Category Archives: Computer Science

Next phase of Blackberry

A few months after my June 2015 post that BlackBerry should adopt Android as its underlying platform, BlackBerry did just that with the Blackberry Priv in November 2015.   I’ll admit that I am happy to see that John Chen reads my blog and takes my advice. It may not look like the plan worked, but I would argue that had BlackBerry not adopted Android things would be far worse right now.  At least the BlackBerry faithful have a thread to hang onto until the next moves play out.

With the platform issue out of the way, the question became, how to stop the financial bleeding of hardware design, manufacturing, and support costs.   Admittedly, I haven’t been paying attention for a while, but I believe BlackBerry made the only possible move that makes sense. They outsourced their hardware manufacturing and design process. This is superior to dropping or selling the money-losing phone hardware business altogether since BlackBerry still needs a platform they control where they can build their software.

BlackBerry started the outsourcing process with Foxconn but were left having to provide marketing and distribution themselves.  Their latest iteration of a deal is now with TCL who will take over that entire operation.   Outside of the US, TCL is a pretty good size electronics company, so this is a pretty good move for BlackBerry.   BlackBerry can rest assured that their hardware is relatively safe and sound from a design, manufacturing, and marketing perspective.

A key question remains. How does BlackBerry differentiate itself enough to get a core group of buyers that they can eventually grow?”  I think their way back in is through the enterprise. The company I work for allows us to choose either an iPhone or an Android device. I see a relatively even split between iPhones and Android devices (I’m going to pretend this represents a good sampling of corporate America and since this is just a blog post I don’t have to provide any data to support my idea, LOL.)  If BlackBerry can get themselves back in with Verizon and AT&T, I am sure that a large group of users will select them when choosing a phone.

As much as I love my iPhone I might be tempted to a BlackBerry running Android to have my good old Blackberry Hub, and physical keyboard back again…

iOS 10, a boon for the color blind

iOS 10 public beta 1 was released a few days ago.  Within the release is a new section called “Display Accommodations.”  Within there is a section called “Color Filters”

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Display accommodations screenshot

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Color Filters Screenshot

 

to help users that are color blind. As someone who suffers from Deuteranopia, I was extremely interested to test drive this feature.

 

I decided to test drive by taking an online color blindness test, first with no filters activated, then again with the Green/Red Filter applied.

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Enchroma Color Test

 

After taking my first test, results confirm what I already knew, that I am a Deutan.

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Strong Deutan result screenshot

I repeated the test using the green/red color filter in iOS 10.  Results show normal color vision.  Did this fix my vision?  Obviously not, but it does make sure that I  am not missing information on the screen by shifting the colors to the spectrum I can see.

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Normal Color vision result Screen shot

Thanks Apple.  Great add!

Blackberry platform future

One question in many people’s mind is where does Blackberry go from here.  They have already stated that they are pivoting to become a software and services company. This leads me to ponder several possibilities for where they go with the Blackberry OS story in the future.

One possibility is that the rumors are all false and Blackberry will stay with their current QNX underpinnings.  This would probably be the final nail in their coffin, if this was the decision.  Time has proven that Blackberry missed the boat on getting an OS developed that would get traction with application developers.  In fact, today a majority of apps on the Blackberry are ported applications running on the built-in Android runtime environment (albeit poorly and slowly, with many compatibility issues).

Also, since Blackberry is a smallish company whose workforce has already been shrinking, future development of the QNX part of the Blackberry OS will take valuable resources from future development of the top portion of the stack, which is the only portion of the Blackberry experience that adds value to the user.  In other words the QNX portion of the Blackberry stack is muda.

Another possibility is that Blackberry will adopt the Android platform as its core OS environment.  This would offload their organization from having to provide the valuable resources for fully developing the plumbing of the OS, while at the same time allowing them to contribute bug fixes, and targeted improvements (through the open source mechanism). It also gives them clear visibility into the entire software stack so they can continue to control the security of their offerings.

As for the developer story, if they chose the Android stack, Blackberry could easily shift their users to use Android apps provided by Blackberry World, which would become their curated version of the Google play store.  They could provide the current blackberry runtime on top of the Android kernel to provide backwards compatibility with the current BB10 apps.

Doing the same thing as the Android prediction, only using the Windows 10 stack is another interesting possibility.  The Windows Phone share is also not large, but the future is very promising for Windows Phone.  The new Universal Application story which will allow write once, run anywhere is very interesting indeed.  All that would seem to need to happen for this to work is for Blackberry to convince Microsoft its worth their while to create a version of the .Net core runtime that will run on their current platform.  Then they can have the Windows store on their phones.

Out of these three options I think the Android version makes the most sense.  They get to offload a lot of the grunt work of an OS to Google and the open source community, they get access to an already huge application pool.  This is compatible with their Enterprise server MDM story as well since they can manage Android devices and applications already with BES 12.  Finally, it allows them to focus their limited resources on the things that differentiate them from their competition, their security and integration with enterprise workflow.

Please post a comment below to let me know what you think…

Setup Dropbox to sync on a schedule – Mac version

Currently I am living in a part of rural Virginia, where the only option for internet is ViaSat internet satellite.  The service has its ups and downs, but the worst part are the data caps, and they are cell phone low.  In fact the highest plan I can buy is 25GB of data transfer and that is about $140 per month.

One thing that I really miss is the ability to have my Dropbox synced at all times.  The data transfers can be high if I am putting videos and photos into my Dropbox.  Dropbox’s application currently allows you to throttle the bandwidth, but it’s either on or off…

ViaSat does offer something nice…  every morning from Midnight to 5AM they shut off the meters allowing unlimited usage.  I decided to leverage this and make Dropbox sync only during this free window.

Doing this on a MAC boils down to just two things.

1.  Create applications to launch and stop dropbox.
2.  Schedule a daily task to START Dropbox.app at 12AM and to STOP Dropbox.app at 5AM.

 

Create applications to launch and stop dropbox

On the Mac there is an awesome program called Automator that lets mere mortals create easy programs that can do various things.  I highly recommend looking into this capability.  It is really handy.  For this problem, we will use automator to both Launch and kill the dropbox app at the times we want.

 

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1.1. First lets open Automator,  which is in the system’s Application folder.

 

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1.2. Then click “New Document” to begin a new Automator document.

Select "Application"

1.3. Select “Application” to create a new application. (This first one will be setup to open the dropbox app)

 

Select Utilities on the left. Drag the "Start Application" task into the workflow pane on the right so it looks like this.

1.4. Select Utilities on the left.
1.5. Drag the “Start  Launch Application” task into the workflow pane on the right so it looks like this.

Save the new application into the system's Applications folder. I named it "Start Dropbox"

1.6. Save the new application into the system’s Applications folder.
I named it “Start Dropbox”

 

Perform a similar process to create another Automator app to "Quit Application." Make sure to assign the dropbox.app in the dropdown box, and also uncheck the save confirmation.

1.7. Perform a similar process to create another Automator app to “Quit Application.” Make sure to assign the dropbox.app in the dropdown box, and also uncheck the “ask to save changes” confirmation.

You should now have two automator apps that are in your applications folder.

1.8. You should now have two automator apps that are in your applications folder.

Next we will schedule these applications (a.k.a. workflows, scripts, etc.) to run automatically in iCal

 

Create a new Event in iCal on the first day you want this application to run. Setup to start at 00:00 i.e. midnight. Under alerts, setup a custom alert to open a file. Choose the Start dropbox app we made. Alert timing should be "At time of event" to make sure this fires off at the time we want.

2.1 Create a new Event in iCal on the first day you want this application to run.
2.2 Setup to start at 00:00 i.e. midnight.
2.3 Under alerts, setup a custom alert to open a file. Choose the Start dropbox app we made.
2.4 Alert timing should be “At time of event” to make sure this fires off at the time we want.

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2.5 Set this event to repeat every day.

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2.6 Repeat 2.1 through 2.5 to setup an event to “Quit Dropbox” at 5am (or whatever time you want)

You should end up with two new daily events on your calendar.

You should end up with two new daily events on your calendar.

 

One more tip. I put both of these events on a new "Automator" calendar, so I can uncheck it so it doesn't clutter up my iCal.

One more tip. I put both of these events on a new “Automator” calendar, so I can uncheck it so it doesn’t clutter up my iCal.

Codecademy Review

About

Codecademy is a computer programming teaching platform “Made in NYC” by a group of about 20 young entrepreneurs whose mission is to “… rethinking education from the ground up.”  The company was founded in 2011 and has since had about “24 million users who had completed over 100 million exercises.”  This is an impressive impact they are having.  I was watching Jessica McKellar’s talk  “A hands-on introduction to Python for beginning programmers” where she taught a 3 hour class to introduce people to Python programming.  During the class she supplemented her talk by having people do exercises on the Codecademy  platform.  I liked what I saw on the Pycon 2014 talk so I decided to run through the Python Track.  Here are some thoughts.

Coding platform

I really like the coding platform.  You get stepped through a programming “track” from the beginning which starts with the basics, progressively getting deeper into the subject and all along the way you are doing something you can relate to in the real world.  An example of this is that when you are learning how to make functions in Python, its done by creating functions to compute the cost of a Vacation.  By the end of that section you have created separate functions to calculate the cost of a rental car, hotel, and airfare.  The lesson shows you how to pass parameters to the function and even call multiple functions within the function.  It’s a very effective way to keep someone interested and grounded in reality, and not just teaching the syntax in an abstract way.

On the left side of the page you get  stepped through a section 1 lesson at a time.  The site tells you what you are about to learn, there is a code example similar to what you are expected to generate, and some step by step instructions on how to do it.  Then in the main body of the page is your code file.  There are strategically places code comments telling you what the existing code is doing and sometimes providing hints like “don’t forget to have a colon after your if statement.  Finally on the upper right side there is a window showing the output of your program.

Website

One of the really cool things is that as you go along through your efforts you earn badges similar to Khan academy. This is a fun addition and I always like getting surprised by a badge popping up after a certain point.  I think there is more that can be done on badges.  This seems to be a pretty nascent feature on Codecademy and should be further developed into something as robust as on Khan Academy.

Codecademy has recently done a complete website overhaul. I didn’t use it before, but the look and feel of the site is modern and fresh.  It is fast and I haven’t really run into any issues.  The site is written in Ruby on Rails and seems to run flawlessly.  As for the look and feel, I don’t think I would change a think.  Kudos.

Missing important languages and frameworks

There is only so much a small team can bite off and chew, but I think there are a couple glaring holes in the curricula at Codecademy.  Missing is anything related to mobile application development.  As this development represents half or more of the current computing worldwide it seems to be a big leave out.  I would like to see a Java track, which is arguably the most popular language and an Android development track which ,again, is one of the most popular mobile platforms.  In the same vein, I would suggest they add Swift programming and iOS framework development.

Also the most popular Python web framework has no track on Codecademy.  Django, which is powering sites like Pinterest, Instagram,

Another major part of programming is data storage and access.  SQL is a “coding language” that would be great to have on the site.  If a lesson track was put up on MySQL (or MariaDB preferably) the knowledge would be usable for pretty much any database backend someone ends up using, whether its MySQL, MSSQL, Oracle, IBMDB2, etc.  With these additions I am sure Codecademy would more than double the user base.

Missing social elements

Something that I find lacking is any social element on the website.  This seems to be missing everywhere on the site.  There are badges, so I would expect that some level of social interaction is in the cards, but even the most basic social interaction is missing.  Blog posts with no comments, no feedback area to suggest new features, no real place to post a bug, and the forums to have discussions with fellow students are hard to find. These items are all a big part of sites like Khan Academy and are a gaping hole in Codecademy right now.

Conclusion

This is a site with a huge potential to help countless millions of people to learn how to program.  The site and company are only a couple of years old at this point so I’m sure there is still a lot to do.   Computer programming and Web represent a huge opportunity for people.  The barrier to entry to creating your own web business is so low.  Codecademy helps to lower the barrier further by reducing the slope of the learning curve.  Programming gives us the language to speak to computers and use our imagination to create anything.  Codecademy is a good example of this as the founders, both from Columbia University, pretty much dropped everything and build a site that went from 0 users to millions in just a couple of years.

I will certainly be taking advantage of the resources, and hope to see Swift/iOS and Java/Android show up on the site sooner than later.