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Portfolio: Landmark Projects
 
Jump To:  Overview |  PowerClaim |  Land.EC |  Hand.db
 
 

Like many software houses, we've created plenty of one-off programs for small businesses (construction-estimation, used-car inventory/accounting, more than a few client-tracking apps, etc.). However, we've also been blessed to author software exerting a more broad and enduring influence.

Each of the products featured below has been actively developed for many years after initial release (most to this day), internationally marketed and sold, and employed by Fortune 500 and/or Global 2000 companies.

Our software is in use in all fifty US states, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Canada, Guatamala, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Additionally, we have a smaller number of users scattered throughout Western Europe.

 
 
PowerClaim
 
Jump To:  Overview |  PowerClaim |  Land.EC |  Hand.db
 

I N T R O D U C T I O N

From Blade Technologies proprietor Jason Purcell:

With a single co-developer, I created PowerClaim, an application used daily by property insurance carriers and adjusters to facilitate primary business operations such as loss estimation, property valuation, claim processing, and case-management. Unlike our competitors at the time, PowerClaim enabled the user to switch between industry-standard construction-cost and contents databases, making it suitable for use by virtually any carrier, agency, and independent adjuster.

Early in PowerClaim's development, Erie Insurance — a Fortune 500 and Global 2000 company — became the first insurance carrier to recognize the value, flexibility, and reliability of PowerClaim by both adopting it for internal use and heavily promoting it to the company's associated independent adjusters.


D E V E L O P M E N T

From the business side, PowerClaim was developed in "the usual way," i.e. with carefully-considered and constant input from dissatisfied users of our competitors' software. (For those of you who'd rather skip the technical details, click-through to the next section.)

PowerClaim was created primarily in Visual BASIC 4 for the simple reason that we had a very short runway to initial release. However, consequences of this decision included 1) incredibly poor graphic performance, and 2) the inability to access many Windows sub-systems.

Therefore, I created libraries of Win32 API and GDI wrappers, some of which I wrote in C and packaged in DLLS. In addition to speedy bitmap operations, these functions allowed me to subclass standard window elements for extension and customization. They included support for transparency, gradients, non-rectangular buttons, and angular text, each of which fell somewhere between novel and bleeding-edge at the time. I was determined to give PowerClaim a "gee-whiz" look, thinking that business users might appreciate what passed for application eye-candy in 2007.

Once I'd cast these basic building-blocks, I moved on to creating a custom control that mimicked the flat, transparent, borderless, pop-up buttons that had recently come to represent high-fashion Windows GUI. After falling in love with the Outlook 97 beta in the fall of '96, I made a complex custom control that duplicated and extended its "cabinet" paradigm, and used this as the primary navigation mechanism in PowerClaim 97.

These two controls allowed us to make PowerClaim completely color and bitmap-themeable. A set of standard themes shipped with the product, but users could easily create their own using a theme-builder included in PowerClaim's setup area. Besides providing variety and variable-contrast, this enabled PowerClaim to use company colors and logos throughout every screen in the application. These capabilities were rare in 1997, most particularly in business applications.


L E G A C Y

I pushed hard to ensure that PowerClaim included contemporary features ignored by our competitors, or at very least implemented such features more intuitively and comprehensively. To this end, I threw myself into structural diagramming (including template functionality), digital photography (with native TWAIN support — remember, these were still the "Plug & Pray" days), electronic claims transfer (featuring a custom "return receipt" system), user-customized captioned reports (also with template functionality), and an Internet-enabled, automated error-reporting system (at a time when such a mechanism was rare) that delivered to us both operational context and system information.

Although sold and used today, it appears that my then-modern application has received only minor updates since I last worked the project in 2004: The feature list, user manual, and GUI are largely unchanged, and the program still requires only a 200 MHz Pentium running Windows 95 at 800x600. Nevertheless, I am honored that major financial corporations still rely on code I wrote as much as two decades ago, and consider this a magnificent tribute to PowerClaim's well-controlled total cost-of-ownership and its historically low fault rate.

More information about PowerClaim (All links open in new browser tabs.):

  Product Page   2010 Promotional Video   User Manual
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Land.EC
 
Jump To:  Overview |  PowerClaim |  Land.EC |  Hand.db
 

I N T R O D U C T I O N

We were enlisted by another software company to develop an application that transforms and exchanges data between its own applications and devices and those belonging to leading companies in the agriculture industry. The result was Land.EC (EC = Exchange Center), which "tweaks and shovels" information betwixt farm-management software, mobile devices, Internet sites, irrigation systems, truck scales, computer/GIS-equipped heavy farm equipment, and more.

Land.EC handles data related to field-applications (such as fertilizers and restricted-use pesticides), work orders, irrigation operations, yield, harvest, crop-scouting, soil conditions, weather conditions, and more. It produces various reports and maps, and heavily utilizes and visualizes spatial/GIS data.

Users can filter data by numerous criteria and specify how incoming information is interpreted. Upon import, data is aggregated, scanned for errors and other inconsistencies, and automatically mapped and corrected where possible. The user is warned of suspect data and prompted to handle unresolved problems and mappings. In most cases, these modifications can be made by the user within Land.EC — and often must be, as the user doesn't always have access to the source data's native application.

Land.EC securely transfers data via web services, cloud-based repositories, FTP, and e-mail (by way of encrypted packages). Data is packaged in SDF (SQL Server CE), XML, and JSON. Depending on the integration, reports are output in HTML, PDF, and/or Excel formats.

Land.EC is used by some of the largest growers in the United States (those that supply potatoes to Frito-Lay, for example).


D E V E L O P M E N T

Visibility and access-rights to each third-party integration is controlled by a centralized, online-licensing system, and credentials are encrypted and cached to allow for temporary, offline use. All operations are logged in detail for diagnostic, traceability, and security purposes. Error-reporting is automated, and includes both contextual information and system configuration details.

In a post-processing phase, geospatial data is adjusted to eliminate common errors such as duplicate consecutive vertices, self-overlapping lines, and self-intersecting polygons (known affectionately as bow-ties). Similarly, non-contiguous radial data are corrected with temporal readings, and vice-versa.

The back-end database engine is SQL Server. Data sources can belong to any number of unrelated owners, and are mounted, dismounted, upgraded, backed-up, restored, retrofitted, and upgraded regularly. For these reasons, SQL user instances are used for connections — they simply make manipulating databases in dynamic-source, variable-privilege environments much easier.


L E G A C Y

Though perhaps not very sexy, there's a lot to this business-critical application, and it's been made increasingly comprehensive and robust over its decade of development.

More information about Land.EC (Opens in new browser tab.):     Product Page

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Hand.db
 
Jump To:  Overview |  PowerClaim |  Land.EC |  Hand.db

I N T R O D U C T I O N

One of Blade's first projects was a massive mobile agriculture application known as Hand.db.

Hand.db was created to enable growers, farm managers, field applicators, and crop consultants to create, edit, manage, analyze, and share crop records in real-time. Among other use-cases, desk-bound administrators can generate work orders and send them to any field-worker, who can then make product substitutions and other alterations, record crop and weather conditions, fulfill the work order, and send the results back to the farm office.

Among other components, Hand.db includes an application launcher/manager/and configuration utility; a resident program to handle real-time data transfers; a task manager for field-applications, work orders, and crop prescriptions; a historical data viewer/analyzer; and a data manager for database switching, error-checking, compression/archiving, backup/restoration, metrics/performance analysis, and import/export.

Data is securely transferred over cellular, wireless, or tethered connections (as well as to/from local removable storage) via web services, cloud-based repositories, and e-mail (by way of encrypted packages). Data is packaged in SDF (SQL Server CE), XML, and JSON. Reports are output in PDF, HTML, and Excel formats.


D E V E L O P M E N T

Beyond business implications, five factors make this project remarkable:

  1. Scope: We've no way of proving this, but it's our belief that Hand.db may well be the "biggest" commercial Windows CE application in history. A grand claim, certainly — and we've no doubt that there are more scientifically and mathematically complex programs — but in terms of sheer size of the code-base and the breadth of functionality, we've heard of nothing that seems to compare.

  2. Historical Era: Development began in 2004, with the initial release in 2005 Q1. The concept of real-time-data-enabled mobile applications was in relative infancy: Our program, to some extent, drove mobile hardware adoption in its target market.

  3. Hardware Limitations: Creating a rich, truly useful, daily-use business application on 2004 mobile hardware was, to put it mildly, highly ambitious. Every architectural, design, and algorithmic decision was made giving utmost consideration to available (or more accurately, unavailable) CPU cycles, RAM, and display area. The programming implications of the hardware simply loomed above all else, all the time.

  4. Software Limitations: Hand.db was engineered primarily using the very earliest releases of the .NET Compact Framework and SQL Server Compact Edition, with all their inherent gaps and restrictions. As exciting as these tools were at the time, they were equally primitive, lacking functionality most developers considered fundamental. (For example, simply generating a GUID required over forty lines of code.) The Windows CE operating system was highly ambitious compared to the competitors of its day, but as a result, predictably added to our pain with its innumerable, largely-undocumented quirks; often-questionable compromises; and notoriously buggy synchronization architecture.

  5. Hacks-Galore: The aforementioned hardware and software limitations necessitated joyous and proliferate old-school-hacking in the form of:

    1. The search for, discovery, and exploitation of undocumented operating system behavior,

    2. Countless iterations of algorithm-tweaking to cut instructions and conserve memory,

    3. Segmentation into no fewer than nine interoperable executables,

    4. The conjuring of all manner of scheme and trickery to prevent the OS from unloading "unused" forms and for navigating between dozens of forms and the aforementioned executables

    5. In direct opposition to Microsoft's declared "best practices," explicit deallocation and forced garbage-collection,

    6. Unconventional (some say unholy) amalgamations of managed and unmanaged code,

    7. Copious WinCE API calls and other code deemed "unsafe" by Microsoft but "indispensable" by those of us that actually create real-world, consumer applications, and

    8. A platform-mandated preference to fast, compact, functional, modular code over higher-overhead, OOP-bound, abstracted constructs.

L E G A C Y

From Blade Technologies proprietor Jason Purcell:

Because of the creativity and persistence it took to overcome so many major challenges, some of the inner-workings of Hand.db are quite sophisticated and just plain slick. The entire project recalled more of the feeling I had as an early-'80s, eight-bit child-hacker than any non-low-level-hardware code I've written before or since.

I'm extremely proud of both what it took to build this application and how it ultimately performed.


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