Necessity is the Mother of Invention.

I’ve been developing computer programs on and off for a good 7 years and in that time I’ve come across my share of challenges. The last year or so has been probably the most challenging of my entire development career as I’ve struggled to come to grips with the Internet’s way of doing things and how to enable disparate systems to talk to each other. Along the way I’ve often hit various problems that on the surface appear to be next to impossible to do or I come to a point where a new requirement makes an old solution no longer viable. Time has shown however that whilst I might not be able to find an applicable solution through hours of intense Googling or RTFM there are always clues that lead to an eventual solution. I’ve found though that such solutions have to be necessary parts of the larger solution otherwise I’ll just simply ignore them.

Take for instance my past weekend’s work gone by with Lobaco. Things had been going well, the last week’s work had seen me enable user sign ups in the iPhone application and had the beginnings of an enhanced post screen that allowed users to post pictures along with their posts. Initial testing of the features seemed to work well and I started testing the build on my iPhone. Quickly however I discovered that both the new features I had put in struggled to upload images to my web server, crashing whenever a picture was over 800 by 600 in size. Since my web client seemed to be able to handle this without an issue I wondered what the problem would be, so I started digging deeper.

You see way back when I had resigned myself to doing everything in JavaScript Object Notation, or JSON for short. The reason behind this was that thanks to it being an open standard nearly every platform out there has a native or third party library for serialising and deserialising objects, making my life a whole lot easier when it comes to cross platform communication (I.E. my server talking to an iPhone). Trouble with this format is that whilst it’s quite portable everything done in it must be text. This causes a problem for large files like images as they have to be changed into text before they can be sent over the Internet. The process I used for this is called Base64 and it has the unfortunate side effect of increasing the size of the file to be transferred by roughly 37%. It also generates an absolutely massive string that brings any debugger to its knees if you try to display it, making troubleshooting issues hard.

The image uploading I had designed and successfully used up until this point was now untenable as the iPhone client simply refused to play nice with ~300KB strings. I set about trying to find a solution to my problem hoping to find a quick solution to my problem. Whilst I didn’t find a good drag and drop solution I did come across this post which detailed a way in which to program a Windows web service that could receive arbitrary data. Implementing their solution as it is detailed there still didn’t actually work as advertised but after wrangling the code and over coming the inbuilt message size limits in WCF I was successfully able to upload images without having to muck around with enormous strings. This of course did mean changing a great deal of how the API and clients worked but in the end it was worth it for something that solved so many problems.

The thing is before I went on this whole adventure had you asked me if such a thing was possible I would’ve probably told you no, at least not within the whole WCF world. In fact much of my early research into this problem was centred around possibly implementing a small PHP script to accomplish the same thing (as there are numerous examples of that already), however the lack of integration with my all Microsoft solution means I’d be left with a standalone piece of code that I wouldn’t have much interest in improving or maintaining. By the simple virtue that I had to come up with a solution to this problem meant I tried my darnedest to find it, and lo I ended up creating something I couldn’t find anywhere else.

It’s like that old saying that necessity is the mother of all invention and that’s true for both this problem and Lobaco as an idea in itself. Indeed many of the current great Internet giants and start ups were founded on the idea of solving a problem that the founders themselves were experiencing and felt that things could be better. I guess I just find it fascinating how granular a saying like that can be, with necessity driving me to invent solutions at all levels. It goes to show that embarking into the unknown is a great learning experience and there’s really no substitute for diving in head first and trying your hardest to solve an as of yet unsolvable problem.

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