Monthly Archives: March 2008

ACCU 2008

accu.pngI will be tearing myself away from my computer to attend the ACCU conference in Oxford on Thursday 3rd and Friday 4th April (including the dinner on the Friday). There is an interesting schedule of talks. I am hoping to find out a bit about the new C++ 200x standard, functional languages and other new developments. But, as always with such events, the most useful information often comes from chatting to other attendees between sessions. If you are at the conference, do come and say hello (mug shot here).

Choosing a development ‘stack’ for Windows desktop applications

beauty_parade.jpgI have have heard plenty of people saying that desktop software is dead and that all future development will be done for the web. From my perspective, as both a buyer and seller of software, I think they are wrong. In fact, of the thousands of pounds I have spent on software in the last three years, I would guess that well over 90% of it was spent on software that runs outside the browser. The capabilities of web based applications have improved a lot in recent years, but they still have a long way to go to match a custom built native application once you move beyond CRUD applications. I don’t expect to be running Visual Studio, PhotoShop or VMWare (amongst others) inside the browser any time soon. The only way I see web apps approaching the flexibility and performance of desktop apps is for the browser to become as complicated as an OS, negating the key reason for having a browser in the first place. To me it seems more likely that desktop apps will embed a browser and use more and more web protocols, resulting in hybrid native+web apps that offer the best of both worlds.

So, if Windows desktop apps aren’t going away any time soon, what language/libraries/tools should we use to develop them? It is clear that Microsoft would like us to use a .Net development environment, such as C#. But I question the wisdom of anyone selling downloadable off-the-shelf software based on .Net [1]. The penetration of .Net is less than impressive, especially for the more recent versions. From stats published by SteG on a recent BOS post (only IE users counted):

No .Net: 28.12%
>= .Net 1.0: 71.88%
>= .Net 1.1: 69.29%
>= .Net 2.0: 46.07%
>= .Net 3.0: 18.66%
>= .Net 3.5: 0.99%

Consequently deploying your app may require a framework update. The new .Net 3.5 framework comes with a 2.7 MB installer, but this is only a stub that downloads the frameworks required. The full set of frameworks weighs in at eye watering 197 MB. To find out how much the stub really downloads Giorgio installed .Net 3.5 onto a Windows 2003 VM with only .Net 1.0 & 1.1. The result: 67 MB. That is still a large download for most people, especially if your .Net 3.5 software is only a small utility. It is out of the question if you don’t have broadband. Microsoft no doubt justify this by saying that the majority of PCs will have .Net 3.5 pre-installed by the year X. Unfortunately by the year X Microsoft will probably be pushing .Net 5.5 and I dread to think how big that will be.

I have heard a lot of people touting the productivity benefits of C# and .Net, but the huge framework downloads can only be a major hurdle for customers, especially for B2C apps. You also have issues protecting your byte code from prying eyes, and you can pretty much forget cross-platform development. So I think I will stick to writing native apps in C++ for Windows for the foreseeable future.

There is no clear leader amongst the development ‘stacks’ (languages+libraries+tools) for native Win32 development at present. Those that spring to mind include:

  • Delphi – Lots of devoted fans, but will CodeGear even be here tomorrow?
  • VB6 – Abandoned and unloved by Microsoft.
  • Java – You have to have a Java Run Time installed, and questions still remain about the native look and feel of Java GUIs.
  • C++/MFC – Ugly ugly ugly. There is also the worry that it will be ‘deprecated’ by Microsoft.
  • C++/Qt – My personal favourite, but expensive and C++ is hardly an easy-to-use language. The future of Qt is also less certain after the Nokia acquisition.

Plus some others I know even less about, including: RealBasic and C++/WxWidgets. They all have their down sides. It is a tough choice. Perhaps that is why some Windows developers are defecting to Mac, where there is really only one game in town (Objective-C/Cocoa).

I don’t even claim that the opinions I express here are accurate or up-to-date. How could they be? If I kept up-to-date on all the leading Win32 development stacks I wouldn’t have any time left to write software. Of the stacks listed I have only used C++/MFC and C++/Qt in anger and my MFC experience (shudder) was quite a few years ago.

Given that one person can’t realistically hope to evaluate all the alternatives in any depth, we have to rely on our particular requirements (do we need to support cross platform?), hearsay, prejudice and which language we are most familiar with to narrow it down to a realistic number to evaluate. Two perhaps. And once we have chosen a stack and become familiar with it we are going to be loathe to start anew with another stack. Certainly it would take a lot for me to move away from C++/Qt, in which I have a huge amount of time invested, to a completely new stack.

Which Windows development stack are you using? Why? Have I maligned it unfairly above?

[1] Bespoke software is a different story. If you have limited deployment of the software and can dictate the end-user environment then the big download is much less of an issue.

Consulting offer ends 31st March

graph.pngI am offering £100 off my daily consulting fee until the end of March. Could you use an experienced and objective review of your strategy, marketing and product? When you have been eating, sleeping and breathing your business it can be difficult to ‘see the wood for the trees’ and a fresh perspective can be a huge help. More details here.

planetmicroisv.com

planetmicroisv.pngFloyd Price of Code Spaces has taken over the day-to-day running of microISV blog aggregator planetmicroisv.com from Baruch Even. He has already given it a fresh coat of paint. I appreciate the efforts of Baruch and Floyd to maintain this useful resource. planetmicroisv.com is well worth adding to your RSS feed if you are a microISV (or aspire to be).

Animated GIFs

The human brain and visual system is highly optimised to detect movement. If you don’t believe me, watch what happens to people’s attention when you turn on a TV in a room. Even if the sound is off, the program is dull and the conversation is interesting, people will find it very hard not to stare at the TV. You can exploit this by using animation on your website to grab the user’s attention. Animation is also a useful way of packing a lot of content into a limited space on your web page.

Animated GIFs are a useful low-tech way of adding animation to a website. They work in pretty much any browser, without requiring visitors to download a plug-in or even click a ‘play’ button. I use them on the PerfectTablePlan home page to show rotating testimonials and on adwords landing pages to give a brief visual overview of what PerfectTablePlan can do.

animated gifs

Animated GIFs are quite easy to create. Here is how I created the image above (on Windows):

  1. I used Sizer (freeware) to size the PerfectTablePlan main window to 960×750.
  2. I used SnagIt (commercial) to capture various screenshots, resize them to 320×250 and save them as separate 7-bit GIFs.
  3. I dragged the GIFs onto UnFreez (donationware) and created an animated GIF. (You can also use Adobe Photoshop, if you have it).
  4. I dragged the animated GIF onto SuperGIF (commercial with trial) to reduce the file size (by about 5% in this case).

The final result isn’t a work of art, but it is hopefully enough to grab the visitors attention and whet their appetite for more information.

Animated GIFs can get very large if you aren’t careful. But it rather defeats the object if your website visitor clicks ‘back’ before the image has loaded. I used 7-bit GIFs, small image dimensions, a limited number of frames and GIF optimisation to keep the file above to 72kb.

A word of warning – use animation sparingly or the effect can be quite overwhelming (don’t click this link if have epilepsy or a refined sense of taste).

Coverage Validator

coverage_validator.pngThe sink is full of washing, I am wearing odd socks and I haven’t been out of the house in days. It must be time to put out that new release. But how can I be sure my testing hasn’t missed a hideously embarrassing bug? Maybe I introduced a major bug when I made that ‘cosmetic’ change at 2am?

In an ideal world I would just run a comprehensive automated regression test suite. Unfortunately it is difficult to automate graphical user interface (GUI) testing and the majority of lines of code in most applications are GUI. I estimate that the code for my own table planner software is at least 75% GUI code (not including generated code, which would push it even higher).

So I try to manually execute every line of my application before I release it. If I have to make any changes to the code, I start over again. This is very dull, but at least I have a tool to help me: Coverage Validator. Coverage Validator instruments code and shows, in real time, which lines have been executed. Click a few buttons on your application and watch the executed lines of code change colour from pink to yellow. Execute every line in the file and all the lines change colour to cyan. No recompilation or relinking is required and it doesn’t slow down the tested application too much. This real-time feedback is incredibly powerful for testing.

code_coverage_small.gif

Unfortunately it also has a lot of shortcomings:

  • The usability isn’t great. There is a confusing plethora of options for instrumenting your code that I would rather not have to know about.
  • It isn’t able to ‘hook’ (instrument) all the lines of code. Whole blocks get missed out for reasons I don’t fully understand. Single line branches are particularly likely to be missed.
  • The GUI isn’t great. For example, the display flashes horribly if you resize it.
  • The automatic results merging is just plain weird. At the end of a session it can merge your coverage results into a previous session. This information isn’t much use to me at the end of a session. I want to merge previous results at the start of a session so I know which lines I haven’t tested.
  • The GUI is quite ugly. They really need to update those tired old icons.

However being able to see line coverage information in real time is just so incredibly useful that I am prepared to put up with the many shortcomings. I just run my application alongside Coverage Validator and, file-by-file and function-by-function, I try to turn the lines of code yellow (or, better still, cyan). Every time I have used Coverage Validator I have found at least one potentially embarrassing bug that I hadn’t discovered by any other means. The support has also been responsive. It is just a pity about the flaws, without them this would be a ‘killer app’ for testing.

Coverage Validator works with C++, Delphi and VB on Windows NT4, 2000, 2003 and XP[1]. A single licence costs $199. A free 30-day evaluation licence is available.

[1]I am using it on Vista currently, and it seems to work fine.

RegSoft customers beware

It looks like Digital River have added ‘Reservation rewards’ to at least some of their RegSoft customers’ shopping baskets, as they did earlier with SWREG. If you take the bait and sign up for Reservation Rewards, you will be billed $9 per month forever, and get nothing useful in return. It is an absolute disgrace. If you are with RegSoft (or any other Digital River company) I suggest you check your shopping backet ASAP and seriously consider moving to an non-Digital River alternative.

Calculating volume discounts for software

discount.jpgIf people buy your software in bulk they expect to get a discount. But how much of a discount should you give them? A simple formula I have seen used is:

discounted price = unit price * n^f

Where n is the total number of units purchased and f is a scaling factor between 0 and 1. So, for example, if my unit price is 24.95 (pounds, dollars etc) and f is 0.8, the discounted price for 10 units is = 24.95 * 10^0.8 = 157.42, which you can then round to a more aesthetically appealing number.

This is a little over-simplistic, as it doesn’t take account of the cost to you of each unit (for example the duplication and postage cost of CDs and the cost of payment processing). We can get around this by breaking the price into a fixed cost and a margin and only applying the discount to the margin. Below is a link to a simple Excel spreadsheet that does this for you. You can change any of the values in the orange fields. f seems to give sensible results in the range 0.75 to 0.9.

discount_spreadsheet1.png

discount spreadsheet (29kb, Excel 97-2003 format)

This spreadsheet can be useful to give you a starting point, but you also need to consider what the customer is prepared to pay. You maximise your profit by giving the buyer the minimum discount that is required to make the sale. For example, a reseller is out to make a profit and will probably expect a bigger discount on the same number of units than a large company buying in bulk for their end users. When in doubt, reduce the discount. You can always increase it a bit later if they don’t buy.

MicroISV Sites that Sell!

47hats.pngI have belatedly got around to reading Bob Walsh’s new e-book: “MicroISV Sites that Sell! Creating and Marketing Your Unique Selling Proposition”. This is the first in a series of e-books for microISVs that allows Bob to go into selected subjects in more depth than was possible in his book “Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality“.

The e-book is aimed very specifically at microISVs looking to create a website to sell their software effectively. It has a lot of detailed advice that I think will be invaluable to anyone creating their first microISV website. I have lost count of the number of microISV sites that make some of the mistakes Bob identifies, including:

  • it isn’t immediately clear what the product does
  • selling on features instead of benefits
  • too much text
  • inappropriate use of technical jargon

The content will inevitably be less useful for established microISVs, but you only need to find one useful idea to justify the cost of the e-book. My only real gripe is the comparison between programming patterns and marketing. I didn’t find this a helpful comparison. Marketing is a very different beast to programming and the sooner we face up to it, the better.

You can get a copy for $19 here.

Full disclosure: I got a free review copy of this e-book.

svp.co.uk

svp.pngIn the 10 months that I have been writing this blog I have pointed the finger at quite a few companies I consider to be giving less than great service. I would like to even that up a bit by recommending svp.co.uk [1]. SVP supply blank CDs, printer paper, printer cartridges and an ever increasing range of computer related consumables and other items at very good prices. Their service has also been consistently good in the several years that I have used them. If you are based in the UK, you should check them out.

[1] I have no financial interest in SVP. I am just a happy customer.