Sunday, 1 April 2012

Good Stuff #1: TemplateMonster

Template Monster blog screenshot

A few years ago when I was first starting out with Microsoft's Silverlight technology, good examples (other than tedious 'hello world' drag and drop demo-like nonsense which was at a very superficial level) was very hard to find.

Silverlight, to me, was about two things: "writing .NET code that could run in the browser" but, perhaps more importantly, about "adding 'the sexy' to user interfaces".

The problem was that it was very hard to find well documented 'sexy' examples where full source code was available.

In my search for good quality design-oriented examples I discovered the wonderful who, even as recently as last week, were continuing to produce interesting Silverlight designs for typical industry marketing web sites.

If you're a developer who doesn't 'get' design (but knows he needs it to 'sell' his product) is a GREAT resource. And no, I don't just mean for 'dead man walking' Silverlight.

It's also a brilliant resource for learning the latest HTML5, JavaScript and jQuery tips and tricks. It appears to offer a 'best practice' set of framework code that designers who've worked with this stuff day-in, day-out have put together - at least if the few samples I've purchased are typical.

In theory, the site is there to provide templates or starter packs for web sites for different industry market sectors: "templates" that for the most part are intended to be used 'as is' or can be customised for an additional fee. But for developers they're a great way of finding great animation effects and cool new user experience designs. Designs that are clearly documented and include all source code, even down to the original layered Photoshop files for all icons and photos used. For the asking price of around 60 USD they're a steal - as a starter for your own web sites, or as a training vehicle for the newer web technologies!

If Silverlight is a 'dead man walking' you may wonder why I'm enthusing about TemplateMonster templates now. The thing is don't just do Silverlight. They do HTML5 and what they call 'animated JavaScript' sites (as well as Facebook, Wordpress, Drupal, Flash and a whole host of templates for other stuff too).

They provide beautiful creations that are there for you to use as a starting point to learn the new technologies like HTML5 and CSS3 and responsive designs, for a very acceptable price.

The pricing model can appear a little strange for newcomers. You basically pay around USD60 for the source code for a given template that you purchase under a 'non exclusive' deal. This 'non exclusive' deal means others can purchase the same template at the same price. Or you can pay a lot more (typically around USD3000 - USD4000) to say 'I want this to be my new industry sector website. Don't sell it to anyone else.'

Just one warning if you decide to purchase. The company has recently taken to automatically adding the 'customise with my logo' option at around USD50 when you decide to purchase a template so don't get caught out like I did and end up paying double what you need to. Make sure you untick that option before purchase if you know how to edit HTML (and if you don't I'm not sure why you're reading this blog post!) otherwise you're going to end up paying double the price you thought you were going to pay.

As a learning resource for some of the coolest effects, animations and designs around I think the USD60 asking price for each template is a good deal, with most incorporating cool but subtle animation and sound effects for things like menu navigation, page transitions and other animated tricks.

If you sign up for the daily newsletter you get a daily email with the latest additions (typically there are 12 to 15 new templates a day!) and an extra 5% discount for that day's deals on top.

More importantly you get sent links to interesting blog post articles geared towards web designers that don't get posted elsewhere. For example this recent blog post on 'Painless techniques to implement CSS3 Latest Tricks' is a 'Must Read', comprising 30 of the best tutorials on sensational CSS3 effects that I've seen.

Customer support is excellent and if, like me, you're somewhat artistically challenged, a TemplateMonster template can make a great starting point for a sexy 'fast and fluid' new web site that makes it look like you have great design skills on top of your development skills too. Use new images and text in the existing source code and add new pages to the basic hierarchy you've given and people will never know your site was sourced from one of these templates. I strongly recommend checking the company out.

And yes, the new Fast and Fluid company web site which at the moment is an embarrassingly poor placeholder web site, is going to be replaced very soon - based on a sexy 'fast and fluid' design from the folks at I'll post the details here when it's launched after I've integrated it into ASP.NET MVC 4.

Template Monster blog screenshot

Apology: I've only just discovered there were a bunch of replies (five) to my 'Reboot!' blog post from last week. Replies here are moderated to avoid spam (NOT to censure!) so apologies to those who took the time and trouble to make a comment that it's taken me so long to publish your comment. I'm trying to sort out why the auto-comment emails are not getting through. Thanks for your patience.

Microsoft Windows 8 TechDay

Walking home from Microsoft's Windows 8 TechDays event, held in London last Friday, in the glorious sunshine (I left an hour before the end) I was thinking about how I could best blog about it without going into my 'default position' of posting yet another rant which attempted to explain the importance of learning the very basics around good presentation.

You'd think by now that Microsoft staff would not need a grandmother to tell them how to suck eggs. After all, it's not like Microsoft's own Scott Hanselman hasn't tweeted several times over the weekend about the availability of his own excellent The Art of Speaking video course that is available, and was made availble free over the weekend through a 'free pass' offer from training company TekPub.

A developer launch event like this ('the biggest changes since we introduced Windows') is about the importance of invigorating your audience. It's about doing the basic prep work and understanding and knowing the slide deck you're about to present. It's about enthusing your audience to do the work needed to get ready for launch. It's about NOT boring everyone to death by just reading each slide or web site SDK sample out aloud.

Sadly, this event was not about any of these things, and was, as a result, a big fail on Microsoft's part.

I wish I could say I was surprised. But I've been to enough of these things now to know better. I really shouldn't have wasted the day in attending.

On the walk home I had decided it was probably best to just ignore the event and do my 'Sunday morning blog post' as the first in a kickoff to a quick series of short, sharp blog posts about stuff that I really CAN get excited about (that will appear later today :-)). The usual post-Microsoft event 'Brutal but honest' moans get rather monotonous for readers (especially Microsoft employees) and this writer after a while. And, after all, if Microsoft were going to change they'd have done so long before now. It's not like I haven't been carping on about the same basic 'easy to fix' things for months, years, even decades now!

But then I saw Microsoft re-tweet a tweet from one attendee (one out of over a hundred) saying this was the 'best Microsoft event' he'd been to.

To say I was staggered is an understatement. It was, of course, like red rag to a bull. So please accept my apologies if you're one of those readers waiting for a world of 'non-Microsoft' positivity blog posts from me: You'll have to wait just a few more hours yet.

Presumably the attendee who thought this was the 'best' presentation event had only been to one other Microsoft event (one that was even worse than this)? Either that or he is in a job he hates so much that any day out of the office that he still gets paid for is a good thing and he wanted his bosses to see his tweet so he could get another day out the next time another similar event rolls along? But to see Microsoft staff re-tweeting it as if it were fact and this had been a great event... I thought 'How can people delude themselves so much? Or is it perhaps that I am the one deluding myself at thinking how boring, dull, completely ineffectual and extremely amateur this event was?' A quick conversation with the Development Director at my current main client and a couple of other developers indicated, (phew!) that it was not me who was the one being self-delusional.

Yes, I know it really is time for me to move on and blog about stuff that fills me with enthusiasm rather than the endless 'Meh!' that is Microsoft Mediocrity in all its many shapes and forms. Mediocrity that these days it seems to me is there in every nook, cranny and fibre of the company's being. But, sorry folks, I'm afraid that 'best Microsoft presentation' tweet presented as if it were fact to the outside world means I couldn't resist one last quick post to 'correct' false impressions being given to those that weren't actually at the event.

You can blame this entire blog post on that one ridiculous re-tweet!

By the way, as an aside on the subject of Microsoft = Mediocrity, they say a picture speaks a thousand words so here's a picture of an otherwise impressive big video display promoting Windows Phone that was in the foyer area where all the event attendees congregated for coffee.

Microsoft counterfeit software problem on their big exhibition stand
(What the picture doesn't show is the 'Windows has not been activated' warning also appearing at the bottom of the massive display)

OK. So your job is to launch Windows 8 to the developer community and get them excited. I've worked in marketing for a computer company before. Windows 8 is not a hard sell if you concentrate on the positive, and ignore all the negative (mainly Metro vs Desktop schizophrenia and lack of quality control) We all know presenting to developers as an audience can be tough, but for the love of God at least make SOME effort when you've asked over a hundred people to take a day off work to learn about the 'biggest changes since we launched Windows'.

Putting your best, most respected, 'rock star' speaker on at the beginning (instead of the end so people can leave on a high note) and then just giving him the very basic overview stuff to cover is a nonsense. Use him for what he's best at - the detailed stuff that developers are interested in and need to be told about. Get him to cover the difficult stuff in the way audiences are used to, with clarity, comprehension and understanding. Don't waste him on the stuff an intern with a day's experience could do.

To follow that with a developer who has been given a set of designer-oriented slides intended for a different audience and which he seemingly hasn't had time to look at beforehand, and have him simply try and read the very few words on them out aloud as he progresses, because he doesn't really 'get' this funny UX stuff so can't speak passionately about it is just insulting your audience and wasting their time.

To follow that with a 'proper' developer presentation that started off so well but clearly had to be delivered when only the first third had been written added insult to injury, especially when the speaker suddenly realised he didn't have a clue what slides were coming next and had to start complaining he'd missed lunch as if that somehow explained the total confusion and endless audience yawns that inevitably resulted after what had been a good start. If I give a presentation to six people I make sure I know my slide deck and I rehearse. To not do so with an audience of over a hundred at what should be a major launch event is beyond being amateur - it's insulting!

But next up was the real clincher - the one that made me so angry (actually I'm at a point now where I just laughed, this sort of thing is so commonplace with Microsoft stuff) I left at the next break, an hour before the end of the event. The audience got an example that actually made me silently go "Yes! I was SO right to get out of this client-side crap from Microsoft and look elsewhere to a world of far less pain. A world where I can take some pride in what I do and not have to continually face end-client incredulity'....

The presenter complained that a new Windows 8 input textbox control (used on the Windows 8 SDK demo site, which was being used for demonstration purposes) kept moving the cursor away from where he was actually typing. There was no visual indication of where the text he was trying to input would appear. The mouse was consistently several characters away from where he was typing. He was trying to correct a typo and it was like trying to play a complicated maze game whilst drunk.

The presenter explained that he found this 'mouse isn't where I'm typing' behaviour 'annoying'! To which the ONLY intelligent response can be 'YOU find it annoying, and yet you expect your developer audience of millions to take this s***, use it in real world apps and have happy customers at the end?!?! WTF is in that Kool-Aid you're drinking?'. FFS. This is TOTALLY unacceptable. Just fix the f***ing thing already! How hard can it be? IT'S A SIMPLE TEXTBOX CONTROL!'.

I swear to God you couldn't make this stuff up! I kept pinching myself, expecting to wake up and find it all a bizarre, horrible dream. But no. No tweets about how nasty the control is and it MUST be fixed before release. No comment at all on how broken it is. Instead I see Microsoft re-tweeting a message from one attendee saying it was the best Microsoft event he'd attended.

Forgive my language - but this is un-f***ing-believable.

Look, I know it's nice to get a cool t-shirt for free. And the 'brown bag' lunch provided (also free) was nice too. And there were some nice attendee raffle prizes. But you (or, more likely, your boss) just lost a day's pay on this lazy, medicocre nonsense. What value did you really get out of it? Events like this should not be about the 'free stuff' - that's just the trimmings. From Microsoft's point of view the event should have been about invigorating their existing and potential new customers. It should certainly not have been about having so many of them complaining about how 'boring' the event was or leaving early, as so many seemed to be doing at the time when I left (early).

In fairness, I'm not sure what the Microsoft UK problem is - whether it's people who've been too long in the same job getting lazy, or just people stretched too thin because they're having too much to do without proper support or resources. It may be a problem where their feedback about quality (that shockingly bad textbox example) is ignored because of the American 'not invented here' syndrome. But I am pretty sure it will be the last Microsoft event I attend. Life's too short to put up with such mediocre s*** that would be so easy to fix, but which Microsoft over and over and over again have so frequently proved they're incapable of fixing. That 'best Microsoft presentation' tweet nonsense suggests that not only are the UK arm of the company incapable of fixing the problem, their way of dealing with it is just to deny it exists. Which is really, really sad and depressing.

(Good Stuff #1 will be posted later today to counteract all the negativity that Microsoft just seem to generate these days).