It’s Hip to be Beta

Netscape Navigator 0.96b ScreenshotIn the olden days of the web, the term “beta” was the rough equivalent of “beware”. These days beta is more the leather jacket and motorbike of internet users, the new online equivalent of cool. The web is caught in the grips of betamania.

I’m talking about the alarming number of new web applications that are coming up “beta”. Gmail is beta. JotSpot Tracker is beta. CoComment is beta. Pretty much every new web application you come across these days is beta. I haven’t seen this much beta since the heady days of Netscape 2.x.
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Beta now than never

Netscape Navigator 0.96b ScreenshotIn the olden days of the web, the term “beta” was the rough equivalent of “beware”. These days beta is more the leather jacket and motorbike of internet users, the new online equivalent of cool. The web is caught in the grips of betamania.

I’m talking about the alarming number of new web applications that are coming up “beta”. Gmail is beta. JotSpot Tracker is beta. CoComment is beta. Pretty much every new web application you come across these days is beta. I haven’t seen this much beta since the heady days of Netscape 2.x.

“Beta” traditionally refers to a state of development in a piece of software’s lifecycle that indicates it’s not ready for use as a dependable product. To a certain extent, it means that developers don’t quite trust their work yet and that the software is prone to failure. By releasing beta software, developers are seeking feedback from users adventurous enough to experiment with an unstable environment.

Back in the day, beta software would only have been used by hardcore geeks. It was well-known that beta software carried inherent risks that could result in data loss or exposure to external malicious behaviour such as hacking and malware. Beta was a virtual backalley adventure that could often result in damage to one’s computer. Beta was unprotected computing.

Today, however, beta is chic. Not unlike the way porn has gone mainstream with bellybutton piercings and butt cleavage commonplace among suburban teenage girls, the average computer user gets a rush from taking a walk on the wild side of software development.

Some of the most commonly used web applications today are beta. Take Google’s Gmail. It’s been in a perpetual state of beta for years. Google still describes it as “experimental”. In fact, look at any of Google’s popular web applications and you’ll find most are beta, including Catalogs, Groups, Book Search, and Alerts.

Millions of people all around the world depend on Google’s “beta” software every day. Corporations are using Gmail to distribute information; not-for-profit organizations leverage Groups to organize themselves effectively. Yet remember what beta traditionally means: it could all fail tomorrow, all your data could evaporate overnight, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

What’s even funnier is that Google seems to actively seek out other beta-status web applications to add to their collection. They recently acquired Writely, for example, a web-based word processor that’s never gone beyond beta, despite being in widespread use by tens of thousands of people.

It’s ironic, then, that Google is one of the champions of an evolving method of software development called “agile development,” that eschews the concept of beta. Google’s job postings for software developers specify agile development skills as being required.

Agile development happens incrementally, with lots of internal testing by the developers themselves to minimize users’ exposure to the risk of failure. Updates to products developed using the agile methodology are often so minor as to go unnoticed by users.

In comparison, traditional methods of software development tend to be earth-shattering, epic engineering efforts that simply cannot be tested by the developers alone. The sheer scale of their complexity and ambition requires that the software be put into a “beta” status and tested by a broad range of potential users.

Web applications lend themselves well to an agile development model because there’s typically no requirement for users to download and install each new “version”. Instead, a web application is simply updated and all users have access to its new features instantly. Google makes good use of this agile development model, often seemingly tweaking their web applications on the fly.

So Google’s use of the term beta for its software is a misnomer in the traditional sense.

“Beta” means something else to Google, and to the whole modern web application community for that matter. The word has evolved into an empty term that’s being used to pump up the hype and excitement around a new genre of software products.

Contemporary beta is a marketing concept. It’s all about image: these new beta products are the Harleys of software to Microsoft’s staid stable of minivan products like Word and Outlook. Doing the beta thing today is exciting, an escape from the suburbia of desktop software for a night out in the wild and crazy downtown world of web based applications.

The question is, of course, as we move forward into this new era of software, can we all adapt to this world of concrete and noisy traffic? Or will the experiment end in a bad hangover with a hasty retreat to the tranquility of the wide avenues of the suburbs?

We’ll only find out if Google and its web application cohorts ever manage to push their products past beta.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, March 31, 2006.

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Comparative Review: Remote Controls from Apple and Microsoft

Apple Mac Mini and Microsoft XBox 360 products

Apple and Microsoft both recently introduced two very similar products, though they weren’t intended to be direct competitors. They probably aren’t even supposed to be talked about in the same context.

The XBox 360 is Microsoft’s next-generation gaming console which also happens to sport some advanced digital media centre capabilities. The Mac Mini is a diminutive desktop computer that also happens to sport some digital media centre capabilities.

The similarities between these two products are very interesting for a few reasons. First, they’re not designed to be compared to one another. The XBox 360 is a gaming console and the Mac Mini is a desktop computer in the traditional sense. That said, their secondary roles, as digital media centre hubs, have almost equivalent capabilities. Finally, they both sport unique remote controls that implement their media centre capabilities in very different ways.

This review will focus on the remote controls of the two systems. The test environment for these devices is not a laboratory and my results are not scientific in nature. This review is based on my personal experiences using the two devices in my living for personal recreation. As such, it’s a subjective write-up, and open to interpretation and feedback.

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Boob Tube Augmentation Surgery

4126As the world of home entertainment advances with a mermerizing rapidity that puts even PC technology to shame, its one major Achilles Heel remains unchanged: the remote control. Fortunately, I have devised the perfect solution.

Over the past several months I’ve been unlucky enough to use no less than a dozen different remote controls. Some are device-specific, like the one for my stereo receiver. Others, like the one that came with my television, claim to be able to control every device in my living room (yeah, right). All of them — each in their own special way — are Lame.
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Does the North need Northwestel?

Logovertical
To start off: this isn’t some wild and crazy I-hate-Northwestel bashing
piece. I don’t hate Northwestel, I actually like the company. I had the
opportunity to work there for a while and it’s a great company to work
for (despite its lack of a flex-time policy for working parents). Its
people are top-notch.

Instead I’m going to run through a seemingly far-fetched but quite
plausible scenario in which the grass-roots movement of internet
telephony undermines and ultimately destroys Northwestel as a
telecommunications company in the North.

The central question I’m probing is: what if a majority of northern
residents abandoned their Northwestel phone lines and subscribed to a
third party VoIP telephone service? VoIP stands for "Voice over IP",
and is a common way of using the internet as a medium for making phone
calls.

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3-D Information

Pic4
I’ve recently been working on a site that, while not complex in nature, is very complex in structure.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time struggling with its dense information, making numerous efforts to diagram and describe its various informational aspects. it’s a tough one.

This morning, as I came back to the brilliant Omnigraffle and started laying down some more boxes and lines, I realized my problem: I’m attempting to diagram three-dimensional information in a 2-D drawing program. The concept I’ve got in my head requires a third dimension for explanation, but I’m working on a flat plane.

(I think what tweaked me on to the concept that I’m visualizing information in three dimensions is this new game I’ve been trying out from Pangea, Enigma 2.)

Of course, I can extend the breakdown of information depth across numerous flat composite drawings, but what a lot of work — plus it’s unlikely to ever be understood by the client. The other alternative is to grossly simplify the concepts. How much nicer it would be if Omnigraffle offered me the ability to build information in 3 dimensions.

I wonder if such an application exists?

Mind Your Business

Geof’s right, the Yukon is smarter and more capable from a web technology perspective than it’s ever been. And I think he’s assembled a pretty good cast of characters in his post.

One major omission, however, is the business manager. I’ve learned the hard way that a business is, first and foremost, a business and it needs to be tended to almost more than the products and services it represents. It needs someone to be constantly monitoring its health from a financial perspective, making sure its bringing in money, delivering on its promises, marketing its products correctly, filing its tax returns, paying its people, and all those boring other tasks that so many businesses neglect.

I believe that a good business manager exists, if not in ignorance of, then at least at arm’s length from, the business’ products. Most of the people Geof lists are smart and articulate technologists. What this endeavour needs it a person who is just, plain and simple, an experienced business person.

The product could initially be devised by this set of geniuses and even partially developed. But before heading to market to sell that fat pig, a business person would have to step in with a business plan, jiggedy jig.

[UPDATE] Smart Yukoners who can make it happen

Mr. Che, the Revolutionary Dude

My man geof harries recently posted a question about how to kick-start a revolution over on yukonbiz.com.

It got me thinking about a long-standing itch of mine. The approach to too many problems starts and ends with technology, when any problem typically should at least begin with people and their needs (aka “requirements” to us analyst folk).

This is a typical response to any problem: go out and buy software. Or hardware. Or custom build an application. Or check out Wal-Mart for the latest self-wringing dish cloth when your hands get sore. Partly this is due to the psychological underpinnings of consumerist ideals in our society, but mostly it’s the geek in all of us: there’s got to be an automated, technology-based fix to this problem.

The problem mr. harries quandaries is narcissistic in nature: it’s a problem in search of itself. In other words, there isn’t really a problem (unless you count the Yukon as a problem in and of itself), it’s a method in search of a way to apply itself: I know how to do all this cool stuff, how should I apply myself?

I’m not picking on my man here, everyone has carried this attitude at some time or other: I just bought this great sewing machine, what shall I sew? I just got my degree, how shall I change the world? I just bought this new car, where shall I drive (other than work and back)?

I used to see this all the time when I worked at Northwestel. Requirements were either ill defined or completely absent and intelligent people would rush madly off in all directions seeking a way to apply this new software they’d just heard about. Rarely did the IT or Marketing folks talk to actual customers and try to figure out what they really wanted. It was all about how to apply this cool new product that the other telcos were into.

Which is what brings me to my next point: geof wonders how to make the Horse adapt to the concept of revolution as it applies to other political and geographic entities. How do we make our Yukon kin adopt the web as a force like all the other sods in the Big City?

Again, not dissin my man. What geof’s really wondering is: how do we shake up an apathetic mass of northerners to embrace this amazing medium called the web and appreciate it the way we devotees do? I know, cause I’ve asked that same question countless times myself. It’s a standard point of frustration northern developers deal with after they’ve had their umpteenth brilliant idea blasted by a moderate, risk-averse client.

Brilliant Developer: “[You ignorant sod,] can’t you see I’m suggesting the next Yahoo! to you? Can’t you see I’m breaking new ground in the way I’m going to build you a Date and Rates page?”

Boorish Client: “You sure sound like you know what you’re talking about but I just want it to be like in my brochure.”

Geof’s heart is in the right place, he’s looking out for the Yukon, making an earnest, concerted effort to dredge it up out of the soup of history it insists on drowning itself in. But, man, that’s not soup, that’s tar. You’re hauling on a fossil.

I question whether that’s the right approach.

First of all, do Yukoners really want to be salvaged? And more to the point: must a brilliant new Yukon-based idea be about the Yukon? This is what irritates me with the requirements for funding from the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre: any funded project has to be “about” the Yukon. Screw the Yukon. I have to live here, I don’t want to have to deal with it esoterically in my creative work.

I’m more of the mind that everything and anything we do as Yukon-based web developers can and should be about anything other than where we live.

Okay, to get down to brass tacks: there are two points I take issue with in geof’s quandary: first, that a revolution start with technological constraints. Second, that the revolution have anything to do with the Yukon.

I say, just find the brilliant idea. That we’re web developers, it’s likely that a solution to some as-yet-unidentified problem will hinge on a web implementation. But that the solution have anything explicitly to do with the Yukon itself is silly. Sure, it limits our funding options (the navel-gazing territorial government typically won’t fund anything that doesn’t celebrate 1890-whatever) but there’s plenty of venture capital flowing in the Real World.

It’s the idea, stupid. (That’s a figure of speech, I’m not referring to my man geof.)