Archive for the ‘ Innovation ’ Category

Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, and Windows Azure mobile services

Fact

Today’s software architects and engineers want to rapidly develop and deploy cross-platform applications that provide useful, real-time services. The more the applications feel connected, interactive, and social, the better.

The project

Given the youthfulness of the platform, I wanted some experience building what I’ll call a “living app” for the Windows 8 + Windows Phone ecosystem. What follows is a high-level account of what it was like to attempt this.

Why Windows 8 / Windows Phone?

I’m not going to descend to the punditry of discussing a “post PC era” and what it means for Microsoft. However:

I mention the Xbox One because it uses an extremely similar interface to Windows 8 (consider the excellent “app snapping” used on both systems) and I consider it firmly a part of Microsoft’s user-friendly device ecosystem.

Therefore, working with some of the most recent smartphone / desktop / tablet / gaming technology is a plus. And Microsoft insists that it is startlingly easy to develop for Windows 8 + Windows Phone using a shared code base.

Enough said.

What’s this app going to do?!?

Well, OK. What was I going to build? Clearly, I wanted a simple challenge which still utilized some interesting “living” features.

So, I decided to attack the issue of being in the middle of viewing a website or web video and wanting to continue reading or viewing from another device. If you’re familiar with the Windows 8 OS already, let’s ignore the fact that Windows 8 has shared favorites across your personal Windows 8 devices.

Also, I want to make it clear at this point that I didn’t check at all to see if someone else had an app like this already, and I built the app on Windows 8 + Window Phone from scratch.

I wanted the user experience of being able to “throw” a website from a Windows 8 desktop to a Windows 8 tablet, or a Windows 8 phone…any modern Windows device. Therefore, we’d use these “living,” real-time features:

  • sharing (“throwing”) the website from a Windows 8 PC/tablet to others with one click
  • notifying the other devices of the thrown website in real-time and allowing users to respond to the notification with a click
  • displaying the latest list of thrown websites on any modern Windows device

If I could accomplish all three of these tasks easily and with a clean user interface, I’d have succeeded in this particular project.

Building the Windows App

I wanted to build the Windows program in the modern app format that runs directly from the default, live tile-based front screen of Windows 8. Some folks may know this as the “metro” interface, even though Microsoft had to drop that name.

As I said, this is a high-level overview, but I used Visual Studio 2012 in C#/XAML to build the app. I have just a small head-start on some others in this arena because I attended an official Microsoft Windows 8 development camp and successfully built two prior Windows 8 apps.

So, our Windows 8 app goals:

  • very simple, clean UI, “snappable” in Windows 8, usable in any orientation on tablets
  • up-to-date display of shared websites…of course, enabling clicking on any website entry to visit that site
  • instant sharing capabilities from any Internet-connected application
  • send “push” notifications to other devices using the app

RESULT: I built, tested, and “released” the above features to multiple Windows 8 devices in less than 8 hours using the aforementioned development tools and Windows Azure Mobile Services.

Below is one screenshot of the results. Here we’re showing our app filling the left side of the screen, while another app is “snapped” on the right side. Both are of course fully usable:

wist_fs

And here is a screenshot of how easy it is to share from another internet-connected app, Internet Explorer 10, in this case:

wist_share

Building the Windows Phone App

For the Windows Phone app, I again wanted the following:

  • very simple, clean UI
  • up-to-date display of shared websites…of course, allowing a tap of the website entry to open the site
  • receipt of notifications from “thrown” websites

To accomplish this, I again used Visual Studio 2012 in C#/XAML. In this case, all I did was add an additional Windows Phone project to my existing “solution” which contained the Windows 8 app.

I expected the work of sharing the logic between the Windows 8 and Windows Phone app to be much more difficult than it actually was. The surprising majority of my code worked perfectly in the Windows Phone app without changes.

The difficulties I had were in using different “controls” (i.e., user interface presentation tools) to display the list of websites on the phone (named differently and with different behavior than Windows 8). What held me up most was trying to determine how to activate the website after tapping its entry. I personally got stuck in a loop of programming workarounds to get the dynamic data stored in each row of the ListBox control. I found a tutorial on this eventually which was much easier than I had made it.

RESULT: I built, tested, and “released” the above features to a Windows Phone device in less than 3 hours. However, it’s important to note that it took me only 40 minutes or so to design the Windows Phone app, and migrate my code from Windows 8 to Windows Phone, allowing for changes in naming conventions. That effort was far more minimal than expected. The remaining 2+ hours was spent on my own hacky workarounds and research with the issue I described above.

I apologize for the quality of the Windows Phone pictures (an issue with my on-device screenshot generator meant I had to take these by hand with a less-than-adequate camera). But, below is one screenshot of the results:

picture012

And here is a screenshot of the Windows Phone “live tile” notification of a new website on the list (note the “The New Xbox” on the w! tile):

picture011

 

Windows Azure Mobile Services

As I already mentioned, I used Windows Azure Mobile Services during the development process. Although I’ve used Azure before, this was my first experience with the mobile-specific “cloud back-end” which it offers.

It’s almost miraculous how easy it was for me to use Azure Mobile Services to:

  • implement cloud storage (like my app’s list of websites)
  • implement push notifications (the notification to other modern Windows devices of the “thrown” website)

I’d say it took me 15 minutes to get the cloud database set up and displaying results in my Windows 8 app and Windows Phone app with no hitches whatsoever.

It took maybe 20 minutes to get the push notifications working on Windows 8 and Windows Phone.

I’ve got to tell you: to me, that’s phenomenally efficient. After this project, I wholeheartedly recommend Azure Mobile Services.

Well, is this app released to the world?

Good question.

I really debated the type of authentication and safety needs of maintaining a real-time list of websites that folks are “throwing” from all their devices. Should it be similar to Stumbleupon or Twitter, acknowledging that anyone who downloads the app knows they’re viewing potentially NSFW/dangerous/phishing websites? Should it only allow folks to “throw” websites to their own personal devices? Their friends’ devices? Should there be a password-protected option?

Honestly, I did actually scope the app a bit for some of these concerns. For example, the data model allows for password-protected confirmation before viewing websites protected by the initiating user. But I acknowledged that it needs a lot more thought, and I didn’t want to go with an authenticated model out of the box.

Therefore, though I have successfully released prior apps to the world, I decided not to even attempt releasing this app with such an open model. Regardless of whether Microsoft’s Windows Store and Windows Phone Marketplace would have accepted it.

Conclusions

Windows Azure Mobile Services was the biggest revelation of this project. The simplicity of using services themselves, combined with the documentation and tutorials, make Azure an undeniably valuable asset.

The second revelation was the ease of re-designing specifically for Windows Phone, when the visual concept — admittedly very basic in my case! — was created for desktop/tablet screens. And the migration of logic was the biggest issue, but still far less of a challenge than I expected.

I’m very pleased that I was able to implement a Windows 8 + Windows Phone app, on desktops/laptops/tablets/smartphones, with all the “living” features I envisioned at the start of the project, in less than 11 hours. I walked away very pleased. And I get a lot of use out of my new app already on all my devices.

The unboxing of me

I just received the FedEx package containing me.

FigurePrints can produce 3D figurines of avatars from Xbox Live (XBL) and other online platforms. I’m fascinated by 3D printing, as it is used very successfully, for example, in Formula 1, and was intrigued with being able to have a collectible memento of the process.

The FigurePrints process for a customer is very simple. My XBL avatar quickly appeared on the screen.  The XBL representation is a reasonable facsimile of me as a cartoon, so I wasn’t hesitant to immortalize it in a bonded, coated plaster. FigurePrints offers the choice of selecting from multiple poses for the figurine.

Some pictures of the finished figure are at the bottom of this post. I’m certainly happy with it. It’s about 3 inches tall from base to the top of head, and under its base, there’s a FigurePrints Microsoft Tag. The entire process of production and shipping took about 3 1/2 weeks.

Details of my online cartoon, such as my wedding ring, goatee, glasses, and even my facial mole, have been successfully captured.

There aren’t many “cons,” except to say that a 3D figurine caricature of an online caricature is bound to not look quite right. For example, the mini-me is scrawnier than my online avatar, who, like the real me, has a wide chest. Also, its neck is skinnier and longer than my avatar’s or mine. I will bet that at least the second issue would have been resolved by a different pose. But hey, if FigurePrints is erring on the side of skinnier and scrawnier representations, I think that’s better than erring on the side of being too bulky.

As I say, I am very happy with the figure. Living in a time when we can recreate ourselves as digital proxies to compete in online sports and other games is interesting enough. Being able to use a company like FigurePrints to then summon ourselves out of the machine, almost literally “from thin air,” is even more impressive.

(Just FYI, this post was unsolicited by either FigurePrints or Microsoft, and I received no compensation or discount of any kind on this service.)

Posted from WordPress for Windows Phone

What would life be like with Facebook-Twitter, Inc.?

Rumors abound about Twitter considering buyout offers from Google and from Facebook. Wait, check that: Twitter has flatly denied a deal with Google.

What Twitter has not done is deny a deal with Facebook. A deal that rumors say would be worth over $9 billion…especially since Twitter was recently valued at $3 billion without considering competing suitors. Is it notable that Twitter won’t deny a potential deal that would make it a Facebook subsidiary, while denying that it intends to sell to Google?

Plenty of people think it is notable, and even go as far as to say that a Facebook/Twitter deal is “inevitable.” An alternative theory: a case of some very savvy guerrilla negotiations where Twitter purposely denies what’s really happening, while showing Facebook what could have been (via the public reaction).

Let’s assume, though, that a Facebook/Twitter deal is consummated. I’ll call the new mega-social giant Facebook-Twitter, Inc., or FTI for short. The sea change from no formalized “social media” to one giant social monopoly in less than a decade would be stunning. (By the way, a legal study on the anti-trust concerns will be an interesting read and make for lively debate.)

Here’s where I stand. I am not in favor of a world where a private company creates a de facto, neo World Wide Web, where every Netizen would need an account to have a rich online experience. Doesn’t it already bother you that individuals and companies publish Facebook-only content, use Facebook Connect-only web apps, and basically consider you a lesser friend or lesser customer unless you have a “key” to get in? I believe we already need to step away from the Facebook-as-THE-web brink. Ever have a friend think you were dead, or that you’d converted into a technophobic monk or nun, if you didn’t have a Facebook account? Of course, some of the same issues can be raised with Twitter’s domination of micro-blogging and quick, real-time marketing.

Let’s start with the positives of a theoretical consolidation that results in FTI.  It would be a powerful force for social change. It would accelerate the development of the new industries that Facebook and Twitter have created. (Had you ever heard of a social media guru until a few years back? Dreamed of forking over $10 bucks to have someone DELETE your Facebook identity?) It would also accelerate positive changes in the world, because Twitter and Facebook separately have already allowed us to support extremely important causes and revolutions in real-time.

However, there have already been grumblings that the coziness between Microsoft and Facebook (Office integration, Bing search, Windows Phone 7 devices with seamless Facebook integration) has changed the social experience negatively. This comes from the realization that Facebook isn’t your friendly collegiate geek letting you try a nifty new social tool, but rather a behemoth that partners with an even bigger software behemoth, and now may buy a micro-blogging behemoth.

As someone who to this day refuses to have a Facebook account, I could be even more strident in hatred of this potential deal. I’m also a Twitter lover, and wonder what changes the deal would bring to one of my favorite concepts of all time. Worst of all, could a Facebook purchase mean that FB simply absorbs the Twitter staff and kills off the Twitter identity (as has happened with some of its other acquisitions), unlikely as that might seem? However, instead of being afraid or angry about the future of social media, I’m looking at whatever happens in a new light.

I firmly believe it’s time for some competition, not monopolization. Since November, I’ve been helping to craft a new social network. I believe it addresses key complaints of actual Facebook users and Twitter users. I also know that it strikes a great balance between true privacy — of the sort Mark Zuckerberg intended when he visualized The Facebook as being an exclusive Harvard network — and the freedom to explore and connect more freely than the unwashed non-users of Facebook. I believe it is in a perfect market space to excel by having key traits of LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Path, and Namesake.

This major project, supported by a female CEO and great young co-founders, will be in beta very soon. I bring it up because in the face of big companies consolidating all the time, we not only are seeing a world of monumental change and foundational structure, but also one of opportunity. No matter what you think of a world where Facebook-Twitter, Inc. may soon “dominate,” do not ever stop innovating and believing that you have the right to compete to make things better.

CEO for a day: thoughts on talent retention.

Workplace Generational Transitioning

For 12 years, I’ve been involved in thinking about attracting and retaining employees, and workplace generational transitioning.  This has been a common thread from early in my career when I was a business manager, to the role I fulfilled with a consulting firm advising a major Atlanta corporation on workplace “generation gaps,” to my excitement at today’s entrepreneurial youth culture.  The representatives of that culture are interested in constant innovation.  They’re ideally suited to times best summarized by that old Rochefoucauld quote: “the only thing constant in life is change.”  Imagine a group of workers who embrace change, rather than hide from it.

I mentioned workplace generational transitioning.  Ten years ago, when we were advising leaders of the Baby Boomer generation on how to team with and learn from Generation X, and vice versa, we couldn’t predict at least two recessions (2001, 2008+).  The impact of the recessions is that fewer Baby Boomers are heading for the door right at “retirement age,” or taking early retirement.  [Source note: unfortunately, I haven’t seen any recent studies on the average age of CEOs.  The last study I saw was from the late ’00s and featured CEOs in their mid 50s.]

So that bought the executives in major companies a bit more time, whether they wanted it or not.  Have they been using that time wisely?  I’m not so sure.  I believe this major company in Atlanta was ahead of its time, because I didn’t see similar courses offered at another corporation close to my heart until years and years later.  Think of your few favorite Fortune 500 companies.  Whether you’re a young gun or a member of the old guard, you have to admit that those companies matter right now.  But will they succeed at attracting and retaining young talent, while simultaneously passing along the knowledge and life lessons of the older employees?  It’s probable that many of them are perceived, internally and externally, as being too big to fail.  And we have recent experience in how that works out.

Innovators seek new opportunities

Hiring and retaining innovators is job one.  Silicon Valley provides a great example that we can see playing out in front of our eyes in real-time:  the culture, the level of talent, the influx of ideas, and the influx of capital in that part of California is an accelerant.  Here’s what we see:

  • Prized talent has numerous choices of workplaces and roles in the ecosystem
  • The mega-corporations in the ecosystem (for example: Google, Facebook) are either concerned about losing top talent, or eager to never lose their talent edge (1) (2) (3)
  • These companies offer special advantages to retain talent.  For example, they offer to allow employees to run their own micro-companies (startups) using their employer’s money and resources.
  • Even when offered every conceivable advantage, some employees still leave: they want different projects, or they want to start their own companies. (4)

Though Silicon Valley is an accelerated case and primarily represents a certain set of talent, this same cycle will play out in other major corporations, in most departments within those companies.

An innovator — that is, someone who not only has respect for a big idea, but acts on it and gets things done — will always be interested in a new challenge.  This innovator might ride the wave of available small funding (government-guaranteed small business loans, or venture capital), and start her own company.  Or she might seek out opportunities with a competitor who makes talent acquisition and retention a bigger priority than her current company.

In this study, two things are certain.  The first: a time of planning for mass retirement of an older generation is the wrong time to be losing young talent.

CEO for a day

The second thing that is certain is that companies need to be proactive about finding ways to retain employees who are committed to innovation.  In 2009, Facebook started a “startup incubator” to encourage the development of nascent tech companies.  In 2010, Google pondered setting up its own internal startup incubator to ensure its employees could remain with Google while pursuing their dreams of being Founders.  In 2011, Facebook will purchase approximately 15 small tech companies for their talent. (5)

If you’re a decision maker or employee at a company, no matter how large or small, I’m convinced that your company needs to do something very similar.  And if you’re a student, you need to look for this in your next company.  Enough with low-level corporate titles.  In major corporations, Fred the Engineer might work for two years to become Fred the Engineer II.  If you can’t let your employees found their own internal startups, then your company needs to make each innovator feel like the CEO, Founder, COO or Chairman of the Board of a specific role or project.

To that end, I offer a bigger idea that ensures employee engagement and retains talent.  Let’s have major companies commit to a program to put someone into any C-suite role they want for a day.  For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll say most people would want to be CEO for a day.

The company would somehow select a group of innovative employees to compete for a specific time period, for example, for a fiscal quarter.  Perhaps the winner is chosen by performance reviews, amount of money saved on a project, amount of time ahead of schedule on a project.  Whatever the case, when our innovative winner is chosen, she gets to truly step into her dream role.

Let the “real” CEO play an advisory role for that day.  But let the winning innovator truly take the lead on some decisions.  A breakfast meeting with other C-suite executives.  A photo op or television appearance scheduled to promote the program as a whole, where the CEO for a day proudly describes what she’s doing on that day.  Let her set part of the agenda to be a focus on one particular pet project, where she is empowered to call or meet with any employees to move things forward.

The day will be over far too soon, but the innovator will never forget it, and it will drive her even more.   The innovator will probably learn how tough the CEO role can be.  (Ev Williams of Twitter said it was a “sucky job.”) (6)

Simultaneously, the CEO and other C-level executives will learn something about innovation, guaranteed.  These senior managers will be exposed to passion about a particular project that they might have otherwise have ignored.   They will have helped bridge generational gaps between all of the participants.  They could repeat the program as often as once per quarter, and the waiting list to participate would always be full.

CEO for a day is only one idea.  It’s a paltry contribution to a discussion that needs to be happening every day among management at companies all over the world.  But I think it’s a positive idea, and I’d certainly love to read about it in the news every quarter.

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