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I've been an eBay user since 1999, and I still frequent eBay as both buyer and seller. In that time, eBay has transformed from a place where geeks sell broken laser pointers to each other, into a global marketplace where businesses sell anything and everything to customers. If you're looking for strange or obscure items, things almost nobody sells new any more, or grey market items for cheap, eBay is still not a bad place to look.

At least for me, eBay still basically works, after all these years. But one thing hasn't changed: the eBay website has always been difficult to use and navigate. They've updated the website recently to remove some of the more egregious cruft, but it's still way too complicated. I guess I had kind of accepted old, complex websites as the status quo, because I didn't realize how bad it had gotten until I compared the experience on the eBay website with the experience of the eBay apps for mobile and tablet.

eBay Website

Ebay-web

eBay Mobile App

Ebay-iphone-app

eBay Tablet App

Ebay-ipad-app

Unless you're some kind of super advanced eBay user, you should probably avoid the website. The tablet and mobile eBay apps are just plain simpler, easier, and faster to use than the eBay website itself. I know this intuitively from using eBay on my devices and computers, but there's also usability studies with data to prove it, too. To be fair, eBay is struggling under the massive accumulated design debt of a website originally conceived in the late 90s, whereas their mobile and tablet app experiences are recent inventions. It's not so much that the eBay apps are great, but that the eBay website is so very, very bad.

The implied lesson here is to embrace constraints. Having a limited, fixed palette of UI controls and screen space is a strength. A strength we used to have in early Mac and Windows apps, but seem to have lost somewhere along the way as applications got more powerful and complicated. And it's endemic on the web as well, where the eBay website has been slowly accreting more and more functionality since 1999. The nearly unlimited freedom that you get in a modern web browser to build whatever UI you can dream up, and assume as large or as small a page as you like, often ends up being harmful to users. It certainly is in the case of eBay.

If you're starting from scratch, you should always design the UI first, but now that we have such great mobile and tablet device options, consider designing your site for the devices that have the strictest constraints first, too. This is the thinking that led to mobile first design strategy. It helps you stay focused on a simple and uncluttered UI that you can scale up to bigger and beefier devices. Maybe eBay is just going in the wrong direction here; design simple things that scale up; not complicated things you need to scale down.

Above all else, simplify! But why stop there? If building the mobile and tablet apps first for a web property produces a better user experience – why do we need the website, again? Do great tablet and phone applications make websites obsolete?

Why are apps better than websites?

  1. They can be faster.
    No browser overhead of CSS and HTML and JavaScript hacks, just pure native UI elements retrieving precisely the data they need to display what the user requests.
  2. They use simple, native UI controls.
    Rather than imagineering whatever UI designers and programmers can dream up, why not pick from a well understood palette of built-in UI controls on that tablet or phone, all built for optimal utility and affordance on that particular device?

  3. They make better use of screen space.
    Because designers have to fit just the important things on 4 inch diagonal mobile screens, or 10 inch diagonal tablet screens, they're less likely to fill the display up with a bunch of irrelevant noise or design flourishes (or, uh, advertisements). Just the important stuff, thanks!

  4. They work better on the go and even offline.
    In a mobile world, you can't assume that the user has a super fast, totally reliable Internet connection. So you learn to design apps that download just the data they need at the time they need to display it, and have sane strategies for loading partial content and images as they arrive. That's assuming they arrive at all. You probably also build in some sort of offline mode, too, when you're on the go and you don't have connectivity.

Why are websites better than apps?

  1. They work on any device with a browser.
    Websites are as close to universal as we may ever get in the world of software. Provided you have a HTML5 compliant browser, you can run an entire universe of "apps" on your device from day zero, just by visiting a link, exactly the same way everyone has on the Internet since 1995. You don't have to hope and pray a development community emerges and is willing to build whatever app your users need.

  2. They don't have to be installed.
    Applications, unlike websites, can't be visited. They aren't indexed by Google. Nor do applications magically appear on your device; they must be explicitly installed. Even if installation is a one-click affair, your users will have to discover the app before they can even begin to install it. And once installed, they'll have to manage all those applications like so many Pokemon.

  3. They don't have to be updated.
    Websites are always on the infinite version. But once you have an application installed on your device, how do you update it to add features or fix bugs? How do users even know if your app is out of date or needs updating? And why should they need to care in the first place?

  4. They offer a common experience.
    If your app and the website behave radically differently, you're forcing users to learn two different interfaces. How many different devices and apps do you plan to build, and how consistent will they be? You now have a community divided among many different experiences, fragmenting your user base. But with a website that has a decent mobile experience baked in, you can deliver a consistent, and hopefully consistently great, experience across all devices to all your users.

I don't think there's a clear winner, only pros and cons. But apps will always need websites, if for nothing else other than a source of data, as a mothership to phone home to, and a place to host the application downloads for various devices.

And if you're obliged to build a website, why not build it out so it offers a reasonable experience on a mobile or tablet web browser, too? I have nothing against a premium experience optimized to a particular device, but shouldn't all your users have a premium experience? eBay's problem here isn't mobile or tablets per se, but that they've let their core web experience atrophy so badly. I understand that there's a lot of inertia around legacy eBay tools and long time users, so it's easy for me to propose radical changes to the website here on the outside. Maybe the only way eBay can redesign at all is on new platforms.

Will mobile and tablet apps kill websites? A few, certainly. But only the websites stupid enough to let them.

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TEDxBG - Yordan Zhechev - Reasons to Stay, Reasons to Go

Yordan Zhechev, Creative Director at DDB Sofia, discusses three reasons to emigrate from Bulgaria, which soon become three reasons to stay. It is estimated that more than 20% of Bulgaria's population have moved abroad over the last 20 years. In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations)
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Underground, but in space. Weird.
The Miner Wars team send word that they’ve just released a major update for the game (which is in a pre-orders-pay-for-alpha-access-state) which includes a in-game editor. They explain: “Build your own space ship, space station or any sort of space-like edifice you can think of. These structures are be made from prefab modules, and in the future we’re looking to feature ’total destructibility’ for these objects. Prefab modules include tunnels, lattices, beams and panels as well as diverse chambers and special devices. You can also upload your hand-made sectors to the server and let your friends play them!” I had a mess about with the initial tech demo that was released last year, and it was genuinely impressive, if totally empty at that time. It now features all kinds of stuff, including AI bads and so on. Is anyone still playing around with it?

Full list of updates and latest (by latest I mean totally ancient) video below.
(more…)

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Two Directory Source Control is a work flow where you utilize one directory from source control, one directory that you work out of, and you then shuttle between them at your convenience. In this article, I’ll describe how traditional work flows work, the problems with them, and how you can use the Two Directory option to overcome them. This article assumes you know what source control is, what a merging tool is, and the value they bring to your work flow.

Traditional Source Control Work Flows

Many tools such as Flex Builder , Flash , and Visual Studio have plug ins that allow integration with source control such as Subversion , CVS , Perforce , and Visual Source Safe . This allows you to check out code & assets, edit them, and check your changes back into source control directly from your IDE of choice. Tools such as Subclipse , a plug in for Eclipse , allow you to check out & check in code from an SVN repo directly into your project. It also has nice built-in "diffing", the ability to show 2 pieces of code side by side to allow you to see what’s changed, and merge them if you so desire.

The reality, however, is that these work flows aren’t as easy as the marketing makes it sound. The main flaw they all have is conflict resolution.

Conflict Resolution

Conflicts are when the code you have on your machine is different from what is in source control. Whether this is because the file in source control is newer, someone has the file checked out already in Visual Source Safe, or a folder/package structure has been re-arranged making your structure out of sync. My main gripe with the tools I’ve used is that they do not do an adequate job of making conflict resolution easy. I define easy as simple to understand what the conflict is, how to resolve it, and not interrupting your current work forcing you to immediately deal with the conflict. To expound on that last part, I agree that you must deal with conflicts when checking in code, but a conflict should not immediately break your current build until you resolve a conflict. Nor should it prevent you from working.

There are 2 scenarios where this irritation is shown. The first example is where you check out the latest code from SVN for your project. You then make your Flex Project in that directory. Assuming you’ve figured out how to prevent Tortoise SVN from copying .svn folders into your bin directories, you download the latest, and get to work. How long you work, however, is based on how often your team checks in code. Even if you are working on different portions of the code, if someone checks in code that relates to yours, you’ll have to deal with the conflict. Typically, you’ll do an update first, and once you’ve ensure none of the code you are committing needs to be merged via resolved conflicts, you commit your changes.

As your team size grows, however, many people will be checking in code. Since dealing with conflicts isn’t fun, sometimes teams will check in more often. This results in a behavior re-enforcement for others to check in sooner as well. While I’m a firm believer in having something compiling sooner than later is a great Agile practice to follow to reduce risk, it’s hard to really make head way on some of your code if your focused on getting code compiling quicker so you can check in vs. making progress on your code.

It may seem subtle, but it’s a major attitude adjustment that I perceive as harmful for developers to have. They should enjoy coding their masterpieces, and assuming they are communicating with others and/or their team lead, they should be focusing. A developers focus is a very important commodity that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Instead of coding by positive reinforcement, "I can’t wait to check this in for others to see!", they are instead coding by negative reinforcement, "I need to hurry up and check in what I have working so I don’t have to deal with a confusing merge operationthat’ll slow me and my team down".

Eclipse combined with Subclipse has some good merging and history management tools. Eclipse has it’s own local history where it stores multiple versions of your files. You can choose to revert if you need to and it’ll provide a diffing tool right there for you. My first problem is the diffing tool sucks. Subclipse is not much better. I last used it in February of 2007; if it has improved since then, let me know. This wouldn’t be a big deal, except when it’s 5:59 pm on a Friday evening, and you really really want to go home. Unless you resolve the conflict, your build will be broken, and you cannot commit till you do so. Suddenly, a good diff tool becomes very important. It’s really frustrating for a developer, and removes motivation to work later. To compound it, most developers I know refuse to leave until their code is compiling. Suddenly an update interferes with this.

The second scenario which is worse than the above is package re-factoring. This is when you change the directory of a file, or a whole folder structure. If it is minute enough, you can usually get by if its not a directory you were working in. If, however, it is AND files have change, this can be a really long and frustrating process… all the while your code no longer works. You cannot compile JUST because you wanted to do the right thing and check your code in. This is also where you can truly tell if a diffing tool is good or not; how it helps you resolve folder changes and their relations to files.

One solution to this is to check your code into a branch and merge in later when it is convenient for you.

The last problem with working directly from the repo is actually caused by a feature of a lot of source control applications. This is the ability to only check in a directory with files that you are working on. For example, if your team is using Cairngorm, and all you are doing isValueObject and Factory work, you can pretty much stay in those 2 directories, and not worry about someone stepping on your toes.

…it is a false sense of security, however. The cardinal rule for source control is only check in code that compiles. This doesn’t mean that it compiles in your machine. What this means is if you were to check out the entire build from source control, could you get to compile? By updating just your area of interest from source control, and then committing your changes successfully in that area, in this case "vo" and "factories" packages, does not mean you have followed this rule. If another developer working on the Cairngorm "delegates" was using your Factories, her/his code would break even though you successfully checked code in. In effect, you broke the build. At one of my older jobs, whoever broke the build had to change their IM icon to a monkey. It sounds trivial, but it really sucked when people asked you why your IM icon was a monkey…

To prevent this, you need to update the entire repo. For some repo’s, this is not easy to do. Then one I’m working with currently is at least over 12 gigs, with hundreds of thousands of files, both ASCII and binary. That means that if at least 12 developers are working on it at the same time, chances are high a lot of files will be added and changed. Regardless, you only take the hit in the beginning, if you update frequently, and have a good diff tool, this increases your ability to ensure your code won’t break the build when you check in. Enterprise tools installed on the source control server itself like Cruise Control can actually automate this process, and send emails with information on who checked in code, if it compiled or not, and what was changed. To be fair, this isn’t a problem with a lot of independent server-side code.

Another minor point is how some source control systems work with locking files. Some allow developers to check out code and "lock" it. This prevents others from checking it in. Some make it impossible to work with because the code then becomes read-only. Since having another directory under your control, away from the source folder, you won’t have this problem.

To summarize, there are a lot of problems, even with built-in IDE tools, to working directly in the repo:

  1. conflict resolution prevents you from compiling. Manager says, "Can I see the latest?" Dev replies, "No… I’m merging code."
  2. folder change conflict resolution. "Can you re-factor later?"
  3. pain avoidance code committing. "I’d better hurry up and check in what I have working so I don’t have to merge… to heck with focusing".
  4. not checking out the entire repo, committing code, and breaking the build. "Works on my box…"

Two Directory Source Control Work Flow

To reiterate, Two Directory Source Control is a work flow where you utilize one directory from source control, one directory that you work out of, and you then shuttle & merge between them at your convenience. I’ve been using this work flow for about 2 1/2 years now and everyone I encounter usually finds it extremely odd I don’t work directly in the repo, hence the need for this blog entry. I was taught this work flow by Thomas Burleson, one of people responsible for the Universal Mind Cairngorm Extensions . Beyond the above, his additional justification at the time was that with Flex 1.5, SVN and Tomcat or JRun would do weird things together every so often, resulting in strange compilation bugs. Before Flex 2, you had to compile on the server (it was the law), so you’d setup a local web server on your box, and refresh a web browser page to see your app.

This work flow solves the problems above.

The first thing is conflict resolution is now done at your convenience. This is a big deal. Suddenly getting the latest from the repo is not a grand affair. You can just get the latest, and go back to work. You can also see what has changed without having to immediately integrate it into your code base if you’re not ready to do so. You can also keep working; since the code you updated is in a totally different directory, the code you’re working on isn’t affected. About to catch a plane an losing wireless? Just update, and you can still focus on coding instead of resolving your changes with someone else when you are incapable of giving them a phone call to discuss. Finally, you can confidence that when you update, your code will still work. That’s a good feeling.

Secondly, file conflict resolution is challenging, yet fun. Folder conflict resolution, however, is very challenging, and requires a lot of meticulous concentration. Deleting directories can delete a lot of files and folders within them, and thus tick a lot of other developers off if you screw up and check in your screw up. So you have to be careful. Rather than updating some massive package re-factoring and preparing for a battle with Subclipse, you can instead just let Tortoise SVN do it’s job; you just right click and update; done. When you’re ready, and you know your version of code works, you can then merge the 2 pieces using Beyond Compare, or whatever Merging tool you use. It’s a lot easier to do this when you have 2 real, physical folder directories vs. a virtual one.

Third, this convenience extends to code committing. Rather than being motivated to commit code out of fear of merging, you can do so when you’re good and ready. Even if you wait 3 days, you know you’ll have plenty of time to merge the changes into your code, get it working, THEN check in inside a safe, non-repo area. This confidence in your ability to merge with the assurance you have a nice sequestered area away from your repo motivates you to focus on creating good code vs. creating compiling code for the mere sake of making merging easier.

Fourth, because this work flow forces you to continually get the latest code form the entire repo, you always have the latest build, not just a portion of the build. This ensures that when you check in code, you know it won’t break the build because you already have the entire build and have tested it on your local box. Typically anything wrong from there is a configuration issue, not a code out of sync issue.

You need 2 things to utilize this work flow. The first is your folder structure and the second is a good merge / diffing tool.

Folder Structure

When setting up a project, you create your project folder. Inside of that, you make 2 directories called "dev" and "local". The "dev" folder is where your repo goes. This can be an SVN/CVS repo, or a Perforce work space. In the case of Subversion, I’ll usually have Tortoise check out trunk, tags, and branch here.

To say it another way, "dev" is where your source control code goes. The "local" folder is where your copy goes. You play and work inside of local. When you are ready to merge in changes, you use a merge tool to do so.

dev and local folders

Setting Up Beyond Compare

For the merge tool, I use Beyond Compare . While it’s only for PC, I purchased CrossOver , a Windows emulation tool for Mac, just so I could retain the same work flow on both my PC and Mac.

BeyondCompare has a few setup steps that you only have to do once. These are:

  1. Change default keyboard short cuts.
  2. Creating a new "session" to have your repo on the left, local code on the right.
  3. Showing only mismatches.
  4. Making your session expand folders & expand only folders with differences.
  5. Setting up BeyondCompare to filter (aka not show) certain files and folders
  6. Adjusting the file comparison control to be Size & CRC based
  7. Full Refresh!
  8. Synchronize to Right.

Let’s go over these steps in detail.

1. Change Default Keyboard Shortcuts

When you get the latest code, you’ll want to shuttle over to your local repository when you’re ready. If it’s new or unchanged files, you’ll want to do this quickly. I find Control + Right Arrow and Control + Left Arrow for putting local code todev is the best shortcuts for this.

Go to Tools > Options, and select "Keyboard" from the bottom left. Scroll down till you see "Copy to Right". Click it and press Control + Right Arrow key. Click "Copy to Left" and press Control + Left Arrow key.

BeyondCompare keyboard shortcuts

2. Creating a new "session" to have your repo on the left, local code on the right.

The easiest way to create a new session in BeyondCompare is to go "Session > New Empty". A session in BC is your saved settings with a name. A session will store what directory you are viewing on the left, what directory you are comparing to on the right, and other comparison options. You typically create 1 session per project. I typically put the dev, your source code repository on the left, and local, your copy, on the right.

Dev on the left, Local on the right

3. Showing only Mismatches

Click the "Only Mismatches" button. This will filter the files to only show files and folders that aren’t the same. Blue ones will be files that do not exist on the other side. Red indicates files that are different and gray indicates a filethat’s older than the file on the other side.

Show only mismatches

4. Making your session expand folders & expand only folders with differences

You want to have the views automatically expand folders if they are different. To do this, you need to check some check boxes in 2 places. The first place is in the Session settings under "Session > Session Manager". For your session, you’ll see a section called "Folder Handling". Check all 3 check boxes.

The second place is in "Session > Comparison Control". You’ll see the same 3 check boxes at the bottom of the dialogue; click all 3.

Expand folders automatically and only with differences

You’ll have to do this again in another dialogue; see step #6.

5. Setting up Beyond Compare to filter (aka not show) certain files and folders

There are some files you don’t care about. For Subversion, for example, these are ".svn". For Flex Builder, this includes .actionScriptProperties, .settings, etc. For Mac users who show all files, this is .DS_Store. You can filter these files out by clicking the glasses icon, and typing in the files and folders you want to filter out, 1 per line, and clicking OK.

While this will filter out files in the view, it WILL copy them if you shuttle folders back and forth. I never copy folders across inBeyond Compare , only files. The exception to this rule is if you do an "Actions > Synchronize Folders". This will obey your filter settings. If weird things start happening in your code, make sure you didn’t accidentally copy a folder with a bunch of .svn folders and files in it.

6. Adjusting the file comparison control to be Size & CRC based

To ensure you get a decent difference between files, choose both size & crc checking for file comparisons. You can choose this radio button in "Session > Comparison Control". See above picture.

modify file comparison and re-do folder expansion

7. Do a full refresh!

This will compare your entire folder & file structure. You can do so via "View > Full Refresh".

8. Synchronize to Right

If this is your first time shuttling files from your dev folder to your local folder, you can go "Actions > Synchronize Folders > Synchronize to Right".

Conclusions

That’s it, you’re ready to go! Get latest revision, do a full refresh, merge, code. Later, you can get latest revision, merge your code left, and check-in with confidence! In the end, Two Directory Source Control allows you to still compile your code when checking out the latest revision, makes it easier to resolve largere-factoring efforts, allows code committing to be a pleasurable endeavor, and ensuring you always check out the whole repo so you can confirm it builds on your machine with your latest changes. I hope it helps you out too.

Let me digress here a minute and point out how disappointed I am in the Mac platforms support of development tools. Tortoise SVN and Beyond Compare are fantastic tools for the PC. I have not found the equivalent for Mac. SvnX and the Tortoise equivalent for Mac really really suck, especially when you grew up in Tortoise SVN. Same thing on the Merge front; I have yet to find a good GUI based Merge tool for Mac. I’ll probably install Parallels on my new Mac, and stick to the PC version of Tortoise SVN & Beyond Compare since I still can’t shake Flash Develop .

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I’ve been playing with openFrameworks (currently in prerelease) for the past couple of days for a project I currently doing. I have to say that it is extremely powerful and a great introduction to C++ programming. “OpenFrameWorks, is a new open source, cross platform, c++ library, which was designed by Zachary Lieberman (US) and Theo Watson (UK) to make programming in c++ for students accessible and easy. In it, the developers wrap several different libraries like opengl for graphics, quicktime for movie playing and capturing, and free type for font rendering, into a convenient package in order to create a simple, intuitive framework for creating projects using c++. It is designed to work in freely available compilers, and will run under any of the current operating systems” Coming from a processing.org background which has satisfied all my needs till now, I really got interested in openFrameworks because of my increasing use of computer vision. While I never had the confidence to use C++ from scratch, to build computer vision software, openFrameworks offers a lot of the building blocks to let you go straight to the design phase. Check out the video above to find out more about the scope of openFrameworks and join the mailing list.

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