Archive for September, 2010

The future of websites

Monday, September 27th, 2010

You must think I’m a future teller! Well, I’m not but I can still predict the future of websites in the near future based on the history of websites and the current trends. So, it will be worthwile to have a look at both before discussing the future of websites. The rule of thumb, however, is that evolution of website trends depends on evolution in technology.

Three to four decades back, the only businesses we knew were those in our locality or those that could reach out to us via newspapers, TV and radio. The print and electronic media gave businesses the ability to reach out to a much greater audience than ever before. It wasn’t late before the need to let people order products from the comfort of their homes was felt. It was then that home shopping via the medium of television came by. However, advertising on TV was kinda expensive but an alternative arrived only with the surge in web use- the surge that came in 1993 after the World Wide Web was declared free for use by everyone and the Mosaic browser was developed.

It was then that the era of websites dawned, websites loaded with rich multimedia content- images, audio and video, colorful content and a user-friendly graphical UI (user interface). Formerly, net use was limited to text only and websites were more of a bunch of plain-text information. However, even after the graphical avatar of the Web was born, the target audiences were still at the receiving end and there were little or no provisions to know how the people felt about the web services being provided. The only means to get feedback was possibly e-mail which was rendered ineffective for huge number of customers because of spam!

From 1993 to 1998, the Web remained centered around Search Engines, the major players being:

• Excite — 1993

• Yahoo! — 1994

• Web Crawler — 1994

• Lycos — 1994

• Infoseek — 1995

• AltaVista — 1995

• Inktomi — 1996

• Ask Jeeves — 1997

• Google — 1997

• MSN Search — 1998

Shorty after, the need was felt for websites that you could ‘talk to’ and websites that could let you ‘talk to each other’- technically, interactive social media. That was when Web 2.0 was born. Websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Digg, Blogger, etc. are part of the Web 2.0 revolution. On a Web 2.0 site, most of the content is user-generated. These websites have changed the way we communicate with each other. The popularity of social media like Facebook and Twitter encouraged developers to create applications for these websites. Consider, for example, the most popular game on the Web- Farmville. Statistics say that 500 million acres of farmland have been farmed on Farmville in the first 15 months and there are 930 million acres of actual farmland in the US (source:! If the trend continues to rise at the same pace, the area under virtual farmland will exceed the real farmland in the US in a year.

The major marketing trend till now has been social ads and newsletters coupled with surveys and customer personalization. With Facebook being the prime logging in service and home page of millions of people, companies could actually track the interests of potential customers and deliver relevant ads. However, with more and more people marking promotional e-mails as junk and suspecting social ads as scams or as misleading, newer marketing strategies are needed for the future and they’re evolving.

The future belongs to innovation- the focus has shifted from design and development to innovative thinking. The last few months in particular have seen a rise in appreciation of innovation. Take the huge popularity of location-based apps- FourSquare, followed by Facebook places and so on. This is an important example of how hardware affects software. Another example is the shift from low-quality media on websites to high-resolution interactive graphics. With more and more people coming under the broadband spectrum, websites are going for rich, high-resolution graphics which in turn will make websites more appealing to customers. Many major websites like the BBC already have an option to choose between a high-graphics and a low-graphics site.

On-the-go social networking, of which location-based-apps are a part have gained relevance only because of a wide range of social-networking enabled hand-held devices. In 2002 the first BlackBerry was released which was the first smartphone optimized for wireless email use, followed by Nokia N 95, Apple’s iPhone and so on. The smartphone revolution paved the way for development and widespread use of GPS and other location-based apps which have changed the way businesses interact with their customers. Now it is possible for businesses to target customers within their physical reach and announce special offers for customers who are currently within a diameter of, say, 2 kilometers. On FourSquare (the most popular location-based game) each ‘place’ has a ‘mayor’- i.e. the most frequent visitor and a privileged cuatomer. If someone replaces the mayor as the most frequent visitor, the business offers special discounts to the new mayor. The next major innovation truly depends on the next big advance in hardware technology to a great extent.

Not to forget that advances in software technology have created a spark in social media, in fact changed the way we perceived them. One example of this is the role of Flash in the success of YouTube, AJAX in Facebook and other hundreds of other websites where automatic updates are a major attraction and where.

We have seen Friendster replacing MySpace which in turn was replaced by Facebook as the most popular socializing site. However, analysts and experts do not see Facebook and Twitter falling from importance in the next few years at least. This is because Facebook is ever-changing! Two years back, when Facebook made major changes to its home page and user interface, people reacted to it sharply by launching an “Against Facebook’s new home page” campaign. Back then, it was irritating to people to adjust to new features often. But Facebook has been able to change the whole psyche of people as they’re now looking forward to new changes every day! And with a new look and new features every now and then, no one seems bored of Facebook; thanks also to games like Farmville and Mafia Wars that keep people interested. The philosophy of change has enabled Facebook to survive! Not only that, Facebook has a much wider network than MySpace ever had. With Facebook’s exclusive look and feel, other socializing sites have been rendered useless. Instead of trying to build the next big socializing site, focus has now shifted on how to reach potential customers via Facebook and Twitter. Almost every website now features Facebook/Twitter/Digg plugins and almost every medium to big business has a Facebook page! In fact, the trend had begun three years back itself. I remember using a Firefox add-on called Yonoo! which allows you to login to Facebook, Twitter, Gtalk, Yahoo! Messenger, MySpace, etc. at the same time but did not work very well back then, probably because it was a beta. The focus is likely to remain more on integrating with Facebook and other socializing sites than on replacing them.

In spite of all the fact that if Facebook were a country it would be the third most populated country in the world (source: ), the possibility that Facebook may be replaced by another socializing site cannot be ruled out completely. There have been major attacks on Facebook’s sovereignty, the most lethal being the KoobFace virus. But interestingly, the tactic failed and now everyone in a modern family has a Facebook account, including pets at times! A group of New York University computer science students made the code of their anti-Facebook site, Diaspora, open source on September 15th, 2010. The attempt to build a competitor of Facebook comes in the wake of widespread criticism of Facebook’s privacy policies. The home page of the Diaspora project describes it as “The privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all, open source social network”. The loopholes left unplugged by Facebook may actually pave the way for the next mega social network. Or, it may end up being bought by Facebook itself !

The Diaspora story also makes one wonder if public funding is going to be the next big trend- yes, Diaspora is publicly funded. The group of students initially wanted to raise $10,000 for their summer project but the widespread interest in the project can be judged from the fact that the donations have already crossed $100,000 with Mark Zuckerberg (CEO, Facebook) as one of the contributors!

However, the fact remains that Facebook owes its great ad revenue to the compromise in privacy! The more user information you provide companies with, the greater is the ad revenue. And the greater the ad-revenue, the better is the service you’ll get. Going by the same logic, I don’t see Diaspora going too far- not at least as far as Facebook, not at least in the next few years!

I’ve said earlier that the future belongs to innovation. It does so more than ever before. The future will feed on innovation more vigorously than it ever did. Although the local Google and Orkut logos are updated on every major occasion and regional festivals, the last two weeks have seen the craziest animated logos- especially the dancing bubbles and the Google Gravity project. After Google launched Google Instant, the whole cyber world will be seen going Instant. Google Instant provides live search suggestions and without even hitting the “Enter” key, your search results appear on the screen. Very shortly after Google built Google Instant, a Stanford University student Feross Aboukhadijeh built YouTube Instant- the fastest way to search YouTube ‘instantly’! The site ytinstant has gone viral (if you don’t yet understand the word viral, it is coming up next) without advertisement or effort and interestingly, Feross was hired by the YouTube CEO via Twitter the very next day! So, the message is clear- businesses want you to innovate!

Finally, the most recent trend in marketing that is going to stay for quite sometime is that of viral videos. With all the old marketing strategies showing signs of saturation the only thing that is going to survive is innovation again. Given the fact that everyone has pop-up blockers, spam filters, ad-blockers and anti-malware software, the marketing strategies in place today are becoming obsolete. They were good enough for naïve users but now users are more enlightened- they know how to differentiate misleading links from genuine ones, how to tell ads and real links apart and often end up suspecting ads that may be genuinely good as phishing scams. The newest strategy is to create an innovative, catchy video that has the quality of getting popular overnight. People hate listening to salesmen over the phone or watching plain directed ads. Viral videos are ads but much less obvious. In fact, the viral video is usually an intelligent or funny depiction of some concept which later relates to the brand name, again in an intelligent way. Some of the best examples of viral videos are:

- Vodafone’s ZooZoo videos

- Old Spice’s “towel-clad Isaiah Mustafa” ad campaign

- Levi Strauss’s “guys back-flipping into jeans” ad campaign

- Kit Kat’s dancing squirrels

The trend is being followed religiously and you can find them all over Facebook and YouTube. Trends like this are going to stay for a while because such marketing strategies do deliver and will continue to. They have done away with dumb, irritating TV commercials or annoying pop-ups. On the contrary, people watch these videos over and over again, they circulate them for free and now that social media has made embedding so much easier, this will be the preferred marketing scheme for big businesses. For small and medium businesses and entrepreneurs, however, the older trends will stay.

It needs to be noted at the end that these predictions are for the near future. Any new advance in software or hardware may cause the focus to shift elsewhere. Also, the prediction that high-resolution media websites are going to rule the next era of broadband depends greatly on the number of new Internet users coming under the broadband spectrum which is not very promising in most of the countries. But the trend is catching on with the focus shifting from compressed pictures and fast-loading pages to high-graphics websites that provide a much better visuals and a more high-tech user experience.

Review Beginning ASP.NET 4 in C# and VB

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010
Beginning ASP.NET 4 in C# and VB by Imar Spaanjaars

ISBN: 978-0-470-50221-1.

A book for the beginner by a practitioner himself and a Microsoft MVP (Most Valuable Professional), who has contributed a lot to ASP.NET forums, replied many, many queries for beginners as well as for experts.

As Microsoft comes up with ASP.NET 4 and Visual Studio 2010- both equipped with efficiency and security features- Imar Spaanjaars is here to make life easy for people who are either totally unfamiliar with both or one of them or, are upgrading from a previous version. He makes sure that neither the programmer nor the beginner is lost in the jungle of features that Microsoft’s latest products have to offer.

Beginning ASP.NET 4 in C# and VB is a book for the beginner-truly! While many books only claim that they don’t expect you to know anything about a particular subject but end up misleading you, this book really expects you be naïve while at the same time touches on advanced topics like AJAX, jQuery and then Databases, LINQ, and ADO.NET, besides CSS and, interestingly, “Configuring SQL Server 2008”. While that seems to sum it all up, there’s a lot more to this book.

Imar Spaanjaars is a devoted contributor to the ASP.NET community. He actively replies queries from programmers as well as beginners on ASP.NET forums and was awarded Microsoft’s MVP (Most Valuable Professional) title in 2008 and 2009. He can be reached through his personal website . You could also follow him on twitter. His twitter handle is @imarspaanjaars.

The main features of his latest book are:

  1. It’s easy! The book teaches you how to build rich and interactive websites in a step-by-step concise, easy and no-nonsense manner. The author starts with the description of Microsoft’s Visual Web Developer 2010 and explains in an easy-to-understand non-geeky language how to acquire it, the several alternatives and the differences between them. It explains clearly and through several screenshots where to find the product, how to download and install it, how to use it and finally how to customize it. Visual Web Developer is an integrated tool for web development using Microsoft’s .NET platform and allows you to drag and drop HTML tags, ASP.NET controls, AJAX extensions and so on without the need to type in even a single line of code. By introducing the Visual Web Developer at the very beginning and explaining it well, Imar has ensured that even the most casual, non tech-savvy user will be able to follow further discussions and design web sites effectively.
  2. No prior background is needed- really! The book is for dummies but at the same time provides the reader a clear and strong understanding of general networking and Internet concepts step-by-step, building one concept over another. The book does not even need you to know HTML. The first chapter devotes significant but not unnecessary time to explain what HTML does, what tags are and what attributes mean. A table of all the HTML tags that the reader/developer might need during development is provided. This is an important feature as all ASP.NET books do not provide so much of flexibility and do not devote this much time and space to HTML and XHTML; and when they do, it is not always this concise. Even for a student who has worked with HTML a lot, this table can serve as a refresher. For the more experienced ones, obviously, this can be skipped.
  3. Gets straight to the point. Right after teaching you how to install the Visual Web Developer, you find an example- the first among hundreds of “Try It Out” examples in the book. This is a very important feature from the point of view of the beginner and can be understood by someone who has faced lots of questions and doubts from beginners and cleared them. The novice is impatient to see “something” happening and feels that he is learning only after that “something” has happened. As for this book, that “something” happens as early as possible, right after Visual Web Developer is installed; the reader gains confidence (though he has practically not done anything so far!) and dares to venture forward. There are hundreds of such examples distributed throughout the book and each one is complete in the sense that:

a- all examples have been run (executed) on the platform that’s mentioned and used,

b- all the screenshots, starting at code and ending at the resulting page in the browser accompany the text and,

c- ‘all’ the examples are given both in C# (read C sharp) and VB (Visual Basic).

  1. How it works. After each “Try It Out” example, the author has provided a “How It Works” section that explains whatever happened in the background while trying that example out. For dummies who are looking for creating a website superfast, this section can actually be skipped. For the keener ones, these sections are where things start becoming clear. How things happen in the lower layers, how code is executed, what background processes are helping the code in the example run and much more- you find it all here. The claim that no prior background is needed for reading the book comes alive here. From “the difference between client-side and server-side code” to “how exceptions are handled in the background” and much more, this book has it all. It serves a dummy and a one or two-semester student of ASP.NET equally well.
  2. Notes and common mistakes. Another feature that speaks of the author’s experience on the subject is the presence of boxes like these.

They highlight common errors that beginners are prone to make- I have myself committed some of those mistakes as a beginner- and things that need to be remembered. Knowing common mistakes and things to remember is again a result of years of experience and technical sophistication. Imar does it really well.

  1. Summary, Examples and Solutions.

    Each chapter is followed by a precise summary of the concepts introduced in the chapter, comprehensive exercises and solutions to those examples are provided at the end of the book. Imar has really made sure the reader is not kept wondering in any way.

  2. Source Code and Online Help.

    To save the reader the trouble of typing all the code in, all the source code for the examples in the book has been made available online at .  Any doubts can be discussed at Wrox sponsored P2P (Programmer to Programmer) forums at which are a rich source of answers to both common and more sophisticated problems faced by programmers and are frequented by Imar himself.

  3. From beginner to expert.

    One more thing that I couldn’t help but notice is that Imar has, wherever possible, tried to encourage the reader to do things like an expert while at the same time keeping in mind that the user is naïve. Expert tips are included everywhere and the reader is advised to start using them early on- maybe so that by the end of the book he already feels and behaves like an expert.

  4. From design to code.

    This is one of the best features of the book in my opinion. Just like a kid learns multiplication tables blindly at first till, gradually, he is able to make out what they mean and how they follow, the reader doesn’t have to do much at first to make the code run. In the first few chapters, the emphasis is largely on design and drag-and-drop though the author encourages him to examine the code that is rendered in the browser and the actual code written. The reader keep working with functions and classes till he finally realizes what he has been doing in later chapters. As the chapters progress, the emphasis shifts to coding, using CSS, getting involved with server controls, and finally to data types, variables, classes, etc. This “getting your hands dirty gradually” approach seemed very interesting to me. The reader gradually gains confidence and doesn’t feel betrayed at any step because the transition is in so many steps that he doesn’t even feel the transition.

  5. Self-explaining.

    Some consider it the most important criterion to judge a book. If it is, then Beginning ASP.NET 4 in C# and VB would definitely score at least a 9 on a scale of 10. Yes, this book is really self-explaining as long as you know English! You really feel that you are sitting in a lab and a demonstrator is explaining every step to you. The numerous screenshots help to simulate the scene all the more. Not many books give me this feeling.

  6. Advanced topics.

    Not many books on server-side programming touch the concept of databases so well. It’s like the one book that has all you need to know. Though the author admits that since the book is for beginners advanced topics haven’t been elaborated upon, I believe that this is the best that you can get. Just like the HTML table in chapter 1, it gives you an SQL table listing all important SQL commands (though that is a common practice and is not unique about this book). Wherever the discussion is limited by the scope of the book (in any chapter) the author has provided useful references to further reading material on the topic.

  7. Teaching through a live example.

    Designing, coding and debugging- most books go only that far. This book teaches you through a live example which is the Planet Wrox Website. It is the site that the reader builds in this book. The Planet Wrox is a cool, online music community that serves as the prototype for building the client-side or the user view. You can check out the site to get a user’s view at . On the administrator side, you get to add and maintain reviews, manage genres and photo-albums created by users. The book uses this site as an example, shows you how to build it exactly like the original, online version and how to deploy it.

  8. Focus and uniformity.

    In spite of all the details, side-notes, advanced topics and underlying detail, the book gracefully maintains its focus and uniform structure. This is good for the reader’s psyche who would otherwise find it hard to wade through the pages, looking for patterns. The book strictly maintains its focus (which is building a fully-functional website with advanced security features) and structure (example-analysis model followed by summary and exercises). This makes the book and the subject much easier than it seems otherwise.

  9. What I thought was missing.

    I would really like a chapter outlining the differences between ASP.NET 3.5 and ASP.NET 4.0 and similarly between Visual Studio 2008 and Visual Studio 2010. Though the author has explained the differences between Visual Basic and C# wherever they exist, I would really like a section in the appendices catering to this in a tabular form.

So, if you’re a beginner I’m all for this book. It has HTML, XHTML, CSS, VB.NET, C#, ADO.NET, CSS, jQuery, SQL, SQL Server 2008 and much more key technologies all at one place and is great for a beginner. It is complete, simple and self-explaining. However, if you’re familiar with ASP.NET 3.5 and Visual Web Developer, I don’t think there’s much here for you. If you already have the book ASP.NET 3.5 by the same author, then again, I can’t recommend buying it. But if you’re new to ASP.NET programming and want to do it right, then certainly, this book is worth buying.