September 30, 2003
Avalon and Flash
Philip Brittan: "[Avalon] is a shot across the bow of Macromedia Flash MX... In the last year or so, Macromedia has been actively re-positioning Flash as an alternative for building the user interfaces for enterprise applications -- smack into Microsoft’s home turf. It has been inevitable that Microsoft would respond at some point ... and now it seems to be doing that with Avalon."
It's always struck me that Macromedia's product suite is as much about application development as Web page creation. With Flash and HTML on the client, Cold Fusion on the server, and now Central helping to coordinate the two, these guys have a deceptively comprehensive offering.
By the way, Philip Brittan's recent columns on O'Reilly have provided a useful and objective Java perspective on .NET, particularly asking how Java can match .NET's strength on the user interface. Worth a read.
More Avalon links:
CNET: Microsoft to reveal more Longhorn details
Ian Hanschen: Next stop Avalonia
Chris Anderson: Building community around Avalon
September 26, 2003
The dark horse of the PDC
Wesner Moise: "Very little has been said about Avalon. Attendees have even thought of skipping the sessions of Avalon. Aghast."
I don't have Wesner's inside knowledge -- all I know comes from reading the tealeaves -- but in the last few days Avalon has really started shaping up to be the dark horse of this year's PDC. Okay, we have to pick and choose our priorities, but even if Indigo, WinFS and Yukon are more directly relevant to you, you should at least consider going to one of the Avalon overview sessions.
And along the way we've somehow lost Reversi...
Mac OS X Panther (via Scott Hanselman): "Type the F9 key, and Expose instantly tiles all of your open windows -- scales them down and neatly arranges them, so you can see what’s in every single one." And, thankfully, when you choose a window to work on, they all spring back to their proper sizes. There's also a keystroke to highlight only the windows of the current application. What a great feature!
We've seen how Microsoft "innovation" flounders in the absence of competition, and during Apple's long troubles the Windows GUI has seen only incremental changes. OS X is shaping up to be the challenge Microsoft needs.
Just a pity Avalon is a full two years away...
September 23, 2003
Primates for the people
A whole lot of new Birds of a Feather sessions have been approved, but disappointingly Miguel de Icaza's "Mono: A Status Update" is not amongst them. I'm sure a lot of developers would be very interested to hear about the progress of the .NET on Linux effort, and if Microsoft wants to promote .NET as a standard rather than a proprietary platform, they should certainly be giving publicity to rival implementations just as they give publicity to rival .NET languages. De Icaza is highly respected in the .NET community and a great ambassador for .NET in the Linux world. Let's hope the Mono BoF will be approved soon.
September 22, 2003
The country of long shadows
No need to worry -- David Blunkett assures us ID cards won't actually be mandatory after all. It's just "you can't ... work or draw on services unless you have the card." So that's all right then.
Earlier this year Mr Blunkett's department consulted on "entitlement" cards, as they were then known. I was one of those who responded to the consultation, using Stand's submission service to explain my opposition on grounds of cost, ineffectiveness and danger to civil liberties. I later found out that because I used the Stand service my submission -- and that of the 5000 other people who also used the Stand service -- had been ignored, a philosophy somewhat akin to collapsing all submissions received via Royal Mail into a single vote.
Disempowerment has long been a political reality in Britain, but there is something new and terrible about the use of disempowerment as a political weapon. In the past, overwhelming protest has demanded an overwhelming response: not, of course, to incorporate the objections, but to answer, overrule or spectacularly punish them. Today, overwhelming protest demands only a subtle reassessment of the figures.
The message is deliberately clear. If you agree with us, your voice counts. If you disagree, it does not. Your voice will not just be overruled. It will not even be heard. It will become, to borrow a Newspeak construction, an unvoice. It would take less effort to brush away an annoying insect, and Blunkett wants you to know it.
And next time, those who became unvoices will be less motivated to protest, and bit by bit protest will become unprotest: unheard, unanswered and eventually unspoken.
There is a John Major speech which wonderfully evokes Britain as "the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds," and goes on to cite a romantic image from George Orwell of old maids bicycling to Holy Communion. The shadows are growing longer, and the presence of Orwell is growing more substantial; but neither for the reasons Major dreamed of.
National Birds of Prey Centre
I visited the UK's National Birds of Prey Centre last weekend: a tremendous day out, especially in the Indian summer we seem to be enjoying at the moment. Until recently it looked as though the centre was going to close in the next few weeks, but now a potential buyer has come forward. The director, Jemima Parry-Jones, is still leaving, however, which is a shame as she is a great presenter and full of infectious enthusiasm -- so visit this year if you get the chance.
"If you are keen on taking photos," says the Web site, "you could not come to a better place. The trained birds are out on the lawn in good weather and are within feet of the paths, with no wire. The daily demonstrations give ample opportunity for both static photographs and if you are really good - photos of the birds in flight."
Unfortunately, I'm not "really good," but I did manage one or two shots where I got more of the bird in shot than out of it... And on the rare occasions when they stood still, I even managed to get some of them in focus...
I'll try to put more photos up over the next few days.
One thing we won't find out at the PDC
Why the codename "Avalon"? Is it after the mythical island where King Arthur is said to lie sleeping? Or is someone at Microsoft just a closet Roxy Music fan? I suppose the clue will be whether the successor is called "Valhalla" or "Siren."
The tealeaves of Avalon
Avalon is usually described as the new graphics subsystem for Longhorn, as if it were the successor to GDI and GDI+, but it's clearly a lot more than that. Going by the PDC session list, it's more like a successor to the window manager, common control library and COM automation put together with features from UI frameworks like MFC and Windows Forms thrown in to boot.
So what can we read from the tealeaves-- I mean, session abstracts?
- Avalon (CLI200) is built around a Desktop Composition Engine which means each application thinks it has the desktop drawing surface to itself. I remember one preview of the Nashville shell being described as "Microsoft Window" because documents were hosted directly inside the Explorer shell. I wonder if Avalon will become known as "Microsoft No Windows."
- The key underlying graphics abstraction is Direct3D (CLI340). However, Direct3D is way too complex for most desktop applications, not to mention a pain to migrate existing 2D code, so the API is said to resemble GDI and GDI+ rather than Direct3D. Using the Direct3D engine does mean we get a scaleable desktop, as if we were working on a vector rather than raster surface. Display PostScript, anyone?
- Avalon provides a command framework (CLI351) and "integrated document services" (CLI305). Is this bringing document/view or MVC into the core Windows platform? Or is "integrated document services" simply clunky old data binding (CLI306) given a buzzword makeover?
- There's a UI automation subsystem (CLI307). This will be a gift to help authors, testers and administrators (ARC334) as well as to CBT providers. The automation subsystem will be accessible from a (ahem) "Next Generation" command line (ARC334).
- Speech and pen input are supported for both data and commands (CLI351).
- Design-time support is built into the framework (CLI302). In theory this is true in Windows Forms as well, as the designers are part of the framework not part of the IDE, though in practice the framework doesn't provide any useful host for the designers. What is interesting is that Microsoft talk about building Avalon applications using "markup" (CLI300). I'm increasingly suspicious about trying to define behaviour using declarative markup, so it will be interesting to see how Avalon draws the boundary between markup and code.
- Avalon is component-oriented (CLI301) and supports "deep" integration with the Windows shell (CLI303). Previously it's been hinted that Avalon's component orientation extends to visual and behavioural inheritance, with the implication that Avalon components will be able to inherit from shell components such as Explorer. Which, if true, would be nice -- I certainly find this a lot more tantalising than the prospect of bendy windows.
How all this fits together is of course another matter, and something I'm looking forward to finding out...
September 20, 2003
Plain text and common sense
New Scientist: "Instead of sending easy-to-read, virus-safe plain text emails, the computer wizards at [Transport for London] prefer to bury their simple replies in big computer files readable only with the help of more big computer files."
Educators are going to so much effort to train people not to routinely open attachments. What can TfL possibly be doing that can't be expressed in plain text or at least simple embedded HTML?