Community Interview: Dale Lane

1) Can you introduce yourself?

Photo of Dale Lane and his daughter GraceMy name is Dale Lane. I live in the south of England, in Eastleigh. My job is a Software Engineer for IBM working in the R&D lab at Hursley Park, near Winchester.

I’m currently working in development for IBM WebSphere Process Server on the z/OS mainframe operating system – a different world to mobile development work!

2) When and how did you initially become involved with Windows Mobile based PDAs? And leading on from this how did you become interested in developing custom applications for this platform?

I have been an owner and fan of Palm OS PDAs for years – starting with the Palm III. My favourite Palm was the Sony Clie UX50 – a small clamshell PDA that looked like a minature laptop. When the Clie started to die and Sony stopped making PDA’s, I struggled to find a replacement, until the O2 XDA Exec (HTC Universal) was released. Despite meaning a shift to Windows Mobile, I loved the form-factor and bought one the week they came out. I’ve been a fan of Windows Mobile ever since.

I came across the free developer kit for Windows Mobile by chance – I was investigating Microsoft’s Windows Mobile webste, and saw a link to the page to order the dev kit. I am a software developer and a geek – so any chance to tinker with something new is always fun. But this was entirely an impulse thing – I hadn’t considered doing Windows Mobile development before that, and had I not stumbled across the offer of a free SDK, I might not have gone looking for how to get into it.

When I got the kit, I was amazed at how easily you could access so much of the device – intercept incoming messages, get system info like battery level or mobile signal strength, read the data stores used in core Outlook apps like your Calendar or Task list, and more. It meant I could start playing quite easily without needing to write a whole standalone application from scratch. The more I played, the more interested I got… until I got hooked.

3) What is your favourite development environment?

I use Visual Studio 2005 – it does so much of the stuff needed to create a Windows Mobile app for you.

I’m torn between whether my favourite language is managed C# or native C++. The Windows Mobile C# API, and the visual interface development tooling you get in VS2005, makes it very quick and easy to throw together applications. As Windows Mobile development is a side hobby for me, the ability to take a random idea from conception to first prototype in an evening or two is a big bonus.

On the other hand, as an old C programmer, there is a fairly snobby part of me that thinks it’s somehow cheating if you aren’t doing your own memory management, and I like the way writing native C++ lets me do everything myself. The extra time it takes means that the only time I write C++ code for Windows Mobile is when I want to do something not exposed in C# – like adding context menus to existing Windows Mobile core applications or extending the Today Screen.

4) You seem to have developed a number of interesting Windows Mobile applications, how do you come up with some of your ideas?

“Ooh – I wonder if I can do…” is normally where most projects start. The vast majority of projects start and end in an evening or two and never really see the light of day. Once I’ve got the general idea of how something works, or prove to myself that something is possible, that’s pretty much where it ends. Probably 75% or more of these projects never see the light of day – never finished enough to really be usable as an application, but just enough to teach me something about the API or platform. Again, this is a strength of the API exposed in managed code – C# lends itself well to this kind of rapid sandbox experimentation.

Occasionally, something about an idea sticks with me, and I actually develop a project to the point where I can use it as an application. For example, I wrote some GPS tracker code to put my current location on a Google Maps map. It works for me, but isn’t in a state where I could give it to anyone else. The interface could improve, too many bits are hard-coded for my own needs, and there is still too much left to finish. I’ve got maybe a dozen apps like this.

Very very rarely I finish something to the point where it can be shared with other people. This can be because I’ve shown or talked to someone about one of my random ideas and they like it enough to ask for a copy, or just because I think other people might find it useful.

5) Do you carry a Windows Mobile device with you at present?

I always have some PDA with me… either the O2 XDA Exec (aka HTC Universal), T-Mobile Ameo (aka HTC Advantage) or Palm Treo 650. Most often, I carry the HTC Advantage. It’s definitely my favourite – it’s got the mini-laptop form factor that I like, with a full QWERTY keyboard, a huge bright VGA screen, inbuilt GPS, and more. It’s ridiculously powerful for a phone, and if I’m away from my desk for a long while and can carry nothing else, it’s my first choice.

It’s a bit big, so if I’m just going to the shop or going out to meet a friend, it is useful to have something smaller like the Treo.

6) You seem to have had the opportunity to play with a range of interesting PDA type devices recently. How do these devices compare to your Windows Mobile device(s), and is there anything these devices could teach Windows Mobile?

My biggest Windows Mobile bugbear is it’s responsiveness. Sometimes (and especially, it seems, when I’m in a hurry!) it feels like I spend half my time staring at the spinning wait cursor that is our equivalent of the Windows hourglass. For all the iPhone’s limitations (and it has a *lot*), it does at least seem to be a snappy little device. The same goes for skypephone, or any other mini feature phone I’ve played with – it’s limited, I can’t do most of the things I want to be able to do… but at least whatever it does do, it does fairly quickly.

My Palm devices (a Treo 650 and a Clie UX50) are both much quicker at the most common PIM tasks – I can look up a calendar event or contact’s phone number in a fraction of the time it takes me to do the same in Windows Mobile. I’ve said this before if I have some time on the road to sit down to some serious work, the power of Windows Mobile is fantastic. But for quickly retrieving some key information on the run, the (admittedly fairly old) Palm OS PDA’s still have their place.

The OpenMoko on the other hand… isn’t really ready for use. It’s a development sandbox that only rarely gets disconnected from my Linux desktop. It’s immature both in hardware (very short battery life) and software… but the ability to open a terminal and SSH to your phone still makes me smile. I’d love it if we could get a decent remote command-line access to Windows Mobile phones. I know the demand for this would be small… but I’m so much quicker at stuff like file management at the command line. I wrote a little SMS utility that lets me send text messages at the command line on my desktop and I use this several times every day. It’d be great if I could do more things like this.

7) You are also involved with youth charity work. Would you like to tell us a little about what your charity does etc?

My charity is called “Solent Youth Action” – and is a youth volunteering organisation. We work to encourage and facilitate positive voluntary contributions to the community from young people.

One Response to “Community Interview: Dale Lane”

  1. Joseph Kiragu says:

    I need a PDA, and i dont know how to get one.

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