What I thought of the SyncNorwich Lightning Talks

I’d always been under the impression that the IT scene in East Anglia was a little quiet, and more so the further you got away from London, but I was quite pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the SyncNorwich group, a bunch of IT enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and coders that meetup and share knowledge, fantastic, I had to go and check that out.

This was the first SyncNorwich event that I’d attended, and the topic for the evening was lightning talks, which are a series of short (around 5 minute) presentations on a given topic, each slide being around 15 seconds long. I’d never seen presentations given in this way, but I think it was very effective since their short and brief, stops the mind from wandering off, and forces the presenter to get right down to the facts straight away.

I enjoyed all of the talks, not all were directly relevant to me, but all very informative, in particular, my favourites were “Learning to hack together MVP’s” by Richard Burton and “Responsive Design” by Brad Koehler.

I was interested in Richards’ talk because a lot of the things he mentioned are very relevant to the work I’ve been doing recently. I’ve been working on various proof-of-concept pieces, and coming from an enterprise Java development background, its very easy to still wear the “enterprise hat” when you’re doing prototype work, by this, you can easily get too worried about things like full unit test coverage, system design, and all sorts of other continuous integration magic, often to the point where you’re more focused on that than producing the prototype itself. The moral of the story that I picked up on, is aim low, do the basics and get the application working, if it has legs and takes off, then consider scaling it up for production, and if it doesn’t work out, nothing is lost and your a bit wiser for the next project.

I was also very interested in Brads’ talk, as I’ve been doing a fair bit of mobile web development recently, and I certainly feel the pain that is involved with creating rich user interfaces that reliably scale well on a variety of mobile and desktop environments.

The mingling part before the talks was also good, I met a web developer who had some intersting things to say, however I must admit that the mingling part was somewhat difficult when it is your first time to an event, as I was under the impression that a lot of people already knew each other, and its quite difficult to break the ice with already established groups.

Some thoughts that I believe would improve the meetups :

  • Introductions – with around 70 people, it could be quite a task to introduce everyone, however I feel that a quick 30 second introduction, around the room at the start of the event would be a great help, so people know who might be intersting to catch up with. Perhaps when everyone is seated, a baton is passed around to each person, whereby they give a quick 30 second intro, such as “Hi I’m James Elsey, I’m a Java developer at smart421 and am very interested in mobile development and the technical side of things, please come talk to me about android, iOS, and all things geeky!”
  • More techie talks! – The talks were great, however I did feel that the coding / technical side was a little thin. Found a new framework? Got some thoughts on automated testing mobile apps? Thats the kind of thing we could do with.
  • Technical workshops / breakout areas – (this may already be planned for future meets) It would be great to have a coding area, where people can show off their latest craftsmanship, or seek technical advice, this would help promote knowledge sharing. This might be a little difficult with the time constraints involved in the meets, but even if it was available for 60 minutes prior to talks, it would be beneficial to a number of start-ups seeking advice.

I’m looking forward to the next session, a talk on Kanban. I don’t know anything about this, but I’m intersted to see, perhaps I’ll meet some more people next time :)

DroidCon UK 2010; My thoughts about the conference…

Over summer 2010, my company held an in-house competition to muster up some interest in mobile
development, by providing a prize for anyone who could come up with an innovative mobile
application, platform independent. After this competition, fuelled by fascination for all things
Android, I requested to attend DroidCon UK, a conference dedicated to Android development.

Excited by the line-up of speakers, talks from Google, and celebrities of the Android world such
as Mark Murphy, this was a fantastic opportunity to go along and soak up as much knowledge as
possible, and see what people are achieving with the latest mobile technology.


Day 1 consisted of a Bar Camp style approach. At the beginning of the day all of the attendees and
speakers were gathered into the main hall, where people could suggest topics of discussion for the
day. These were quickly sorted into a timetable and as an attendee you were free to hop between
talks and participate in discussions around the areas you were interested in. I attended the following
talks in day 1

Creating responsive UIs
Erik Hellman, lead architect @ Sony Ericsson
Synopsis : This talk was aimed at detailing some of the key principles around user interface design,
the key note being “Remove unwanted processing from the primary thread”. This equated to
enforcing that any slower processing should be moved off the main thread, otherwise the UI
responsiveness would be reflected. Also it was pointed out that a major reason for applications
failing to impress the user is by not responding within 1000ms, often due to longer execution tasks
operating on the main thread. There were also some discussions around OpenGL and “skinning”
images onto 3D objects and how these can be achieved

Location based services
Nick Black, founder @ CloudMade
Synopsis : Location based services are one of the key features that mobile development has over
desktop development, providing the mobile user information about where they are located, or using
this for other purposes. This session was primarily a brainstorming session regarding how LBS can
be improved, one of the major drawbacks being that an internet connection is required in order
to use such facilities, however CloudMade have created an application that vectors all maps into a
single download, making some map functionality available offline. There was also discussion of GPS
connectivity, such as only updating your location on a coarser scale on long distance journeys to save
battery, and producing finer scale GPS when you come closer to your destination, at a street level.
There was also discussion about the future of LBS within android, such as the embedding of Android
devices into lease / rental vehicles, and also to private vehicles for use in conjunction with Pay as you
Go Insurance schemes.

Google Bootcamp
Google Inc representatives
This was a presentation put on by 4 representatives from Google USA, which was a question and
answer session. There was quite a lot of talk regarding the NDK, which I believe is the Native SDK for
Android, used for more low-level operations such as “flashing ROMs”.
Several questions were directed at the latest release of Android, code named Gingerbread
and due for release anytime soon, unfortunately Google were unable to comment on anything
regarding Gingerbread, or even confirmation of the existence of such release, contrary to a 10 foot
Gingerbread statue recently being raised on the roof of a Google office in the USA…
Other topics ranged from HTML5 support on the imminent Google TV, and the support for new
codecs, file formats, and custom formats in further releases

Freeing your Intents
OpenIntents.org
The OpenIntents organisation was established to help the Android community by publishing intents
that applications expose, allowing developers and consumers to access and share functionality that
applications provide. For example there are hundreds of weather applications available, so why
create a new one when you can use an existing intent from one of those applications? This seminar
was dedicated to discussing how we as developers can contribute to the greater good of the Android
community.

The Android Market
Mark Murphy, founder @ CommonsWare
This was one of the talks I was looking forward to, Mark is certainly one of the rock stars of the
Android world, with various books, applications and other endeavours, Mark clearly knows his stuff,
and I was itching to soak up some of that knowledge.
This talk was geared towards the publication of your applications, and some of the drawbacks of
the current Android market. Some of the key issues regarding the official Android market is that
searching for apps is not always easy, often returning incorrect results. Another key issue is the
rating system, it is easy for people to download your app, then give it poor rating out of spite.
There is no way for the application developer to comment back on these, so applications can be
downrated and given bad reputation quite easily from a few downloaders.
Another issue was the existence of multiple markets, with the Apple products there is just one
central point of contact for applications. With Android there is the official Google marketplace, but
there are also other ones such as the Orange application store and various others. Mark identified
some of the drawbacks of these such as having to publish to multiple markets, which could become
a considerable task when maintaining multiple applications. Mark also tried to generate interest
around developing an open source, community driven market place for Android applications.

Continuous Integration
Hugo Josefson, Lead developer @ JayWay
This was by far one of the best talks over the course of the two days, and without a doubt one of
the most useful practices to understand. The talk consisted of a walkthrough of the maven-android
plug-in, which allows developers to automatically build their android APK files, and how automated
tests can be integrated into this procedure. There was also a brief discussion on how Hudson can
also be brought into this, to allow one continuous flow of automated building, deployment, and
testing. I was particularly interested in how the Hudson build server can deploy android applications
to various headless emulators for testing, this would enable you do test it on various configurations
such as 2.1 devices, 1.6 devices, low res devices, higher res devices etc. This is most certainly an area
that requires further investigation.

Orange B2B
Orange Representatives
This was a brief talk by part of the Orange sales and marketing team on how Orange are embracing
this exciting new platform and investing a lot into various areas such as their own app market place.


Day 2 consisted of similar talks, but in a more structured format. Kicking off the day was a
presentation by the chief technology office from Reuters, giving a demonstration about how
important mobile devices are for journalism. He explained how android embedded devices will be
enabling journalists to capture information on laptops, phones, and cameras, and have all of these
sync directly into their news systems.

Next there was a talk from one of the vice presidents at Orange, explaining how seriously committed
Orange are to android, and how they are investing heavily in their partner-connect business, and
their own application marketplace.

Following the opening talks of the day, the next session was with Sean Owen, one of the authors
of the infamous “barcode scanner” application that is consistently amongst the top downloads in
the android market place. One of the interesting points of this conference was the sheer amount
of barcodes, people were enthusiastic about there barcodes. Their barcodes were on presentation
slides, banners, business cards, even t-shirts. Of course this app makes it all possible being able to
photograph the barcode and interpret it. One of the keynotes of this speech was to make your app
a dependency in other apps, ie make other people rely on your apps features for their own usage,
it will drive downloads for your application as the end user will require your app for the underlying
functionality.

The next talk was dedicated to JRuby on android, I must admit that this wasn’t the best talk of the
event. There was a lot of emphasis on how JRuby is quick for prototyping applications, but it appears
that the overhead involved in using JRuby on android is considerably larger than just using plain Java
on android. Android development is reasonably straightforward, so I failed to see any benefits of
using JRuby, but I attended the talk to be proved wrong.

Following on from JRuby, there was another presentation by Mark Murphy, regarding “Java and re-
use” in android. This talk was geared towards the re-usage of code when developing in android, such
as creating library projects, which can then become dependencies in other projects. For example if
you have a whole suite of applications that have common functionality, this could easily be built into
a library project, which could then become a dependency in your applications, thus promoting the
re-use of common code.


The next talk was beneficial, some best practices by Google, in which the following sins and saints
were discussed
Sins

  • Responsiveness
    You must make your application responsive, if there is lots of pauses or slow user interaction, the
    user will quickly get bored and give up on your application, possibly looking for alternatives. The user
    experience must flow well, and avoid using loading screens if at all necessary. It is also suggested to
    render the main view with empty containers, and fill in content as it becomes available, rather than
    displaying nothing for some time, then loading all the data at once.
  • Threading
    Make intelligent use of threads and async tasks to keep unwanted information away from the main
    UI thread, such as exception handling
  • Resources
    Don’t use too many resources, use only those which you must. Don’t overuse wake locks or update
    GPS locations unnecessary, it consumes battery and processing power, potentially affecting the
    responsiveness of your applications
  • Hostility
    Don’t make your application hostile, make it friendly and welcoming to the user, remember that
    the user is your #1 priority, after all they are the one paying you for your application. Make generic
    buttons do the same thing as other applications, or how the user would expect them. For example
    don’t override the menu/back buttons and provide some fancy feature. Use the menu button for
    displaying a menu, and the back button for going back Also don’t remove the task bar, people may
    want to multitask whilst using your application.
  • Arrogance
    Dont use undocumented APIs, make apps behave consistently. Support landscape and portrait
    mode, don’t assume all users have a portrait phone, some may have a landscape Google TV.
    Don’t disable rotation handling and respect the android application lifecycle model. Design your
    application for every handset in mind, don’t remove yourself from the wider market for targeting a
    single piece of hardware.

Saints

  • User Interface
    Make the application look good, use layout hierarchies, hiring a graphic designer will go a long way
  • Generosity
    Use intents to make your application open, encourage people to use your application as a building
    block for theirs.
  • Ubiquity
    Leverage the hardware
  • Utility
    Solve problems, create an app that identifies and solves a particular problem
  • Epic(ness)
    Don’t ever be just satisfied with “good”, always aim for “perfect”

The last talk of the day was geared towards the sheer volume of android devices being produced on
the market and how this will affect the industry in the future. It has been estimated from market
research that there will be 500 million tablets shipped by 2015, not including eReaders.
32% of these are android devices, if your app is sold to just 0.1% you could be targeting 160,000
users. An app of £0.69 would generate a potential £110,000 of revenue, indicating the potential of
the market.
There will be new devices, such as the Google TV which will run android and use HTML5, apps will be
targeted towards that platform also.

It was absolutely clear to see, that the big names in the telecommunications world such as Orange
and Vodafone, are taking the Android platform very seriously, and with a presentation by Christophe
François from Orange it was evident that they are investing a considerable amount of funds into
marketing and development. Having someone of Vice President level speaking at such an event
further displays their commitment to this exciting new technology.

Overall, I would say by attending DroidCon I’ve learned a lot about the platform and what it has in
store for the future. I was expecting the talks to be difficult to comprehend, but I was able to keep
up with the majority of subjects. I would certainly like to attend next year.