Titanium Proxy Objects With JavaScript Call and Apply

Sometimes language and platform abstractions bite you. They can seem pretty straightforward and “just like the real thing”, but sometimes they have odd behaviors that don’t quite work the way you expect.

Dynamic method invocation with .call() and .apply()

The .call() and .apply() functions are something you will use a lot if your code involves a lot of dynamic arguments, such as building an array of arguments that then need to be mapped to actual ordered function arguments in a function or method call.

Since Titanium runs native JavaScript with the V8 engine bundled in your app, you will naturally find yourself attempting things like this:

var args = [sql].concat(params);
var db = Ti.Database.open('dbname');
var rs = db.execute.apply(db, args);

But if you run that, and you will be presented with the head-scratching error:

invalid method 'execute:'

Although the error is pretty confusing – you know there is a method named execute on the db object – there actually is a good explanation for this behavior.

Titanium Proxy Objects

What intiutively seems to you like a normal JavaScript variable here – db – is actually a proxy object created and returned by Titanium with the Ti.Database.open call. Titanium also returns proxy objects for pretty much every other component that has a native counterpart they are bridging over to behind the scenes. This black magic is fundamental to how Titanium works internally.

The Solution

Although the main Titanium proxy object explanation suggests creating a wrapper object for the method call, that’s actually not necessary at all, and creates a lot of extra work, as well as many additional lines of code.

The best solution is to use a bit of JavaScript meta programming and call the apply method directly from the Function prototype:

var args = [sql].concat(params);
var db = Ti.Database.open('dbname');
var rs = Function.prototype.apply.call(db.execute, db, args);

This is a nice one-liner that achieves the same end result, is much easier to undertand, and does not require a wrapper object or another layer of indirection to achieve.

Future Anticipated Questions

I was recently part of a project where, upon asking for content for the requried “Frequently Asked Questions” page, I was invited to a meeting with the objective of “brainstorming content for the F.A.Q. page”. It was painfully ironic. How can we possibly list frequently asked questions when we haven’t even launched yet and no one has asked any questions?

The meeting (video conference call) started, and I decided to stay silent for a little while to see how the call would play out. The project stakeholders begun by going over the F.A.Q. sections on a bunch of other websites, and compiling a short list of all the questions they would need to write answers for. The list included things like “How can I contact you”, and “How can I reset my password”questions that will likely never be asked unless your UI/UX is terrible. Continue reading

Pulling My Apps From The App Store: Lessons Learned

itunesconnect-unpublished-apps

Last night, I decided to pull my two iOS and Android apps SEMTab SEO Pro and my very first app, AutoRidge Lite from the App Store and Google Play. It was a difficult decision to make, because they were my first two apps, and I now have no published mobile apps to show potential freelance clients when they ask for app examples. This does limit my options, but now is a great time to make this move since I just started a full-time long-term contract and won’t be actively looking for extra work right now.

Showcasing Quality

With the recent shutdown of my company, I feel like I’m writing a new chapter in my life. Having any app in the app store just to say I have one is no longer enough. The bar is higher now. I want a high-quality, well-rated app that people genuinely like and want to use. I want something I can really be proud of. It doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult, or even do anything fancy. It just has to look good, and do one thing well — and not crash randomly. Difficult task, I know.

What A Bad App Looks Like

To provide an example of the kind of results a bad quality app will give you, look no further than my own app – my only paid app – one I just pulled from the stores – SEMTab SEO Pro. This app was ill-conceived and hastily crafted. The UI wasn’t thought out very well, and neither was the stability of the source data. The code I used to fetch Google’s PR ranking was frequently wrong (I apparently used the wrong black magic incantation to summon the accurate result), and link counts from Facebook and Twitter were different than what were reported by other (more accurate) tools and by the platforms themselves (turns out the API I used was way outdated).

Ratings

On Google Play, SEMTab had an abysmal rating of 1.6. This is primarily due to the app crashing or just plain not working on a few Android devices that I was not able to test on, or were not actually supported (like the “Rubbish” review you see for it not working on the Galaxy Tab – one of the first Android tablets that liked to pretend it could run normal Android apps just fine).

semtab-googleplay-ratings

On the App Store, the app was a lot more stable, but still got a bad rating for its terrible accuracy.

semtab-appstore-ratings

Revenue

The app was $1.99, and was on sale for $0.99 for an extended period of time to try and boost sales. Obviously, this strategy doesn’t work if your app sucks and has a bunch of bad ratings.

Google Play Revenue

semtab-googleplay-revenue

App Store Revenue

itunesconnect-proceeds-2009-2014

A whopping $127.19 from Google and $83.01 from Apple, for a grand total of $210.20. In 4 years. Ouch. Totally not worth the (admittedly small) effort I put into it.

Why I Pulled SEMTab SEO Pro

The reasons here are prety obvious, right? At this point, the ratings and performance of this app are so bad that I don’t even want it in my portfolio. I didn’t even want people to know I made this app, and was a bit embarrased to mention it whenever the “what apps have you made?” question came up, fearful people would see the terrible rating read all the horrible reviews. Good riddance. (And if you’re wondering why I am publicly sharing all this now, it’s for accountability – I never want to make an app this bad again.)

What a Mediocre App Looks Like

I am definitely more proud (or, at least, not embarrased) by my first app – Autoridge. I was a lot more torn about taking down Autoridge than I was about SEMTab. The reviews of Autoridge basically boil down to this:

  • The people who used the app and found relevant data for their vehicle’s year/make/model loved it. It provided huge value for them.
  • The people who could not find their specific vehicle’s year/make/model, or didn’t find any (or very few) relevant parts for their vehicle mostly trashed it as incomplete, inaccurate or unreliable.

Poor Early Titanium Android Support

And as in the case of SEMTab, there were also quite a few Android users that the app didn’t work for at all (freezing or crashing). I mostly attribute this to the very poor early Appcelerator Titanium Android support. Both these apps were developed and released at least 3 years ago on Titanium versions 1.5.x – 1.7.x, and a lot has changed for the better since those dark ages with Titanium (we have have an MVC framework called Alloy, and Titanium is at 3.2.x). From my experience with Alloy, I am positive that updated versions of these apps would elimate all the problems on Android.

That said, it’s pretty disharenting when you develop an Android app with an intermediate platform like Titanium, test it locally with your own Android device and emulator working perfectly, and then release it to a tsunami of 1-star reviews and reports of random freezes and crashes on various Android devices that you can’t do anything to fix.

Ratings

On Google Play, Autoridge Lite had a very average rating of 3.1. I am actually suprised it was this high with the number of ratings reporting freezes and crashes, but like I said, the number of people who it did work for generally loved it. You can see this wide rating distribution reflected in the data. This saddens me a bit, because the rating could have easily been 4+ in Google Play if it worked consistently across all Android devices.

autoridge-googleplay-ratings

The App Store rating was pretty much the same story, with all the negative reviews questioning data completeness and accuracy:

autoridge-appstore-ratingstars

Distribution

The uptake of Autoridge Lite surprised me from the start. It definitely seems like something people were ready to embrace if the data was more accurate, complete, and up-to-date. I think overall, people really like the idea of using an app instead of flipping through a greasy old parts book at the auto part store.

App Store Distribution Units

itunesconnect-units-2009-2014

Google Play Installs

autoridge-googleplay-unitsautoridge-googleplay-activeinstalls

According to Google, there are still 1,584 devices with Autoridge Lite installed. Definitely far better than SEMTab SEO Pro that had only 12 active installs. A lot of people still like this app.

Why I Pulled Autoridge Lite

The decision to pull Autoridge from the App Store and Google Play was much harder than with SEMTab, but ultimately, it came down to an issue of time, energy, and focus:

  • Autoridge Lite has a webservice backend that I also built and maintain, and this costs time and money.
  • The vehicle data has a low degree of accuracy with no automatic error correction, and would take a significant re-investment of time and energy to correct. I would have to research new sources of auto part information and build web scrapers/parsers for each of them, as well as implement better processes for checking for updates and invalidating bad data.
  • I want to completely re-code the app, and have wanted to for a while. So doing this plus all the webservice updates too would probably take longer than the original 2 weeks the entire project took initially. And since I can’t update the app only without fixing the data accuracy issue, I have to consider the whole picture.

In short – it would take too long to re-build the right way, and I don’t currently see it as worth the effort considering I haven’t made any money from it (and don’t see any path to make significant money from it ever as a one-man show).

Conclusion

Although this choice was tough, and arguably should have happened a long time ago, I am happy to be doing it now. The first step towards finding something that works is identifying and eliminating the stuff that doesn’t. The worst thing that can happen is to split your time, energy, and focus across so many projects that you do them all badly. This is exactly what I feel I have done. I want to be able to focus on my next project, I want it to be high-quality, and I want it to have a clear revenue path. This whole “making money with software” path is not an easy one, so I want to give myself the best chance possible by concentrating on the next big thing, and making a better product than I’ve ever made before. That’s what this move is all about.

Funemployed

After running Brightbit with Joshua Ogle and Eric Boehs for nearly fours years, it officially came to an end a few weeks ago on February 28, 2014 when we closed the office. It’s a long story, and there is no blog post for it yet, but now is not the time. Long story short, we worked too far past our deposits for a few clients who used to be awesome clients, but, as it turns out, couldn’t pay anymore. We ran out of money, had to lay everyone off, and close the office. It was the most depressing experience of my life – but like I said, that’s for another post some other time.Brightbit Has Closed Message

What do You do After Running Your Own Company?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot over the past few months, facing the impending office closure and winding down of my own business. Thing is, when you’re a business owner, you get to (read: have to) wear a lot of different hats. On any given day, I’d do development, marketing, sales, project management, HR, project planning, business planning, financial forcasting, and more. Since your role isn’t really defined, it just expands to fill whatever role is necessary at any given time. It’s both frustrating and liberating, and it’s an incredible learning experience – and unlike anything else that any full-time job is going to give you. This makes choosing my next job very hard. A lot more thought goes into what I am going to go with the next few years of my life, and how that will help me along my path, whether or not it will be interesting and challenging enough for me, etc.

What I am Looking For Now

After taking a little breather to do some hard thinking and evaluate my options, I have come to the conclusion that… I have no idea what I really want to do next. I am open to – and actively evaluating – a lot of different options right now ranging from part-time and full-time contracts to more traditional (and even some quite unique) full-time jobs. One thing I do know, however, is that it does have to be something that is both very interesting and challenging for me – something that will force me to grow and learn. It also has to be either remote/telecommute or based in the OKC area. I have put down significant roots in OKC, am very involved in the local developer community, and have lots of family here. Basically, I really don’t want to move right now (unless maybe you need me to relocate to say… the Bahamas or the Virgin Islands and pay generous housing allowances. There’s a chance I might go for that.)

Have work for me? Get in touch. No recruiters, please!

UPDATE: I have accepted and started a full-time 12-month contract, so I am no longer looking for work. Thanks for all the support and emails!

MacBook Pro Retina 3.5mm TRRS Cable With Audio Input

One of the unexpected surprises that came with upgrading to a new Macbook Pro Retina 15″ from an older MacBook Pro was Apple’s inexplicable deletion of the audio input (mic) 3.5mm jack. I use a regularly use a gaming headset with a boom mic that was now rendered completely useless, because I was no longer able to plug in the mic. I love it that Apple’s hardware is on the cutting edge, but sometimes they do things like this that just don’t make sense for the average user.

What Happened?

I did some searching around, and discovered that Apple changed the standard dual input/output 3.5mm jacks for a single combined TRRS 3.5mm jack with 3 contacts – the same one they use for the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. I guess it makes sense for Apple to standardize everything so you can use their headphones everywhere, but it caught me offguard and really frustrated me that I would have to buy something extra just to continue using my headset.

Where did the mic jack go!?

Things I Tried

I did some searching and originally purchased this Headset Buddy cable from Amazon. It’s $15.95(!) and has branding from the 1980’s. I cringed and made the purchase thinking it would be worth it if it solved my problem. When it arrived, it was clear that the price of the cable is about 3x what it should be. The cable is flimsy and cheap, and didn’t even work at all. I promptly returned it. The customer reviews are mixed, but don’t gamble on it.

That cable purchase has soured my view on the TRRS splitters for a while, so I opted for a USB audio adapter to 3.5mm input/output jacks instead. It was a little cheaper at $10.95 and worked great, but came with a huge downside: It uses one of only TWO total USB ports on your MacBook Pro – a precious resource that I was already using (and thus had to also use a USB hub). Another downside here is that you have to explicitly switch to USB audio using the Sound preference pane, which can be annoying at times.

The Best Solution

The best working solution (and also the cheapest) I found is this TRRS audio cable from Monoprice for about $5. When it came in the mail, I originally thought I ordered the wrong cable, because the configuration is weird. Instead of a typical “Y” configuration off the male jack, it instead splits off from the 3.5mm audio input female jack into another 3.5mm audio output female jack. Make sure you look at all the product images to see what I mean.

Weird Cable Configuration

The cable works well and feels very durable, even if it does looks like the wrong type of cable (Monoprice, if you’re listening – please fix this. It works, but it just looks weird with the “Y” coming off the female 3.5mm input jack).

Conclusion

Hopefully my misadventures in trying to solve this problem that Apple itself doesn’t even have a cable for will help you not have to do all this experimentation yourself. I feel like this should have been way easier than it was to find a cable that works on newer Macbook Pros, but apparently marketing lags a bit behind for 3rd party accessories like this (all these cables are marketed as iPod/iPhone/iPad cables, which have the same TRRS 3.5mm jack). In another year or two, I doubt this will be a problem at all, but just incase it still is – you can always find this blog post :).

Oklahoma PHP User Group Reboot

Our first Oklahoma PHP User Group meeting in a few years happened on Thursday, February 20th 2014, thanks to the efforts of Jake A. Smith who contacted me about it (as I ran the previous PHPUG a few years ago) and did all the legwork to make it happen. We are now going to co-organize the user group going forward.

After a meet & greet fueled by pizza and soda, I presented a short introductory talk on Composer, which also covered using and publishing packages to Packagist. The turnout was fairly small – around 12 people or so, but everyone was excited that the user group was happening, and there were lots of beginners and new faces.

Our meetings are going to be on the 3rd Thursday of each month. All our meeting times, descriptions, etc. will be posted on our Meetup Page. Our March plans are tentative, but we plan to do a PHP Foundations talk that will cover all the basics like Namespaces, PHP-FIG standards, code organization, etc. so it should be a great meeting for begineers and those who are not familiar with what the larger PHP community is doing. You can RSVP on the Meetup page to get notifications and reminder emails for upcoming meetings. Hope to see you there!

Using Dokku to Deploy PHP Applications with a “git push” on DigitalOcean

Want a Platform-as-a-Service setup like Heroku on your own $5/month VPS from DigitalOcean? Look no further than Dokku

  • a set of scripts built on Docker and Heroku’s own buildpacks. After this setup, you’re just one git push away from deploying your app to your own server.

Step 1: Create a new Droplet with Dokku

DigitalOcean has a great guide on how to use the DigitalOcean Dokku Application, so there is no sense in repeating the steps here. Follow the steps in that article, and then come back here. There are issues I ran into after the Dokku setup that are important steps not to skip. So be sure to come back here before trying to deploy your PHP application.

Step 2: Setup Swap Space

DigitalOcean boxes don’t come with any disk swap space configured by default, but Dokku uses some when deploying your apps, so you need to configure some using this guide before your first git push or you may run into errors (I sure did). The guide says Ubuntu 12.04, but it works on 13.04 too, so no worries. Do this and then come back. I’ll wait.

Step 3: Deploy Your App

Although the setup is not fully complete, try and deploy your app now to make sure your dokku setup is working properly. You also need to deploy your app now so you will have a container ready for the next steps.

git remote add dokku dokku@yourdomain.com:app_name
git push dokku master

The ouput of the git push will let you know if your deploy was successful or not. If you have a successful deploy, but get a “502 Bad Gateway” response from Nginx, continue with the steps below.

Step 4: Install the user-env-compile Plugin

Install the user-env-compile plugin. This will allow you to set environment variables on your app that are available to be used at build time. This is important for the next step.

Step 5: Use CHH’s PHP Buildpack

Now that you have the user-env-compile plugin installed and have created your app’s initial container, you can set environment variable configuration values on it. To specify what buildpack you want to use, set the BUILDPACK_URL ENV value.

ssh dokku@<yourserver.com> config:set <app_name> BUILDPACK_URL=https://github.com/CHH/heroku-buildpack-php

You should see output like this:

-----> Setting config vars and restarting <app_name> BUILDPACK_URL: https://github.com/CHH/heroku-buildpack-php
-----> Releasing <app_name> ...
-----> Release complete!
-----> Deploying <app_name> ...
-----> Deploy complete!

NOTE: ANY Heroku buildpack will work, so if you want to use another one, you are free to do so, although it is very doubtful you will find a better one for PHP :).

Step 6: Set your Document Root

Now open your composer.json file, and add the extra configuration block to specify your document-root and index-document so the PHP buildpack will know where to serve your files from.

{
     "require": {
         "php": ">=5.4.0",
         "vlucas/bulletphp": "~1.3.x"
     },
     "extra": {
         "heroku": {
             "framework": "slim",
             "document-root": "web",
             "index-document": "index.php"
         }
     }
}

Note: The framework key here is slim. This doesn’t match my framework Bullet, but I have to put this in here because this maps to the nginx config file used. So if I don’t specify this here, the buildpack assumes a standard classic PHP setup and will only execute .php files, and not rewrite all requests to the main index.php file like most frameworks (including Bullet) require, causing nginx to throw lots of “404 error” responses.

The configuration key says heroku, but this works for dokku too – remember Dokku basically uses all the same basic things that Heroku does – buildpacks, git based deploys, putting apps in their own sandboxed containers, etc.

Step 7: Install Other Plugins Your App Needs

Custom Domains

You will want the dokku domains plugin so your app can use domains instead of subdomains or ports.

Then add your domain to your your app using:

ssh dokku@<yourserver.com> domains:set <app_name> yourdomain.com api.yourdomain.com

MySQL / MariaDB

If your app uses MySQL, install the dokku MariaDB plugin (drop-in MySQL Replacement).

Then create a database for your app using:

ssh dokku@<yourserver.com> mariadb:create <app_name>

This will create a DATABASE_URL environment variable that will be available as a DSN string for your app to use to connect to the database via PDO or other ORM that you may want to use. You can access this in PHP via $_SERVER['DATABASE_URL'].

Other Plugins

If you use Redis, Memcached, or anything else, check the Dokku Plugins page and install whatever you need.

Step 8: Re-Deploy Your App

This time when you deploy your app via git push, it will use the custom buildpack you set in Step 4. You should be able to view your app live on your custom port, subdomain, or domain now, and all should be well.

Now sit back, relax, and enjoy your own mini-Heroku at a fraction of the cost!

SkiPHP Conference 2014

It’s always fun to be a part of a conference’s first year. This year, I was lucky enough to speak at the inaugural SkiPHP Conference in Salt Lake City, UT. Since the conference was very micro-framework friendly, I was able to present my own Bullet PHP Micro-Framework. The talk went well, was very well recieved, and got very highly rated on Joind.in. The talk (and Bullet itself) presents some interesting ideas that I was very happy to be able to share in a conference talk format.

Overall, the conference was great. It was very well put together, and very well run. The orgainzers sent lots of emails ahead of time letting us know what was going on, and took care of speakers very well – even having breakfast ready for us each morning in the speaker lounge (something that was very much appreciated by myself and many other speakers as well). I thought the talk selection was good as well – there were more sessions at this conference that I was personally interested in atending than I have in while at many other conferences over the years.

Huge thanks and kudos go to the SkiPHP organizers – I hope this is a sign of good things from the Salt Lake City PHP community, and I hope there are many more sucessful years of this conference ahead.

Bullet: The Functional PHP Micro-Framework

My presentation slides are avaialble on Slideshare, though I am not sure how enlightening they will be without the audio. For this particular talk of mine, the audio context is pretty important. Luckily, my entire talk was recorded on video, so I will post that here when available.

Post-Conference Activities

Half the fun of a conference is all the activities surrounding it, and all the people you meet and talk to who are also there. At SkiPHP, the main event was obvious – skiing! A small group of us stayed an extra day or two after the conference to hit the slopes at Snowbird.

skiphp-group

Pictured (Front): Adam Culp, Ben Edmonds, Chris Boden, Josh Adell (Back) Paul Jones, Vance Lucas, John Coggeshall

Paul Jones and I started with the beginner course and stayed on the “Chickadee” hill since it was our first time snow skiing, but the other guys hit the real slopes, and have much better, more majestic mountanside pictures and views to share. I did manage to take a good selfie on the ski lift though!

skiphp-selfie

Selfie on the ski lift at Snowbird in Salt Lake City, UT

Wrapping Up

All in all, my time at SkiPHP was a blast. The Salt Lake City PHP community really came together to put on a great conference and show their support for events like this in their backyard. I am already looking forward to submitting again next year! Maybe I can try some green slopes this time :).

New Year, New Blog

It’s a whole new year, and I’ve got a whole new blog. This time around, I knew I wanted a static blog generator instead of a WordPress site (they are a little more developer friendly, and there are no security vulnerabilities with static HTML), and I’ve been window shopping a bit. A self-hosted blog was important to me since I want to make sure I will always own and control all my own content.

The Options

Though popular, Octopress was out, because of my experience using it on OKC.js. It is difficult to customize, and the Octopress code is mixed in with your blog and website content, making upgrading difficult as well.

Using Jekyll was very tempting – and I almost used it, but I decided to take a look at another option first – and I’m very glad I did.

Enter Middleman

I ended up going with Middleman for this blog. We just re-launched the Brightbit website with it, and Joshua (my design co-founder) was raving about it, so I had to give it a shot. Both Jekyll and Octopress use Liquid templates, which are a learning curve if you’ve never used them. I personally don’t like the syntax, so I wasn’t too keen on doing a lot of layout customization with it.

Middleman, however, is different. Middleman offers so much more flexibility – pure Ruby code, Sass, the option to use Slim or Haml for templates, blog posts, and pages, and the same asset pipeline that Rails has for combining and compressing your CSS and JavaScript into a single file for production deployment. Layout customization is also easier and better feeling in general. The last, and perhaps biggest reason Middleman is a winner is that Middleman exists entirely inside it’s own self-contained gem. Your site’s project folder has only what it should – your site’s content. There is no Middleman cruft in there that you have to bring along, and upgrades are clean and brainless since Middleman is a gem.

Wrapping Up

Importing all my old posts from WordPress and converting them all to markdown was a bit tricky and time-consuming (though wp2middleman did most of the heavy lifting), but I’m glad I did it. Here’s to a great 2014 on a great new (and much better looking) blog.