Please Think of the Search Engines!

There has been some rumors going around lately that Microsoft’s Bing search engine was interested in buying exclusivity for some Web content. This all started 2 weeks ago or so when Rupert Murdoch, the owner of The Wall Street Journal and many other news outlet said he was considering removing its news sites from Google because, according to him, Google has been stealing all the revenues with tools like Google News. When Microsoft heard of this, they of course did the only logical thing : offer an exclusive deal. I can’t blame them for this at all, I would do the same.

The problem here though is that search engines like Google and Bing work because they index everything. While an exclusive deal might seem like a good idea for Microsoft, I think it’s a disaster waiting to happen in the long run because the minute one such deal gets signed, many many others will be signed very quickly. I can’t be the only one thinking that having to visit multiple search engines because you’re not quite sure which site is on which search engine is a bad thing.

If you’re a Web developer, you know that the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is already a mess. It’s all about optimizing your content and your code to make your search seem better to search engines. Hopefully this Rupert Murdoch thing is just a scare tactic on his part (while he may be sour on Google, I’m sure Google also brings them a ton of traffic, so I doubt he’d do it).

I’ll be watching this closely. I think it’s a crucial issue that’s just as important as Net neutrality. A search engine needs to be neutral and it needs to have access to every public content on the Web. Let the best indexer win and leave business out of it.

Why More Choices is Not Always a Good Thing

The mobile application business has been exploding for the 2-3 few years. The iPhone is certainly part of the reason, but the explosion of smart phones in general means we now have a ton of little apps and widgets running on our phones. These apps allow us to check the starting time of our movie at the theater and the next bus route or maybe just relax for a few minutes by playing a little game on the go. The phones we have, be it a Blackberry, an Android-based phone, an iPhone or a Windows Mobile phone are incredibly powerful.

And while that’s all good, as a mobile application developer (my first iPhone app, Tarot : Guide de vie is now live on the iTunes Store), it seems clear to me why Apple has been dominating so far : standardization. While there’s an ever increasing number of different iPhone and iPod Touch models out there, by and large, they are very similar. RAM and CPU speed have both been upgraded, but the screen size, the buttons on the device, the OS and API features are fairly stable and consistent and as a developer, that’s important.

If I develop for the Blackberry, which devices do I target? Some of them have a physical keyboard and some don’t. Screen sizes vary a lot. Same for Android really and while it can be argued that choice is a good thing for end users, in this case, I believe a lack of choice is also a benefit. Most apps are developed by a very small team. If I’m doing a game or an app by myself or with a few friends, chances are we won’t have 25 different devices to test it with. With the iPhone OS platform, it’s still important to test on many devices if possible, but you can target pretty much anyone running a given OS version with most apps (unless you app is highly CPU or RAM intensive).

The benefits of a closed platform is something that is rarely talked about. It’s easy to say that more choice is a great thing for consumers and certainly Google Voice users who can’t use the iPhone app because Apple said no have a good reason to be upset but as with most things in life, it’s rarely all white or all black. While there are without a doubt several downsides to a closed platform, there’s also several good things about it. So far, Apple has bet on the closed platform model and it’s hard to argue that perhaps they are right in saying the benefits outweighs the downsides. The results are certainly there to back them up.

It’ll be interesting to see where the market will go in the next few years.

Lessons From The Game Industry : Innovation Fails

While I’m a programmer first and foremost, I’ve spent years working in small agencies where you need to find money or you’re out of a job. Now that I’m on my own as the owner of Techniconseils, I still love to analyze business trends and see where things are going. Today’s post is about the game industry and the lessons we can learn from it.

Just like anything else, that industry has been hit hard by the current recession but there’s something fairly interesting that’s happened over the last few years. In that industry, there are 2 huge publishers, Electronic Arts and Activision. For several years up until about 2 years ago, EA was known as the “evil” one because it kept rehashing game ideas and coming up with sequels years after years. About 2 years ago the John Riccitiello (a former CEO) came back and decided to change things around and make EA a more innovative company, betting that the new titles would outsell the sequels.

Around the same time, Activision decided to go the other way and pump out sequels at an alarming rate. Innovative games like Guitar Hero went from cool game to major franchise with 2-3 releases a year. Activision now treats any game as a franchise and if your game is not something they can pump out every year then it’s not a game they want.

As with everything, you have to balance the “right thing” versus the business decision. Today, after 2 years, it seems clear that EA’s strategy of supporting new franchises and new innovative games has mostly fail. Contrast the huge successes of Guitar Hero and Call of Duty with the very slow sales of EA’s Mirror Edge, Dead Space and Brutal Legend and you get a better understanding of why EA had to lay off 1500 people this year.

So what does that mean for us indie developers? Does that apply to the iPhone market for example? Well, it could be argued that coming up with Tap Tap Revolution 3 is probably a safer bet than a completely new game. As an indie developer, my first instinct is always to do the right thing, but there’s no denying that perhaps the right business decision is not always the “right thing” to do.

How do you balance your business decisions?

Fix Outlook!

As both a software and Web developer, I have two very different opinions of Microsoft. On  the one hand, Microsoft creates fantastic developer tools like Visual Studio and their .Net platform is quite nice. As a Web developer though, you have IE, a browser used by the vast majority of the world but unfortunately also the least standard compatible browser and a major pain when it comes to coding standard compliant web sites.

For some time now, the folks at the Email Standards Project have been working to help Web developers  understand the limitations of the various email clients with regards to HTML rendering. That site is quite useful by the way, but this is not the reason of this blog post.

Today I want to talk about Fix Outlook!, an initiative by the Email Standards Project to convince Microsoft not to use the Word rendering engine to render HTML emails in Outlook for Office 2010. If you’ve ever designed an HTML email campaign for a client, you know how painful it can be to test all the different clients and by the look of it, Outlook 2010 will make it even worse.  Go on the Fix Outlook! site and have a look at the same email rendered in Outlook 2000 and Outlook 2010 to understand the extent of the damage. By using Word to render the email, Outlook basically loses most of its CSS support.

What’s sad here is that this isn’t some small piece of unknown shareware, it’s a major new version of a software that will probably be used by tens of not hundreds of millions of users around the world for several years. Just like a new version of Internet Explorer, this new version of Outlook will have a major impact on what’s possible and what’s not possible with HTML emails in the near future.

Please support the Fix Outlook campaign by tweeting. Visit the site for more information. Let’s hope Microsoft will get the message and will use a real HTML rendering engine for its email client.

If only they had such a thing in house…

Go, Go, Go! (or don’t)

Google did something rather weird last week. Well Ok, it did 2 weird things, the first of which I’ll cover here while the other (SPDY) will have its own post soon. Last week, Google decided to release a new programming language to the world : Go.

Now, unlike frameworks or libraries, a major new programming language is not something we see everyday. The last one of note for me was perhaps C# by Microsoft at the beginning of the decade. Before that, Java is a relatively recent language (1995), the same year Ruby first appeared although for many of us Web developers, Ruby wasn’t of much use until recently with the release of Rails.

Go Programming LanguageUnlike Microsoft with C#, Google has released Go with very few libraries to go along with it. The concepts behind the language are not bad: as with anything, being able to start from scratch is often beneficial. The problem with it right now is the lack of libraries or bindings to any popular systems. Using Go to code a Windows or Mac OS X application could be nice, but Google made no bindings to the Win32, .Net, Cocoa or Qt libraries. Worst still for Windows users, the language is not even working there yet.

As is often the case with Google, the core of Go is nice, but it lacks a little bit of polish. When Microsoft released C#, it also released Visual C# to go along with it and made the entire .NET framework work with it. With Go, google did something that’s both right and very wrong: it released a GCC-based compiler and linker. It makes a long of sense because you have a lot of programmers on both Linux and OS X that are familiar with the compiler and know how to create Makefiles, but at the same time, your brand shiny new language, that aims to define a modern, efficient programming language for today’s threaded, multi-processor world is stuck with a toolset designed 20 years ago.

I don’t think Go is bad and I’m glad Google is trying something new but I wish the company had waited a bit and had polished up its stuff before releasing it. Unlike a consumer-facing app like Chrome, releasing it early doesn’t give Google a whole lot of advantages. As it is, if you’re on OS X or Linux, give it a shot. You’ll probably do like I did and create a few little demo app, think it’s neat and forget about it for now until it matures a bit.

Still, with the included packages (libraries), Go is a great language to create command-line utilities and “scripts” (although Go is a compiled language).

When Technology Becomes a Religion

L'oratoire St-Jospeh

Oratoire St-Jospeph in Montreal

Since the very beginning, technology has always brought about a fierce need, in many of us, to defend and protect our choices — our favorite tools. Be it Vi versus Emacs, open source versus closed source, Mac versus Windows or XBox versus Playstation, there’s no escaping it : visiting an online forum or starting a discussion with anyone just about guarantees that an argument will ensue. And you would think these would largely be done by teens, but even a discussion between a group of adults usually ends in an argument.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve never quite understood even if I will readily admit that I spent years doing exactly that. I used to think that anyone not using Linux was just plain wrong. These days, I still have preferences when it comes to my text editor of choice (Textmate and vi) or my OS of choice (OS X), but I’ve taken a decision long ago to stop arguing and just accept that at the end of day, it’s always about a personal preference and when it comes to personal preference, there really is no right or wrong answer.

The real question though, is why. Why do we feel the need to defend our choices that much? It’s especially funny when you consider people are defending giants like Apple, Microsoft or Sony and accusing the other of being evil, wrong or incapable of doing a good product. If there are anyone out there who don’t need help defending themselves, it’s companies like these with tens of thousands of employees and billions in revenue.

It’s too bad because what we’re losing is not just a possibility to have interesting discussions online (although that would be nice) but all these “wars” (among not companies or products but by the fans) really only serves one purpose : slowing doing innovation and confusing the less experienced who are often intimidated when asking a question online. Do a test: ask if you can play online on your XBox 360 and within a few responses you’ll have people suggesting a PS3 because it’s free. A few more posts after those and you’ll have a argument for several pages about which one is better.

My solution to all this? It really pained me when I realized what I had started doing, but I now almost never say again too negative about any piece of technology or company. There’s just no point to it. Some will applaud you, some will explain to you just how stupid you are.

It’s too bad we can’t agree to disagree. The Web would be such a better place.

Welcome Home, Again

It really is quite ironic. In an age where we tweet 20 times a day and we have micro statuses on many other sites, never before has there been a bigger need for a real, full-sized blog. At least for me, the 140 characters limit is both a blessing and a curse. It gets me to publish everyday, but it’s hard to express a view or an opinion in one sentence. Hopefully this blog will allow me to complete my thoughts without resorting to using multiple tweets which I think completely defeats the purpose and design of Twitter.

If you’re seeing this as it launches, you’re looking a temporary wordpress design that I chose mostly because if fulfilled 2 basic needs : it looked OK and it worked. The full site, including my lifestream is coming in a few days. I’m building a new theme, complete with new widgets to do it and I’ll be blogging about my experiences using the WordPress API in the next few days.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon.

EDIT: Scratch that, site is now online for all to see and admire. Well Ok, maybe not admire.