Archive for April, 2008

Asus Eee 1.0 impressions

Tuesday, 29th April, 2008

I promised a further review when I had had chance the sample the delights of actually using the Eee (701) as a portable, rather than on my desk. (where its connected to a decent screen, keyboard and mouse)

I reviewed some research papers on it the other night whilst out and about. That saved my a ton of time.

Its very portable, not quite small enough to fit in my coat pocket, but easy enough to carry. And with the low price its not a massive risk to leave around, or get knocked. Plus the fact its not my main dev machine eases the worry

For reading PDFs and writing in OpenOffice Write it works very well. Calc works fine too, although with big spreadsheets you notice the cramped screen.

It had a flat battery so I charged it for an hour and a half, that was good for about 3/4 hour of what I would consider to be very light use. It claimed to be half full but I think they are meant to do about 3 hours. Anyway about an hour is enough on your lap I reckon before the RSI really kicks in. I’m pleased I was mainly paging up/down, I think using the trackpad for mousing around would have been hard work.

The screen although small is very clear, I was reading at about 80% zoom before I upped it to 120% or something to save my eyes.

It can project much better resolutions than it can display, but that means you only see a corner of the screen image on the machine, whereas the audience sees the whole thing. If you want to get interactive that becomes tricky.

In terms of the included Linux OS and app stack – this all works well and I find its fine for pretty much everything except developing for Windows/Office. The odd crappy web site doesn’t display right, but the main ones do. I havent invested the time I wanted to learning more about Linux so I’m still only scratching the surface. But that is the great improvement of modern Linux – you don’t need to be a ubergeek to boot the machine, its as simple as any other OS.

Performance is fine for most ‘normal’ stuff, apps can take a while to get going, and I wouldn’t call it snappy, some javascript sites really drag. I’m not sure I would want to try and run some of my spreadsheet monsters on it.

The newly announced 900 has a bigger screen (9″ instead of 7″) which excellent, its a bit bigger physically which is bearable, but has a daft power brick instead of the mobile phone style power lead of the 701, and its a 100 quid more. Dunno if I’ll get one, when they finally arrive. As I mainly use this one connected to an external screen the 900 doesn’t seem to offer much. We’ll see.

Anyone else got one, or similar?



Is Excel Services a trap?

Tuesday, 29th April, 2008

Excel is the tool of the business user, often to implement systems that the IS department has refused to do (either by saying no, or quoting ridiculous costs/timescales).

We have discussed here many times this cultural conflict, and how this is a factor in Excel popularity/usefulness.

So Excel services could almost be considered a bit of a trojan horse. IS (begrudgingly, of course) sets it up on a server for the business to use. Business starts to move many of their horrible spreadsheets to the new server. Suddenly IS have control of many new critical business processes. What will they do then? Lock them down? Lock people out ‘for their own good’? ‘rationalise’ them? Insist on migrating them to .net? webify them for no reason except to bolster IS developers CVs? break them? make them unavailable at key times? De-prioritise them? Set up a proper test/production split? Look after them as well as, or better than, their originator?

Who knows, but the point is many business spreadsheets represent failure of IS to deliver an effective alternative. Is Excel services that alternative? Or should we be holding out for a full N-tier/big iron solution?

Do you see Excel services as a short term bridging type technology to help IS and the business work more closely together? With most of those spreadsheets eventually migrated to SQL/.net type architecture?

Or is it a ‘for the foreseeable future’ technology?

I reckon it makes a good halfway house and if it can encourage collaboration between IS and the business that can only be good. I would expect many critical systems to move to a more mainstream techs within a year or 2 of appearing in Excel services. That will generally be a good thing I think, what about you?



Microsoft Q1 results out

Friday, 25th April, 2008

EL reg has a brief summary here.

The general view is that Vista has not helped the financials, and there is still a question mark over Windows XPs June retirement.

Of course I’m not bothered about that I want to know how the Business division that owns Office has done.

Revenue down 9% from Q1 last year apparently. There are suggestions that that may be due to an artificially high Q1 last year due to Office 2007 coupons or something – although I don’t remember that being discussed last year. (‘fastest selling version ever’ is how I remember it)

I wonder what component, common across several of the key Office products could have discouraged 9% of potential customers?



PS Of course I have no idea of the real causes of the results, but why let that little fact get in the way?

I guess Office 2007 could be booming and Navision could have bombed, but something big must have slumped to drag the whole division down 9%.

Anyone got links to decent analysis?

State of the profession 2

Thursday, 24th April, 2008

The European Spreadsheet Risk Interest Group will be having their annual spreadsheet risk/quality conference in July in Greenwich. (Eusprig). ‘In pursuit of Spreadsheet Excellence’ is this years title.

Greenwich is a mere stones throw from the City.

How many City institutions will be represented there?

A handful, a dozen at the most.

Why? they certainly know about the conference and the valuable information and networking opportunities.

They certainly use spreadsheets, they have even started to own up to using them, and many are even accepting they are a strategic resource.

The reason the don’t come (according to people who absolutely know) is they are worried about being seen to admit they might have spreadsheet quality concerns!

I guess that means the perceived value of attending is less than the loss of face of being there! What a shame.

I’m sure these same orgs happily attend security conferences without feeling they are dropping their pants in public.

Thanks for the responses to the previous post, I’m pleased to see some folks are not seeing such a bleak picture. SBs role especially sounds like exactly what smart orgs should be doing to get the best return on investment.



State of the profession

Wednesday, 23rd April, 2008

Dick M asks if we (Office developers) are a dying breed. At least I think he’s asking – he could be telling us our profession is wilting away. Whatever, I agree. Completely.

Office developer, Excel developer, business developer, these mean pretty much the same thing to me, its a person nearer the business than a traditional IS department dev. They probably use a range of tools/platforms, they mainly target desktop rather than server, Excel usually features as at least part of the interface (or calc engine), source data may be from a server database, but working data is likely to be in jet. Glue code may be VB6 or .net but most likely VBA. The best differentiators (from mainstream devs) are around business acumen rather than technical tool choice.

Anyway Dick mentions a few items, here are my thoughts:

Value for work – Bad and getting worse, its getting so only City institutions understand the value of Excel, which is bizarre considering their normal sheep like tendencies. ( I suppose they are flocking round each other).

Respect – Bad and getting worse, for years I was embarrassed to admit I did a lot of work in Excel, as ‘real devs don’t touch Excel – hobbyists only’. Then as Eusprig gathered momentum I got a bit more confident, but I think that quality/error movement has stalled a little now. So back to claiming to be a mainstream dev for me I reckon.

Continuity – Bad and getting worse, I used to coach client staff in what I was doing in Excel/Access/VBA etc. These days they turn their noses up, happy to pick up some SQL or C# but no Excel/VBA thank you. I just don’t see many people rushing into our technologies.

Conclusion – yeah we’re proper fooked. Unless MS are going to wake up to their most valuable asset – MS Office on an MS Windows desktop. By wake up I mean the hand in pocket wake up, not the cheap soundbite one thats been (pointlessly) running (well walking) for as long as I can remember.

I don’t think us devs will be the losers we’ll just move to techs where the opportunities are better. The real losers will be MS as customers move to other platforms that have an apparently better cost/benefit story, but only because they are unaware of much of the benefit of the MS Office platform. [Ignoring for the time being the cost/no benefit fubar known as the 2007 UI shuffle]

The other losers of course will be businesses far and wide that have to wait for their IS departments to implement their grossly over engineered, over priced, over due, big iron monsters, just in time to realise the business requirement has moved on.

The winners are of course the IS departments who gain control, power and loads of low pressure work. If you know you will release straight into retirement (rather than production) there are lots of unpleasant things you can forgo, like testing, and documentation for example.

Is this how you see things?

or are you seeing different trends?

How do you think things will pan out in 3-5 years?

Do you have an escape plan?

Please comment here or on Dicks post



Access queries

Tuesday, 22nd April, 2008

Marcus recently reminded me of one of my Access maintenance headaches.

Do you write all your queries as queries and store them visible in the query window?

Or do you keep them in your VBA so they are easy to manipulate?

Or do you mix it up to give the maintainer a hard time?

Just wondering as I’ve been caught out a few times tracing the logic of the visible components in other peoples dbs, only to find they are quietly modified in code (from multiple places).

I often use Excel as the UI and build queries in cells, but I do try and consider the maintainer (just in case its me ;-)).

The last jet project I did I added all the SQL as querydefs, that made debugging much easier as I could open the .mdb and tinker with the queries via the Access UI.

What do you tend to do?



Linux goes mainstream

Monday, 21st April, 2008

You don’t get much more mainstream than coverage on the beeb. Linked from the front page no less. Now if only Dell could do that so people could find and buy the systems… (not that anyone is buying Dell anymore right?)

I have noticed that most of this new breed of cheap sub notebooks from the Eee and OLPC onwards tend to come with Linux installed. And there seems to be hundreds of them now. Perhaps one day PC World will catch on and start stocking them, I believe one of the most likely places to get an Eee when they were (are?) scarce was Toys-r-Us.

Anyone else got one of these new cheapo things?

I’m very pleased with my Eee, looking forward to trying to justify getting the 900 which has a more usable screen size.



Excel consulting firms

Sunday, 20th April, 2008

Where are they?
Where are the multi person Excel, or other spreadsheet, consulting/development firms?
If this technology is as important and useful as we think it is, and its hardly new (mature I think is the correct terminology (one step before legacy)), then why aren’t there more/any 10/20/100/200 person specialist firms?
Sharepoint has them, why not us?
(Is it because that is a ‘professional’ tech and Excel isn’t?;-))
Its like Excel dev is locked in the artisan phase and never going to move towards a more ‘engineered’ approach.
I’m not overly worried from a quality POV as I think if you get the right artisan you will get quality far beyond some tick list based ‘way’.
Its credibility that worries me, I think a few formalised big consulting firm standards would give the whole market a bit more clout. Even if they did conflict massively.
So where are they, and why aren’t there more?

First thing

Friday, 18th April, 2008

Whats the very first thing you look at/for when you open a workbook from someone else? (that you trust not to be malicious)

And whats the first thing you look at/for when looking at someone elses code?

For spreadsheets its neatness/layout of whatever opens
too neat = gold plating/time wasting
too scruffy = slack/ little care

(Of course the ‘correct’ level of neatness is the sort of stuff I produce ;-)). I’m thinking use of formatting, use of number formatting, use of space etc.

I’d like to pretend thats its some kind of rational measure (file properties maybe?), but really its just a judgement on the initial visual appeal.

For (VB/VBA) code it is Option Explicit – missing = cowboy everytime. If its a snippet/function then I look to see if parameters variables and return are typed (as in Dim … as …., rather than dim x, y, z)

What about you?
one only for each category.
And is it relative to your own work? or do you think its an absolute measure?

Incompatibility strategy

Thursday, 17th April, 2008

It occurred to me the other day that one of the major benefits of releasing a new version of a product that is not very compatible with previous version is the speed of uptake within migrating orgs.

What I’m thinking of is how rapid the implementation is likely to be. If a company decides to adopt Office 2007 say, its likely to be a fairly sharp switch over. More so than say the move from 2002 to 2003, those co-exist much more easily.

Also for independent consultants like some of us here, switching back and forth from 2007 to prior versions is more pain than previously. That might encourage us to encourage clients to migrate to 2007, Or it may mean we drop non 2007 clients so we can stick with one version. Or we may avoid 2007 of course and offer 2003, 2002, 2000 and maybe 97 and OOo instead.

It seems that if you release an incompatible version you force people to make a choice about which version (or vendor) they will work with, but those that do migrate are unlikely to go back, and likely to drag others with them.

I know there are plenty of resources to help the move to 2007, thats not my point. I’m thinking that as soon as an org gets some 2007, they will want to move completely, rather than support 2 vastly different versions. If your IT team was going to support 2007 and 2003, then I wonder how much extra work it would be to support OpenOffice as well?

Many of the folks who have got past the initial hurdles of 2007 have suggested they do not want to go back and use previous versions as its is too hard to work with such different designs. Thats an interesting observation as I don’t mind at all using anything from 97-2003 and OOo as the differences are quite easy to work around.

I think the strength of the (generally strong) views around 2007 (either for or against) are part of the same thing (over the hurdle in ribbon user experience nirvana or resenting its pointlessness).

I’m not sure how the thing ties in, or if it does?

I’m not softening to the jumbled up UI, but I am starting to see a hint of a possible strategic justification. (I’m not suggesting it will work)

Do you think this is just standard planned obsolescence?
Would you do it with your product?