"They might seem opposed, but it's really a love-story" - Over the Air 2011 at Bletchley Park (30 Sep/ 1st Oct)

This post was written 7 years ago.
Thu, 06 Oct 2011

With the heading I don't mean Over the Air and Bletchley Park, as the meeting and the venue seemed really well suited from the start. In fact, I heard from quite a few people, and I would join in with that, that the event should be held here next year, too. No, I have taken this message from a presentation by Dominique Hazaël-Massieux about the somewhat strained relationship between native mobile apps and web apps. He likened this relationship to that between the UK and France, which is also really a love-story (where of course the French are the superior party, just as are web apps compared to native ones ;) )

But let me start at the beginning. My decision to attend Over the Air was quite a spontaneous one, as I felt quite exhausted, and I also didn't know of anybody I knew who was going. But spontaneous decisions can be the best, and this one was especially good.

I heard some brilliant talks (see below). About HTML5 and its implication for mobile, about the native - web dilemma, which in all the talks was acknowledged to be far from black and white, or even either/or; about APIs, open government data and mobile app security. In addition, there where tours around Bletchley Park and the National Museum of Computing. That in itself was quite an experience, and we had an extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide who didn't hide his pleasure at for once having an audience that he could explain the technical things in detail to. Not ending there, there was an Ignite event on the first evening. I met really nice and interesting people. It was the last days of summer, and we were in lovely surroundings.

Really the only thing that you could perhaps complain about whas the flaky wifi. It did not affect me very much, because I did not have my netbook, and did from the start decide I would not try to get involved in any hacking. But it restricted some of the attempts of the people who actuallly were in the position to cook up an app overnight.

But build they did, and it was really impressive what the different teams presented at the end of the event. Apart from that there was also a demonstration of an enigma machine built with garden hoses, glasses and some round objects that were not marbles (they wouldn't have fitted through the tubes), but I can't remember what they actually were.

The Ignite event was also really good, with talks by Terence Eden about QRpedia, one by Chris Monk called "Kids can't code" (they could, if we taught them), and another one I particularly liked was about cryptic crosswords by Imran Ghory. How many differenct clues for "mobile" can you find??

After that people stayed up very late as expected, consuming part of a tower of pizzas sitting in the marquee. I went to "bed" uncharacteristically early and slept surprisingly well in a sleeping bag on the floor of the ballroom.

lake in Bletchley park

And then there was the tour the next morning. Before going on it I just about knew that Bletchley Park was the "home of the codebreakers" during the war, and I was not really sure what Enigma actually was. It was fascinating to hear about this part of history, the part it played in the development of computing, and also what a big role 'human error' played in the deciphering of code. For example, after transmitting Enigma-encoded messages, the operators would exchange unencrypted Morse code to have personal chats, along the lines of "How is Gertrude in Munich?". These conversations were all logged at Bletchley park, and they sometimes gave clues to what operators would use as the first three letters in their messages - the letters that determined the setting of the Enigma machine. There was also a Lorenz machine operator, who had to resend a message and didn't bother to change the key setting when he transmitted the message again - a shortened version of it. "In cryptography, receiving two different messages sent on the same key means you're in" as was pointed out to us. Apart from that the rebuilt - working! - Bombe machine and especially the Colossus were really impressive. What dedication it must have taken to put these machines together again.

Did it matter that I was German? Very little. It did come up at one point when our guide showed an example message and asked if anybody knew German. When I said yes and added that I was in fact German, there was a brief murmur, then somebody said - yes, you guessed it - "Don't mention the war", and we just all laughed. Later I realised that more time has passed since that Fawlty Towers episode was first aired (1975), then had passed then since the war. I think this is becoming less and less of a topic. There are really other things to worry about, aren't there?

There's a lot more in Bletchley Park to discover than I have seen, and I definitely want to go back there.

Some of the talks I heard - building for the mobile web, bridging the gap between web and native

This was a multi-track conference, and sometimes I found it difficult to choose from the different talks. For example, I feel sorry to have missed the talk on the BBC Public digital space, "debugging web apps on mobile devices" (but just had a look at the slides and think they will be really useful, too, should I attempt such a thing!) and Developing a better world one startup at a time.

But I was very glad to hear the ones that I did. One of the highlights for me was Lyza Gardner's talk "Crap, it doesn't look quite right.." as it seemed to encompass all that I'd ever heard or thought - plus some new things - about how to develop websites for mobile with the necessary pragmatism. One point that came up in the discussion (and not only at this talk) was how to adapt images for the small screen. It is by now clear that the "Responsive design" approach is not the definitive answer here (see the "Fools gold" article - written by a colleague of Lyza's, as I just noticed). This is an occasion where it makes sense to use device detection. It was interesting to hear Lyza's aproach, wich was to use the Wurfl database to detect screen size, using breakpoints to determine which cached resized image to use. Between those breakpoints she uses the "responsive" technique to resize the images. Somebody also pointed out that you would get a caching problem if you had too many different sizes of pictures.

I heard two talks about HTML5/CSS3/Javascript, the one mentioned above, and one by Bruce Lawson. Both were very informative and entertaining. Dominique pointed out that websites have influenced very much how native apps work while web apps can learn from native apps (and will, through the new APIs). He said web apps need to become "first class citizens", they need an application list and application switching as native apps have. Also, there should be the possibility to isolate cookies for the individual apps. It looks in fact like web apps are gaining ground, so this will hopefully become a reality.

So what does it look like in practice if you want to build a mobile web app? James Hugman from future platforms explained how they built the very successful app for the Glastonbury festival. The app should run on iOS, Android and Nokia. James pointed out that Android users don't like to have iOS-like user experience on their phone, you need different interfaces for different phones. But they did not want to develop three different apps, and wanted to use web techniques. So they looked at the Titanium framework which supports iOS and Android. But there were some difficulties, like the lack of tooling. Eventually they developed their own framework called Kirin, which uses native presentation layer and native platform, but the application layer is written in Javascript, MySQL etc. My notes on this are very scarce, so check out the slides which will be up after DroidCon. Sure worth a look.

Another mobile app built with web technologies is the app for the BBC World Service. The app runs in 27 languages, including languages with right-to-left writing. "What do you use, native or web? As so often, the answer is 'It depends'", said David Vella who gave a presentation about the app. It became clear in several talks, that while it would be good to build everything purely with HTML5 and related technologies, it is not always practicable to do this. And native and web need not be mutually exclusive, as you can write a web app and then repackage it as a native app. In this case, David and colleagues used HTML5 in combination with CSS, jQuery and iScroll plugin, but the code grew and grew and they eventually switched to the Backbone framework for the Javascript. The plan is to make the app downloadable by repackaging it with PhoneGap, but also make it available just as a URL. I really enjoyed this presentation by David Vella, have a look at the slides.

This was a really well organised conference with a great athmosphere and great people. Hopefully there will be an Over the Air in Bletchley Park in 2012.

This post was written 7 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)