Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Amazon Kindle 2 Review

My Kindle 2 arrived from Amazon today! It appears that I am lucky in this respect, because Amazon had originally announced the ship date as February 25th, and most people are still waiting for their unit to show up. But I had ordered mine literally within 10 minutes of the announcement - so I guess being an early adopter finally got awarded...

As I had promised a few weeks ago, I am providing a review of the new Kindle 2 as a follow-up to my popular original Kindle Review from November 2007. Just like with the previous review, this one is based on unpacking the Kindle 2 and working with the device for about 2-3 hours. I plan to add information about long-term issues such as battery-life in a future blog posting once I have accumulated several days of usage of the Kindle 2.

Unpacking the Kindle 2 is fun. Just like the Kindle 1 the packaging is well-designed and this  resembles a shipping box with a "tear here to open" strip on one side. The package contains the Kindle itself, a thin "Read me" brochure, and the charging cable. The screen of the device shows instructions to plug it in and then push the power switch on top of the unit - for those that hate even the shortest of manuals.

Once you turn the Kindle 2 on, you immediately get to read the User's Guide on the screen, or you can skip ahead and press the Home button to get to your main library page.

Before I talk about the improvements in the software, let's take a look at all the improvements in the hardware of the device compared to the Kindle 1:

  • The Kindle 2 looks much more polished or refined and gets rid of some of the edginess of the original unit. It feels more "solid" and less flimsy, which may also be due to the fact that it is about 10g heavier (468g with book cover for the Kindle 2 compared to 458g for the Kindle 1).
  • The Kindle 2 now locks into place in the book cover / sleeve that you can order from Amazon. The original Kindle fell out of that cover far too often, so this is a great improvement.
  • Another annoying "feature" of the Kindle 1 is now a thing of the past, too: accidental clicks on the Next or Prev buttons. The buttons on the Kindle 2 are still on the very edge of the unit, but the buttons now have their pivot point on the outside edge and need to be clicked inward, which completely prevents accidental clicking. Very clever design change!
  • The new Kindle 2 gets rid of the shiny silvery and strange LCD sidebar that the old unit used to provide a selection cursor on the page or within a menu. Since the new display is much faster and more responsive, the selection feedback is now directly shown on the main screen.
  • The Kindle 2 has a better position for the power switch (top left of the unit) and gets rid of clumsy wireless on/off hardware switch on back of unit, too.
  • It comes with a better power adapter (mini USB plug on Kindle, charger cable can either use desktop USB plug or wall outlet), which is similar to what the iPhone charger from Apple does.
  • I'm lucky to be in a Spring 3G network coverage area, and so I found the unit to have much faster downloads using Amazon 3G Whispernet (only in areas where 3G EVDO service is available). This was especially noticeable when I downloaded all my previous purchases to the new device.
  • The new 16-grayscale display is great, especially for viewing web content, such as Wikipedia, newspapers, or blogs. It's probably not the most important feature, but certainly nice to have and much easier on the eyes than the old display when rendering images.
  • I never really liked the hardware on/off switch in the back or the sleep mode on the old Kindle, but this is now all much more user friendly and consistent: wake-up from sleep mode is now done using power-button instead of "Alt-AA", and it is much more responsive; pushing the power button briefly puts Kindle in sleep mode (artwork screen saver is shown); and pushing the power button for 4-5 sec turns the Kindle off.

In addition to these hardware changes, the Kindle 2 also apparently offers some improved software that contains several usability enhancements. Some of those are more network features and I assume they will be available as an upgrade on the old units, too, but I haven't heard any details about such an upgrade yet. Anyway, here are the software enhancements that I found notable:

  • The first positive surprise was how easy it was to migrate books from my old to the new Kindle. There are essentially two different upgrade paths: you can either just turn on the new Kindle and from the home page access "Archived Items" and it will show you all previously purchased books that are available in your Amazon account and you can download them right there. Alternatively, you can user your computer to go to the Amazon.com website and use the "Manage your Kindle" page to view a list of all your previously purchased Kindle books and send them to the new Kindle from that list.
  • The Kindle 2 apparently has a faster processor, so it comes with Text-to-Speech software built in. You can turn this on from the font-size menu or from the main menu, and you can customize reading speed as well as male/female voice. A nice feature is that the Kindle auto-turns the pages for you if you are using Text-to-Speech so you can still follow the text as it is being read to you. A neat feature, but the Text-to-Speech engine makes the usual pronunciation errors...
  • Another neat feature is the ability to sync devices, if you have more than 1 Kindle. This lets you read a book on one device and then continue from the exact same page on another device, if they are both linked to your Amazon account.
  • The search function now offers 6 choices: search my items (i.e. all books, documents, subscriptions on the Kindle locally); search the kindle store; search google; search dictionary; search wikipedia; and go to web, which lets you enter a URL. The same choices are also directly available from the address bar in the built-in browser, which seems to have gotten some improvements in usability.

So much for the positive experiences with the new Kindle 2. But not everything is perfect and there are a few disappointments that I experienced when playing with the device on the first day:

Mainly, the built-in browser still leaves much to be desired. It is not quite clear to me why it is not built on WebKit like Safari or Chrome to provide proper rendering of HTML pages. If a device like the iPhone that is less than half the Kindle's screen size can render web pages beautifully and accurately, then why can't the Kindle? This is a very bothersome oversight - especially when open source browser packages are readily available in the form of FireFox or WebKit.

Another issue: no doubt it is great that one can shop in the Kindle Store on Amazon.com using the Kindle, which allows you to buy new books on the road and has been a feature of the Kindle 1 from the start (see left). But the world has changed since November of 2007! On my iPhone I can use the Amazon.com iPhone app today and shop all of Amazon.com - not just the Kindle store. Why can I not order a DVD from my Kindle or shop for new electronic gadgets? It doesn't make any sense to just limit the Kindle application to shopping for Kindle books only....

Also, Amazon has unfortunately failed to address the following points that I had raised in my initial Kindle 1 Review over a year ago:

  • It is great that I can send PDF and Word docs to my Kindle via my personalized kindle.com e-mail address. But that is not enough. When I place annotations, notes, and highlights in such documents on my Kindle, I now want to be able to e-mail them back to my office e-mail address and I want to see those comments, annotations, notes, and highlights back in the Word or PDF doc so that I can send it to others in the company. This would allow me to use the Kindle for actually reviewing business documents – it would be fantastic!!!
  • How can I get additional blogs on the Kindle? I am happy to pay extra, but I want to be able to enter any RSS feeder URL into my Amazon account and create a Kindle blog feed for it. Blog authors can now sign up with Amazon to publish their blogs on Kindle, but as a consumer I would like to be able to pick a niche blog and pay for it myself - that still doesn't work.
  • It would be nice, if Amazon could integrate some Social Networking aspects into the Kindle. How many of my friends are reading books on it? What are they reading? How can I post comments about a book to my blog? How can I tell my friends about comments I have on a book?

Last, but not least, I wanted to test whether the Kindle 2 can now receive and process Open Office XML (OOXML) documents via the personalized e-mail address, and I was indeed able to receive, read, and review a DOCX document in WordprocessingML that I had created from an XML source with Altova StyleVision 2009.

So the overall verdict is: definitely a great improvement over the first generation Kindle, and still one of the best eBook readers in my opinion. But it leaves a few things to be desired - especially in the iPhone-age....

Is it worth to upgrade from the Kindle 1? I would say only if you have kids or other family members whom you plan to give the Kindle 1 unit to. The improvements from the Kindle 1 are certainly nice, but they are more incremental than revolutionary.


UPDATE: The Kindle's Secret has been revealed by XKCD:


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Identity constraints become crystal-clear

One of the essential features of the XML Schema language are identity constraints (key / keyref / unique), which are typically used to model relational database concepts in XML Schema. Up until now, however, editing identity constraints was typically a very cumbersome task because it mostly needed to be done by hand - either in text view or through the properties pages.

In XMLSpy 2009 we've now addressed identity constraints editing with a powerful new way to both visualize the constraints and underlying relationships, as well as a graphical means to edit them in the visual XML Schema editor:

Identity constraints are now indicated by green lines, informative icons, and mouse-over messages in the Content Model View. A right-click menu allows you to easily add new relationships and specify field and selector values by typing them manually, using drop-down entry helpers, or by simply dragging and dropping the desired nodes.

This is a "must have" feature for anybody involved with XML Schema design or relational database and XML work. Click here to try it out for free for 30 days....

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

XBRL and HL7 thoughts

Kurt Cagle has a great new article on his blog on the O'Reilly Community site titled "XBRL Becomes Mandatory - This Should be Interesting", where he writes (emphasis added by me):

"From the IT perspective, the formal adoption of XBRL as a mandatory requirement is likely to have a number of implications, not least of which being a suddenly high demand for XML skilled people in general, and XBRL people in particular, as well as a boon for XBRL service providers and tools vendors. As with the OOXML/ODF controversy of 2007, it is very likely that 2009 will be a banner year for XML technologies in general, as two of the key issues that are highly visible this year - financial transparency within corporations and the streamlining of health care, both involve rich XML standards - XBRL for financial reporting, HL7 v3 for electronic health records."

I couldn't agree more, which is why we released support for both XBRL and HL7 in our recent v2009 product line. Make sure you read Kurt's entire article, as he has some great thoughts and insight on the current economic situation as well.

Expanded source control system support

Now, XMLSpy has always had its built-in support for revision control systems, including Microsoft Visual Source-Safe and - via the Source-Safe API - a few drivers for other 3rd party source control systems, such as Jalindi Igloo for CVS. But with version 2009 we've gone far beyond that. Based on customer feedback, we've completely reworked the source control system interface in XMLSpy and also added the same level of source control support to UModel, our UML modeling tool, allowing both products to intelligently integrate with all major Software Configuration Management (SCM) tools.

By implementing the new interface in compliance with Microsoft Source Code Control Interface (MSSCCI) v1.1 – v1.3, we've now provided support for all of the following major revision code control systems and many more:

   • Collabnet Subversion 1.5.4
   • CVS
   • Microsoft SourceSafe 2005
   • Microsoft Team Foundation Server 2008
   • Perforce P4S 2008.1
   • IBM Rational ClearCase 7.0.1 (LT)
   • Borland StarTeam 2008 R2
   • SourceGear Vault, Fortress, SourceOffSite
   • Seapine Surround SCM 2008.1.2
   • Dynamsoft SourceAnywhere
   • ComponentSoftware CS-RCS (PRO) 5.1

For the full list of revision control systems and drivers that we've tested, please see our website.

In addition, DiffDog can be used as the ideal visual differencing tool in any of the revision control systems that allow for the configuration of an external diff utility.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Intelligent XPath auto-completion

There are literally hundreds of reasons to love the new Altova v2009 product lineup, and today we'll look at one that Brian Reisman recently called "the coolest new feature": intelligent XPath auto-completion in XMLSpy 2009.

XPath auto-completion

As you’re composing an XPath expression in Text View, Grid View, or in the XPath Analyzer window, XMLSpy now provides you with valid XPath functions, as well as element and attribute names from the associated schema and XML instance documents. Intelligent XPath auto-completion accounts for namespaces when listing options and even provides deep path suggestions when the required node is not in close proximity to the current context. As such, it goes far beyond similar functions in competing tools.

This is such a huge benefit when writing XSLT or XQuery expressions - and will frequently save you hours otherwise spent in the debugger.

Kindle 2 announced today

I just got this message when I logged into amazon.com today, and it appears that the Kindle 2 has indeed arrived:

Kindle2

Needless to say, I already pre-ordered two units. The kids will get our Kindle 1 devices as "hand-me-downs". Yes, I am happy to admit that I'm an early adopter when it comes to the Kindle - see my initial review of the Kindle on this blog, and most of what I said back then still holds true. I will also post a review here once I actually receive the Kindle 2 device - Amazon has promised it for February 25th. Hey, Amazon: are you listening? Send it to me tomorrow, and I'll review it earlier... :-)

Obviously, techmeme is abuzz with different blog reactions, and I found this story in the Wall Street Journal today very informative, too.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

3G FemtoCells to provide iPhone service in AT&T dead zones

AppleInsider reports that AT&T will launch a new device that people can install at home to create a FemtoCell (a very very very small cell) on the AT&T 3G cellular network that can service 10 phones with up to four simultaneous voice or data connections. Exactly what the modern family with four iPhone users needs!

Cellular Network

The idea is that you buy the Femtocell home base station, connect it to your broadband Internet connection or home network, and register all the 3G devices that you will permit to use the Femtocell (so that your neighbor doesn't get a free ride). The device then creates a 5,000 square foot hot-spot for 3G service in your house. Just as with picocells and full scale cellular antennas, a femtocell automatically passes a mobile user's phone connection to the next nearest existing cellular towers as they leave the local signal area provided by the base station. So when you leave your house and get out of the dead zone, you should be picked up by the nearest cell tower automatically.

My guess is that this device will sell like hot cakes in Marblehead and Swampscott, which have historically been experiencing enormous dead zones on the 3G network in the past.

More discussion about this new feature is also on techmeme.com.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Database Diff: Compare and Merge

When I mentioned our v2009 product launch before, I promised to write in more detail about some of the exciting new features we included. One of my favorite new functions that I use almost on a daily basis is actually available in two products, depending on your needs: it is the new database differencing module with full database compare and merge capabilities in both DiffDog 2009 and DatabaseSpy 2009.

Here is how it works: to compare data between different tables you select one or more tables for the "left side" of the comparison and one or more tables for the "right side":

However, unlike straight text file comparisons, where the differencing process would now start right away, for databases we recognize that the table structure is rarely the exact same, because you typically want to compare data between different servers (such as production vs. development) and one may have new columns, indexes, and the like.

So we give you the ability to define in detail how the tables should be compared. The system is, of course, intelligent enough to automatically match column names that just differ by capitalization or column position, but you can visually create a comparison map to match up other columns with this easy-to-use interface:

Once you run the differencing operation based on the comparison map you've defined, the result is displayed in this unique and intuitive table diff result view:

This view gives you the option to show or hide columns that exist in one database only, identical columns, as well as hiding rows that are completely equal or rows that exist only in the database on the left or the right. This allows you to drill down into those differences that you consider essential.

In addition to finding these differences, we do, of course, also allow you to complete the data migration and reconcile those differences:

You can choose to either merge data from left to right, right to left, or you can create a SQL script for manual review that will contain all the commands necessary to compete the merge operation (DatabaseSpy only):

If you are concerned about keeping a record of the data before the merge, you can even create a restore script for either database that lets you revert the changes made by the merge script if you ever need to do that (DatabaseSpy only).

The database diff feature supports any of the following database server platforms:

  • Microsoft® SQL Server® 2000, 2005, 2008
  • Oracle® 9i, 10g, 11g
  • Sybase® 12
  • MySQL® 4, 5
  • PostgreSQL 8
  • IBM DB2® 8, 9; IBM DB2 for iSeries® v5.4; IBM DB2 for zSeries® 8, 9
  • Microsoft Access™ 2003, 2007

And the coolest thing is that you can compare tables between connections to different database servers, which makes it an excellent tool for supporting a migration from one server platform to another that lets you verify that all data was moved properly.

As always, you can download a fully functional 30-day free trial to test this new feature yourself...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Google Latitude provides location-based social networking

I've always been a big fan of GPS and geo-coding. In fact, I've been teaching GPS seminars for our local boating education group, the Marblehead Sail & Power Squadron for years. So when early location-based social networks like Loopt and others started to appear, I immediately tested them, but found them to be quite useless in the end since few of my friends have the same early-adopter mentality, and quite a few - especially those in Europe - are more concerned about their privacy.

So I was delighted to hear that Google jumped into the location-based networking arena today with their new Google Latitude system. They have an application out for several mobile devices already, and the iPhone/iTouch version is promised to be released soon. You can also update your location from a regular web-browser.

This promises to be a very interesting service, and I hope that with the heft of Google behind it, location-based social networking will finally take off. If you decide to try it out, send me a friend request to alexander dot falk at gmail dot com.

There is also already a review from Katharine Boehret in The Mossberg Solution (Wall Street Journal) today.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Altova launches MissionKit v2009 including XBRL, HL7, and more

What an exciting day today. This is easily our biggest product launch in several years. Altova announces the new MissionKit v2009 on the blog and in a press release that crossed the wire at 9:10 am today.

I wrote about the final SEC rule on XBRL yesterday, and today you can download a fully functional 30-day trial of MissionKit 2009 which adds XBRL support across XMLSpy, MapForce, and StyleVision. Use the new XBRL taxonomy editor in XMLSpy to create or modify a taxonomy for your company's XBRL filings. Use the new XBRL mapping feature in MapForce to create XBRL instance documents directly from your databases - or, if you are an investment firm, to analyze XBRL filings from multiple sources. Render financial report documents in PDF, Word, Open XML, or HTML from XBRL data with StyleVision.

If you are a CTO, software architect, developer, database professional, or IT engineer and are new to XBRL, we have a great new whitepaper that provides an overview of XBRL for technical users.

But today's announcement is not just about XBRL. In our effort to support various industries we are expanding into the health-care field and are introducing support for HL7 v2 EDI messages and v3 XML-based formats in MapForce.

In addition, we've added tons of new features to all our applications that are based on customer requests, including the following highlights: database comparison and merging in DiffDog and DatabaseSpy; XPath auto-completion, expanded source/revision control system support, and better visualization and editing of XML Schema identity constraints in XMLSpy; auto-generation of sequence diagrams, full source/revision control system support, and an extensive enterprise-grade automation API in UModel; grouping support and documentation generation in MapForce; completely new design manipulation for tables as well as direct template filtering with XPath expressions in StyleVision; and extended native support for SQL Server 2008, Oracle 11g, and PostgreSQL 8 across the entire product line.

In addition to all these new features, we are announcing an immediate price reduction in our US$ pricing as our own special "stimulus package" for the US economy. Our US$ prices are now reduced 13% and more - across the entire product line!

I'll write more about the individual features added to all the products in the MissionKit in subsequent posts... but for those who can't wait, here is the full-list on our What's New page...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Final SEC Rule on XBRL posted

This past Friday, January 30, the SEC posted its final rule on XBRL, making XBRL reporting mandatory for US companies over a 3-year phase-in period based on company size. The official title of the rule is "Interactive Data to Improve Financial Reporting", as can be seen in the SEC News Digest.

According to the SEC this new rule is aimed at "improv[ing] the usefulness of financial information to investors by requiring domestic and foreign companies to provide to the Commission a new exhibit with their financial statements, including the footnotes and schedules to the financial statements, in interactive data format. Interactive data will supplement, but not replace or change, disclosure using the traditional electronic filing formats in ASCII or HTML. Interactive data will be required with a filer's annual and quarterly reports, transition reports, and Securities Act registration statements, and on its corporate web site, if it maintains one. The requirements will be phased in, beginning later this year with approximately 500 of the largest companies."

Whenever the SEC says "Interactive Data" it really means to say XBRL. The phasing-in begins this year with public companies that fall into the large accelerated filer category and have a worldwide public common equity float above $5 billion - those companies will need to provide their financial statements in XBRL starting June 15, 2009. The second phase is for all accelerated filers irrespective of their float, and those need to file XBRL financial statement one year later, starting June 15, 2010. All other public companies then follow in the summer of 2011.

This is an exciting new development, as it will provide much greater transparency for financial data and give investors and analysts better tools to analyze and aggregate financial data, since XBRL can be processed, transformed, and reused easily - just like any other XML dialect.

It will also be exciting to see new tools that will allow software developers to create XBRL content easily, since XBRL has such broad applicability beyond just the realm of regulatory filings. Being able to interchange financial reporting data within larger organizations in a standardized format has huge potential benefits.

For other blog reactions, see this article on the Financial Reporting Blog or this article on the Corporate Counsel Blog.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

HD View from Microsoft Research

I've recently developed a liking for panorama photography, and already created quite a few panoramas for my other blog on our house restoration project. But the real problem with these panoramic views is that while they were created in Photoshop using several high-res source images, viewing them on a website isn't that exciting, because I needed to significantly reduce the image and add a simple scroll bar to make it even fit within the confines of a blog.

So I started experimenting with the HD View technology from Microsoft Research this weekend. Their new Beta 3 adds exciting features for HDR (which I described in a previous blog post) and fisheye lens effects. And being an XML Aficionado I am, of course, very excited that HD View images are described using an XML manifest document.

To create an HD View image you have several tools available, including a Photoshop plug-in. I used this approach to create a new panorama from 20 individual source photos shot in 10.1 megapixel using a Sony DSC T-700. Click on the following image to open a new window with the HD View browser plug-in (you may need to install the plug-in first - and it is available for IE and FireFox):

Click to open HD View

This is a view of the Atlantic ocean from Beach Bluff Park at Preston Beach - right at the border between Marblehead and Swampscott. The house on the left is our restoration project. The seawall on the right collapsed in a Northeaster in April 2007 and the Clifton Improvement Association is presently raising funds to rebuild it this spring.

The above panorama only had 55 mega-pixel of data, since it was created from just 20 images. But the HD View technology is scalable up to giga-pixel images created from thousands of individual shots. Take a look at these examples created by Bernhard Vogl in Austria...