Joel Spolsky is the reason I am a Java Techie. See him in Dublin IJTC Wednesday

Joel Spolsky is flying in to Dublin next Wednesday to give the keynote speech at the Irish Java Technologies Conference. Mark 7.45pm on Nov 7th in your Diaries folks – Jake has the offical announcement and ask him in person for the full story. In case you don’t know who he is, Joel was one of the early Microsoft employees, one of the first bloggers (since 2000) and is an expert on management and Java software development projects based in New York (possibly due to his stock of stories from Israeli Military Service).
Joel Spolsky Image

So how did Joel make me a Java Techie? You know Excel, that Spreadsheet thing you use everyday. Part of the reason it’s so flexible is because of Joel’s work back in the early days at Microsoft- he was program manager for the team at that created Excel Macros, which eventually morphed into Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). A long time ago when I was still a business person I got involved in automating manual tasks using these Microsoft Office tools. From there, every job got more and more techie until it reached the stage where I must blog about Java every day. It’s all Joel’s fault.

Tickets at the door cost €245.Booking here costs €189. Joining the DubJug (Dublin Java Users Group) for free before booking gets you a further discount.

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British Midland's – BMI – Dirty Little Online Checkin Secret

Flew Dublin – Heathrow again last week – this time with BMI (British Midland International). It’s what all Java consultants do – pop on the plane to London to see a client. Now I like BMI, not least because they provide a bit of competition for Aer Lingus. I like Web Checkin. A lot. See my post on how to use Web Checkin to solve Dublin Airport’s problems. But BMI have a (bad) secret about their online check-in that they don’t tell you until after you have paid for your flight.

BMI Logo
Online or Web checkin means you print your boarding card before you leave home. It means you arrive at the airport , walk straight through security and enjoy a coffee while waiting for your flight to board. For Aer Lingus it’s great on a day trip; print both boarding cards the night before you leave. For BMI there’s a glitch; you cannot print your return boarding card until after you arrive in London.

What? On your busy-day-with-client-not-one-second-to-spare you are expected to start printing pieces of paper. What is worse, you only find this out after you pay your money. Called the Flight Helpdesk ‘we have a lot of people complaining about that Sir’. Mail to BMI customer service, no reply.

The moral of this story is not to complain about BMI (although here’s my Ajax related Rant about Scandanavian Airlines if that’s your thing , or Mulley’s lost baggage saga if you prefer). And yes, I should be glad of a choice of flights to Heathrow (see Limerick Bloggerand Bock the Robber)

No, the moral of the story is that IT systems (yes the geeky bits) can have a huge impact on customers in traditional business (you know, the ones that pay you money). Being the helpful people we are, we’ll even show BMI how to fix this using Business Rules. Somewhere, deep in the bowels of the BMI system code, Someone, a long long time again decided ‘no one will ever want to check in before they leave’ . And now that it’s spaghetti code, it can’t be fixed, leaving a lot of unhappy customers.

How long could you go without Microsoft Office?

I’ve recently got a new laptop (more on that in another post) and have to install the usual selection of software to get productive with it.

As an experiment / not having enough time I’ve decided to go without installing Microsoft Office. I do , however have the excellent (and free) OpenOffice installed, and use Google Documents and Spreadsheets on a regular basis.

Why would I do this?

  • It’s not about the money (as I have a copy of the Office disks paid for).
  • It’s not about the money (2) as I’ll also happily pay for something that gives me value over the free version (e.g. my subscription to LinkedIn).
  • It’s not really about getting locked into one supplier who can manipulate me at will (see the Microsoft Word 2007 File Format Conversion post) however annoying that may be.

No, it’s more about the features; with OpenOffice, I can save Word documents as a PDF , which (in my option) looks far more professional when sending to a (prospective) client.

Another reason is that as an (IT) consultant, I tend to ‘deploy’ on client sites on a regular basis, often with a bare machine to start with. Open software means that I have a ‘toolbox’ I can use to get up and running quickly , no fuss needed to raise purchase orders to buy software.

OS as alternative Logo

If you’re interested in this approach, the Open Source Alternative site is worth checking out. It’s not dogmatic; in fact it’s pretty even handed, listing commercial and open software for pretty much everything that you might need to do with a PC or Mac (business ,communications, graphics, security etc). That’s on top of the alternatives to Word, Excel , Powerpoint and Outlook.

It’s all about choice. Some are better , some or worse ; It’s up to you to decide which one works best for you. You’re a mug if you don’t know what the choice is.

Update 26th August: I lasted just over two weeks without installing Microsoft Office. Nothing bad with Open Office, just Microsoft playing around with Office 2007 file format. I have an important client that sent me something in Word 2007. The sort of client that I can’t (yet) ask to save in a different format and resend. Open Office does not (yet) open Office 2007 files, so I had to drop back to the Microsoft version (and install some filters) to be able to read it.

Microsoft Word 2007 file format – the same bad old tricks

Here’s the good news – Microsoft is using a new file format for Office 2007 , which is due out shortly. It’s fairly simple – just text with tags (aka XML), zipped up to make it smaller. For example a 5Mb Word file shrinks down to 10% of it’s size in the old format.
Office Logo

Here’s the bad news – Microsoft is up to the same old tricks in the hope of forcing people to upgrade to a newer version of office. The new format cannot be read by the versions of Word, Excel or Powerpoint that most people have installed on their machines. By default , the new version of Office saves in the incompatible format, so eventually most people will be pestered into buying the new copy just to save them the embarassment of having to ask

Can you send that file again, but save it as the older version of Word?

Not a line that I’d want to say to important client. A friend of mine finds himself in that predicament. How do you convert Office 2007 files into ones that Word 2000 / Word 2003 can read. So far I’ve tried the following to help him out.

  1. Used Google’s online Documents and Spreadsheets. No joy – which is surprising , given that the new format is (techically) easier to read. Perhaps something to do with software patents?
  2. Tried the excellent (and free) Office clone – OpenOffice. No joy – even more surprising given that Microsoft seems to have ripped off the idea for the new format from OpenOffice in the first place.
  3. I’m now trying the ‘Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack‘ which promises to solve the problem for older versions of Word.

Watch this space.

Update:

Number 3 (the pack from Microsoft) works. Even more importantly , it allows you to save into the new format. However , not everybody is going to know / be bothered to install this large (27mb) download.For a change this important, why isn’t it installed automatically as part of windows update?

I’ve only tried this for Microsoft Word, but it should be able to convert from Excel 2007 into Excel 2003 and Excel 2000 as well.

I expect OpenOffice and Google docs to catch up with this fairly shortly. That is , if they can get around the legal tricks that Microsoft are playing with the new format.

Irish Blogger lynched on O'Reilly site for comparing Google Spreadsheets with Java

There are times when Web2, blogging , feedback from readers and the wisdom of crowds is great. And there are times that it’s extremely painful.

OnJava Logo
Like this Blogpost I wrote over on the O’Reilly site. Do Google Spreadsheets mean the end of Java?

I expected some people to disagree with me , but at least disagree for good reasons. The key point, that Web 2, it’s applications (of which Google spreadsheets is only ) and their API’s will fundamentally change the way we solve business problems using IT has been lost in the knee-jerk reaction.
Copy of the blog post here.

Google Spreadsheets Mean the end of Java

Or to be more accurate ‘Google Spreadsheets mean the end of Java as we know it’.
Google Spreadsheets Logo
Think about this. Who pays your wages Mr Java-Developer-who-has-just-had-a-couple-of-years-at-the-top-of-the-pile? Clients, or if you’re in a larger organisation , the business folks (i.e.’internal’ clients). Do you think any of them care about Java? Do any of them know what Java is? All they want is to get things done, quickly , and with as few mistakes as possible.

These business people would be happy to run their organisations on Spreadsheets. Do you remember the cartoon where Dilbert convinced the pointy haired boss that he could fly the plane using Excel? There’s more than a element of truth to this. I know of at least one US Fortune 100 company that (until recently) conducted most of it’s operations on little more than Microsoft Office and duct-tape. It worked, not very well, but it worked.

Until now , the next line would be ‘Excel (or any other type of Spreadsheet) is not secure / scalable / sharable / not web friendly’. That was until Google launched their Docs and Speadsheets. It’s an online version of Office with some spreadsheet functionality. Play with it a bit and you’ll see that there’s plenty missing. But this being Google , I’m willing to put good money on

  • (a) new features rolled out (think steamroller) and
  • (b) These Spreadsheets being massivly scalable / secure / sharable.

This being Google, there is also an API (developer page here). It’s got massive holes in it (e.g. you can’t yet use it to create a new spreadsheet). But when Microsoft bring out their version of online spreadsheets (and they will) not only will they clone the Google API (to get market share), they’ll need to go one further and introduce new features / remove the usage restrictions in order to compete.

So, secure, scalable, sharble online spreadsheets are here to stay. So lets take a look at Mr. (or Ms.) Pointy haired boss thinking about their new project:

  1. Hmm, I think we need to be able to gather which health plans our employees are enrolled in.
  2. OK, I’ll throw together a spreadsheet to show people what I want
  3. Before I’ll give to our friendly Java developer and let him ‘do’ a website from it.
    Soon I’ll just share this on Google.
  4. Great , Loads of people are now using it, I’ll just the (Ruby / PHP / Insert other language here) guy to add one or two extra features.
  5. Most Excellent. Why don’t we spin this off as a Web 2 company and sell it to EBay??

There you have it, Massively scalable , Highly secure websites (see Google Authentication API), without needing to know anything about EJB, JMX , JBoss, JDBC or any of the hard won knowledge that us Enterprise Java Developers have built up over the last 7-8 years. I’m exaggerating, but not much.

What do you think? Is Enterprise Java dead, or is Web 2 just another boost and a slightly different way of doing things for us Java people?

Other Java Posts from Technology in Plain English

Some other notes:

This article was originally published on the O’Reilly books OnJava Website.

Information Storage for Dummies (and how to make it secure)

Doing a lot of database work for a client right now so now it’s a good time to recap on where you can store your information. This might be basic stuff , but it’s essential basic stuff.

  • Spreadsheets, of which Microsoft Excel is the most popular. How the PC and Microsoft began their 25 year reign. Ironically their availability online (care of Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets) threatens to end the PC era and usher in the Web 2.0 one.Spreadsheets are never secure. If I can get a copy of them (and letting me read one means that I have a copy) then I can read everything. Everything. Most Excel passwords can be cracked within seconds.
  • Take a couple of spreadsheets, glue them together and put links between the sheets. Now you’ve more of less got an entry level database, such as Microsoft Access. It’s aimed at people who need more power than Excel, but are not developers.

    The trouble is that Access is not secure (see problem above) and that it doesn’t scale very well (for more than a couple of people using it at once). Both Access and Excel come with versions of Microsoft Office.

Access Splash Screen

  • So you have your information, and now you want to stick it on the web. MySql is the database of choice. Free, lightweight and with excellent tool support (e.g. phpMyAdmin), MySql is what powers this website. If you know what you’re doing (e.g. Google or Amazon) it will scale very very well.
  • For most people , the next step up is to a serious Enterprise database. Oracle, MS Sql-Server and it’s cousin Sybase are the main contenders in this area. DB2 from IBM is a distant fourth place while Sybase is strong in financial institutions. While MySql is catching up in features, most companies chose one of the main three because of their track record, a long list of people and vendors that support them, and because of ‘lock-in’. Once you choose a database it’s very hard to change.

So there you have it. Don’t let me see you trying to run a company on Excel or Access again. Or at least, don’t complain to me when it falls over!