Inside the HP TouchSmart PC software: HP SmartCenter – Part 2

April 10, 2008 7:12 pm

In the first part of this mini-series, I introduced you to the early planning stages of HP SmartCenter. This time you’ll get a little more information on the early development, including a few screenshots of prototpyes.

I hacked together a very simple first version of HP SmartCenter (then codenamed LaunchPad, which still is the name of the executable, incidentally) in HTML and my colleague Maguy added some rough graphical elements to give our design firm an idea of what we were looking for.

My quick HTML mockup

Improved graphics

From about February 2006 until April 2006 we then iterated with our design firm on the GUI and user experience design. Towards the end of May 2006 we took final delivery of the work from them. I was to turn their beautiful work into a living application with page navigation, drag-and-drop functionality, configuration options, and settings persistence. They had provided a solid foundation to build on, including well thought out namespaces, classes, animations and navigation design.

But there was still a lot of work to be done during the next three to four months. In addition to the application itself I was also responsible for delivering an installer, a supporting “touch optimization” program, and integration with our factory PC build process, including dealing with the “sealing” process that prepares the master hard drive for replication.

We participated in Microsoft’s early adopter program for Windows Presentation Foundation and Windows Vista, which gave us access to builds of the WPF bits, with a seemingly never-ending stream of Community Technology Preview versions. Windows Vista was in a similar state of flux, and I had my hands full, wiping out and reinstalling test machines and updating my developer machine to keep up with the changes.

At the same time I climbed the learning curve for WPF (which Simon Middlemiss once described as more of a cliff), trying to figure out how to get the mostly fixed-content XAML pages that the design company had delivered turned into malleable components and re-configurable layouts.

The initial design from the outside company included two components that pull information from the web: weather and stocks. We had to drop the stocks piece for business reasons early on, and had big challenges working out the business issues for the weather feed integration. We wanted our own high-quality images to illustrate the weather conditions and had to get approval from the owner of the feed data. I thought several times that the weather feature was dead, but stubbornness overcame pessimism, and we pulled all the right people from several companies together to get our images approved within 24 hours before the final code submittal deadline. I remember pulling a work-at-home weekend to fine-tune the weather feature where I had to stop working because I was hit with the flu. I was out for three days. After something like that happens you don’t give up a feature without a fight.

One benefit of being part of the early adopter program for WPF and Vista was that Microsoft arranged for training and troubleshooting sessions. I made two trips to Redmond under this program, once to get more in-depth training on WPF and Vista, and once to get help with troubleshooting performance issues we had run into. That’s when I learned that there is such a thing as a “managed memory leak“, which can be introduced in WPF without the programmer necessarily realizing it. Towards the end of the program three of my colleagues and I got to spend a couple of days with Microsoft again, this time at their Platform Adoption lab (Building 20), going over some last minute design and performance questions with their WPF developers one-on-one. This especially helped with getting HP Photosmart Touch into better shape for final release. We got a lot of tips and strategies for dealing with images, collections and containers in these sessions.

That’s it for part 2. Next time I’ll dig a little more into the guiding principles that were used for the implementation of HP SmartCenter, as well as some of the challenges and problems I encountered on the way.

Update (2008-04-30): Parts three and four are now posted.

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