Well, I’ll give it to Microsoft: maybe they have an angle with IoT and enterprise. (Not to mention a rather creepy one.) In the end, though, only time will tell.
WARNING: This post is a commentary. If you’re looking for anything technically insightful, you might be disappointed.
Out of curiosity, I attended an Azure training event a few days ago with a group of colleagues at Microsoft’s Reactor in NYC. Though I’ve played with Azure a few times, I could definitely use more insight. (Since it’s been ages I’ve been to a training event, I also wondered if I was missing out on anything. I’ll admit that the food has gotten better.) Before I start, I commend Microsoft for having made leaps and strides in various respects, particularly with Linux and open source. Also, I should commend the staff who conducted the event. They were very helpful and considerate, and I can only imagine the difficulty in a situation where you are dealing with a room full of disgruntled developers. So, they performed well despite given constraints. Now, the actual event on other hand…that’s a different story. In many ways, it reminded me of my general impression of Microsoft these days: sometimes getting a little too ahead of themselves.
So, the general idea was a good one, introducing people to Azure using a hypothetically fun scenario. In this case, the scenario depicted was one where you help save astronauts on Mars, all through a series of printed-out “classified” tutorials on contemporary topics (IoT, serverless computing, etc.). Okay, decent concept. But the devil is in the details…First, the event space didn’t have enough bandwidth to accommodate the laptops of several dozen people. (As soon as I saw that there were no LAN jacks and that it was WiFi-only, I knew that we were in trouble. It’s common knowledge that between Windows updates and NuGet packages for project builds, you’re gonna need plenty of bandwidth.) Second, the presented materials were sometimes confusing (hyperlinks on printed paper, etc.) and were loosely tied to the general theme. For example, one exercise had us utilizing their face recognition API, which is separate from Azure for some reason. Exactly how this helps stranded astronauts and why we were using pictures of college students, I couldn’t tell you. Finally, the tutorials themselves were simple exercises of copying code and hitting menu options in order to showcase certain technological features.
However, there was no tutorial that gave a general idea of what Azure is really about: being a cloud platform. The basic framework was ignored (spinning up a VM instance, loading a new database, etc.) in order to tout its more niche features. Personally, though, I think that the goal of the marketing team should have been more practical and focused when planning this event. For example, use a theme of a skunkworks team within a larger organization. How could such a team leverage Azure to become innovative? In other words, provide inspiration and ammunition to your base of enterprise users that doesn’t currently use the cloud yet. Though I understand the marketing team’s goal: to appeal to both enterprise AND startup customers for Azure. Obviously, management has envisioned that as the strategy to overtake AWS.
Which, obviously, I think might be a mistake. For example, how many people with Arduinos and Raspberry Pis are looking to create IoT products with .NET Core? True, I’m not an expert, but after spending a few minutes with it, I still can’t see it winning too many hearts and minds. Instead of spreading their resources too thin, it might be beneficial to double-down on their bread and butter, especially since there’s already so much competition in other verticals. After all, there are plenty of enterprise customers to still win over. In fact, I can think of one or two opportunities in niche spaces that are hidden among enterprise users. I know that I don’t have the mile-high vantage point, so I’m not privy to certain details…but since I’m leery of wobbly ladders, I tend to prefer low-hanging fruit. 🙂
Well, I was patient, and I waited a year to see how Xamarin would integrate with Office 365. I was hoping for some new libraries and some new tutorials, so that I could eventually build that killer enterprise Xamarin app. Honestly, it would be nice to have a METAmessage for Android, which could offer the ability to customize the alerting functionality on your phone…but, alas, it seems that I’ll asphyxiate myself if I keep holding my breath.
So, I capitulated and just reverted to using IFTTT, so that it’ll just call me in specific cases. It’s not the ideal alert system, but it’s better than nothing. (Though I will admit that it’s fun to hear the automated voice of IFTTT as it reads my ridiculous excuse of an alert.)
So, there’s been so much talk about AI lately, and in particular, there’s a great deal of interest in bots. No, not the Mirai kind (which hopefully isn’t plentiful in the future, despite its Japanese translation). No, I’m talking about the friendly, enterprise kind. You know, the chatbots on Facebook that are supposed to be helpful snippets of AI, capable of booking hotel rooms for you. Of course, I don’t really understand the usefulness of these bots, since there’s no way that a bot could help me find the ideal room faster than my own investigation. In fact, they seem kinda…well…dumb. But these bots are probably not aimed at a self-appointed pariah of social media like myself. Instead, it’s probably meant for those people who are younger (i.e., millenials) and who are more predictable (troves of available marketing data via Facebook, less variety of purchases, etc.). In that case, I suppose that it’s useful for some but not for myself…or is it?
Similar to my reaction to chatbots, I never quite understood the newfound love for Slack. It’s a messenger app…so what? However, as I started to delve more into it, I started to understand its appeal through its extensible functionality, especially to developers. I can create a simple bot (or a basic web service) on my public-facing servers, so I can use Slack to talk with it on my phone and get the status of machines and processes? Okay…that’s kinda cool. (Assuming that your company and networking department embraces the idea of allocating machines just for this purpose. Trust me, I know…that can be a hard sell.) So, maybe, must maybe, I could be down with these chatbots. That way I could use Slack (or Skype) and be hip like the cool kids!
Hmmm…so how I could I actually pitch this one to the brass? Curious, I looked to see if there was already an enterprise version of such a solution, and though I did find one or two, they seemed to be costly and less flexible than desired. So why not just build one cheaply on my own? Since I recently read something about Microsoft’s nascent bot framework and its integration with Skype, I figured that I could start there as a quick way to prototype. After proceeding through a few quick tutorials, it became obvious that a chatbot is nothing more than a tailored RESTful web service, and with that realization, I quickly assembled and got working the prototype that I had in mind.
However, over the next few weeks, I started to realize that it wasn’t viable. One, since this framework is too young to even stand on its own wobbly legs, Microsoft keeps updating the framework and breaking my stable prototypes. As with previous experiences when dealing with a Microsoft gestation, I wondered again if Redmond’s new projects (along with their frenetic and seemingly bipolar updates) are victims of Conway’s Law…Two, I read about how Skype does not and will not support third-party bots that are not publicly registered in their Bot Directory. I’m fairly sure nearly all of the company brass would have a problem with a publicly available chatbot that tells the status of our internal servers. Just a hunch.
After taking a quick look at other platforms, I came away with similar impressions. In the end, I’d say that chatbots are like a lot of new tech these days: lots of potential but some distance away from ultimately being practical.
Well…I might be a little “tricksy” in that announcement, since it might not be exactly what you think. No, I haven’t yet ported the solution to Swift. (After playing with a few projects pulled from Github, I noticed how different Objective-C and Swift are from the state of iOS development 5 years ago. Seems like there might be a little bit of a learning curve there.)
However, the good news from Microsoft with .NET Core keeps coming. So, on top of delivering the port to Linux, they released the preview of Visual Studio for Mac only a few weeks ago. And the reaction seems to be generally positive! Now, all Mac-centric companies that deal with book data can make use of my ONIX Data Library. We just welcomed another 7 people to the fold!
The ONIX standard…huh? Am I right? What…you’ve never heard of it?!?
Yeah, well…I guess that makes sense. However, if you’ve worked on any project regarding the publishing industry, then there’s a good chance that you have heard of it. Basically, it’s the international standard for representing electronic data regarding books (along with other select media formats). Titles, prices, commentaries…most of that data is passed between companies in the ONIX format. It can be frustrating to work with at times…but work with it you must.
Strangely, though, there aren’t many tools or libraries out there which focus on it. Now, you might be saying, “Of course there are no libraries or tools out there…there are more people that you use Sanskrit than use this standard.” Well…that might be true; I’m not sure. However, there are enough people out there (including developers) who work with it; there should be something out there to help us brave few. And when I found nearly nothing for the .NET platform, I decided to make one of my own.
It was a little awkward at first during development, since I found a few platform issues regarding XML in my adventures. However, after a few weeks of work, I finally had something substantial. So, I am proud to introduce the world’s first open-source serialization/parser library for ONIX in C#, complete with a few pretty ribbons attached! It’s bound to be of some use to somebody…all 5 people who happen to use both ONIX and the .NET platform. Everyone else may say “blah”, but those scant few are going to be ecstatic. We’re going to throw a pizza party just for us, and everybody else is going to be soooo jealous.
Over a year ago, I published an article that proposed the possibility of creating a system that could be configured to systematically download snapshots of records via a data API, catalog them for auditing purposes, and then apply that data to relational tables used in production. At the time, there was only the article about the subject matter, but there wasn’t a working example to accompany it. In order to further demonstrate the feasibility of the article’s proposal, I decided to go ahead and remedy that particular dearth.
So, after taking a few minutes out of each day to incrementally build the project, I think that the project has come along well enough to be let loose upon the world. I’ve uploaded the project to GitHub, so that it may endure for posterity. For the purpose of inspiration or amusement through ridicule, only time will tell. 🙂