iPhone

The (Broken) Promise Of Wearables

This week the Moto 360 became available and sold out in record time. Next week Apple is rumored to introduce their iWatch along with the next generation iPhone. And Samsung just announced their next generation Gear watch last week that is expected to ship at the same time as the Galaxy Note Edge.

It is clear that Wearables hold a lot of excitement and a lot of promise, and obviously capture people’s imagination. But let’s pause for a moment first, and talk about past experiences with Wearables:

Wearables on a table

Among the many tech gadgets that I’ve acquired in recent years, I also purchased the first Samsung Gear watch when it came out last year, I bought the Google Glass Explorer Edition, and I bought the Fitbit fitness tracker.

Each device held a unique promise that it would make life easier and would add useful functionality. And each device ended up breaking that promise in subtly different ways.

My experiment with the Galaxy Gear smartwatch was very short-lived. The essential promise was to show important information about incoming emails or messages without the need to have to reach into your pocket and get out your phone. However, it wasn’t ubiquitous. Apps on your phone had to be written to be compatible with the watch. And for the most important communications medium – email – all the watch would tell me is that a message had arrived from somebody. No subject line. No relevant content summary. It was essentially useless.

The Fitbit fitness tracker held a simpler promise: wear it all day and all night and track your health. Except that it is so small that I lost it about 3-4 times during travels and only rediscovered it again when I emptied the suitcase after the end of the trip. Here it was the need to go to your computer and sync it there that broke the promise of ease of use. And the tracking information was primitive at best – a simple step counter. I gained no useful benefit from the device that would really help with my weight loss efforts.

Google Glass was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the three. The promise of having an augmented reality experience sounded great. But all it really did was provide notifications about messages, news, and occasional information from other Glass apps about restaurants, sightseeing spots, and other trivia. And after a short while any person wearing Google Glass was labeled a Glasshole and privacy concerns soon resulted in sings being posted everywhere that Glass was not welcome.

In the end, all three devices suffered from a lack of really useful and unique features that actually provided a real-world benefit combined with the need to be constantly charged using various different charging devices and having a fairly short battery life. The day came when I forgot to charge them and then left them at home. Then the day came when I forgot where I put the charger. And now they’re all sitting in a drawer somewhere…

So I look towards the new generation of Wearables coming out this fall with a bit of cynical skepticism: how long until they, too, end up in a drawer somewhere?

In the end, there are only two devices that I carry with me all the time and every day:

  • My watch is a Seiko Astron Kintaro Hattori Limited Edition. It is a solar-powered watch that has a built-in GPS receiver and synchronizes time with the atomic clocks aboard the GPS satellites. And it also automatically adjusts your time-zone when you have landed – based on the GPS position. It never needs to be charged and it does one thing extremely well that I care about: tell accurate time.
  • My phone is a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (soon to be replaced by the Note Edge). I’ve gone through many smartphones over the years, and it is my favorite so far. I hate its battery life. I hate that I have to charge it. But it does so many things so well in just one device, that it’s worth the hassle. And I use it all the time.

That last point is, perhaps, the biggest question about Wearables that we should ask ourselves: if we already have our phones in our hands all day anyway, what is the additional benefit of a wearable device?

Backup/Restore on iOS - not always what you'd expect

Yesterday I had an interesting experience with the backup/restore function in iTunes 10.7 while migrating all my data from my old iPhone 4S to the new iPhone 5. Due to my previous unsatisfactory experience with backup/restore from iCloud when migrating from an iPad 2 to iPad 3 this spring, I decided to use iTunes on my MacPro to make a local backup this time. Furthermore, I wanted to make sure not to run into any iOS 5 -> 6 upgrade issues, so I had already upgraded my iPhone 4S to iOS 6 in the previous week to make this switch more efficient - or so I thought! When it was time to make the move, I connected the 4S, waited for the sync operation to finish, and then right-clicked the phone in iTunes and selected backup.

After the backup process completed, I turned off the old phone, connected the new phone, and selected "Restore" to restore the phone from the backup I just had created. After I waited through a reboot and confirmed a few more dialogs, I thought I would now have everything on the new device exactly the same way as I had on the old phone. But that was not the case…

When you do a backup of your PC or Mac and then lose your hard drive you would expect the machine to be exactly the same after you buy a new disk and run a restore operation, right? Especially you'd expect all settings and configurations to be restored.

Apparently not so with iOS. To my great disappointment I found that for a lot of my applications the restore function only restored the app itself, but not any of its settings, especially not any login information. In particular, I had to manually reenter my account information into all of the following apps on my new phone:

  • Evernote
  • Dropbox
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • WSJ
  • Kindle
  • iCloud, iMessage, FaceTime, Find my friends
  • Netflix
  • Hulu+
  • Yelp
  • OpenTable
  • MLB At Bat
  • Disk Decipher
  • and many more…
In addition, I found that all of the soft-token apps for secure 2-factor authentication to various services were not getting restored with their settings, and so they each generated a new unique device idea and did not allow any easy restoration, transfer, or migration from one device to the next. In fact, with the Google Authenticator that I use for Google Apps and Dropbox as well as with thr Symantec VIP Access app I use for some banking sites my only choice was to log into these web sites, request deactivation of the old soft-token, and then add the new soft-token. In most cases this required having access to the old soft-token to enter a valid code. So I had to turn the old phone back on and migrate every single service authentication to the new token app on the new phone one by one.

Now, in all fairness, I should say that in iOS at least there is a Backup/Restore function, which is completely missing in Android (unless you want to be adventurous and root your device). But I found it very surprising to be lacking in so many ways, especially with regards to app configurations, settings, and logins.

Luckily I don't have to complain about any actual data loss. With my calendar, contacts, and email all in Google Apps, none of those got lost. So this was more of a nuisance that cost me about an hour or two before I had my phone reconfigured to my exact specs and resetting all my soft-token apps.

But it would have been much harder to do, had I actually lost my phone or had it been damage, because removing 2-factor authentication from an account when you don't have the soft-token anymore is rather difficult and often only possible with lengthy tech support calls. It would make much more sense to allow full backup/restore functionality of your phone onto your computer - especially since you can encrypt your backups nicely with iTunes, so the information therein is rather secure.

Bottom-line: plan a couple of hours for your upgrade - especially if you use many apps…

 

Samsung Galaxy S III vs. iPhone 4S - a phone-swap experience

I am always on the look-out for the newest gadgets and best technology for my own personal and business use, so when the Samsung Galaxy S III started shipping in the US this month, I pre-ordered a Verizon 4G LTE model in white with 32 GB and it arrived Monday last week. I set myself the goal of doing a "phone-swap" and using the new phone exclusively for one week to determine whether it could replace my iPhone 4S as my primary smart phone device. Having all of my data in the cloud already through a combination of Google Apps, DropBox, Evernote, and our corporate email system, setting up the S III was a breeze. All I had to do was configure my Google and Exchange server accounts, download the DropBox and Evernote apps, and I was ready to go with all my calendar, contacts, notes, to-dos, emails, etc. 100% in sync on the new phone. In addition I installed Google Voice and Skype for my telephony needs as well as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for social networking. The next step was to go through all the other apps on my iPhone that had accumulated over the past year and determine which ones I really used more than once a month. That in of itself was a true cleansing ritual and I was able to get rid of a lot of junk (yes, I do admit that I actually played all levels of Angry Birds Space when it came out). And I was pleasantly surprised to find that about 95% of the apps I actually used were available on the Android platform as well. For convenience, I arranged them in a similar manner with folders so that I would be able to easily locate each app on both devices: 2012 07 15 10 51 18 cropped For the few apps that I did not find in the Google Play app store (or other app stores) I was able to easily locate an equivalent replacement app with only two exceptions. More on that later… With all these preparations done in the first day, I was ready to embark on my one-week phone swap test and redirected my iPhone phone# to the Galaxy, as well as including it in my Google Voice list of active phones. The second day held three interesting surprises for me in stock and I was actually quite disappointed with the Galaxy at the end of that day. The issues that I encountered were the following:
  • Battery Drainage: Within only 2-3 hours the battery on my S III had gone from 100% down to 48%. I was only using the phone to play with apps and was on my home Wi-Fi network, so this should not have happened. However, I later found out that the severe battery drain was caused exclusively by a very poor cell phone signal at my location and the phone trying to communicate with the towers despite the poor signal strength. When I used the same phone in the office the next day, where we have good cell phone reception, the battery was still at 79% in the late afternoon.
  • No German Keyboard: For some reason Samsung had decided to only ship English, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese keyboards in the S III. I was, therefore, unable to compose any e-mails or text messages in German.
  • IPv6 Connectivity Problems: On my home network I already use IPv4 and IPv6 in a dual-stack setup and all my laptops, PCs, Macs, and iOS devices automatically get both an IPv4 and IPv6 address. Then, when communicating with an IPv6 enabled web site they already do that via IPv6, which can be easily verified using the test-ipv6.com site. However, the S III was unable to pass that test and could only use and IPv4 address and thus was unable to reach any IPv6 website. Samsung tech support proved to be highly incompetent in this regard an had absolutely no idea how to fix this problem (or even understand what IPv6 is).
However, on the third day I was able to resolve two of those issues and things were looking much better thereafter: The battery problem is strictly a result of bad cell phone coverage, and we had seen a similar problem with the iPhone about a year ago, so I expect Samsung to fix this shortly. Furthermore, when I am at home I plug my phone in anyway, so the lack of cell phone signal at home and the resulting battery drainage can easily be circumvented. But the battery meter makes it very clear how bad the problem is, if you look at this screen shot taken 1 hour and 15 minutes after taking the phone out of the charger and not using it at all. In that time it has already lost 11% of its charge doing absolutely nothing: Battery drain due to bad cell reception The keyboard issue was easily fixed by installing Swype Beta for Android. Swype is an alternative keyboard that not only supports multiple languages (including German), but also provides a much faster input method for text, because it lets you trace the letters of a word on the on-screen keyboard without lifting your finger, which is indeed much faster than tapping each key individually. Furthermore, it comes with a vast dictionary for each language and really recognizes your movements with amazing accuracy. Quick wcl The remainder of the week progressed on a very upbeat note and I really enjoyed my usage of the Galaxy S III after I had overcome those small initial setbacks. In particular, these are the features and app experiences I liked most:
  • Swype: this is really a powerful productivity tool and I found that text entry speed for me improved by about 50% compared to the standard on-screen keyboard.
  • Larger screen: I really like the screen size and form factor of the S III. The larger screen size directly translates to 30% more emails visible in GMail as well as better browsing experience in Chrome and other apps.
  • Much deeper integration with Google Voice: I've been using a Google Voice phone number as my primary phone number for several years now, and the Google Voice app for Android provides a much deeper integration with the telephony module on the phone than iOS would allow. In particular, it is possible to set up the phone so that all outgoing calls are automatically routed via Google Voice, which is brilliant.
  • Background apps: It has always been an annoyance for me to no end, that on iOS there is no facility for true background applications. For example, DropBox on Android really uploads photos in the background whenever I am connected to my home Wi-Fi network, whereas on the iPhone I have to actually go to the DropBox app to trigger the upload. Similarly Skype works much better on Android than it does on iOS.
  • Auto-update of apps: I love the fact that I can configure my apps to automatically update on Android. Whenever I am connected to my Wi-Fi network at home, all apps get their updates and I don't have to do anything. By contrast, on my iOS devices I have to go to the App Store and manually hit Update and then enter my password.
  • Google Voice Search: Maybe it is just me (and my German accent), but Siri and I never developed a true relationship. I found that for many queries on Google Voice Search I can actually get better results and faster responses than with Siri, and it seems that I am not alone in this observation.
  • 4G LTE: it is truly remarkable how much faster the 4G LTE data network is. Similar to what I had previously reported with respect to the iPad 3, the 4G LTE data speed on the S III makes a huge difference, if you are inside the LTE coverage area. Reading emails and news, browsing web sites, etc. is just lighting-fast.
  • Face Unlock: OK, unlocking your phone automatically via face recognition is really cool. It may not be super-secure, but you can always combine it with PINs etc. And it is really nice when the phone recognizes its owner.
  • Widgets: Yes, it seems like such a small thing, but being able to see the local weather details, Wall Street Journal headlines, and latest Engadget news directly on my home screen really makes me happy.
Samsung Galaxy S III home screen In many respects, these positive experiences as well as the abundance of apps that are now available on both the iOS and Android platforms in parallel made it very clear to me that Apple is about to lose its competitive edge in the smart phone business soon, if it hasn't already happened. Either platform allows you to be productive and connected in this mobile world and the differences are becoming more and more a matter of personal taste. Talking of which, in the past week I found that these are the iOS features that I missed the most and where I was unable to locate any reasonable equivalent on the Android platform:
  • iCloud backup: I found it truly astonishing, that Google would not think of providing Android users with a true cloud-based backup solution for their phones. Backup functionality is limited to calendar, contacts, and emails, and if you want to be able to backup your entire phone (including photos and all apps) you have to do so on an SD card, connected computer, or you have to hack your phone to get root access in order to use a backup app like Titanium Backup.
  • iMessage: being able to save on SMS costs by sending text messages via the data network in the form of iMessage was a game changer when it was first introduced on iOS. While there are some apps that promise to do the same on Android, the real killer-app feature of iMessage is that it is transparently integrated into the messaging app, so it will try to deliver a message via iMessage if it can, but will automatically revert to sending it via SMS when it cannot do so.
  • Find-my-phone: The ability to go to the iCloud website, and trigger a loud sonar-ping from your phone (irrespective of what the sound volume is set to) is a feature that we often use in our family to locate missing phones. And no, just calling the phone doesn't work, because they or often set to just vibrate.
  • Different notification sounds: On my iPhone I use different notification sounds for SMS vs. emails vs. voice mails etc. and I found no good equivalent that would let me configure this in a similar way.
  • Clear OS upgrade path: This is perhaps the biggest weakness of the Android platform at this stage. The Nexus 7 is coming out with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and there is no clear path that would let me know when I can expect to get 4.1 on my S III. There are so many different devices and variations and the fact that both device manufacturer and phone network provider add their own variations to the base OS results in a plethora of different versions of the OS. And after a while people realize that their 2-year old smart phone suddenly will either not get the latest version of Android or will get it with a substantial delay.
In addition to these platform differences between iOS and Android, I also found that I could not locate either one of the following apps, which I love and use on iOS on a daily basis: Dark Sky is a hyper-local short-term weather prediction software that allows me to predict rain within the next hour with super-accurate precision based on analysis of the weather radar. For boaters (and fireworks committee chair people) this is an absolute must-have. The second app is g! Mobile, which is part of my smart home system that lets me control HVAC, audio, video, irrigation, pool, and various other home automation systems from my phone. Last, but not least, here are four more observations that - when taken together with the above features and apps that I am missing - end up tilting the balance in favor of the iPhone from my perspective:
  • Battery drainage in areas of bad cell-phone coverage: While I was initially happy to accept this limitation based on the thought that (a) it would only occur at home and (b) would soon be fixed by Samsung, I have since then experienced this battery drainage repeatedly while underway. In all cases it was connected to poor cell-phone coverage, but that is just the reality of the networks today and I experienced battery drain while being out on the boat in Massachusetts Bay as well as while having dinner at Woodman's in Essex.
  • Larger screen not as useful as initially thought: despite the larger screen, there are several limitations built into Android that make things look quite ugly over time. For example, you get the same layout of 4x4 apps, folders, or widget space only, even though the screen should easily be able to accommodate more rows or columns. And even inside apps like Facebook or Skype or Twitter, the usage of the extra screen real estate is not efficient. By contrast, on the iPhone you get a smaller device yet makes better use of the screen real-estate and due to the high-resolution Retina display looks a lot sharper.
  • Verizon has much less real-world data coverage than AT&T: Yes, this is clearly a criticism that has nothing to do with Android vs. iOS, but the reality is that while 4G LTE is beautiful and fast wherever it is available, the second you move out of the core coverage area the Verizon CDMA network is really vastly inferior than AT&T's GSM network. And I found in my testing that I got a lot better and more consistent data coverage on my iPhone, for example out on the boat or away from the city.
  • IPv6 support not working properly: now that IPv6 is permanently activated since the World IPv6 launch day in June this year, I think it is quite astonishing that Samsung would introduce a device that is not capable of getting an IPv6 address or communicating with IPv6-only websites. And talking to Samsung tech-support via website chat and email revealed another weakness: there is no good and knowledgable technical support available. While it is true that the "geniuses" at the Apple "Genius Bar" are not always brilliant either, at least the Apple website and support forums provide the in-depth technical information and I had been able to solve every technical problem there in the past. By contrast, the Samsung website doesn't even have any reference to IPv6 at all.
So after a week-long phone swap, here is my conclusion: for now I'm switching back to my iPhone 4S for daily usage, but I'm really hopeful that future innovation on the Android platform with 4.1 Jelly Bean will close the gap even further and I'm looking forward to repeating this week-long test at that time. I also have a Nexus 7 tablet coming this week and look forward to experimenting with that. At the same time I hope that Apple won't stand still and will surprise us all with new innovative features in their iPhone 5 product this fall, including a larger-screen device. Long-term, I hope that Apple will finally become a more open platform. The ability to replace keyboards and use Swype, the ability to deeply integrate with the telephony capabilities - those are all huge advantages that Android has right now and they will eventually give Android the edge over iOS, if Apple sticks to the closed platform model forever. We've seen this happen before in the 80s with Windows vs. the first generations of MacOS and history is bound to repeat itself - especially now that Apple no longer has its charismatic leader and his reality-distortion field. Bottom-line: if you are looking to buy a new smart phone right now, the Samsung Galaxy S III is a really nice device and as long as you live in a city with great 4G LTE coverage, everything should be fine. It boils down to personal preference in the end. However, if you have been using iPhones for the past couple of years, there is no convincing reason to switch.

A personal tribute to Steve Jobs

I learned about the passing of Steve Jobs this Wednesday as I was in San Francisco for Oracle OpenWorld. I was munching on a cream puff from Beard Papa's on my way back to the hotel when the message popped up on my iPhone.

Jonathan mak apple logo 480x296
Image credit: Jonathan Mak (麥朗)

I was thunderstruck by the news and observed a moment of silence and remembering. While I only ever had the opportunity to meet Steve in person once at a talk he gave during his time at NeXT, he and the company he built have made a huge impact on my life in numerous ways.

It all started in the early eighties when I went to high school in Linz, Austria, and discovered my love for computers and learned how to program on the TRS-80 we had in school, on a Commodore PET that one of my friends owned, and an Apple II that was built into some laboratory equipment in my dad's organic chemistry lab at the JKU university.

In 1983 I bought my first computer, an Apple IIe, and two years later I bought my first Mac. It was through these two machines that I got deeper and deeper into programming, became a serious computer geek, and learned everything from BASIC to UCSD Pascal and assembly language for the 6502 and 68000 microprocessors. And I started working while still going to high school and wrote software for small businesses in the area to help finance the purchase of various computer upgrades, modems, printers, and other gadgets.

After high school I went on to study semiconductor and solid state physics at JKU university and continued to work part-time. During that time I worked as a teacher at a local computer camp for kids that offered sailing and programming instructions (on Apple II and Macintosh computers) over the summer, and I started working for Apple's Austrian subsidiary in Vienna, doing training for their reseller channel as well as participating in the founding of AMDA, the Austrian Macintosh Developer Association.

It was through that Apple connection in Vienna that I got the opportunity of a lifetime in 1988 when I was admitted into the summer-intern program at Apple's main campus in Cupertino. For three summers and one February break I contributed to various projects at Apple ranging from a modification of the Calculator desk accessory to support international number formats, modifying the internal disk image program that was then used to transfer operating system images from the Cupertino campus to the Fremont factory, to writing the 'KCHR' editor and numerous other modules for ResEdit. I made many great friends during those years and, in fact, just had dinner again with some of them last week in San Francisco.

What I had learned at Apple in those years profoundly influenced my life and kindled a love for elegant and powerful developer tools that continues to live on in what I do at Altova today. Ultimately, these three summers in California also played a significant role in my decision to relocate to the US in 2001 with my entire family and to become US citizens in early 2009.

My life would truly have been very different without the influences of Apple, it's products, and it's visionary founder.

Thank you, Steve.

MacBook Pro Black Ribbon
Photo credit: Nora Falk

A life-changing software called “Lose It!”

It is not often that I would give a piece of software the attribute “life-changing”. Certainly, XMLSpy and it’s huge success has changed my life and that of many people at Altova. And others have called DiffDog a life-saver before:

"DiffDog saved my life! Recordare developed MusicXML as an Internet-friendly format for publishing and sharing digital sheet music. As MusicXML became more popular, we needed a truly XML-aware differencing program to evaluate the XML files created by our Dolet plug-ins. DiffDog gives us the high quality regression testing tool that we had long sought for our MusicXML projects."
- Michael Good, CEO, Recordare

But the software I discovered on January 1st this year is the one that best deserves this label. Like so many other years before, my New Year’s resolution this year was to finally lose some weight. And most every year that resolution didn’t last very long. In fact, over the past 17 years I had managed to gain just a few lbs every year – but those added up and ultimately got me from 200 lbs to about 291 lbs in over a decade. Not good.

But this year it was different. This year I discovered Lose It! – a nifty little iPhone app plus website – and started on a real weight-loss program (in combination with a consultation with my doctor). What Lose It! does is deceivingly simple: it helps you track your calories – both those taken in as food and those expended in the form of exercise.

But it doesn’t restrict you in your choices of what foods you can eat. Due to the tracking you quickly learn what is good for you and what isn’t, so you end up making healthy food choices automatically.

And over time your actual habits start changing. For example, when I now know that I have a big dinner with friends ahead of me, I always make sure to exercise right after work and build up a calorie-deficit going into the dinner. And the fact that you are counting calories with the iPhone app right at the dinner table helps you learn portion control and get back to eating in moderation.

As a result of that, Lose It! has enabled me to lose 25.2 lbs in the past 9 weeks. That’s just a little over 2.5 lbs per week, so it is a very healthy rate of weight-loss.

image

I still have a long way ahead of me and only time will tell if I can reach my goal on time. But I already feel a lot better and have a lot more energy. And it feels truly empowering and liberating to finally see those extra pounds disappear.

This post may sound like a commercial for the latest weight-loss fad, but it isn’t. In fact, I have no financial interest in the company behind Lose It! or their products. And the iPhone app is free. The only reason for me to blog about this is to (a) give a tip of the hat to the people who created Lose It! and (b) hopefully help a few other people get started on their way to a healthier weight.

Privacy, geo-location, and over-sharing

There has been plenty of discussion already on privacy settings on Facebook and how our approach to sharing personal information on social networking sites has changed over the years – and I’m not going to repeat any of that. However, the recent growth and considerable hype around geo-location, location-based services, and location-sharing on social networks has taken over-sharing to a whole new level.

Applications like FourSquare and Gowalla, who let users earn badges or awards for checking-in when they visit a restaurant or other location are now often linked to Facebook or Twitter. People post their travel plans on services like Dopplr and TripIt. Facebook itself added the Places feature recently. And Twitter has captured the location of each tweet for quite a while already, provided you use a Twitter app on your GPS-enabled smartphone or allow your browser to determine your location based on your IP address.

Now this all sounds really cool and for a while apps like Foursquare are indeed a novelty and fun to use. In fact, I like to experiment with new things myself and will admit to even becoming the mayor of 25 places on Foursquare, before I quit.

The problem with all of that geo-location information is, of course, that it is more widely available than you would imagine – and sometimes it is even publicly available, e.g. when you connect other geo-location services to Twitter, or when you use the geo-tagging of tweets on Twitter itself. Keep in mind that by default all tweets are public, unless you restrict them to only your followers.

PleaseRobMeConcerns about this issue have been voiced by others before, e.g. the web site PleaseRobMe.com was launched in early 2010 and displayed aggregate information from Twitter and other sources to publicly show when a person was not at home. It was a stunt to draw attention to this problem, and the site no longer shows that info, but it was an effective theoretical experiment.

This experimental threat has now become reality. Last week, police finally caught up with a burglary gang in New Hampshire that had robbed multiple homes this summer, where the homeowners had announced via Facebook that they were not at home, on a vacation, or provided some other information that could be used to infer that the house was going to be empty.

So what about using privacy settings to make sure only your real friends can see this information? That may sound like a good approach at first, but keep in mind that once you share that information with any app or social networking website, it is stored in a database somewhere – and once it is stored somewhere it can be found and abused by someone. In fact, just this week Google fired one of their engineers for stalking teenagers, whose information he had obtained from the kids’ GMail and chat accounts.

solution_thedevice We use GPS ankle-bracelets to track sex offenders and other criminals in our criminal justice system. As a free citizen, why would we voluntarily want to provide anybody with the same tracking information about our personal life and whereabouts?

So here is what I did this weekend to end my own over-sharing of geo-location information:

  • I deleted my FourSquare account and the FourSquare app from my iPhone
  • I deleted my Gowalla account
  • I deleted the Twitter app from my iPhone
  • I changed my Twitter settings to turn off “TweetLocation” and deleted all location information from my past tweets:
    TwitterCapture
  • I deleted the Facebook app from my iPhone
  • I adjusted my Facebook privacy settings to hide all Places information, to not allow others to check me into Places, and to never include me in “People Here Now”. I also tightened down all the other privacy settings to the maximum.
  • I deleted my Dopplr account
  • I decided to no longer post any messages on Twitter or Facebook that would reveal my travel plans (“flying to Las Vegas tomorrow”), current location (“family dinner at Asahi – awesome sushi here”), or my whereabouts (“I’m on the boat”)

And I’m not even sure I got all the places that I may have signed up for in the past, so cleansing my digital tracks and removing all geo-location information and ending past over-sharing will be an ongoing process…

Tablet computers, video, HTML5, and the great Flash debate

Even if you are not always plugged into tech blogs or the latest social media networks, I have a short reading list for you for this weekend. There’s just a fascinating combination of interesting stories all happening in the same 48h period:

  1. HP drops the Slate project (=tablet PC running Windows 7 that was announced at CES last year by Steve Ballmer)
    http://techcrunch.com/2010/04/29/hewlett-packard-to-kill-windows-7-tablet-project/
  2. Microsoft drops the Courier tablet project (=innovative folding screen tablet computer with both hand and pen input)
    http://gizmodo.com/5527442/microsoft-cancels-innovative-courier-tablet-project
  3. HP buys Palm and is rumored to be working on a tablet computer running Palm’s WebOS
    http://www.hp.com/hpinfo/newsroom/press/2010/100428xa.html
  4. Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs attacks Flash in an open letter on the Apple website and clearly speaks out in support of HTML5 and the H.264 video standard
    http://www.apple.com/hotnews/thoughts-on-flash/
  5. Adobe’s CEO Shantanu Narayen (who?) responds to the Steve Jobs letter in a TV interview with the Wall Street Journal (and offers very weak responses only – mostly cookie cutter style)
    http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2010/04/29/live-blogging-the-journals-interview-with-adobe-ceo/
  6. Microsoft responds to the Apple-Adobe debate on the Internet Explorer Blog and also expresses support for HTML5 and H.264, but – in an attempt to not take sides – also states that “Flash remains an important part of delivering a good consumer experience on today’s web”.
    http://blogs.msdn.com/ie/archive/2010/04/29/html5-video.aspx
  7. Apple starts shipping the 3G version of the iPad in the US today
    http://www.apple.com/ipad/

To see all these things unfold in such a short period of time is quite fascinating, and thus far Apple and the iPad are the clear winner here…

Talking of which: according to FedEx my two WiFi+3G iPads are already on the delivery truck today and should arrive at my house before 3pm.

Also, if you are interested in following more of these tech stories unfold in real-time, check out http://techmeme.com/

iPad Review

With all the hype surrounding the iPad this weekend, I decided to wait a bit and only write about it on Monday. This was also just a picture-perfect weekend with ideal weather in New England and the Red Sox Opening Day on Sunday, so I spent most of my time outdoors rather than playing with or writing about the iPad.

Being a technology geek I had, of course, pre-ordered my iPad a while ago and so it arrived on Saturday via UPS truck as promised. The truck driver jokingly remarked that he had a full truck of just iPads to deliver and he wished he had bought Apple stock a while ago. The first sales data that Apple reported today does indeed sound promising.

But is the iPad really a new “magical” device as Apple likes to describe it? Or is it the beginning of a dystopian future where Apple controls what we are allowed to see, the apps that are approved, and the end of an open Internet (as some pundits claim)?

I won’t bore you with unboxing details that others have reported before, or give you a detailed guide to the best applications you should download to your new iPad.

Instead, I will distill the benefits of the iPad down to the one product image that explains it all:

Marvel Comics on iPad

Yes, the iPad is a primarily a media consumption device. Think of that cozy armchair in your living room, or the sofa, or the couch, or a bench in your backyard. Anywhere you would sit down with a good book to read. Have you tried using a laptop in any of those spots? It doesn’t quite work. Laptops are – despite their name – really only useful when you put them on a hotel room desk or airplane tray table.

By contrast, the iPad is really made for consuming media wherever and whenever you don’t want to sit at a desk! Now, in addition to reading books from the iBooks or Kindle bookstores, you can also read comics by Marvel (see image above), consume newspapers in digital editions, catch up on TV that you missed, watch movies you buy or rent on iTunes or Netflix, and browse the web. And if you are one of those always-connected people (like me) you can even read your e-mail and respond to the occasional important one, or access one of the many social networking sites or apps.

And it does all of that extremely well – to the point where it is indeed a new class of device and since everything just works and is super fast, it really has a certain “magical” feel to it. In fact, when I showed some of these apps to my family this weekend, I immediately got requests for additional iPads that they now want me to buy…

iBooks on iPad The one iPad app that is of great interest to this XML Aficionado is, of course, the iBooks app, which is both a very pretty e-Book reader and also a bookstore where you can buy these e-Books directly from Apple. The interesting thing about iBooks is that apple decided to support the open ePub file format for e-Books rather than a proprietary format like the Kindle. As you may have guessed already, ePub is XML-based and the content can be provided in either XHTML or DTBook format. The result is that with the launch of the iBooks bookstore there are not only a few publishers who have already signed up, but you also get a ton of works in the public domain, whose copyright has expired, and you can download all of them for free from the iBooks bookstore. 

WolframAlpha on iPad Above and beyond that, the iPad is really a great educational tool. Using WolframAlpha on the iPad is just a joy and there are also new apps, like The Elements: A Visual Exploration that are really beautifully made.

Yes, there are also some business applications, like Keynote for presentation, Pages for word processing, and Numbers for spreadsheet-type work. Those are really very pretty and easy to use and will certainly be useful for some people, but I am guessing these are more attractive for people who don’t have a laptop and, therefore, want to use the iPad for that purpose, too.

Regarding the iPad hardware: the device fits comfortably in your hand and even though it is a bit heavier than the Kindle, it just feels right. The screen is really beautiful and the colors are vibrant. I used the device for several hours on Saturday and Sunday and the battery life was much better than expected. And it is really fast and responsive. I didn’t find any feature or app where I had to “wait for the computer”. Very refreshing, indeed!

So should you buy an iPad now? That decision is entirely up to you, but this flowchart might help. All kidding aside, if you are an early adopter, like new technologies, and have the money to spend, I would go for it. Likewise, if you are considering buying a Kindle or a PSP, I would buy an iPad instead. However, if you don’t yet have an iPhone and are trying to decide between iPad and iPhone, I would probably rather go with the iPhone – in my opinion it is the more versatile device.

multi_touch_20100225 There is another group of people, for whom the iPad is probably ideal: those of the older generation, who have not yet bought any computer. The iPad is certainly the most gentle way for a senior to get access to e-mail, web browsing, and sharing photos with the younger generations. If you want your parents or grandparents to finally “get connected”, then a broadband Internet connection with wireless router plus an iPad is probably the best solution out there.

Are there any negative things to say about the iPad? I’m afraid not many. There is, of course, the one issue that developers of applications for the iPad are totally dependent upon Apple with respect to whether the apps can be sold through the app store, since Apple has a mandatory approval process and can reject any app for any reason. Tim Bray, co-author and editor of the XML specification, has been very outspoken about that issue and recently said:

“The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger.

I hate it.

I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom’s not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient.”

The same is true for the iPad as much as for the iPhone. On the one hand I agree with Tim about freedom not being optional, on the other hand there are very few apps that Apple rejected that I would miss (Google Voice being the only one I can think of right now). The one benefit of Apple’s tight control over the app store is the total lack of viruses and malware on the iPhone/iPad platform. And it adds a layer of QA on top of most applications, so the software you buy in the app store typically works and is useful.

The second issue with the iPad that is worth mentioning is that there are apparently some Wi-Fi issues that people have reported. I haven’t seen any of those problems myself - either at home or in the office - and the iPad has been flawless in its ability to connect to the Internet anywhere I tried.

Finally, for those who are not convinced and would rather want to see the iPad being abused, there are already some interesting videos out there…

Using the iPhone to pay at Starbucks

There is no use denying: I've been a big fan of Starbucks' coffees for many years and have had a Starbucks Gold card ever since it came out. But I was intrigued to learn a few weeks ago that Starbucks announced Starbucks Card Mobile - an iPhone app that lets you enter your Starbucks card# on the iPhone and you can then use that app to not only check your card balance, but also to pay at certain select Starbucks locations. These test locations are currently only in the Seattle and Silicon Valley areas, and since I am staying in San Francisco for Oracle World this week and met with some friends in the Valley for brunch yesterday, I headed to a Starbucks in Mountain View before driving back to the city.
The iPhone app has a nicely designed user interface and is extremely easy to use. When you are ready to pay, you start the app, enter a PIN code and hit the "Touch to Pay" button. Then you wave your iPhone in front of the scanner of the register at the checkout while it displays this screen.

Once you are done, you hit the "Touch when done" button and the app returns to the balance screen, where you can immediately see the balance after your payment has been processed.

And you can also get a journal of all recent transactions on your card - both those done via the iPhone app and does that were completed using the regular Gold Card in stores that don't yet accept the iPhone app.

All I can say is that this app makes total sense. No more digging for your wallet and fidgeting with the plastic card. Instead - since I use the iPhone all the time when standing in line - I just open the app and wave my iPhone at the scanner to pay. Very cool. I hope Starbucks rolls this out in stores all across the country soon....

Wireless charging…

This is something I’ve really been waiting for: the ability to wirelessly charge my iPhone (or other phone/e-mail gadget of choice). WildCharge has announced that they will begin shipping their WildCharge Skin for the iPhone in July: the skin is a protective gel cover for the iPhone that also includes the contact module and charges the iPhone once it is placed on the WildCharger Charge Pad.

WildCharge

According to the WildCharge website the iPhone skin works with the iPhone 3G and 3GS. They also have a separate skin for the iPod touch and that one seems to already be shipping.

There is a short review in PC World about the WildCharge that also talks about the Palm Pre’s built-in wireless charging system and some more discussion can be found on Techmeme.

Now where is that pre-order button…?

Waiting for activation…

Interesting weekend. When I received shipping notices for the three iPhones 3GS last week and when those three phones arrived on Friday early afternoon, I fully expected to be writing a glowing review this weekend. I had already spent 3 days last week playing with the new iPhone OS 3.0 on my old iPhone 3G, and really liked all the new features (including Copy/Paste, Spotlight search, voice memo).

So I was greatly looking forward to all the new 3GS features and to getting my wife’s phone, my son’s phone, and my phone upgraded. However, where the upgrade to the 3GS phone worked flawlessly for my son and for me, my wife’s iPhone 3GS refused to activate – and we learned that many other users were plagued by the same issue. Despite Apple’s statement that this would be addressed within 48 hours, my wife’s 3GS still shows the same message today:

IMG_1037

At least Apple realizes that they’ve got a problem, because I found this e-mail in my mailbox today in the early morning:

From: do_not_reply@apple.com [mailto:do_not_reply@apple.com]
Sent: Sunday, June 21, 2009 7:17 AM
To: Alexander Falk
Subject: Your Apple Store iPhone Order

Dear Apple Customer,
Thank you for your recent Apple Store order. We appreciate your patience and apologize for the inconvenience caused by the delay in your iPhone activation.
We are still resolving the issue that was encountered while activating your iPhone with AT&T. Unfortunately, due to system issues and continued high activation volumes, this could take us up to an additional 48 hours to complete.
On Monday, you'll receive an email from Apple with an iTunes Store credit in the amount of $30. We hope you will enjoy this gift and accept our sincere apologies for the inconvenience this delay has caused.
Thank you for choosing Apple.
Sincerely,
Apple Online Store Team

I’ve also done some testing with my iPhone 3GS this weekend, and must say that I am actually a bit disappointed. The new camera is certainly a great improvement, and the fact that I can now capture short video clips and directly upload them to YouTube is quite nice. But I could not detect any real improved speed in working with the 3GS, nor did I notice any faster data transfers.

And the compass application is an outright failure: not only does it deviate by almost 8-10 degrees from a real compass, it also fails to provide a way for the user to reset or trigger a new calibration run, which is essential for any fluxgate compass.

Last, but not least, I was greatly looking forward to voice control, and found it to be lacking in several areas:

  • Voice control is only available for calling people and using the iPod functions – not for reading e-mail, or any other applications. I rarely use the iPod functionality, but I would have loved to be able to tell my iPhone “read new e-mail” and have it actually go to the e-mail app and then read those messages to me using text-to-speech functionality while I’m driving to the office.
  • Using voice control to call people might actually be working for those who have just a few hundred contacts in their address book. But it is entirely useless if you are a networker and have 1,641 contacts in your database, like I do.

To sum it up, I really like the new iPhone OS 3 upgrade, and can highly recommend that to any previous iPhone owner (plus it is free!). However, when it comes to upgrading from an older iPhone, I would say that it only makes sense to upgrade from a 1st generation iPhone to the 3GS, but if you already own a 3G you probably are better served keeping that – unless the improved camera resolution or the ability to capture video clips alone are must-have features in your book and you consider them to be worth the upgrade price for you.

Google Voice Review

Google announced Google Voice today, it quickly became the top story on techmeme.com, and as an existing GrandCentral user for the past two years my account was immediately upgraded today, so I am in the lucky position to be able to provide you with an actual in-depth personal review of the new features in Google Voice.

Before we begin, let me say that I already liked GrandCentral a lot. In fact, for the past year I've only given out my one GrandCentral number to all business contacts - and it is the only number that is printed on my business cards. The most important aspect of GrandCentral for me was that with just one phone number to give out to people, they could reach me on any of the following four physical phones: office phone, iPhone, second line at the home phone, and my car phone. And I would get my voice mail in my e-mail inbox. Those two features alone made GrandCentral the best telephony solution for me.

But Google Voice takes it to a whole new level:

Google Voice Inbox

Not only has the web-based UI been completely redone (and now perfectly fits into the GMail and other Google App paradigm), but there is a host of new features that Google Voice has added to the mix, which are all quite amazing:

Voicemail Transcription

Without any doubt this is the coolest feature in the book. Every new voicemail is automatically transcribed into text and delivered to your Google Voice inbox as well as your e-mail inbox. While this feature can be turned off, I have no idea why anybody would want to do that. In fact, this is the biggest time saver ever. I am a big e-mail person, and I do in fact prefer e-mail over voice mail, because I can scan an e-mail inbox much quicker and pick out the relevant and important messages, than I can scan my voice mail system. Now, every voice mail is just another e-mail and can be scanned as rapidly as other messages.

How accurate is the transcription? Well, this is the first version of Google Voice with transcription, so my expectations weren't too high. In fact, when I recorded a test message with some background noise, the transcription came through with quite a few errors, but - in my opinion - that doesn't impact the usefulness of this feature at all. I don't expect to not listening to the voice mail - all I want is the ability to quickly scan through a full inbox and identify the important messages, and for that purpose the accuracy and quality of the transcription is easily sufficient.

One interesting aspect is that in the Google Voice web-based UI the confidence of the transcription is indicated by a change in the text color (see above screenshot), and the words in black were indeed all correct. This is a very helpful way to present the transcription. However, when you look at the same message in your Outlook inbox, that information is presently lost and the whole transcription appears uniformly in black font:

Google Voice Transcription

SMS Support

This may sound trivial, but is really important. The Google Voice phone number now supports SMS text messages. In the past, when I gave people my GrandCentral number as the only phone# they would ever need for me, they often tried to send SMS to that number, since they assume it is a cell phone number. With Google Voice this finally works. Yay! You can also send SMS through the web interface, and you have access to a full log of incoming and outgoing SMS through the UI:

Google Voice SMS log 
Conference Calling

Another useful feature is the ability to do instant conference calls. Instead of having to provide people with a dial-in number and access code for a conference calling system, I can now set up a conference call and simply ask all parties to call my Google Voice number. Once I am on the call with one person and the second caller dials the same number, I can simply press '5' and connect them to the same call. This is incredibly useful, since I can never find my wallet-card for our corporate conference calling system anyway.

International Calls

Google Voice also offers international calls now, and the process to load some money into your voice account is pretty easy. In my case, since I already have a Google Checkout account associated with my credit card, it was literally a matter of just 2 clicks to transfer $10 from my credit card into the Google Voice account. I was then able to place an international call to a colleague in Vienna, Austria, by using the Call button in the web interface and the call was immediately established (by ringing one of my phones first, then the other phone). A female computer voice informed me that the charge for this call would be 19¢ per minute, and I was connected right away. The voice quality was quite good, although the connection was a bit choppy on one of the test calls - something that is typical of most VoIP systems. After the completion of the call, it immediately shows up in your outgoing call log with the cost of the call, and any call that is not answered is also not charged - here is the call log after three international test calls I made, including a nice 6 minute conversation with my dad:

Google Voice Placed Calls

The same rate of 19¢ per minute was charged to both calls to a mobile number in Austria and to a land-line number, which is a bit unusual and appears to be different for other European countries. However, it is still quite a bit cheaper than the $1.49 that Verizon is charging per minute, or the $1.70 that AT&T is charging. In fact, it is probably more akin to Skype costs. However, both Verizon and AT&T offer a world-wide value calling plan that charges a monthly fee of $3-5 and then the rate drops to 9¢ per minute. Bottom-line: if you make the occasional international call, Google Voice is a very good deal, but if you need to make calls to one particular country frequently it may still make sense to check with your land-line provider to see if you can't get a calling plan that gets you a rate that is even lower. Of course, Google Voice is fully integrated with Google Contacts, so you can type a name into the "Call" or "SMS" box and it will present phone numbers from your contacts. Likewise, if you go to the Contacts tab in Google Voice, there are now "call" and "sms" buttons next to each phone# stored for any of your contacts.

Call Widgets

While the old GrandCentral system already had a web-call button, the new Call Widgets in Google Voice make it even easier to add a "Call Me" button to your blog. In fact, there is one on the right sidebar of this blog, so if you want to talk to me, feel free to use that (no prank calls, please!).

 

To sum it up, I'm very happy about these new features. It makes a service that was already invaluable even better. And with the new calling and conferencing features, all I can say is: good-bye Skype, hello Google Voice!

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:


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.

New Microsoft 2D barcode released at CES

In a surprise move Microsoft released a new 2-dimensional barcode format today at CES. Yes, a barcode. The lines that are on the bottom of your milk carton, when you scan it at the supermarket checkout. And no, today is not April Fool's.

Two-dimensional barcodes are nothing new, and are most often seen on attendee badges at conferences or trade shows, but Microsoft's format is the first to use color and to be aimed at a specific reader device that most people already own: a cell phone with built-in camera.

The system is called Microsoft Tag and the idea is that you can encode URLs, vCards, phone numbers, or any arbitrary text in such a tag. The user then needs a reader application on their cell phone - and those are available already for all major cell phone platforms, including Symbian, iPhone, Windows Mobile, Android, and Blackberry - and once they scan the barcode, they get the encoded contact, are redirected to the website with the specified URL, or can call the encoded telephone number, without having to enter that number or URL or contact info into their cell phone manually.

MissionKitBarCodeFor a quick demonstration, download the beta version of the reader from http://gettag.mobi and install it on your cell phone, then use it to snap a picture of this barcode on the left and it will take your mobile browser to retrieve product information about the Altova MissionKit for Software Architects from our website. Clearly, it doesn't make sense to use these in a blog, but imagine reading an article about the software in a developer publication and being able to go directly to the website without having to type in a URL...

Btw, if you are using an iPhone, you can get the reader application through the familiar AppStore on your iPhone by searching for "Microsoft".

Microsoft envisions that such tags could in the future be printed on business cards, shown in print ads,XMLAficionadoBarCode on billboards, or even shown on TV, and the system is supposedly so flexible that it can deal even with out-of-focus or tiny versions of these barcodes. Hmm, so I created a new tag already for the URL of this XML Aficionado blog, and now I need to think where I should affix this to - maybe I'll print a T-Shirt with this new design and will wear it at the next conference I go to...

Further information and other blog reactions can be found on TechMeme.

Impressions from PodCamp Boston 3 (#pcb3)

DSC04154 I was at PodCamp Boston 3 yesterday and wanted to briefly share a few impressions here. The funny video is at the bottom, so if you have no patience and just want to hear Chris Brogan, you may scroll down a page or so... :)

The event was held at Harvard Medical School and was completely sold out. Bloggers, Audio and Video Podcasters came together to discuss and present all aspects of Social Media in a community-oriented style.

Even though there was a schedule of formal presentations, a lot of the real action happened in the hallways, coffee breaks, and in several impromptu sessions.

I found most presentations to be very good (e.g. Stever Robbins aka the Get It Done Guy), but some were also a disappointment and I walked out - only to run into people in the hallway and strike up a great conversation. One panel discussion was almost putting me to sleep.

DSC04165 Being a rather podcasting-oriented event you could always find people in the hallway being interviewed by others, and in some cases the interviewer and interviewee would trade roles after a few minutes - it was actually pretty funny to watch.

One thing that was pretty amazing during the event was to observe others in the audience during the presentation sessions: about half the people were working on laptops during the presentation, the rest was on Blackberrys, iPhones, and I saw one person even working on a PSP. I also noticed one person holding an old-fashioned paper-pad. Most laptop and iPhone users were on Twitter reporting live from the event, or looking up whatever the presenter was talking about on Wikipedia, Google, etc. and taking notes.

DSC04167 Probably the best session I was a part of wasn't a scheduled presentation at all. As I took a quick break in the cafeteria, an impromptu event formed (and was promptly twittered about) where a couple of people came together and started a discussion on Old Media vs. New Media. It was a lively discussion that encompassed everything from advertising, journalistic styles, different ad sales strategies and staffing levels, to how Social Media is affecting the way we consume media, respond to advertising, and making purchasing decisions. Several people were recording the session with high-quality video equipment, but then stopped after a while - I guess their memory cards must have been getting full by then.

So I whipped out my trusted old Sony DSC-T50 digital camera and recorded about 20 minutes worth of raw 640x480 video. Not a quality that video podcasters would aim for, but sure enough in those 20 minutes I captured this great statement from Chris Brogan:

I apologize for the bad audio-quality (since I only used the built-in mic), so if you are having trouble hearing it, this is Chris Brogan's insight: "Wait a second. I buy my media. And I watch ads for free. Hmmm..."

The other conclusions reached during the discussion were:

  • that Social Media actually causes large companies to lose control of their brands - and some even argued that they are only losing the illusion of ever having been in control of their brand;
  • that Social Media actually forces companies to focus on creating a great product, because anything less than a great product will be exposed very quickly;
  • that any Old Media company who doesn't "get it" will soon be reduced to irrelevance.

PodCamp Boston 3 is still going on today, but I unfortunately can't make it into town due to the new puppy. If you are also missing the event, you can follow live updates from PodCamp Boston 3 using Twitter Search (aka Summize).

Talking of Twitter, if you'd likee to follow my updates, you can do so here...

Phonautograph recording of the oldest sound

Most gadgets that I write about are at the fore-front of technology. This Phonautograph, arguably, doesn't look like such a device at first glance:

But in 1860, when Parisian inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville used his device to record Au Claire de la Lune, it was definitely cutting-edge technology, as his device predates Thomas Edison's work by 17 years. One recording from the above device has now been recovered and can be downloaded as an MP3 file almost 150 years later, and subsequently be played on your computer, or even your iPod or iPhone.

See the related press release and also the First Sounds website and this article on MSNBC for more details...

OOXML vs. ODF - the "battle" is heating up as we get closer to the ISO BRM date

I wrote about the Burton Group's report "What's Up, .DOC?" before on the XML Aficionado blog, and it didn't take long for the ODF Alliance to write a scathing rebuttal to the Burton Group report. Ironically, that rebuttal was published in PDF format, not ODF...

Before we take a look at what happens next, maybe it is time for a short review of the various acronyms and abbreviations that are commonly used in these reports, discussions, and in related blogs:

OOXML Office Open XML is an XML-based file format specification for electronic productivity application documents, such as spreadsheets, charts, presentations, and word processing documents. Originally developed by Microsoft, it is already an Ecma standard and widely used due to its implementation by Microsoft Office 2007. It is currently in the process of being proposed as an ISO standard.
ODF Open Document Format is a file format for electronic office documents, originally developed by Sun for the OpenOffice.org office suite and then later standardized through OASIS and ISO.
ISO International Organization for Standardization
BRM Ballot Resolution Meeting is the ISO process by which comments received during the previous ISO FastTrack vote and letter ballot phase are resolved by the meeting, during which national bodies and the submitting entity (Ecma) will possibly agree on a set of revisions to the originally submitted standard text. The DIS-29500 BRM is scheduled for February 25-29, 2008, in Geneva.
DIS-29500 The official ISO name and standard number for OOXML
OASIS Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards; a non-profit consortium that defines open standards for the global information society
Ecma Originally this was called the European Computer Manufacturers Association, but their new name is Ecma International - European association for standardizing information and communication systems.
XML eXtensible Markup Language as defined by the W3C in 1998. Probably the most important standard of them all, because both OOXML and ODF are built on top of XML. If you don't know it already, you should definitely learn XML... :)

 

So what's new with the OOXML vs. ODF debate now that we are only two weeks away from the ISO BRM? Earlier this week, the Burton Group responded to the ODF Alliance's rebuttal in a series of three postings by Guy Creese on the Collaboration and Content Strategies Blog, and you can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. In this response, the Burton Group addresses each criticism from the ODF Alliance point by point.

Also, Slashdot reported this week on the Ecma response to the ISO comments and the recent blog post from Russel Ossendryver (an open source and ODF advocate) criticizing the Ecma response.

If you prefer some demos over reading thousands of pages of specifications, you may find these videos interesting that have been posted on YouTube recently: a video of Open XML on the iPhone, as well as a video of Native Open XML support on Mac OS X. Both videos show support of OOXML on Apple's platforms, yet Martin Bekkelund (a proponent of Norway's "no" vote on DIS-29500) writes on his blog today about some headaches he's had with OOXML on the Mac and his iPhone. I was curious about his allegation that a .DOCX on the iPhone produces an error message, so I had to try it myself - and I am happy to report that any .DOCX attachment received on my iPhone (running the 1.1.3 software) displays beautifully and works pretty much exactly like it is shown in the YouTube video above.

More commentary and further information can be found on Michael Desmond's blog, as well as in previous OOXML-related posts on this XML Aficionado blog. Also keep in mind that the best way to learn OOXML is to start experimenting with it, and I recently wrote a longer article on Content reuse with Open XML and XSLT to show exactly how easily it can be done using the built-in OOXML support in your favorite XML Editor.

One thing is certain: everybody will be watching the outcome of the ISO BRM very closely...

iPhone browser traffic disproportionate to market share

I've said it all along - the iPhone's UI and especially the Safari browser on the iPhone are a quantum-leap over existing other smartphone technologies (e.g. Windows mobile, Symbian, Blackberry).

The NY Times has an article today on iPhone traffic on Google and confirms this by stating that despite a market-share of only 2% (compared to 63% for Symbian and 11% for Windows Mobile) the majority of mobile browsing traffic on Google over Christmas came from iPhones - that is simply astounding: more than 50% of the traffic from iPhones that have only a 2% market share!

The article also cites an analyst opinion:

"The iPhone has taken the frustration out of browsing on a mobile phone, said Charles Wolf, an analyst with Needham & Company."

Related discussions and other blog links can be found on TechMeme, as well as in previous iPhone-related posts on this blog...

XML 2007 (or not), IE8, and Google on the iPhone

XML 2007 ended in Boston today and despite planning to go to the conference today, I unfortunately missed the event due to some time constraints at work. Elliotte Rusty Harold blogged from the conference (thank you!), and he was asking if nobody else was reporting live from the event. Well, I was planning to do so, but couldn't. Sorry.

The one talk that I had really wanted to go to was by Irina Kogan (IBM) and Dr. Nick Nagel (Altova) who spoke on "XML-Driven Database Design and Information Retrieval" this afternoon - fortunately the presentation slides can be found here so I can read up on what I missed.

In other interesting news today:

I've already played with the Google interface on the iPhone and it is really nicely done. I get Google search, GMail, and Reader all nicely integrated and with a slick iPhone like UI.