Developers: POCKETVouchers on Azure

[box type=”info”]This is one of a series of sponsored blog posts highlighting New Zealand companies working with cutting-edge Microsoft technology. If you’re interested in Windows Phone 7 development, you should download the free Windows Phone Developer Tools and start building your own Windows Phone application.[/box]

POCKETVouchers is a local mobile marketing company who specialise in traceable mobile vouchers. Their unique approach means that customers can track exactly how many vouchers have gone out, how many have been redeemed, and ensures that vouchers cannot be redeemed multiple times.

“I would recommend start-ups have a good look at Azure.”

When POCKETVouchers decided to rebuild their platform to support future growth, they chose to go with Azure as their cloud provider. Todd mentions that they did look at alternatives such as Rackspace and Amazon, but chose Azure for a number of reasons: cost competitiveness, performance, and familiarity. For developers already familiar with the Microsoft server platform, shifting to Azure is a low-impact choice. Todd did mention some minor hurdles with getting existing code migrated to SQL Azure, but once those are understood, it was smooth sailing.

POCKETVouchers are using the beta version of the Azure Extra Small VMs, which allows them to move their low-load administration UI, or test services on these cheaper, smaller VMs. This frees up cost and capacity so that they can use large VMs for high-load periods, or even dedicate virtual machines to customers expecting a spike in load, perhaps around a concert or event.

In the future, Todd and the team are planning to automate scaling: bringing up VMs when the system is under heavy load, then shutting them down again when the load subsides. This approach, coupled with the pay-per-hour Azure billing, means that POCKETVouchers can get the best of both worlds: near-infinite scalability without the high ongoing cost of running hundreds of machines.

Developers: Provoke discusses Windows Phone 7 and Azure

[box type=”info”]This is one of a series of sponsored blog posts highlighting New Zealand companies working with cutting-edge Microsoft technology. If you’re interested in Windows Phone 7 development, you should download the free Windows Phone Developer Tools and start building your own Windows Phone application.[/box]

Provoke are an online experience consultancy based out of Wellington in New Zealand. They build solutions using the full spectrum of Microsoft technologies: ASP.NET, Silverlight, SharePoint, and more. Coupled with their top-end user experience and design skills, it was a natural progression for Provoke to move into Windows Phone 7 development.

I had a chat with Provoke CTO Brendon Ford, and he took me through the Windows Phone 7 apps they have built. They’ve put together a couple of commercial apps: one for New Zealand Rugby that lets users track games and scores; and another for Fly Buys, allowing users to check their points balance and find deals.

“One of the great things about Windows Phone 7 development is that the developers are excited and engaged.”

Brendon made some interesting points about Windows Phone 7 development from the view of a development manager. Developers who already have experience with .NET and Silverlight can move to Windows Phone 7 very quickly, and he points out that developers are “excited and engaged” with mobile development work and will put the extra yards in without being asked. I’ve noticed this myself in our development shop too! The cost of entry is extremely low, so it’s a bit of a no-brainer to at least take the plunge. Brendon took it a step further by creating a development competition where Provoke developers who created an application for launch went in the draw to win a phone.

I also spoke to Michael McKenna, who developed one of those launch apps (“Want”, a location based, photographic wish-list). Michael said that the development story is “really familiar for a .NET developer”, and the transition was really easy. I asked him what his most difficult problem was, and he pointed out that XAML was a bit of a learning curve, and the device limitations in comparison to the emulator can be a trap.

Microsoft Azure

Brendon and I also chatted about Provoke’s use of Microsoft Azure. They’ve done things as simple as using a basic Azure instance for a short-term electronic Christmas card, and are looking at opportunities for Azure as a solution for peak loads. Brendon used the example of an All Blacks test, which would result in a very short, very heavy load. It would be crazy to have servers always running to handle that peak load, when they could run up additional Azure instances to cover the short demand period.

Developers: Datacom Devs talk Windows Phone 7

[box type=”info”]This is one of a series of sponsored blog posts highlighting New Zealand companies working with cutting-edge Microsoft technology. If you’re interested in Windows Phone 7 development, you should download the free Windows Phone Developer Tools and start building your own Windows Phone application.[/box]

Thivy Ruthramoorthy and Sashank Ramkumar are two recent university graduates working at Datacom‘s Auckland offices. Inspired by Microsoft New Zealand’s Windows Phone 7 app development challenge, they both downloaded the development tools and created applications for the competition within a month.

Sashank’s application took joint honours in the overall award, earning him a brand new HTC Trophy phone. The app is based on the public APIs from Eventfinder, a popular site for New Zealand gigs, events, and attractions. The social and location aspects of Eventfinder work well on the phone. Users can find events nearby, or search for events by name, category, and other details. The app has been well received, and Sashank is working with Eventfinder to flesh the app out and make it “official”.

Thivy’s app uses TVNZ’s semi-public programme listing feeds to display the current day’s TV listings. It’s a great looking application, and despite not winning the competition, Thivy has submitted the app to the Windows Phone Marketplace. The TVNZ Today app is consistently listed as one of the top entertainment apps in the New Zealand Marketplace.

I took some time to talk to Sashank and Tivy about their applications and the development process. They have some interesting thoughts and tips about Windows Phone 7 app development. Check it out above.

Developers: NV Interactive talks Windows Phone 7

[box type=”info”]NB: This is the first in a series of sponsored blog posts highlighting New Zealand companies working with cutting-edge Microsoft technology. If you’re interested in Windows Phone 7 development, you should download the free Windows Phone Developer Tools and start building your own Windows Phone application.[/box]

NV Interactive is a design and development company based out of Christchurch and Wellington in New Zealand. NV have a long-standing relationship with New Zealand Cricket, going back to some early work on big-screen scoreboard solutions for live matches.

More recently, NV Interactive put together the BLACKCAPS Video Vault, a searchable compilation of every highlight from international limited-over matches played in New Zealand. Built on Silverlight, the Vault is well worth checking out, with all highlights categorised by date, team, player, event, and more. But don’t let me be the judge: The BLACKCAPS Video Vault has netted NV Interactive two of their four finalists spots in the 2011 Onyas, New Zealand’s premier web awards.

So it was a natural choice for the team at NV Interactive to bring the New Zealand Cricket content to Windows Phone 7. They’ve combined scoring information (live and in real time when available) with the huge video archive, and added news feeds, game schedules, and tournament scoring tables. Similar to the Video Vault, you can search for videos by year (right back to 2005), match, and type of action (four, six, wicket). When you find what you want – probably a video of Ricky Ponting getting out – you can view the video right there in the application.

The app is a natural fit with the Windows Phone 7 UI, and makes fantastic use of the Silverlight development platform and media integration. I took some time on  a recent trip to Christchurch to talk to Zack from NV Interactive about the development process for the application. Take a look at the video below to see the app in action, and hear how NV found the development process.

Video: Toys for Bored Kids

School holidays start next week, so I’m taking a look at a bunch of different toys and gadgets that should keep bored kids happy for a few days.

Click below for video:

Item: LEGO Games (available at all good toy stores)
Price: From $25
Rating: 5 / 5
Info: Two toys in one! First you get to build the game board, then you get to play the game. The new LEGO games are original and fun. Each game has simple rules to follow, and provides hours of fun for 2-8 players (depending in the game). My favourite for a quick fun game is Minotaurus, but if you’re a great LEGO designer you’ll love Creationary: like Pictionary, but you have to build the “clue” with LEGO.
Item: Sea Monkeys
Price: $29.99 for the basic pack
Rating: 3 / 5
Info: An absolute classic. I remember reading about Sea Monkeys on the back of Commando comics when I was a small boy. I’m sure the reality is less exciting than the idea, but these things actually do grow up to be little brine shrimp. An easy first pet for any child. For a wee bit more ($34.99) you can get the Grow and Show kit, which includes a watch or locket to carry your Sea Monkeys in.
Item: Glow Crazy (available soon from Whitcoulls, Toyworld, and other toy stores)
Price: $64.99
Rating: 5 / 5
Info: Write on the walls without worrying tonight. Glow Crazy uses an invisible laser to write on glowing cling-film, or any other glow-in-the-dark object. It works incredibly well in a dim room, and comes with stencils so you can easily draw shapes and pictures.

Video: LASERS!

Who doesn’t love lasers? Favourite tool of the James Bond villian, and weapon of choice for Luke Skywalker. Today I took a look at some slightly less awesome laser-based gadgets. Read on to see which ones Dr Evil would love, and which you should give a miss.

Click the image below to see the video:

TVNZ Video Lasers

Item: High Power Laser Pointer
Price: $60 (US$40 + free shipping)
Rating: 4 / 5
Info: Mostly useless, but hours of fun. This high-powered laser pointer will pop black balloons, light dark matches, and cut through black plastic. It’s not a toy, and shouldn’t be used by anyone under 16 without supervision. When you’re not using it to light fires, it might come in handy for pointing out stars or pointing at positions on a large building site.
Item: Laser distance measuring device
Price: $30 (US$21 + free shipping)
Rating: 2 / 5
Info: Using a laser to point our the target, this device actually measures the distance using ultrasonic sound – just like a bat. It’s vaguely accurate, but easily put off by angles, reflections, and just about anything else. I guess you get what you pay for here – $30 is not a lot of money.
Item: Non-contact thermometer
Price: $119
Rating: 5 / 5
Info: If you need to know the temperature of any surface, this device is for you. Point the laser at your target and pull the trigger, and you’ll instantly know the temperature of the surface. Useful if you have a pizza oven, or perhaps if you’re tuning cars or operating machinery. Or even if you just want to have fun like my son – running around the house and measuring the temperature of every surface, from -18degrees in the freezer to +600degrees on the stove element.
Item: Solar powered ‘laser’ alarm clock
Price: $29.90
Rating: 2 / 5
Info: Too lazy to lift your head and check the time? Just hit the button on top of this alarm clock and it will project the time onto the ceiling where you can see it. Otherwise, it’s a cheap solar powered alarm clock.

Video: Smartphone Roundup

With the recent launch of Apple’s iPhone 4, it’s time to do a once-over of the current smartphone market in New Zealand to see if there are any pretenders to the throne. Today on TVNZ Breakfast I took a look at a few of the models available from local carriers.

Click below for the video:

NB: You can get all of these phones either from a carrier like Vodafone or Telecom, or you can get them (usually a bit cheaper) from someone like Parallel Imported. Don’t be too concerned about warranty: Parallel Imported are required by law to provide a 1 year warranty.

Item: Apple iPhone 4
Price: From $1099 (or less with a plan)
Rating: 4 / 5
Info: Despite the highly publicised flaws, the iPhone 4 is still the king of smartphones. The operating system is simple and fast, and there are hundreds of thousands of applications you can buy. The screen is quite incredible, and looks more like printed paper than any device before it. No matter how close you look, without a magnifying glass you won’t be able to spot a pixel. Add in HD Video recording and editing, and this phone doesn’t have any current competitors.
 
Having said that, there are devices nipping at the heels of the iPhone, and if Apple doesn’t provide a serious revision in their next operating system update, Android and Windows Phone 7 will be right there competing for the “best smartphone” title.
Item: Google Nexus One
Price: $979 (or less with a plan)
Rating: 4 / 5
Info: Probably the closest competitor for the iPhone’s title of “best smartphone” would be this Nexus One from Google. Running version 2.2 of Google’s Android operating system, the Nexus One is incredibly fast and much more “open” than the iPhone. This means you can run any compatible applications without special permission, review or oversight. This has obvious upsides and downsides – for example the previous version of the Facebook application for Android would drain your phone’s battery overnight.
Item: Motorola Milestone
Price: $999, or less with a plan
Rating: 3 / 5
Info: The Milestone is built like a brick, and weighs about the same too. I joke, but it is heavier than most other smartphones, perhaps due to the full slide-out keyboard. Running the same Android operating system as the Nexus One, the Milestone is a little bit slower, but will appeal to those that do a lot of texting or emails.The sad fact is, this phone has already been superseded on the overseas market, so I’d think twice before spending $1000 on it.

Video: Gadgets for Grandparents

Grandparents and gadgets don’t really go together, but this week on TVNZ Breakfast I took a look at few gadgets that might just fit the bill. Helpful or historical, these devices will come in handy for the age-challenged individuals in your life.

Click below to watch the video.

Item: St John Lifelink Medical Alarm
Price: $39 per fortnight
Rating: 5 / 5
Info: I expected a medical alarm to be as difficult to install and set up as a regular house alarm, but not so! The Liflelink system just plugs into the power and phone socket and it’s ready to go. It has a standard “pendant” activation button that can be worn around the house and garden, and pressed to raise a call for help. Additionally, the Lifelink has a built-in motion sensor (no extra sensors required), which can be programmed to ask for help if no movement is detected, and no response is given, after a certain time.The Lifelink is simple to use, easy to set up, and provides fantastic peace of mind. Depending on circumstances, the cost may be covered by Work and Income under a disability allowance.
Item: Vintage Calculator
Price: Depends on age and condition
Rating: 2 / 5
Info: If your grandparents reminisce for the “good old days”, perhaps they’d like some good old technology? We forget how far we’ve come, but a nice vintage calculator is a great reminder. The Casio I demonstrated today even has 6 digits!
Item: LogMeIn Ignition
Price: Free for web use, $39 for iPhone application
Rating: 5 / 5
Info: I’ve use a few different “remote desktop” applications, but none has been as simple to set up and easy to use as LogMeIn. Install a basic application on your grandparent’s computer (PC or Mac), then you can access their computer from any web browser, or even your iPhone using the Ignition application. The system even works perfectly over 3G. Security is good, and you get an email if someone attempts to log in without your permission. You can also configure multiple PCs under one account – one for each set of grandparents perhaps!

Video: Winter Gadgets

We’ve made it past the shortest day, but it’s still getting colder. So today on TVNZ Breakfast I too a look at some techie items that will keep you warm, dry, and amused until the sun comes out again.

Click the image to see the video:

Item: Equalizer iBeanie
Price: $49.95
Rating: 2 / 5
Info: The iBeanie is a solution looking for a problem. Most people would just put their headphones over or under their hat, but the iBeanie comes with headphones built in. To top it off, the headphones have LED sound symbols that blink in time with the music. I’m not sure what’s worse: looking like a dork, or wearing a beanie with sub-par headphones. This would make a great novelty gift.
Item: USB Heated Slippers
Price: $59.95
Rating: 4 / 5
Info: There’s not a lot of places colder than the floor under my computer desk. There must be some sort of convection current happening, because my toes almost freeze solid after a night of gaming or coding. There is a solution: USB heated slippers! Just slip these cozy cuties over your icicle feet, plug them in to a handy USB port, and turn them on (low or high settings available). Voila! Toasty toes!
Item: Jaycar Wireless Weather Station
Price: $238
Rating: 5 / 5
Info: Ever wondered what the weather was like outside on one of those freezing winter mornings? Wonder no more! This techno-marvel has more meters than you can poke an icicle at: anomometer, barometer, hygrometer, pluviometer – you name it, this has it. These wireless meters sit outside, measuring wind speed and direction, rain, air pressure, and temperature; while you sit inside comfy and warm watching the numbers on your wireless touch-screen weather monitor.
 
Take it to the next level by plugging the monitor into your PC, and you could have a setup like the amateur weatherman at greylynnweather.net.
Item: Cabanossi, bierstick, or some other meat-stylus
Price: $2
Rating: 5 / 5
Info: You’re out in the cold with your gloves on, maybe even out skiing, and your iPhone rings what do you do? Well you could take your gloves off and freeze your hands, or you could just carry a stick of meat in your pocket. A salami stick works perfectly as a stylus on any capacitive touch screen, just like the iPhone, iPod Touch, or other modern touch-screen phones.

Video: Music Gadgets

This week I take a look at a few different gadgets to get your music pumping. If you want to mix up a storm like a pro DJ, or just work out to your music without losing your headphones, there’s a gadget here for you. Click below for video:

TVNZ Gadgets Music

Item: Vestax Spin DJ USB Controller
Price: $499
Rating: 4 / 5
Info: Fancy yourself as a bit of a DJ, but don’t want to spend thousands on turntables and mixers? The Vestax Spin controller from the guys at Mix Foundation might be your best starting point. Mixing is as easy as dragging a song onto one of the on-screen turntables, then controlling the music with the physical turntables and mixers – you can even scratch and back-spin! The Spin comes with a microphone so you can mix in your vocal stylings with the music.
Item: Logitech Squeezebox Boom
Price: $699 RRP
Rating: 5 / 5
Info: If your situation is anything like mine, you have a computer full of music in one room, and a stereo in another. This is where the Squeezebox fits in: connect it to your network (wired or wireless), and play your music where you want it. But not just your music: you can also access the world of internet radio, with local and international stations spanning the gamut of classical through to heavy metal. The Boom comes with integrated speakers and an alarm function.
Item: Halo Headphones
Price: $AU60
Rating: 3 / 5
Info: I’m not much of a gym bunny, but I’m presuming these Halo Headphones fill a gap. Do your headphones keep falling off, or perhaps they get all sweaty and horrible? The Halo headband has pockets to hold the fitted headphones so you can keep listening to your music while you work out. They are very comfortable, but lets be honest, they make me look like a bit of a plonker. I think they’d look a lot better if I were female and had long hair!