Category Archives: Technology

Surface Pro 4 Impressions

Background

I’m a huge fan of the iPad. My iPad Air is my most used device, outside of my work laptop. I appreciate the tablet form factor in general, and have really only been disappointed by the iPads lack of ability to do some more of the general computing tasks I do.

I started getting interested in the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 earlier this year. It looked like an ideal compromise, but I refused to buy one because of the abomination that was Windows 8. By the time Windows 10 dropped, there were already rumblings of the Surface Pro 4, so I waited a bit longer. Finally, in the past couple weeks, we had two huge announcements: the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4.

Both looked like exciting devices. Both have screens about the size of a piece of letter-sized paper, which would be great for reading. But the Surface Pro 4 was especially interesting because it brings Windows 10 to the form factor. I use my Windows 10 desktop most the time at home over my aging MacBook Pro. It’s definitely a bit rough around the edges compared to OS X, but Microsoft is really churning on it and I’ve been very happy using it.

The Microsoft Store

While hitting the mall with my daughter this weekend, I dropped into the Microsoft Store and was surprised to see they had both the Surface Pro 4 tablet and a Surface Book to try. I stuck my daughter in front of an Xbox One with Forza, and proceeded to poke away at both them for a good 15 minutes. Since I couldn’t install anything on them, I used Google’s Octane 2 benchmark to get a comparison point for performance. Conveniently, the mall also has an Apple store, so I ran the same benchmark on a current MacBook Air and 13″ Retina MacBook Pro.

Surface Pro 4 Impressions

  1. The Surface Pro 4 is slightly heavier than the iPad Pro, but it is still a very manageable weight. I can see carrying it around easily or sitting on the sofa with it on my lap.
  2. Construction quality appears really good. The screen is bright. The kickstand is slick. And having a USB 3.0 and Mini Displayport connector makes hooking up to peripherals and an external monitor easy, which is something the iPad Pro can’t do.
  3. Precision of the pen is really good. It flows smoothly, and can do fine lines, including a signature, easily. It’s comfortable in the hand, and the “eraser” end feels natural. The only downside is it only attaches magnetically to the Surface Pro 4 on one side of the tablet, and in one direction. And you can’t just randomly attach it to the side. The pen needs to be turned to the correct side for the magnet to attach.
  4. Palm detection while using the stylus was a bit slow. Any time I put down my palm, it scrolled a little bit before it figured out what I wanted to do. Since this is software, I’m sure it is something Microsoft will churn on and get right.
  5. The keyboard smart cover is nice. I actually thought it was a bit too stiff, but the trackpad works well. I’m sure I could get used to the keys, though, and be productive with it. It attaches firmly and easily.
  6. The power connection isn’t up the the quality of Apple’s MagSafe connector. It doesn’t attach as firmly, and the cord comes off the connector to the side, not straight, so you have to put it in one way.
  7. Windows 10 felt snappy, and responded easily to touch.
  8. The Surface Pro 4 doesn’t have a cellular data option. I have this on the iPad, and would miss this on the Surface Pro, but it’s not a deal killer. It is a pretty big oversight on Microsoft’s part though. The always on, always ready internet is now.

Surface Book impressions

I played with the Surface Book too, but I actually preferred the Surface Pro 4. In tablet mode, it felt too large. The keyboard and trackpad felt really good, but it didn’t feel any more special than my MacBook Pro keyboard. In convertible mode (screen turned around, attached to base), it is too heavy for normal use. The mechanism for detaching the screen for tablet mode is slick, and worked well, but I suspect it’s going to be a point of failure.

The Surface Book has potential, but I found it too laptop-like. The Surface Pro 4 is an excellent tablet that can become a laptop replacement, while the Surface Book is a laptop that can become a tablet for a little bit.

Performance

Here’s the fun part — the Octane 2 scores:

System Score
Surface Pro 4, i5, 4GB, MS Edge 23,994
Surface Book, i5, 8GB, MS Edge 28,979
13″ MacBook Air, 1.6ghz i5, 4GB, Safari 21,036
13″ Retina MacBook Pro, 2.7ghz i5, 8GB, Safari 25,520
iPad Air, A7, Safari 7,153

The Surface Pro 4 sits closer to the Retina Macbook Pro than the Macbook Air. I suspect, once loaded up with the i7, it will be a direct competitor of Apple’s MacBook Pro and not the Macbook Air. I also added the iPad to try and infer what the iPad Pro will do. Even if the A9X is 2.5x faster than the A7, it still leaves it way behind even the base Surface Pro 4 with an i5 at essentially the same price point. The iPad Pro is going to be a tough sell going head to head with the Surface Pro 4.

The Surface Book is definitely a MacBook Pro killer. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on Apple for their next iteration of laptops.

Summary

The Surface Pro 4 is a big win, to the point I’ll be ordering one. It has all the media consumption capabilities of a large iPad, while also allowing me to click open the kickstand, slap a keyboard on, and do real work, all on the same device. I could see it becoming my primary computing device. With the pen, this is going to be an awesome tablet for editing photos. I can run real Photoshop, with my favorite plugins, and do high quality edits easily.

Microsoft has really knocked it out of the park with the Surface series, and the Surface Pro 4 in particular. As a Java developer, I’ve been pretty critical of Microsoft in the past. But Satya Nadella has really turned the company around. Microsoft is a technology company again, not just a bunch of sales people trying to suck every dollar possible out of windows and office sales to enterprises.

And great job to the Surface team for building such a truly stunning device. I look forward to seeing what else comes from you all in the future.

SEO: Say No to the Dark Side

This blog has been pretty quiet the past six months, mostly because I’ve been writing for the Credera blog rather than my personal blog. Now that I’ve left Credera, it’s time to revive this labor of love.

For my last few months at Credera, I had two project which both had a heavy emphasis on SEO.  I’m a developer, not an SEO geek, so it was pretty interesting seeing what SEO is all about.

I got to expand my vocabulary with new words like PPC and organic search. I also got to meet some interesting characters in the SEO world, including some of the folks behind the JC Penney black hat SEO scandal and someone I simply called a Sith Dark Lord of SEO.

Everyone was simply trying to stay one step ahead of the Google nerds in exploiting algorithm loopholes to push their content to the front page. It is a never-ending, and expensive, battle.

Sort of like the movie War Games, chasing SEO loopholes didn’t look like a game worth playing. Fortunately, there is a better way. I had a chat with Kyle, Credera’s SEO Expert and one of the few people I’ve met worthy of that title. He boiled things down pretty succinctly. There are really only a few things you need to win at SEO:

  1. Structure content correctly – use clean, semantic HTML with proper titles, heading elements, etc…
  2. Produce good content

It’s this last one that I think people are missing. You can spend a ton of money trying to trick Google into driving traffic your direction, or you can spend zero money by producing content people want to consume and get bumped to the top for free.

Around the same time of these projects, I got to see Jay Baer, the author of Youtility, speak at SMC Dallas. He really brought home all the points Kyle was making. Jay says your web content should provide so much value your visitors would be willing to pay for it.

Paying someone big money to fiddle with keywords and the gaming of algorithms is battle you can’t win. Say no to the Dark Side and start producing quality content people want to read. There are no shortcuts.

The Cryptography Renaissance

The past week will go down in history as a significant moment. It will be remembered as that point in time when we, the United States, realized the fine line between Nanny State and Police State in this country really doesn’t exist. And from a technology perspective, this week will mark the rebirth of the Cypherpunk culture.

I’ve always been a crypto geek. I actually read Applied Cryptography a decade or so ago. I remember closely following the NIST AES competition, rooting for Bruce Schneier’s Twofish only to see Rijndael be crowned the victor. I implemented DES and RSA for a smartcard terminal using C libraries via JNI for embedded Java because the client didn’t trust Java for the crypto. And I remember when PGP was treated as a more dangerous weapon than an AK47 by our government.

Then things calmed down. The wild west of the internet extinguished a lot of the flames fanning the cypherpunk fires. TCP/IP and HTTP don’t recognize international boundaries. The government and military were too busy learning how to take advantage of these technologies for themselves to worry much about spying on everyone else. For example, while in the Air Force, I was in one of the early kick-off meetings for Intelink. On the sign-in sheet, they had a column for email address. Barely 10% of the people in the room had one.

The days of the free-loving, wild west internet are coming to a close. We allow that businesses spy on us for advertising purposes, but now we’re learning how much Big Brother is doing it too. And we should be worried. There is a new generation of geeks, teamed with the gray-beards of the early movement, who will now be interested in empowering the secure, private exchange of ideas. A renaissance of cryptography is upon us.

Unfortunately, this new crop of cypherpunks is working at a major disadvantage. The collusion of government and industry working together means many popular technologies are insecure. Can anyone really trust Java, .NET and Windows, given it is completely certain that Oracle and Microsoft are willing partners of the government? And what about Apple with iOS and OS X? Are we to believe they took a stand and put their foot down?

This cryptography renaissance is going to be an Open Source renaissance. Desktop Linux will always be a niche, but I expect to see more developers using it. Open languages like Ruby, Python, SBCL, Haskell, and even C, will be the tools of this new generation.

The fight for privacy is going to be fierce. But as Dr. Ian Malcom said, life will find a way. In this case, I believe technology and privacy will find a way.

A Majority in the Minority

I’ve deployed a couple major web projects recently, and one of the biggest pains has been cross-browser testing. Most developers, including me, use Chrome or Firefox for development. They’re both very fast browsers with excellent development tools, and are on the leading edge of web standards support. But then there is always our special-needs friend, Microsoft Internet Explorer, and version 8 in particular. We’ve spent a hell of a lot of time trying to get some beautifully designed sites to play nicely with the abomination that is Internet Explorer 8.

After one of the larger sites went live, I had a chance to check out the Google Analytics data for the site and review the user agents hitting the site. I was curious if the effort we put in to making the site play nicely with Internet Explorer 8 was worth the effort. We also spent a lot of time creating a responsive design, so that was another set of clients I was curious about. I ended up being pretty surprised by the data.

This site is not a technology site, and your mileage may vary, but the visitor traffic is probably pretty representative of an average American adult population. I anticipated Internet Explorer to account for around 50% of the user agents. The actual number was much lower.

user-agents-new

Internet Explorer effectively held the majority among the minorities. The really interesting one was Safari. If we combine the in-app and regular version, Safari was actually the winner. This probably comes from the fact 30% of the site traffic came from mobile sources.

Since Internet Explorer has a major problem with users clinging to outdated versions, I was also very interested to see the breakdown of versions in use:

ie-versions

On the bright side, a strong majority are on IE9, which can almost pass as a modern browser. But nearly 30% were still clinging to IE8, a horrible, abomination of a browser that Microsoft should still be embarrassed about. In spite of the “millions of copies” Microsoft has shipped of Windows 8, only a tiny percentage of the users were on IE10. In fact, IE10 only beat IE7 by one percent.

So here are some insights from these stats:

  1. The days of Internet Explorer owning the show are over. Test for it, but don’t pander to it.
  2. IE10 doesn’t matter (yet?). This is going to be a huge problem for Microsoft, but no one outside the wild-eyed cult of .NET developers gives a damn about IE10 right now. For today, test for IE9 and you’re fine, unless you are specifically targeting some IE10 touch features.
  3. IE8 is the new IE6. The browser is an eon behind anything else out there and will be the bane of web developers for years to come. It, alone, is enough to drive someone to an iPad or Android tablet.
  4. You must embrace responsive design. From a pleasing-your-users standpoint, a responsive design that renders correctly on a phone or tablet is even more important than being IE8 friendly.

Missing the Link

One of my favorite magazines for keeping up on the business and entrepreneurial world is Forbes magazine. Between the print edition and Flipbook, there is never a lack of good content to read. One article yesterday caught me attention.

The title is Recruiters Say: Avoid LinkedIn At Your Peril. It was about recruiters reinforcing how important a good LinkedIn profile has become for job seekers. I agreed with everything the article said, but they missed an interesting aspect. Job seekers are also using LinkedIn to check out employers and the people who will be interviewing them.

Prior to joining Credera, while I was resume fishing for interesting jobs, I had an interview with JCPenney. The HR recruiter was extremely sharp, and obviously very passionate about her company, so that passion sparked my interest enough to do a phone screen with the hiring manager. We set a date and she gave me the name of the person I would be interviewing with.

My first stop was LinkedIn, where I searched for the hiring manager. The search came up empty. This was a huge red flag. An IT professional and manager, at at a major corporation, who doesn’t have a LinkedIn profile, implies that the person is either an idiot or doesn’t care about their career. When it came time for the interview, the person didn’t disappoint — he was a total bonehead who pretty clearly demonstrated how poorly IT is run at JCPenney. I wasn’t a good match for the job, but this idiot actually made me hate JCPenney.

I could have probably written this guy’s LinkedIn profile after talking to him for 15 min. “10+ years at JCPenny. Project manager with zero technical skills or instincts. Promoted through the ranks via a game of political survivor. Always on the lookout for someone new to blame.”

So LinkedIn is a tool that cuts both ways. In the tech job market, as things heat up, future employees will be using LinkedIn to vette their future prospective employers just as much as recruiters are using it to find future employees. Any company that expects to hire good people needs to ensure their own people put on a good face for the company via LinkedIn, especially the hiring managers. And not having a profile speaks the loudest of all.