Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Friday, May 27, 2011

On BizSpark

You’ll remember that recently I reviewed Windows Phone 7 Mango from the perspective of an iOS guy, and actually came back pretty impressed with it.

You’ll also remember that through my company, Fuzzy Aliens Ltd, I offer app security services to mobile app developers. So far, that basically means iOS developers: in addition to being where I have most experience, I have punted around for Android clients and got exactly zero interest.

So I thought it would be useful to offer the same service for WP7. After all, Microsoft knows the bad press associated with having security fail on their platform, so should be welcoming of a security guy adding his biological and technological distinctiveness to their own. Not only that, but there will probably be a lot of line-of-business app developers out there who would appreciate mobile security knowledge.

Now the thing that puts me off is basically the cost. I own exactly one copy of Windows 7, and use the free Visual Studio Express. To meaningfully research and code for Windows Phone 7 I’d need another two Windows licences (£100-£250 each roughly depending on version) and Visual Studio Pro and MSDN (roughly £700), along with at least one handset (£300) and an App Hub membership (£60). Wow. Around £1500 just to dip my toe in untested waters.

Luckily, Microsoft have a plan designed to help. BizSpark ought to give me access to most of the above except the phone, in addition to training. It also offers that MS would put me in touch with potential clients and even investors, and could help with hosting costs for web services. The idea is that Fuzzy Aliens would get this stuff for free for a while, during which MS would help build the business. Then, once FZA “graduates” from the program, I get to keep all the software and MS have a new trusted partner.

Seems like a low-risk way to get into Windows Phone 7, and to grow my business which – while only six months old – is already showing signs that I need to find more clients from somewhere. So I signed up at around 16:15 today.

By 18:13 Microsoft had decided that:

it does not appear that you meet all the eligibility requirements at this time. To enter the program, your startup must be:

  • Actively engaged in development of a software-based product or online service that will form a core piece of its current or intended business,
  • Privately held,
  • In business for less than 3 years, and
  • Less than US $1 million in annual revenue

Well, in fact FZA meets all of those criteria. The basis of its business is secure software, and indeed I am currently (OK, I’m blogging – you see what I mean though) developing such secure software. Indeed I even help out the platform community for free by releasing some of this software here as open source.

The business is fully held by me, and has been operating for nearly six months. I would dearly love to have more than $1M of revenue, but it hasn’t happened yet.

So for whatever reason – though not one they care to tell me about – Microsoft has decided that they don’t want me joining their community. Given that this leaves me free to focus on making the iPhone a safer platform for its users, I don’t yet know which of us has lost out the most.

posted by Graham at 18:38  

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Cupertino Yankee in the Court of King Ballmer

This post summarises my opinions of Windows Phone 7 from the Microsoft Tech Day I went to yesterday. There’s a new version of Windows Phone 7 (codenamed Mango) due out in the Autumn, but at the Tech Day the descriptions of the new features were mainly the sorts of things you see in the Microsoft PressPass video below (Silverlight required), the API stuff is going on in a separate event.

I want to provide some context: I first encountered C#, J# and .NET back in around 2002, when I was given a beta of Visual Studio .NET (Rainier) and Windows .NET Server (which later became Windows Server 2003). Since then, of course most of my programming work has been on Objective-C and Java, on a variety of UNIX platforms but mainly Mac OS X and iOS. But I’ve kept the smallest edge of a toe in the .NET world, too.

From the perspective of the phone, however, I really am coming to this as an iOS guy. Almost all of the mobile work I’ve done has been on iOS, with a small amount of Android thrown into the mix. I’ve used a WP7 phone a couple of times, but have no experience programming on WP7 or earlier Windows Mobile platforms.

The UI

The speakers at the Tech Day – a mix of Microsoft developer relations and third-party MVPs – brought as much focus on user experience and visual impact of WP7 apps as you’ll find at any Apple event. Windows Phone uses a very obviously distinctive UI pattern called Metro, which you can see in the demo screencasts, or the Cocktail Flow app.

Metro is almost diametrically opposed to the user experience on iOS. Rather than try to make apps look like physical objects with leather trim and wooden panels, WP7 apps do away with almost all chrome and put the data front and centre (and, if we’re honest, sides and edges too). Many controls are implicit, encouraging the user to interact with their data and using subtle iconography to provide additional guidance. Buttons and tiles are far from photorealistic, they’re mainly understated coloured squares. Users are not interacting with apps, they’re interacting with content so if an app can provide relevant functionality on data from another app, that’s encouraged. A good example is the augmented search results demoed in the above video, where apps can inspect a user’s search terms and provide their own content to the results.

In fact, that part of the video shows one of the most striking examples of the Metro user interface: the panorama view. While technologically this is something akin to a paginated scroll view or a navigation controller, it’s the visual execution that makes it interesting.

Instead of showing a scroll thumb or a page indicator, the panorama just allows the title of the next page to sneak into the page you’re currently looking at, giving the impression that it’s over there, and if you swipe to it you can find it. When the user goes to the next page, a nice parallax scroll moves the data across by a page but the title by only enough to leave the edges of the previous and next titles showing.

The Tools

It’s neither a secret nor a surprise that Microsoft’s developer tools team is much bigger than Apple’s, and that their tools are more feature-rich as a result (give or take some ancient missteps like MSTest and Visual SourceSafe). But the phone is a comparatively new step: WP7 is under a year old, but of course Windows Mobile and Compact Editions are much older. So how have Microsoft coped with that?

Well, just as Apple chose to use their existing Cocoa and Objective-C as the basis of the iOS SDK, Microsoft have gone with .NET Compact Framework, Silverlight and XNA. That means that they get tools that already support the platform well, because they’re the same tools that people are using to write desktop, “rich internet” and Xbox Live applications.

From the view-construction perspective, XAML reminds me a lot more of WebObjects Builder than Interface Builder. Both offer drag-and-drop view positioning and configuration that’s backed by an XML file, but in Visual Studio it’s easy to get precise configuration by editing the XML directly, just as WebObjects developers can edit the HTML. One of the other reasons it reminds me of WebObjects is that Data Bindings (yes, Windows Phone has bindings…) seems to be much more like WebObjects bindings than Cocoa Bindings.

Custom classes work much better in the XAML tools than in IB. IB plugins have always been a complete ‘mare to set up, poorly documented, and don’t even work in the Xcode 4 XIB editor. The XAML approach is similar to IB’s in that it actually instantiates real objects, but it’s very easy to create mock data sources or drivers for UI objects so that designers can see what the app looks like populated with data or on a simulated slow connection.

Speaking of designers, an interesting tool that has no parallel on the iPhone side is Expression Blend, a XAML-editing tool for designers. You can have the designer working on the same files as the developer, importing photoshop files to place graphics directly into the app project.

It’d be really nice to have something similar on iPhone. All too often I have spent loads of time on a project where the UI is specified as a photoshop wireframe or some other graphic provided by a web designer, and I’m supposed to customise all the views to get pixel-perfection with these wireframes. With Blend, the designer can waste his time doing that instead :).

Other tools highlights include:

  • Runtime-configurable debugging output on both phone and emulator, including frame rates, graphics cache miss information, and Quartz Debug-style flashes of updated screen regions
  • The emulator supports virtual accelerometers
  • The emulator supports developer-supplied fake location information and even test drivers generating location updates <3

The biggest missing piece seems to be a holistic debugging app like Apple’s Instruments. Instruments has proved useful for both bug fixing and performance analysis, and it’s pretty much become a necessary part of my iOS and Mac development work.

Update: I’m told by @kellabyte that an Instruments-like tool is coming as part of the Mango SDK, and that this was announced at MIX ’11.

The “ecosystem”

A couple of the demos shown yesterday demonstrated phone apps talking to Azure cloud services, ASP.NET hosted web apps (mainly using the RESTful OData protocol), SOAP services etc. Because there’s .NET on both sides of the fence, it’s very easy to share model code between the phone app and the server app.

That’s something Apple lacks. While Cocoa can indeed be used on Mac OS X Server, if you want to do anything server-side you have to either hope you can find some open-source components or frameworks, or you have to switch to some other technology like Ruby or PHP. While Apple ship that stuff, it’s hard to claim that they’re offering an integrated way to develop apps on iOS that talk to Apple servers in the same way that MS do.

To the extent that WebObjects can still be said to exist, it doesn’t really fill this gap either. Yes, it means that Apple provide a way to do dynamic web applications: but you can’t use Apple’s tools (use Eclipse and WOLips instead), you can’t share code between iOS and WO (iOS doesn’t have Java, and WO hasn’t had ObjC in a long time), and you can just about share data if you want to use property lists as your interchange format.

On the other hand, it’s much easier to distribute the same app on both iPhone and iPad than it would be to do so on WP7 and a Microsoft tablet/slate, because their official line is still that Windows 7 is their supported slate OS. I expect that to change once the Nokia handset thing has shaken out, but making a Silverlight tablet app is more akin to writing a Mac app than porting an iOS app.

The market

This is currently the weakest part, IMO, of the whole Windows Phone 7 deal, though it is clear that MS have put some thought and resources behind trying to address the problems. Given that Windows Phone 7 was such a late response to the iPhone and Android, Microsoft need to convince developers to write on the platform and users to adopt the platform. The problem is, users are driven to use apps, so without any developers there won’t be any users: without any users, there’s no profit on the platform so there are no developers.

Well, not no developers. Apparently the 17,000 apps on the marketplace were written by 7,500 of the 42,000 registered developers (and interestingly the UK has one of the lowest ratio of submitted apps to registered developers). By comparison, there are 500,000 apps on the app store.

Microsoft has clearly analysed the bejeesus out of the way their users interact with the marketplace. They have seen, for instance, that MO billing (essentially having your phone operator add your app purchase costs to your phone bill, rather than having a credit card account on the marketplace itself) increases purchase rates of apps by 5 times, and are working (particularly through Nokia of course who already have these arrangements) to add MO billing in as many marketplace countries as they can.

This makes sense. People already have a payment relationship with their network operators, so it’s easier for them to add a few quid to their phone bill than it is to create a new paying account with the Windows Marketplace and give Microsoft their card details. By analogy, iPhone users already have bought stuff from Apple (an iPhone, usually…and often some music) so throwing some extra coin their way for apps is easy. Incidentally, I think this is why the Android app market isn’t very successful: people see Google as that free stuff company so setting up a Checkout account to buy apps involves an activation energy.

Incidentally, some other stats from the app marketplace: 12 downloads per user per month (which seems high to me), 3.2% of all apps downloaded are paid, and the average price of a bought app is a shave under $3. Assuming around 3 million users worldwide (a very rough number based on MS and analyst announcements), that would mean a total of around $3.5M app sales worldwide per month. That’s nowhere near what’s going on on the iPhone, so to get any appreciable amount of cash out of it you’d better have an app that appeals to all of the platform’s users.

The subject of appeal is a big issue, too. Microsoft aren’t really targeting the WP7 at anyone in particular, just people who want a smartphone. With Mango and Nokia handsets, they’ll be targeting people who want a cheaper smartphone than RIM/Apple/Android offers: I bet that brings down that $3 mean app price. This is, in my opinion, a mistake. Microsoft should play to their strengths, and make a generally-useful device but target it at particular groups who Microsoft can support particularly well.

Who are those groups? Well, I think there’s Xbox 360 gamers, as WP7 has Xbox Live integration; and there’s enterprises with custom app needs, due to the integration with Azure and similarity with ASP.NET. It ought to be cheaper for game shop that’s written an Xbox game to do a WP7 tie-in than an iOS tie-in. It ought to be cheaper for an enterprise with an MS IT department to extend their line-of-business apps onto WP7 than onto Blackberry. Therefore MS should court the crap out of those developers and make the WP7 the go-to device for those people, rather than just saying “buy this instead of an iPhone or Android”.

The reason I’d do it that way is that you bring the users and the developers together on shared themes, so you increase the chance that any one app is useful or relevant to any given customer and therefore increase the likelihood that they pay. Once you’ve got gamers and game devs together, for example, the gamers will want to do other things and so there’ll be a need for developers of other classes of app. I call using Xbox games to sell utilities the Halo Effect.


Windows Phone 7 is a well thought out mobile platform, with some interesting user experience and design. It’s got a good development environment, that’s highly consistent with the rest of the Microsoft development platform. However, no matter how easy and enjoyable you make writing apps, ultimately there needs to be someone to sell them to. Microsoft don’t have a whole lot of users on their platform, and they’re clearly banking on Nokia bringing their huge brand to beef up sales. They should be making the platform better for some people, and then getting those people on to the platform to make WP7 phones aspirational. They aren’t, so we just have to wait and see what happens with Nokia.

Footnote: Nokisoft

Nokia do well everywhere that Microsoft doesn’t, by which I mean Europe and China mainly. Particularly China actually, where the Ovi store is pretty big. Conversely, MS phone isn’t doing too badly in America, where Nokia traditionally are almost unheard of. So on paper, the Nokia deal should be a good thing for both companies.

posted by Graham at 11:33  

Friday, May 20, 2011

On the top 5 iOS appsec issues

Nearly 13 months ago, the Intrepidus Group published their top 5 iPhone application development security issues. Two of them are valid issues, the other three they should perhaps have thought longer over.

The good

Sensitive data unprotected at rest

Secure communications to servers

Yes, indeed, if you’re storing data on a losable device then you need to protect the data from being lost, and if you’re retrieving that data from elsewhere then you need to ensure you don’t give it away while you’re transporting it.

Something I see a bit too often is people turning off SSL certificate validation while they’re dealing with their test servers, and forgetting to turn it on in production.

The bad

Buffer overflows and other C programming issues

While you can indeed crash an app this way, I’ve yet to see evidence you can exploit an iOS app through any old buffer overflow due to the stack guards, restrictive sandboxes, address-space layout randomisation and other mitigations. While there are occasional targeted attacks, I would have preferred if they’d been specific about which problems they think exist and what devs can do to address them.

Patching your application

Erm, no. Just get it right. If there are fast-moving parts that need to change frequently, extract them from the app and put them in a hosted component.

The platform itself

To quote Scott Pack in “The DMZ”, If you can’t trust your users to implement your security plan, then your security plan must work without their involvement. In other words, if you have a problem and the answer is to train 110 million people, then you have two problems.

posted by Graham at 16:01  

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

“Patently” secure

One thing that occasionally becomes interesting about working in security is that doing security and managing business have a great deal of overlap. This makes a lot of sense: a business wants to be profitable, and profit is a reward conferred by the market for taking on some risk. But too much risk can expose your business to undesirable failures, so understanding and controlling your exposure to risk is a useful exercise.

Well that’s fundamentally how security works too. There is some reward to be gained by performing the activity allowed by an app: that might be the enjoyment of playing a game, the cost savings of keeping track of your finances, or the health benefits of seeing what food you consume. But using the app also brings some risk, and so security people seek to quantify and reduce the risk inherent in any app.

I’m going to compare a business risk (infringing on another’s patent) to an information security risk (leaking confidential data) to show just how similar these fields are. I choose patent infringement because it’s an apposite case: however you’ll find that I don’t name particular patents or companies for reasons that will be entered into below. Suffice it to say that I have dealt with software patent lawyers in the past and have some – but not much, by any means – experience of how the US patent system operates. If you choose to infer any advice from this blog post, please seek appropriate counsel before acting on it: I am not a lawyer, and I am certainly not your lawyer.


A risk to either a business or a user can be summed up by the expected damage caused by the event coming to pass. That is, the estimated cost (financial, emotional, intangible etc.) of the risky event multiplied by the expected probability of that event happening.

In the leaky data case, the expected damage would be “what chance is there that an attacker will retrieve the data” × “what is the impact to the user of exposing the data”? Both of these parameters are hard to quantify: information about data security breaches is notoriously hard to get hold of because companies are reluctant to talk about problems they’ve had protecting their customer records. Combine with that the fact that in many fields even the direct costs of a breach are hard to arrive at, and you end up multiplying two very big error bars together.

In the infringement case, things are a bit more straightforward. Legal reports are – in many jurisdictions – a matter of public record, so seeing what the damage of a case “like yours” is going to be is quite easy. That covers direct costs, anyway: indirect costs like lost custom, damaged reputation etc. are harder to arrive at. The likelihood of being caught infringing on a patentholder’s rights is harder to estimate, but I expect not beyond the realms of reason.


There are a few different approaches to reducing (mitigating) the risk involved, which either address the likelihood or expected cost of impact. Let’s look at them. You don’t have to choose any one approach: a successful strategy may combine tactics from each of these categories and even use more than one tactic from the same category.


Remove any likelihood and impact of a risky event occurring by refusing to participate in the risky activity. In the confidentiality case, this means not storing the secrets in the first place. In the patent case, it means not using the potentially infringing invention.

In either case withdrawing from the activity certainly mitigates any risk very reliably, but it also means no possibility of gaining the reward associated with participation.

This is why, going back to an earlier point, I don’t comment on particular patent cases. Given that patent rights asserters are, in my opinion, more litigious than I, there’s a chance that if I talk about a particular case I’ll be considered defamatory. I’d rather avoid that risk, and choose to control it by withdrawing from talking about the cases.


You can opt to transfer the risk to another party, usually for a fee: this basically means taking out insurance. In either of our case studies, look for insurance that protects against the damage incurred. This doesn’t affect the probability that our risky event will come to pass, but means that someone else is liable for the damages.

Employing Countermeasures

Finding some technical or process approach to reduce the risk. In the patent case this is simple: the countermeasure to “sued by patent holder” is “license patent”.

In the confidentiality case, this means technical countermeasures: access control, cryptography and the like.

But think about deploying these countermeasures: you’ve now made your business or your application a bit more complex. Have you introduced new risks? Have you increased the potential damage from some risks by reducing others? And, of course, is your countermeasure cost-effective? The traditional security mantra is “don’t spend $1000 to save $100”: don’t license $1000 of patents to protect a $100 product, and don’t implement $1000 of crypto to hide $100 of data.


The “suck it up” approach to security: accept that the risk exists and that you may be liable for the damage if it ever comes to pass. In our information security case, this means storing the data and accepting that someone else might be able to read it. In our patent case, this means adopting the potentially-infringing invention and accepting that a licensor might come a-knocking.

All risk mitigation strategies have a certain amount of acceptance involved, apart from withdrawal. Imagine that you pay some insurance premium, and that indemnifies you up to $10M with an excess of $1000. You have to choose whether you accept the residual risk exposed in covering the excess and any overage.

Similarly, in the information security case, let’s say you have data assets which, if leaked, would cost $1M in damages. You implement a particular cryptography technique that reduces the likelihood of leaking the data from an estimated once per year to an estimated once per thousand years. Again, do you accept the remaining $1000?


Information security and business management are actually pretty closely related. It’s just that information security requires specialised technical knowledge: and that’s where I come in ;-).

posted by Graham at 21:10  

Thursday, May 12, 2011

On adopting testing, and CocoaDojos

In episode 18 of iDeveloper.TV Live I was discussing test-driven development with Scotty and John. I suggested that a great way to get started with TDD was to start adopting it in baby steps in your code. Got a bug report from a user? Create a new test target, and add a test that demonstrates the existence of this bug. Fix the bug, then prove to yourself that your new test now passes.

OK, but what if you don’t want to change the way you write production code, just to try out a new style? What if you’d have to make too many big changes just to support that one small test? What if you’re a fan of building one to throw away?

I’ve been thinking about those cases too, and looking around to see what the rest of the industry does in such a case. It seems the best fit to this case is a Coding Dojo. There’s a video guide to coding dojo, but the TL;DW version goes like this:

  • Define your requirements.
  • Take it in turns to pair-program a way toward implementing the requirements.
  • Evaluate what happened.

The requirements don’t just define the product you’re trying to make; the point of a dojo is to focus on practice for its own sake so you could require a particular language, framework etc. be used. When developers aren’t directly involved in pair programming, they’re offering advice or writing up parts of the problem to be addressed: there’s only one IDE, and one pair of people at the keyboard.

This looks like it could be a great way to learn new stuff and become a better developer in the company of fellow iOS programmers. But as a group activity, it needs more people than just me involved:

  • Would you participate in a Cocoa dojo in your local area?
  • Would you participate in one at a conference like NSConference, WWDC or Voices That Matter?
  • What would you want to learn about at a dojo?
  • What would you be willing to teach people at a dojo?
  • Is the coding dojo the most appropriate format? I’ve also been finding out about Corey Haines’ Code Retreat, which puts less emphasis on the solution and more on the practice. Is that better? Something else?

Answers on a postcard, or you could just use the comments field below.

posted by Graham at 13:51  

Saturday, May 7, 2011

On platform-specific strategies

I’m writing some library code at the moment that needs to work on both Mac OS X and iOS. The APIs I need to use on each platform are different, so I need different code on each platform. I also happen to think that putting both versions of the code in the same implementation file is icky.

Here’s what I’m doing. I define an abstract class FZAPlatformStrategy, that defines the interface and knows how to choose an appropriate subclass depending on the platform.


@interface FZAPlatformStrategy : NSObject {
- (void)doThing;
+ (FZAPlatformStrategy *)newPlatformStrategy;



@implementation FZAPlatformStrategy

- (void)doThing {
    [[NSException exceptionWithName: @"FZAPlatformStrategyAbstractClassException"
                            reason: @"Use +[FZAPlatformStrategy newPlatformStrategy] to get an appropriate subclass"
                          userInfo: nil] raise];

+ (FZAPlatformStrategy *)newPlatformStrategy {
    id strategy = nil;
    strategy = [[FZAPlatformStrategyiPhone alloc] init];
    strategy = [[FZAPlatformStrategyMac alloc] init];
    return platformStrategy;


OK, so now as you can imagine there is a class FZAPlatformStrategyiPhone that uses the iOS APIs, and another FZAPlatformStrategyMac that uses the OS X APIs. Each of these overrides the -doThing method to provide the appropriate platform-specific implementation. Of course, to get these to compile I conditionally define the whole @implementation contents of each based on the target platform.

The library code that needs to interface with this code just calls [FZAPlatformStrategy newPlatformStrategy]; to get an instance, and then because we’ve encapsulated the platform-specific behaviour it can use whatever it gets in a consistent way. Need to add another platform, say GNUStep/Linux? Define a new FZAPlatformStrategy subclass, and change +newPlatformStrategy to know when to return an instance of that subclass.

The remaining bit of ugly is the preprocessor conditional in +newPlatformStrategy. I decided to leave this as-is: it is at least highly localised ugly. The other approach I considered and discarded was to look for a platform-specific class like UIDevice being non-Nil, but then I realised that someone would probably implement that on the other platform and mess up the test.

Any other solutions for doing the “which platform am I on” test gratefully received.

posted by Graham at 21:52  

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