Saturday, December 31, 2011

Why the Cloud isn't the Internet

I think people are just starting to realize what some of the cloud vendors are providing and their drawbacks.  Steve Jobs is quoted in his biography describing the intent behind iCloud:
We need to be the company that manages your relationship with the cloud - streams your videos and music from the cloud, stores your pictures and information, and maybe even your medical data...over the next few years, the hub is going to move from the computer into the cloud...So we wrote all these apps - iPhoto, iMove, iTunes - and tied in our devices, like the iPod and iPhone and iPad...We can provide all the syncing you need, and that way we can lock in the customer.
The Mac has always been different to Windows.  One of those differences Windows users' notice is that you switch between applications in OS X compared to documents (or windows) in Windows. The Apple cloud maintains that pattern by syncing between applications rather than documents (or individual files).  This approach confuses a lot of people.

This is different to how most Mac users currently sync their files with Dropbox.  iCloud has ended up following its Mac heritage whereas Dropbox sticks to file syncing.  Matthew writes:
The difference between Dropbox and iCloud synchronization is that Dropbox is theoretically just a file system...If you have a document that you edit on your iPad and sync with Dropbox you can edit that same file, using a different application, on your PC...The iCloud experience is completely different. The only way to edit a document across platforms or devices is to use a version of the application for each device. Not a compatible may actually make me change the desktop application that I use purely based on iCloud support.
If you want to read more about Dropbox and Apple there's a really good article in Forbes which details how Steve Jobs personally made an offer to buy Dropbox.

The edges of iCloud - the integration points to applications and the operating system - it's incomplete even if you buy into the idea of applications over documents.

For example, on iOS devices there is a Notes application but on OS X these notes are in a tab in the Mail application.  This seems like a weird and non-standard place to put it - if you are going to sync by application you'd think it should be the same application across platforms.

In iCloud for Windows, Windows users get more choice than OS X users.  Mail, Contacts and Calendar integrate with Outlook but you can choose your application for Bookmarks (IE or Safari) and Photo Stream.

Even within applications Apple haven't quite gotten syncing right with iCloud yet either including the new rules around where files are stored and what is automatically removed or backed up.

The cloud is about vendor lock as much as any other platform, like application servers or databases, but with the extra problem that your data is tied to the vendor's application, cloud and user base.  A stickier solution.

Some, like Google and Facebook, offer export services, but these almost don't matter, because you get an almost useless hunk of data, lose the ability to run the applications and you can't access users on their network (who may well have been collaborators).

With the Internet, the Web and open source you still have the possibility to use your data with applications shared by many people across different networks.

Global Code Retreat 2012

I went to the local Global Code Retreat held on the 3rd of December.  Overall, it was an amazing event - very well hosted and attended.  The basic structure of the day was 6 or so 45 minute sessions trying to implement something with a different person each time.  At the end of the 45 minutes, no matter how far you had got, you deleted your solution.

The problem was "The Game of Life".  I'm pretty familiar with this problem having come across "Conway's Game of Life" early on in a magazine like Compute! or Byte.

However, if you walked away with a really awesome solution to "The Game of Life" you probably missed the point - most of the things that were being taught were hidden.

The solution was really beside the point.  One of the main reasons is to repeat solving the problem from scratch based on an idea called kata (movements practiced by yourself or in pairs).  This is something that I had come across in "The Pragmatic Programmer" which at the time reminded me of the time I had spent with projects at home - reimplementing the same thing over and over again.

Steve Yegge mentions the same thing in his article "Practicing Programming".  He mentions that even as you program in your day job you may not actually be practicing programming.  Repetition in solving the same problems seems to be about keeping the problem fixed and then changing how you approach it and freeing you from any time constraints.  Most programming jobs involve solving the solution once (or if you're lucky doing a proof of concept and then implementing it again).

The first time around it was awful.  I didn't know what I was doing, my environment was a little bit shaky, we couldn't agree on a language and I spent a lot of the time just setting it up.

It made me become aware that for the first time, practically ever, my personal computer had diverged from my work computer.  Not in the "normal" Windows at work, Linux and OS X at home - but what I do at home and at work have diverged to the point where I'm learning stuff in many directions and there's almost no overlap between the two.

The second time was much better.  There was less discussion on languages to use, how to approach the problem, how do you test drive it, whose computer to use and so on.  There was still discussion but we both shared a bit more context this time which made the discussion flow.  A big difference to the first time.

The third time around changed the format a little to where you couldn't talk to the person but you could only express requirements through tests.  So this sorted out the people who were testing from those who weren't.  But it also seemed to reduce the clutter around what needed to be done.  Tests are much less ambiguous compared to talking through requirements and so once you setup a rhythm of tests it became much easier.  Also, the whole room was very quiet.  You could imagine that a team doing silent TDD and pair programming wouldn't be the noisiest group in the room (for once).

Each round thereafter changed the programming requirements: no loops, methods no more than 3 lines, and no if statements.

What did I learn?  Heaps.

I ended up doing Ruby quite a bit and mostly the solution came out at about 30 lines of production code and 30 lines of tests and you could pretty much do it in the time allocated.  I also did solutions C# and Haskell.  The Haskell solution came out at about 30 lines total - both tests and production code - and met every constraint (no loops, small functions, no if statements).

Doing the same problem over and over again is surprisingly effective and nothing replaces sitting with a person to learn a new language or to be exposed to a variety of solutions.  One of the tricks - and you find this frequently with pair programming - you have to be very good at communication - both by saying what you're doing but also getting the other person to explain themselves.

I also learnt:
  • Even with something as well defined and familiar as "The Game of Life", the solutions were varied and some of the requirements (based on the rules on Wikipedia) were redundant.
  • My brain is very weak compared to how well Google search works.
  • Between each new attempt you tend to reflect on each previous solution and see the negatives and positives.
  • By continually starting a new project setup time was greatly reduced - dependencies that get in the way were slowly reduced - editors, libraries, searching the web, etc.
  • That it's good to throw code away.  It frees you up by allowing you to try different approaches or learn something new (like a different language).
  • Think before you hack.
  • A functional approach seemed to be where the answers were converging - meeting all the programming constraints that were given.