Another decision: Windows Azure or Google AppEngine

A few days a go I part of starting my own business, about choosing between emotional, innovative of simplicity. Starting a business brings many choices to the table, today I go into a more technical and practical decision to make and appreciate your feedback on missing or misinterpreted arguments. If you are not technical, it might be wise to skip the rest of this article.

I'm not ready to disclose too much about my startup plans, but it does involve various (mobile) devices connecting to a cloud based service. The service exists of a few datastore objects and relatively simple business logic that need to be exposed with an OAuth authenticated JSON API and a lightweight web client for some administrative tasks. There are no legislative and geographical boundaries to the solution and it has the potential te become huge and a reasonable level of scalability needs to be accounted for. This on some basic technical background for the solution.

I've no intention and absolutely no ambition to configure and monitor (hosted) servers and eliminated all options for hosting, virtual servers in the cloud, etc. I just want to build the application on a platform and as the title already indicated I narrowed it down to Windows Azure or Google AppEngine. I consider both as excellent choices and very capable to deliver the results I need. I've collected some of the positive highlights of both platforms that are the influencers of my decision. Let me know if there is anything that I omitted, but could be a significant influencer. Note: I'm looking for positive highlights, not negative sentiment.

Google AppEngine
  1. A simple, easy to learn and easy to use, architecture.
  2. An interesting very scalable data store sitting in the middle between a relational database and big table data store. 
  3. A wide range for standard infrastructure components, like email, task queues and background jobs available.
  4. Standard OpenID authentication and OAuth service provider functionality
  5. Development tools for Windows, Linux and Mac 
  6. Very cheap, meaning free, in the start up phase due to very generous free usage quota

Windows Azure
  1. Deeper functionality and more fine grained control over the system
  2. More data store options available
  3. More visible executive commitment
  4. Close to the Microsoft DNA of providing a developers platform
  5. More control on where your data actually gets stored
  6. Probably easier to recruit engineers or find experienced outsourcing partners
Both are great products, but difficult to compare, because they are almost the opposite of each other while still having the same goals. I put in nicely in an almost two year post on Google AppEngine versus Microsoft Azure.

Is there anything that I forgot? Please let me know in the comments below.

Inspiration from People

A couple of days ago I wrote about a search for inspiration when you get stuck, now I'll talk about finding inspiration from people. Yesterday I spend some time at Yes!Delft, the incubator of the Technical University of Delft. They recently moved into a nice new building, at itself already an inspiring place, because it brings together a groups of young starting technology companies. This makes is a high concentration of young motivated and ambitious people with great ideas.

I spoke to a bunch of people, but the main reason for the visit was Virtualock, actually just 2 guys with a great idea, transformed into a product solving a real problem of computer theft. I met Sander, one of the founders, about a year and a half ago a the Delft Design and Engineering Award when he was still busy with his promotion work and only recently we got in touch again, proving the power of the network, and we just met for a chat. There was no agenda, no clear goal, but absolutely worth the time. The starters appreciate the interest and value experience based tips and for me is was just inspiring to see the enthusiasm, passion and ambition in the young people. They are young, smart and not afraid to make mistakes with a clear focus on the opportunity and even without any money pursue their dreams. This in contrast with people like me, that have more experience, but also have a tendency towards avoiding risks instead of grabbing an opportunity. Unfortunately I most likely can't be a startup advisor as a paid day job, but I can let myself inspire and advice by these young people and continue with the plans for my own start up ideas.

I you want to get inspired by people, just meet up with the people that do what you dream about.

Emotion, Innovation or just plain Simplicity

A few weeks ago I tweeted about an interesting advertisement targeting.

linking to:

It was very nicely done, because both products are online accounting systems (in the Netherlands) and since I'm in the process to start my own business I do need something for my accounting.

Exact Online (Dutch only) is the product from my former employer Exact, that I left four months ago. It offers very complete accounting, great collaboration with your accountant and many customers are happy about the product, shown by the strong growth over the last years. I still carry a warm heart towards Exact and Exact Online would be an excellent emotional choice for my accounting needs, especially because my accountant likes it a lot.

However I'm also an innovator and I like to solve existing challenges in new ways. Yuki (Dutch only) is also online accounting, but takes a bit of a different approach using the tagline: Discover the ease of Yuki accounting. Accounting always starts with some kind of document, give us (Yuki) the document and we take care of the rest. Yuki innovated the process and sort of took the sting out of accounting, I like this kind of, lets look from another viewpoint, innovation and it would be an excellent innovative choice for my accounting.

Great so far, but key issue here is that I do not really like accounting and only see it as a necessity to register the money coming and going out. There must be a simpler way of doing this, using language and concepts I understand. I really like that approach Zoho Books shows here, it looks really simple and fun (check out the full post if the video below doesn't show)

What should I do? Make a decision based on loyalty, innovation or follow my heart and go for simplicity?

Disclaimer: This is not a recommendation for any sort of product and should not be interpreted as such. I deliberately didn't compare features or discussed pricing models. I only used these products to illustrate that there are many different arguments as a basis for making a decision.

Finding inspiration

Don't we all sometimes have the feeling that we are stuck somewhere in a creative process. You got an important meeting coming up and still need to prepare a killing presentation, your boss asked to write a vision document, you don't seem to get the UI right for a new prototype document. You got stuck, it probably happens to all of us, I know it happens to me a lot. What do I do about it?

Some of the things I do
  • Stop the struggle and go do something else
    • If you are in the office, try to get out. You can think out of the box when you're locked in the office box. Go for a coffee, walk, massage or to the gym.
    • If you are at home, try bugging your spouse with your challenge. Most likely it's not understood and your are forced to simplify the problem and probably puts a new perspective on things.
  • Move into another environment, a variation of the above topic. I like to go places where I can observe people. In the summer a terras is a good place, because most people are relaxed, enjoy the weather and a drink. Stress is nowhere near. In winter a also like a university as an inspirational environment, full with young ambitious and motivated people. The future at work!
  • Imagine what would happen if you didn't do anything to solve the challenge. In a worst case scenario you might loose your job or business, but at least you are still sane and have your health. We tend to make problems and challenges often a bit larger than reality.
  • Talk about it with someone who is not aware of your challenge. For you it's a big thing, but for the other is a challenge not much different than other challenges. It helps putting your challenge into perspective.
  • Don't hurry! Yes you have a deadline and people on your back to deliver, but it doesn't change the situation that your are stuck. You first need to get out of deadlock before you can get any further. I rather deliver quality and miss a deadline than delivering a poor result on time. 
  • .... and at all times remain calm, because stress only makes the situation worse.
Now all this time away from the challenge might seem a waste of time, but in reality it's time you needed to process all the details, inputs and variations of the challenge. A lot of this happens unconsciously. By the time you feel inspired again, you complete the challenge in no time and deliver a great result. Just keep believing in a good outcome.

How do you deal with dead-lock?

Apple TV - It's still a hobby!

Since the beginning of digital media I'm intrigued with bringing digital media into the living room. The prospect of a big screen and easy access to my music, movies, pictures and other internet based content always keeps me busy.

Consider it a hobby, especially if you know that years ago I spend at least a 1000 Euros to build a Windows Media Center for the living room. It needed to look nice, have a remote control and be silent (what was the biggest challenge). I remember my girlfriend asking if it wouldn't been better to buy instead of build. Absolutely, but this was more fun.

The Windows Media Center is still in operation, but with mixed results and successes. Getting proper television never worked out, the analog TV tuners couldn't handle the difference between letterbox and widescreen formats and as a result it never functioned as a DVR either. Television broadcast by now has transitioned to a digital signal and I never bothered to get digital television working on the Media Center. The Media Center is used to play music and watch pictures and does that well if you know how to do it.

The overall user experience is the key reason why media centers in the broadest sense haven't reached mainstream adoption. It's also questionable if this will ever happen, because the challenge is complex and requires truly new solutions for an existing problem. A typical setup consists of a television acting as the big screen, an amplifier to deal with the (surround) sound and some kind of computer / device to manage all the digital media. The three devices traditionally each come with a remote control, all have capabilities to deal with multiple inputs and have several configuration options. This is where the usability goes completely wrong, it's already a challenge to get the on screen menus working. An not uncommon question in this house hold is: can you put on some music? Not without reason, because juggling the 3 required remotes is not easy. I know your suggestion already: try one of the programmable replace all remotes solutions. I actually tried that and also with mixed results, it worked but didn't really solve the overall complexity problem.

Technology is constantly improving and I always keep my eye open for new solutions addressing this problem. Since a week I have an Apple TV and was looking forward towards the Apple solution for the complexity problem. The latest Apple TV is not available in the Netherlands, but my buddy AndrĂ© from was so good to bring me one from the US. The device is small, simple and comes with a beautiful little remote (that constantly gets lost!). The concept of operation is a bit different, it's not a standalone device, but just a hub to stream media from other computers, the internet and the iTunes store. This looks nice, but does again add some unwanted complexity, I now also have to turn on my main computer if I want to stream music of view pictures stored on this machine. Further the device easy to set up and the key tasks currently performed by the Windows Media Center are done in simular fashion. Since it's not officially released in the Netherlands the only way to rent content is through the US iTunes store, adding again complexity. I like the Apple TV, but it's not a break through device that makes life simpler, it's just smaller and, big win, 100% silent.

Real break through digital media in the living room can't be solved by one company alone, unless one vendor would be able to deliver all required devices in a more integrated fashion. A more practical route would be the emerge of standards on interoperability between the various devices. The first company that can deliver something that is simple enough to be used with a single remote control, instantly turns on the necessary devices and easily lets me select what I want to do: watching television, listening music, browsing some pictures or play a game; will again get my interest.

How do you manage your digital media in the living room?

Nokia - Microsoft - What does it mean for me?

In the last few weeks there has been a lot of speculation about the future of Nokia, I offered my advise to Mr. Steven Elop, and last friday we learned Nokia bets it's future on a strategic alliance with Microsoft. After the announcement Nokia's shares tanked and a lot of positive and negative comments and speculations started. Ranging from Mr. Steven Elop selling Nokia to his buddy Mr. Steven Ballmer to announcing Nokia - Microsoft now being the third player in the smartphone market eco systems. When both parties execute well we will be able to make up the balance in say 12-18 months from now. It's gonna be a long wait. I'm more interested what it's going to mean for me, a consumer. The first impression looks very positive.

Until the first iPhone in 2007 I've been a very loyal Nokia customer for more than 10 years. I can almost start a museum with all the historic phones in my collection (these are the ones I could quickly find).

I tried to use a 'modern' Nokia phone, because the hardware is great, I like(d) the company and do have a special link with Finland. Unfortunately it turned out to be a disaster, the phone just isn't usable beyond making phone calls and sending text messages. I also saw that Nokia lost their innovative and user centric design and are struggling to become competitive in the high end phone market. I really hope they can do better in the future, is the Microsoft partnership going to make the difference?

About a year ago I saw Mircosoft Phone Series 7 (the name at that time) for the first time. I was immediately was very positive, mainly for the very first time Microsoft tried to develop something around an actual user. It was different, good looking and easy to use. Today it's available as Windows Phone 7 on various phones, but the phones all have one thing in common: They are all ugly black plastic boxes and not fashionable good looking designer phones. I advised Mr. Steven Ballmer to address this issue to their hardware partners and challenge them to use some different materials. Traction on the Windows Phone 7 might still be a bil low, but it wouldn't be the first time that Microsoft comes back from behind.

Now combine the Nokia hardware, that in the past showed no fear for experimenting with high quality materials as stainless steel and titanium, with a slick Microsoft operating system and on paper this looks very strong. Add the Nokia distribution and the Microsoft enterprise and development partners in the mix and nothing can go wrong. I wish this dream scenario will materialize and I can soon trade my iPhone for something even better looking than the leaked published Nokia Windows Phone 7 images.

However, I can dream whatever I want, reality often turns out to be very different. We are talking here about a strategic technology partnership and those are difficult. There are two categories of strategic partnership, in the first the partners work exclusively for each other and in the other the partner delivers generic components that are also shipped to others. Microsoft has other partners for Windows Phone 7 and thus Nokia doesn't have an exclusive contract. I wonder how this is going to work out in case Nokia finds their mojo again and really starts to innovate with for instance a double screen flip phone that Windows Phone 7 wasn't designed for. A partnership, especially when it's not exclusive, always brings restrictions and results in compromises and I'm afraid that compromises aren't good enough to create a killer phones with a killing eco-system. I'm sceptic and worry that the Nokia - Microsoft will only deliver good but not great phones and that they get stuck in between Apple for the high value phones and Android for the cheap bulk, not a good position to be in.

I hope I get proven wrong and extend my collection with a fantastic, marvelous and fabulous Nokia phone in 2011.

All My Favorite Apps in One Image

Just the other day when I was going thru my normal routine I noticed that the number applications I frequently use is very limited. I've captured them all in one small image.

What do we see
  1. Google Chrome to capture the applications. It has become my favorite browser because it's simple, fast and syncs important information between various computers. Unfortunately it doesn't synchronize my tabs and extension settings yet.
  2. GMail, for all my email. I'm not very structured in storing and labeling email, but the search is so good that even a chaotic person like me can always find an email from the past.
  3. Google Calendar, unfortunately I do need a calendar to keep track of appointments.
  4. Google Docs, for taking notes and sometimes writing larger documents, especially useful when collaborating with others on a document, spreadsheet or presentation. More recently I've also start using it to store and archive other types of documents. 
  5. Google Reader, for me RSS isn't dead yet. A lot of interesting technology news comes from the US, so when living in Europe this is nicely waiting for you at breakfast. RSS is perfect for this time-shifting news consumption.
  6. Twitter, nothing more to explain, use it the way you feel comfortable. It's worth mentioning that the official Twitter web client has replaced Brizzly
  7. Quora, a recent addition. I'm not sure yet if it will stick, but for now I'm exploring and looking what it can do for me.
  8. Blogger, I love blogger for writing more articles like these.
  9. Prezi, for those situations that I want to create a real cool presentation. I'm only exploring just the start of what is possible, but I love it a lot. A recent Prezi presentation about my ability to help you can be found here.
  10. Pixlr, for the occasional simple editing of images, mainly to prepare them to include in one of these blog posts. It does all the basic edit operations without having to install and maintain complex desktop software. It's a glimpse into the future!
I'm a cloud evangelist and it shouldn't be a surprise that these are all browser based applications. They are always up to date, I don't need to worry about back-ups and they are device independent. I can use them anywhere on any device.

However there are some situations where installed desktop applications are still better or in some cases the only way to get something done.
  1. Skype as my fixed phone while working at a desk somewhere. I tried the whole Google Video & Voice chat, but it isn't working really working from a user experience perspective. 
  2. iTunes to manage my iPod and iPhone, well mainly to make backups and sync some stuff. It's one of those things that is hard to do without.
  3. Picasa to organize my vacation photos
  4. Final Cut Express or iMovie for editing short movies, see some at my YouTube channel.
  5. Microsoft PowerPoint when I need to align myself with some common business standards. I'm looking forward to the day that I can use all editing functionality with Office Web Apps and can get rid of the desktop version. I don't use it a lot, but each time I do, I first need to install some patches, reboots etc...
  6. Eclipse for some hobby project on the Google AppEngine, for instance my life stream 
... and there are a whole lot of apps that I use occasionally, but couldn't do without. To keep the list inline with the original title I will not detail them out.

For fun: check out my previous favorite apps article

Nokia and the burning platform

Mr Stephen Elop of Nokia leaked published an internal memo (full memo) stating the poor situation Nokia is currently in. It's a very nice and interesting read, fueling a lot of speculation on the future of Nokia and a possible adoption of Android or Windows Phone 7. Independent of the direction Nokia won't be the same anymore and it will take time before we get used to the new Nokia. It will create reactions like: My girlfriend once said; it's like your car when once getting into a rental Skoda (I was driving an Audi at that time) or it will feel like a Jaguar being a Ford Mondeo with a doubled price tag.

My favorite sentence of the memo is: Apple demonstrated that if designed well, consumers would buy a high-priced phone with a great experience and developers would build applications.

This sentence is not about Apple, but it very specifically describes the shift we seeing in the overall industry. It's about designing for great experiences (and giving this priority over features) fueling customer value (the willingness to pay) and building an eco system. In the last 20 years of software development it has been very much focussed around features and functions, because they could easily represent the value of the product. In the last few years a clear shift is happening, together with a daily information overload many people start to value the overall experience at an emotional level. This is a natural process in a maturing industry. When Henry Ford introduced the T-Ford you could get it any color as long it was black. Today a Fiat 500 offers so many personalization options with colors, striping, interior, etc. to make it exactly match your personality and emotional well being. Another analogy is a restaurant that is not only valued on the food, but also on the emotional experience and atmosphere. Apple was just a head of the curve with the trend to design for experience giving them the early mover advantage. The competition now needs to catch up, because excellent experiences have become mainstream standards and expectations.

Nokia has actually well designed hardware, but the overall experience is poor and years behind todays users expectations. Nokia might be able the fix it with some radical steps and acceptance that Nokia, in the last few years, completely ignored the user experiences. It needs to step away from good is good enough, it needs to idolize design into the finest detail and refuse to make any compromises towards the user. This will have a serious impact on all staff layers in the company and cause more turbulence before the way up can be found.

I'm happy to see that Mr Stephen Elop understands that doing noting or just keeping the ship floating will mean a sure death. Actually there is noting to loose, because it's lost already. However there is still, although small, change to win some back. A while back I offered some help, because I truly believe that I'm disruptive enough to break down some barriers and make some radical decisions.

Mr. Stephen Elop, this is an honest offer, because I do care about Nokia.

Traveling with an iPad

I just returned from a 2 week trip to South Africa and thus the reason that it was a bit slow with fresh content. I planned to write some while traveling but connectivity was less developed as expected. No matter what is your favorite travel device, without connectivity they are all worth less as you can find out when reading on.

I like to travel, both for business as well for pleasure and I usually have some trips half planned. During these trips I like to stay connected, when it's a business trip for obvious business reasons and when it's a trip for fun it's to stay in touch and to refine the planning of the trip.

The way I travel not based on a well planned and booked trip, it usually still requires a lot of additional information gathering, planning and reservations on the go. 20 Years ago I would carry heaps of travel guides and schedules, today the internet and of course connectivity is the way to go.

All the trips do have something in common. I like to travel light and when ever it's possible I travel with only carry on luggage. I rather buy something new or get something cleaned on the way then carry too much stuff, because I don't have a very good track record with luggage getting at the destination at the same time as me when flying. My preferred luggage gear has become a small rolling hardcase carry-on for clothes and a briefcase for electronics and paper. Space is tight and everything needs to be optimized for size.

A smart phone does most of the 'stay connected' work, but for careful planning, making some bookings on the go and discussing the plans with my girl friend it's not very convenient and therefor I usually bring a small laptop. However the arrival of the iPad changed this, because the iPad is small has great battery life and is just more convenient to carry.

When traveling to Japan a few months ago I took the iPad with high expectations. I invested in the camera connection kit to make sure I could make a backup of digital photos and off we went. Unfortunately the availability of WiFi was much less than anticipated, connectivity in most hotels was still cable based. The iPad (and my MacBook Air for that matter) lost out on the connectivity. WiFi was usually only available in public areas, but that is not the most convenient place to do careful planning and trip research. Next to 'staying connected' I often already start processing some of the many digital pictures, getting rid of the most obvious junk and when possible blogging and uploading some picture for the people at home. The iPad was alright for this purpose, however the photo processing capabilities are a bit limited.

I concluded that the iPad is still great for traveling, but only if WiFi availability is good and you can live without advanced photo processing. Check the WiFi availability before choosing your device for the trip. On the last trip to South Africa I actually expected WiFi availability to be poor and mostly cable based. I opted to bring a normal laptop. However the reality was very different. I haven't seen a cable or outlet and most accommodation (we stayed mainly in Bed & Breakfasts) didn't have any connectivity at all. The only connectivity was based on WiFi hotspots with prepaid vouchers or other payment schemes. Thus the reason for not updating this blog.

Next trip planned is some snowboarding and my iPad will be the device of choice, because I know there is WiFi and it's not a trip with needs for image processing.

What's your favorite travel companion to stay connected?