This past week, Sybase hosted an internal competition called “Innovation Idol” (it’s supposed to be a spin-off of “American Idol”, but more techie). The description of the event reads:

Innovation Idol is a Sybase-sponsored, 3-hour event where Waterloo employees and co-ops showcase their ideas and innovations in an atmosphere of fun and friendly competition. Innovation Idol aims to foster a spirit of innovation and original thinking at Sybase, and to identify and promote promising innovations that could improve our workplace, our products, and the ways we work.

I was shocked by how much effort the folks here at Sybase put into the event, even the setup of the “stage” was really cool. When I walked into the cafeteria, I expected some chairs and maybe a projector for a slide show. But, to my surprise, they had closed all the blinds and turned off all the lights. There were these large speakers with a sound system borrowed from one of the staff who is a singer. Ambiance, anyone? A couple spotlights (read lamps) lit the judges (yes, there were judges =P) and the contestants. Also, three projectors provided video feeds of the contestant and the judges, and one more for the contestant’s presentation. Finally, they even played soundtracks at the beginning and end to enhance the game show experience.

However, it wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. The presenters had some really innovative and bright ideas. It would take too long to list and describe all the ideas, but the one intrigued me the most (and ended up winning) was given by Eric, titled “Using Ray Tracing to Create Rich Presentations and Marketing Materials”. You can read up more on ray tracing, but on a high level, it is an advanced technique used to render photorealistic computer graphics. Eric talked about how the architecture and infrastructure of computer systems can be very complicated and often shapes and lines don’t fully convey the overall interaction between individual components. With ray tracing, you can represent a complicated network setup of servers and software with a photo-realistic image. For example, a database store can be a water tank, water pipes can be used to show the connections between components, the water pipes can then have valves that turn on and off depending on the flow of data, a red fence can surround a server that has a firewall, etc. All this data is put into code and a very realistic photo is returned. This kind of graphical representation is not only well-pleasing to the eye, but also portrays a complicated computer set up in an easy to understand image.

From a marketing perspective, the benefits are obvious. These generated images are much nicer than a standard flow chart. Since our eyes are drawn to things that look nice, it is possible to create rich presentations and marketing materials that will grab a customer’s attention. Also, using more common objects to represent things like databases, communication, data flow and firewalls, gives customers a better understand complex architectures. It may be true that developers don’t need “pretty pictures”. However, I believe that the ray tracing technique would simplify the learning curve associated with understanding larger systems.

A picture speaks a thousand words. If we can visualize abstract pieces of software like databases and firewalls with concrete objects like water tanks, pipes and fences, it would help us understand a system setup better and thereby allow us to solve our problems more efficiently.

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Zune HD vs. iPod Touch 3G

September 9, 2009

The time has come, time to look for a new portable media player (PMP). They used to just be called mp3 players, but now they can do everything. So one contestant is the Zune HD, I blogged about it before when it was still just a bunch of rumours. Now, it has been officially confirmed and the release date is less than a week away (Sept. 15)!

Right now, I’m using the iPod Nano 2G mainly because it came free with my MacBook. Compared to what’s out there now, it’s not outstanding. But it was revolutionary when it first came out and I haven’t encountered any major issues, so I’ve been also considering the iPod Touch as well… Apple has been dominating the mp3 player market, so would I be wrong to give them a look?

I was highly-anticipating the Apple event [this morning] because of some rumoured announcements (camera anyone?). What Apple announces could really be the deciding factor for me. I was holding my breath to see how Apple would respond to Microsoft’s Zune HD.

What new surprise did Apple unveil this morning? Well, not that much. Let’s just say that I expected more, everyone expected more. With rumours and photos flying around of an iPod Touch with a camera, the fact that there was no camera was a major disappointment. In fact, all they did was cut the price on an already expensive music player and made it a bit faster… and games. They kept going on about their vast selection of games compared to the PSP and Nintendo DS. I’m not much of a gamer, so this didn’t really impress me. All in all, not much can be said about the new and improved iPod Touch. Nothing that would tip the balance. At least, not for me.

I think the fact that the Zune HD is cheaper, offers HD radio, HD video output, a cheaper subscription service, OLED screen on top of what Apple offers (App Store, iTunes LP) is making me lean towards the Zune HD. Please don’t disappoint, Microsoft.

The one thing that’s holding me back is the fact that I need iSilo. Currently, there is no support for iSilo on the Zune HD, but there is for the iPod Touch. I hope that Microsoft will release an SDK for the Zune HD so that developers can get started on that iSilo application! I really want to get the Zune HD, but if it can’t run iSilo, I may have to turn to the iPod Touch (or iPhone) or a Windows Mobile smart phone (way more expensive). But that’s a different story.

In case you’re not constantly keeping track of my life and which school or co-op term I’m in… I thought that I’d just let you know that I have started another work term. I have once again chosen to return to Sybase (for those keeping count, this is my fourth term there). Many people have asked me why I keep returning to Sybase. The short answer is because the atmosphere is great, the work is challenging and as one who is familiar with the culture and services of the company, you get to work on more important projects. Some have argued that it is necessary to  try different jobs in order to discover what you really like. To some extent, that is true. However I really enjoy what I’m doing and in the software world, nothing is ever stagnant. The maturity of the product is always developing and the stage of  the “software life cycle” always changes as well. Contributing and being a part of different stages of the life cycle of one company and one product over a long period of time has definitely given me a broader understanding of how software is developed. It’s never a dull moment!

microsoft_silverlightRecently I had the chance to work with Microsoft Silverlight (web application framework) Essentially, I was asked to demo SQL Anywhere’s compatibility with Silverlight. So, I developed this application with Silverlight and incorporated as many new features as I could cram into it to push it to its limit. I truly believe that Silverlight has gone a long way since it’s first release which was mainly targeted at streaming video (like Flash). However, it has evolved into a fully-fledged web application framework that businesses can use to create professional data-driven web sites quickly and easily. I watched a lot of talks from MIX 09 and was thoroughly impressed at how simple it was to hook up our database to Silverlight using the ADO.NET Entity Framework. But, it didn’t just stop there. With the latest version, Silverlight 3, Microsoft developed something called the “Silverlight Navigation Framework”. I thought this was absolutely brilliant. It only took a couple hours to get a beautiful (not to mention customizable) site up and running connected to a database with all CRUD (create, read, update, delete) operations. The great thing about Silverlight is not only its ability to display data efficiently, but also in an elegant manner. I’m working on getting this demo wrapped up and still I’m finding new features to play with! I hope that developers would really give Silverlight a try because it has a lot to offer and potential to take a site to the next level.