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Thrilling tales of deployment

One of my requirements when researching places to live when I moved to Boston was nearby public transit. If you’ve ever driven in Boston, you know the traffic can be dense and intense and WTF?! THERE ARE 80 CARS BEHIND YOU AND IT’S ILLEGAL TO TURN LEFT THERE DURING RUSH HOUR!!

OK, so driving was not in the picture for my daily commute to the Fortress of NERDitude. Currently, my daily commute takes about half an hour of waiting for a bus or a train and sitting/standing while someone else does the driving. Doing nothing is much more relaxing than driving in Cambridge traffic, of course, but even with good music, doing nothing gets boring pretty quickly.

I could just bring along my trusty Nintendo DS but I figured that would get boring eventually too. Plus, I figured I could be a bit more mature than that and do something, I dunno, productive like read mail or blogs…

I considered just browsing the Web on my phone, but rejected that idea:

  • Web latency over 3G networks is painful.
  • 3G networks aren’t terribly reliable underground.
  • Web UIs are painful on small screens.

A laptop or even UMPC is out, because I knew I’d frequently need to work one-handed, keeping the other handy for not falling over during the less-than-smooth parts of the Red Line.

No, I needed a small, handheld device that could sync mail and blogs and let me read them offline.

No, it’s not an iPhone

After some research, I bought an iPod touch. (Perhaps in a couple of weeks, my implant will kick in and I’ll do this all again on a Zune HD.) I also bought Phantom Fish’s Byline RSS reader, which syncs to Google Reader. Once I supplied my account name and password, reading blogs using Byline is easy:

  • Tap the sync button to download the latest blog posts.
  • Read posts and mark some for later follow-up once I’m back online.
  • Before heading home, sync to update Google Reader with the posts I read and to download the latest blog posts.
  • Once I’m back in range of my home WiFi, sync again.

Please, sir, may I have some more?

Buying apps from Apple’s App Store is simple; the hardest part is typing a strong password into the on-screen keyboard:

  • Start the App Store app.
  • Search or browse for an app.
  • Tap the price and it turns into a BUY NOW button.
  • Tap BUY NOW.
  • Enter your iTunes password.
  • The app is downloaded and installed.

Updates are handled in much the same way:

  • Start the App Store app.
  • Tap the Updates button.
  • If there are any updates, tap the Update All button to download and install the updates in the background.

Because I have an iPod touch instead of iPhone, all my interaction with the App Store happens over WiFi at respectable speeds. (Even better, it doesn’t require interaction with iTunes, which continues to amply demonstrate that Apple has yet to master setup development on Windows.)

I’ve purchased many apps since buying my iPod touch and “purchased” many more free apps. In all cases, downloading and installing those apps was painless.

Knew you’d get to installation eventually

Well, yeah. Here are my takeaways; yours might differ:

  • Mobile != connected. Even though 3G coverage is decent from the major carriers, there will always be dead zones, slow zones, and underground zones.
  • Rich clients + local processing power == goodness. Sure, Web 2.0 and HTML5 will finally kill the idea of running local apps. Bah. Latency, especially problematic with 3G networks, kills the user experience (see, for example, About Face and other UX books). Rich clients can largely avoid the problem.
  • Sync data that lives in the cloud. If your data lives in the cloud, rich clients can sync it, keeping multiple devices up to date. In my case, I prefer to use a laptop or desktop PC to read blogs and mail when I can because, not surprisingly, a big screen is better for reading (or scanning) lots of text.
  • Bulletproof installations rock. Would anyone disagree it’s better to have bullet-ridden installation?
  • Making it easy to buy apps makes it easy to make money. The App Store had “over 1 billion downloads in just nine months” and “1.5 billion in First Year.” Naturally, with so many free and almost-free apps in the App Store, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re talking about a lot of money, depending on your definition of “a lot,” as estimates put the revenue at $2.4 billion a year. But imagine extending the App Store experience to more expensive apps, say on your PC.
  • Making it easy to service apps makes it easy to keep customers happy. Servicing deliverables themselves aren’t too hard to get right but making users aware of them and getting them to the user still is. It’s led to way too many auto-start local-system updater services one vulnerability away from total system p0wnage.

Best of both worlds

One of the big reasons Web apps became so popular, for both consumers and the enterprise, is that they don’t suffer from the reliability problems common to installing client apps. Naturally, these aren’t inherent problems with client app installation but are complexities that easily turn into problems—especially without engineering attention to setup.

Web apps avoid the problem by not installing on the client. (Note that I’m skipping the complexities of setting up Web servers and the pseudo-installation provided by Silverlight and Flash.)

iPhone/iPod touch apps avoid the problem by:

  • Working in a limited number of well-known environments. (Though the iPhone 3GS adds a second hardware base and there are many rumors about a so-called “Apple tablet.”)
  • Working in a locked-down environment.
  • Requiring a particular deployment model.
  • Supporting a simple update model.
  • Requiring review and approval before getting published.

These might seem pretty limiting to most Windows developers. But it’s hard to argue against the success the App Store has achieved because of—probably not in spite of—those limitations.

Categories: Etc