult to nail down bug.

Next up was lunch, and was the traditional scramble for a lunch bag. Unfortunately it seems that the entire occupants of the Chicago 1 side went the same way and got all the non veggie and non seafood sandwiches (I have to watch having too much of certain types of seafood with my gout) and as always it was a bit of a lucky dip as to what else you got, so I ended up with a sandwich, crisps and an apple that I wanted, and a can of diet coke and a snickers bar that I didn’t want. I know they’ve tried various things over the years, but I still think there has to be a better way than this, as it was pretty obvious looking around that not everybody wanted what was in their lunch and there was a lot going to waste.

The lunch time Grok Talks had relocated this year, and were in the atrium in building four. This certainly gave a bit more space, but did seem to make the security guards mighty jumpy – I got a stern “I’ve just seen you behaving strangely” from one for taking this picture – I just liked the look of the clear blue against the white of the building structure and was going to make some comment about the weather! The Grok Talks were marred rather by problems with the technology. For a start the speakers were badly positioned in relation to where the presenters were standing leading to endless feedback problems. The talks also took an absolute age to get started, and when they did people seemed to overrun, which as a result led to people who were further down the running order being disappointed. There were a couple of interesting talks though, and it was especially interesting watching Gary Short intensely watching somebody else demonstrate Code Rush! Looking at the response hopefully there will be a few more converts from Resharper, a jump I made many years ago!

After lunch was one of my personal interest talks. As an iPhone owner and software engineer I’ve always quite fancied giving an bit of iPhone development a go. The problem is that as well as learning a new platform and new environment, developing for the iPhone requires learning a new language, Objective-C. However Chris Hardy was demonstrating a way that I could leverage my existing C# skills using the Mono environment and an add on to it called MonoTouch. Whilst developers still need to be able to read Objective-C to understand what is going on, and still need to learn their way around the Apple API’s, it allows them to develop entirely in familiar C#, and even brings advantages in terms of some of the extra type safety that C# brings. I have to say I was pretty impressed at the environment and what it can do. I was less impressed by the price – $399 for a personal license, which only covers you for a year of updates, with even more for a corporate license – far too much for your average hobbyist programmer to even consider. I can’t help thinking that they are missing a trick here, and providing a low cost or free license for developers in return for a share of the revenues, maybe using some sort of phone home code to keep track would certainly broaden the base of programmers using it.

My last session of the day, to be honest I would have gone to even if Barry was just reading the phone book, as this was potentially his last appearance at a Developer Day before he loses the essential qualification for being allowed to speak of not working for Microsoft, as in a scant few days he will be starting a new job working for Microsoft at one of their offices in Redmond. As always there was the classic banter with people he knew in the audience, in particular Jon Skeet who was attempting to pose increasingly difficult questions it seemed. Barry also started off by hijacking the session next door as Ben Hall, the speaker had a birthday and was foolish enough to tell somebody! What I was also expecting, and got in spades were interruptions marking his departure from the UK development scene. His book Beginning ASP.NET Security featured in several. In the first Liam Westley gave a touching and heartfelt tribute, and said how much he had been looking forward to the arrival of the book – as it was just the right size to prop up his wobbly table. In another they spoofed the winter cold adverts, suggesting that the book was good fuel to keep the elderly warm. The session finished off with a clip from his appearance many years ago on The Crystal Maze, and several of the organising team appearing in T-shirts especially prepared for the occasion. All in all it was a memorable way to finish off the day, and hopefully a memorable occasion for Barry as he heads across the Atlantic. The one question that remains is whether all the spelling mistakes in the presentation were down to Barry, or whether somebody did get at his presentation before he went on…

All in all it was an excellent day, and although I know there were a couple of sessions that had problems, the ones I attended were all excellent, and well worth the spare time given up. It was great to catch up with friends from the community, previous developer days and previous jobs. Whilst it does appear that the day is very much a victim of it’s own success (even with local developer days around the country people still travel from far and wide to attend this one in addition to their local days) hopefully a way can be found to allow it to keep running in future years, and all credit to the organising team, and the staff at Microsoft for keeping the whole day running smoothly.

The Sky+ HD Experience II

I thought I’d just provide a little update to my previous post about the less than pleasurable experience of upgrading to Sky+ HD.

First off, Sky themselves have refunded our £60 installation fee. I e-mailed in a complaint saying much the same as my previous post here (but without the Simpsons reference) and to their credit they replied saying that it was not the level of service they should have given and therefore refunded the installation fee.

The other outstanding issue was the really annoying audio/video synchronisation problem on our Amstrad HD box. After a bit of experimentation and online reading it seems the problem only occurs when the box is auto-switching the ouput resolution between standard definition and high definition channels. The solution is to lock the box to only output a high definition picture, by switching it from Automatic to 1080i.
However the downside with this is it sometimes does a lousy job of scaling standard definition pictures, especially if they we’re originally 4:3 – widescreen standard definition doesn’t seem to be a problem for us – also the upscaled picture is pretty poor quality in comparison to what you’d get from a standard definition Sky+ box or from the Sky+ HD box automatically switching.

The answer comes in the form of the SCART socket on the back of the box. This by design can only output a standard definition picture, but can be tweaked to use an improved RGB connection if the TV supports it, so it does produce a much better picture than the upscaled output over the HDMI cable.

Certainly it’s annoying having to swap, and it will be a lot better when the audio/video synchronisation problem is solved, but it’s a lot less annoying than the audio being three seconds behind the video!

The Sky+ HD Experience

We now have Sky TV in glorious HD, no thanks to Sky themselves – this song from the Simpsons seems appropriate to describe the quality of the install… (words here)

In the past I’ve had one or two issues with Sky installers, generally a drawn out discussion getting them to run cables where I want them, but I was fairly confident this time since all that was required was to replace our existing Sky+ box with a new Sky+ HD box – not much to do for the flat rate £60 installation fee. I’d already measured the slot for the box to go into in the cabinet – it fitted although it was tight, all the cables were there, simple you might think.

When I came home, the first thing was that the Sky+ HD was placed at a jaunty angle because “it didn’t fit” – thirty seconds of shuffling solved that. Then I turned on the box. BBC HD worked fine, but none of the subscription HD channels did – so he hadn’t actually activated the card for HD.

Okay, phone up Sky and go through the process.

This proved to be slightly confusing as the techie originally tried to guide me through the HD settings pages, whilst the box had the old style Sky Guide – despite the yellow sticker on the front asking the installer to do the over the air download, he’d not bothered with that either.

The techie quickly activated the remaining channels, so we sat back and waited for a programme to record, only to be presented with an error again asking us to call Sky – another few minutes on hold whilst a different techie activated the recording facilities.

Once that recording had finished I went through the over the air download procedure myself, and we now have the latest Sky Guide, plus ITV HD set up.

And then the final icing on the cake, when I sat down to try and make this blog posting, I discovered that despite not needing to touch it at all, the installer had pulled the network cable out.

So of all the tasks the Sky installer had to do today, the only one he actually did was deliver the box, all the rest I ended up doing, and I paid a grand total of £60 for this…

Having said that, the HD picture is really good…

Big Broadband Supplier or Small?

It was with some interest that I came across O2 trumpeting their win in the ThinkBroadband awards yesterday. I should probably nail my colours to the mast before I start and say that despite knowing a number of people who are quite happy with O2 broadband, when I switched over before Christmas I lasted a week before I went back to Zen thanks to the thirty day cooling off period on the contract. The problem from my point of view is that I don’t happen to live in an O2 coverage area, as a result I only have their O2 Access product available which relies on BT.

What I objected to with O2 was firstly that they were traffic shaping at peak times. They don’t do this on their own network, but apparently they are having congestion problems on the access service and rather than increase capacity are trying to control the service using shaping. It also isn’t working particularly well – even with the traffic shaping my speed was drastically reducing. I also had problems with the supplied router gradually negotiating the speed downwards – I’d had a similar problem on Zen and their tech support had been able to look at the line stats and tweak the settings to get my speed back up. Calling O2 their award winning customer support could only tell me that the line was connected – they had no statistics of connection drop outs, and their suggested action was that I sit and watch the router lights to see if they went out! After that I swapped back to Zen. (It is interesting to note at this point that BE who came second in the awards and are another O2 brand don’t even offer and access product for out of area customers…)

So based on my experience I’d easily rate Zen higher than O2, so I took a look at the ThinkBroadband results page. It certainly makes interesting reading.

The results have divided the ISP’s into two categories, Large and Niche, the dividing line being set at about 6000 user ratings. Zen comes in at 5,507 ratings with BE the smallest of the large category with 7,359 participants. Zen comes in as runner-up in the niche category.

But then I looked at the actual ratings. Zen scores 86% for customer service and 85% for reliability, O2 comes in with 75% for customer service and 68% for reliability. In fact the top four niche providers clearly beat O2 on both counts. If the dividing line had been set at 5000 user ratings Zen would have easily won the award by a large margin.

The upshot of the results seems to be that firstly, if you’re looking for a reliable and good quality broadband connection, you should seriously look at so called niche providers as the top ones rate significantly better than the big guys. I’m certainly happy to recommend Zen as a good reliable ISP, whether you’re on their network or a BT connection. Also when you see result headlines, take a look at the detail – an arbitrary split can make a quite noticeable difference to the results.