Weekly output: Internet governance, Kojo Nnamdi Show, old camcorders

For once, the combined universe of smartphones and tablets did not constitute the majority of my coverage over a week.

3/18/2014: No, the U.S. Isn’t Really Giving Up the Internet—It Doesn’t Own It Anyway, Yahoo Tech

This story was not the easiest one to write, courtesy of Monday being a snow day in which most of my queries went unanswered while my wife and I had to keep our daughter entertained. DNS root-zone supervision is an exceedingly wonky topic; did I keep my explanation of it out of the weeds, or is mine too far above the ground to provide enough understanding of the topic?

Kojo Nnamdi Show on wireless service

3/18/2014: Choosing A Cell Phone And Mobile Data Plan, The Kojo Nnamdi Show

WAMU host Kojo Nnamdi, CNET columnist Maggie Reardon and I discussed the changing shape of the wireless market–in particular, T-Mobile’s hanging up on subsidized handset pricing. T-Mo marketing v.p. Andrew Sherrard joined us via phone for part of the show and provided a number I hadn’t seen before: From 10 to 20 percent of its customers now bring their own devices to the carrier.

3/23/2014: How to rescue vintage camcorder footage, USA Today

As it has before, my neighborhood’s mailing list proved to be a fruitful source of Q&A column material–and this time around, my research into a neighbor’s problems getting video off an old MiniDV camcorder involved a house call.

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Weekly output: car connectivity, business models, virtual voting, LTE fragmentation, Google Keyboard

I hope you all enjoyed your more-or-less four-day weekend. I did–and managed to spend enough time away from my various keyboards that I’m now posting this after midnight Sunday. Oh well…

7/1/2013: Car Connectivity Nears A Fork In The Road, Discovery News

My last report from CE Week covered the philosophical split I saw between companies vying to make car dashboards smarter by essentially turning them into smartphones, and those looking to provide easier and more powerful phone-to-dashboard links. I’m hoping the second contingent wins out, but I see a lot of ways they might not.

7/3/2013: Transparency About Your Business Model Ought To Be A Competitive Advantage, Disruptive Competition Project

First I saw the popular Google Reader replacement Feedly get criticized for not having a  business model (it does but has been weirdly quiet about it). Then I read blogger Andrew Sullivan’s impressive transparency about his venture into reader-supported publishing. Then I decided it was time to call out dot-commers who don’t think they need to tell their users how they plan to make money.

KTVU virtual-voting spot7/3/2013: Bill would allow virtual voting in Congress, Cox Media Group

A House resolution would let representatives attend committee hearings via videconferencing and even cast some non-controversial votes remotely, so it seemed  appropriate to have Cox correspondent Jacqueline Fell interview me about the bill via Skype. And so viewers in such places as Atlanta, the Bay Area (linked above), Palm BeachPittsburgh and Reno could have seen me briefly identified as a “Technology Expert.”

7/7/2013: Carriers have different ways to spell ‘LTE’, USA Today

A reader asked Sprint customer support a simple question–can your LTE phones roam on Verizon–and got a wrong answer, and things got more complicated from there as I dove into the tangled universe of LTE bands here and overseas. The tip part of the column is a lot simpler: If you hate your (new-ish) Android phone’s keyboard, install Google Keyboard today.

On Sulia, I poured one out for the now-officially-defunct Nextel, noted a documentary profiling five D.C. tech startups I’ve covered, griped about TiVo’s dismissive, “sorry”-free response to a friend’s perfectly reasonable query, and called out glib, alarmist rewriting of a mobile-security company’s report of a partially-addressed Android vulnerability.

Weekly output: tech PR, cybersecurity and wiretapping, 1776, Tech Night Owl, unlimited data, charging cables

According to this list, I spent more time talking about my job than actually doing it (and it’s not even counting the roughly three hours I spent talking to local startups at Day of Fosterly Saturday). That’s not actually true, but it’s not far from the truth either.

4/30/2013: Meet the Tech Media, BusinessWire

I talked about the intersections of technology, the media and public relations with Washington Technology editor Nick Wakeman, freelance writer Andrew Feinberg, Washington Business Journal reporter Bill Flook and Potomac Tech Wire editor Paul Sherman at the Tysons Corner Marriott.

DisCo cybersecurity wiretapping post5/1/2013: Government To Industry: Secure Your Systems, But Also Make Them Easy To Wiretap, Disruptive Competition Project

This post started when I read my old Post colleague Ellen Nakashima’s front-page story about a campaign to compel Internet services to provide real-time decryption of their encrypted communications services for law-enforcement inquiries. Then I thought about how that effort might square with the last two years of debate over what the Feds can do to get private industry to strengthen its cybersecurity defenses–and realized how that paralleled mid-1990s arguments over the government’s “Clipper chip” scheme.

5/3/2013: Media outreach breakfast, 1776

Déjà vu set in as I once again found myself onstage with Paul Sherman to talk about how the media covers tech startups–this time at the 1776 incubator on 15th Street downtown, almost directly across from the Post.

5/4/2013: May 4, 2013 —Tim Angel, Rob Pegoraro and Daniel Eran Dilger, Tech Night Owl Live

I returned to Gene Steinberg’s podcast to talk about Apple’s cliff-diving stock price (and what that says about Wall Street’s short-term judgment), Samsung’s Galaxy S 4 and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s latest report on how well some major tech companies protect your data from government inquiries.

5/5/2013: Why hang on to your unlimited data plan?, USA Today

The post I wrote here about how much data people actually use on their phones led to this column questioning the value of unlimited-data wireless plans. It has not won universal applause so far. Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin astutely pointed out that if you signed up for Verizon’s old unlimited plan long enough  ago, you could well save money by sticking with that, even if you have to pay an unsubsidized price for a phone; I was less persuaded by people saying they plow through 15 or 20 gigabytes a month without citing what apps chew up that much data.

On Sulia, I assessed the iOS version of Google Now, shared some quick reactions to my Fosterly Media Match experience, related how much my Nexus 4′s battery seems to like being on WiFi and 3G at the same time, and asked Web admins to make sure that site addresses don’t require users to type in a “www” prefix.

How much of your unlimited mobile broadband are you actually using?

In one comments thread this week, I’ve had readers say it’s silly to hold out for unlimited mobile broadband when you can save so much every month by opting for a capped plan. In another, I’ve had readers comparing strategies to hang on to their Verizon unlimited accounts for as long as possible.

March data usageMy hunch is that the first group has the wiser strategy. Consider the graph at right, charting my data usage from early March to early April: Even with all of SXSW and more than 900 megabytes’ worth of tethering, I still only racked up 2.13 gigabytes.

And that’s well above average, going by the latest numbers about North American usage from Alcatel-Lucent. That wireless-infrastructure vendor found that LTE users consumed an average of 46 MB a day–about 1.4 gigabytes a month–while 3G users ate up 17 megs a day, or only half a gig.

Am I missing something here? You tell me. Take a look at your own phone’s monthly data consumption and report back in the poll below. To check that detail in Android, open the Settings app and select “Data usage.” In iOS, open the Settings app, tap General, then tap Usage, then “Cellular Usage.” (Note that this isn’t broken down month by month, and that if you want to see which apps ate up the most data you’ll have to spring for a third-party app like DataMan Pro.)

For extra credit: Is that number more or less than you expected, and does it have you rethinking your choice of wireless plan?

Weekly output: Android updates, opening Works files, PDF export

Baseball distracted me from work for a good chunk of this week. The good news–by which I mean, the lousy news–is that I won’t have to worry about that again until the spring.

10/13/2012: With Android Phones, The Future’s Still On Hold, Discovery News

I thought that a post inventorying the versions of Android on the current hardware sold by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon would make for a quick post on a busy week. Wrong: Most of their sites (aside from Sprint’s) require multiple clicks to check that basic detail, and none of them seem to list clearly what phones have downloadable software updates available or promised. Fortunately, the extra work this required seems to have been rewarded with an unusual level of reader interest for a Saturday-morning post, including a long iOS-versus-Android comments thread I’m too tired to read through at the moment.

10/14/2012: It’s time to retire that Microsoft Works file, USA Today

I might not have believed this report of somebody sending out a .wps Microsoft Works document had I not known the recipient who asked about it. I figured that meant there were enough other people who had run into the same problem–or would at least be interested in general advice about how to deal with an odd file attachment–but the lack of reader feedback suggests I could be wrong. The post also suggests one way to get PDF copies of your important files for long-term archiving.

Weekly output: iPhone 5 (x4), Apple Maps, Google Now, Oblong

This looks like a lot of words on one phone… and it is. Counting the post that ran last week, I wound up filing almost 2,000 words on the iPhone 5 for CNNMoney’s four-part series. (Yes, back in May I posted an item here questioning the usefulness of 2,000-word gadget reviews. Ahem.) The Discovery News post added about 600 more to the total. And this week’s USA Today piece covers the iPhone 5′s maps app, so you might as well put that on my tab too.

But: I enjoyed how all this worked out. I appreciated having some time to consider this phone virtues instead of rushing to dump my judgment into, at best, a first-look post and then a column written a day later.

9/24/2012: iPhone 5 Can Go The Distance But Gets Lost, Discovery News

This post also benefited from the pacing of the CNNMoney series–because I wrote it after the first chapter of that bunch, I didn’t feel like I was starting from scratch with the review. I also think that the exercise of distilling my assessment into one post helped define the structure of the rest of that project.

9/24/2012: IPhone 5 journal: LTE performance and photos, CNNMoney.com

Earlier this year, I started posting sample photos taken with review hardware to Flickr, and that’s helped a lot when writing posts like this–I can see how pictures from the iPhone 5′s camera compare with those from older models instead of thinking “well, they look okay.” And then reviewers can conduct the same inspection and see for themselves.

9/26/2012: IPhone 5 journal: Torture testing the battery, CNNMoney.com

I had higher hopes for the iPhone 5′s battery life, considering Apple’s claims (it has a history of shipping hardware that matches or slightly exceeds them) and my early experience. But as I wrote here, while this does better than other LTE phones, it doesn’t beat them by a huge margin; you’d still be wise to bring a charger or cable with you if you’re going to out for most of the day, especially if you’ll be on Twitter for much of that time. (Remember that I also keep a running scorecard of my battery-life tests here.)

9/28/2012: IPhone 5 journal: Finding the best, cheapest carrier, CNNMoney.com

My series wrapped up with the most math-intensive part, a comparison of the three primary carriers’ subscription options. The one thing I wish I’d added to it: a cautionary note about how LTE’s faster speeds seem to encourage binging on data. I’ve only had this iPhone 5 for 10 days, but the Settings app reports that I’ve burned through 2.5 gigabytes of cellular data. Yikes.

9/29/2012: How to choose an Apple Maps alternative, USA Today

I’d already filed a column discussing alternatives to the hastily-produced output of Apple’s cartographical Cuisinart, and then Apple CEO Tim Cook had to go and apologize for Apple Maps himself and endorse not just the four options I’d covered but a fifth, Nokia Maps. Hello, rewrite! The piece wraps up with a complaint about another unhelpful source of navigation, Google Now; for a more detailed breakdown of that Android app’s issues, see the post I wrote about it for The Atlantic Cities.

9/29/2012: Hand Waves Control Wall-Sized Games, Discovery News

Discovery likes posts with a touch of sci-fi to them, so I couldn’t turn down a demo of Oblong Industries’ Minority Report-esque interface while I was in San Francisco for the Online News Association’s conference. Veteran tech blogger Robert Scoble must have had the same demo before or after me that Thursday, as he covered Oblong in two posts on Google+ a couple of days before I got around to writing my own.

Weekly output: Mat Honan, Mike Daisey, pausing telecom service, “Free Public WiFi”

Two of this week’s posts involved other people’s stories–either adding context to them or critiquing the storytelling itself. (I also filed one post and a podcast for CEA, but they haven’t gone up yet. I’m blaming the fact that it’s August in D.C.)

8/8/2012: Hacking Nightmare Comes True: Mat Honan’s Story, Discovery News

After reading Wired writer Mat Honan’s Tumblr post about how hackers had hijacked his iCloud and Twitter accounts, deleted his Google account and remote-wiped his iPad, iPhone and MacBook Air, I wanted to know how such a thing could be possible. After reading his explanation of the hack on Wired.com, I wanted to write about it myself–both to yell at Amazon and Apple for their (now fixed) security flaws that enabled the hack, and to remind readers of what they can to prevent the same thing from happening to them. It helped to talk to Honan over the phone on Tuesday morning and hear the stress and anger in his voice. (I enjoy Honan’s work, and he and I were on a radio show once, but I don’t think we’ve met face to face.)

8/8/2012: How Mike Daisey retooled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Ars Technica

Some 17 months after I first saw Daisey’s monologue about Apple, I returned to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in downtown D.C. to catch the 2.0 version, stripped of the material he fabricated earlier about Apple’s outsourced manufacturing in China. This was the first time in years that I’d taken notes on a paper notepad (the prior item in this one was a set of questions I jotted down for a video interview with Steve Wozniak I did for the Post in late 2009).

It was also the first time in a while that the subject of a review wrote back to me. Maybe an hour after this post went up, Daisey e-mailed to contest my interpretation. He said I made him sound too trusting in the New York Times’ reporting and didn’t give him enough credit for addressing some of the related issues I mentioned in this piece in the program handed out to attendees. I replied that those were my reactions, as jotted down in real time in the dark; they may not be a correct interpretation, but the review is supposed to reflect what I thought at the time.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the comments from Ars readers were far less sympathetic to Daisey’s case.

8/12/2012: How to pause cable, phone services, USA Today

I thought a reader’s question about whether he could suspend his Internet, TV and phone services while away from home would make for a nice, easy, “it’s August in D.C. and nobody wants to work too hard” item. Wrong. Some telecom firms have multiple policies that vary by region. The piece also reminds readers that the “Free Public WiFi” hot spot you might see is an artifact of a patched Windows XP bug. (Yes, you’ve read that from me before: I covered it in a 2009 article for the Post.)

Why I don’t own an iPhone

I’ve written a couple of harsh evaluations of a new Android phone this week: a review of Samsung’s Galaxy Note for Discovery News and a rant for Boing Boing about how the same old vendor-inflicted problems surface on this device.This led to  predictable accusations from readers that I’m in the tank for iOS–that, as it were, I wrote those pieces while affectionately caressing my iPhone.

The problem with that scenario is that I don’t own an iPhone and never have. (My wife has a Verizon iPhone 4 from her office; sometimes she lets me borrow it to try out a new app.) My own phone is an Android device–the battered HTC Hero you see in the photo below, which has exhibited some of the best and worst qualities of Google’s operating system in the two years I’ve owned it.

hero_cyanogen_mod.jpgI didn’t buy an iPhone in 2007, even though I found a great deal to like about it, because I was in the middle of a contract with Sprint. And even if I’d been willing to eat an early-termination fee to defect to AT&T, I would have then had a phone that I couldn’t use anywhere in the subway parts of Metro.

When my contract expired in early 2008, switching to AT&T still would have left me offline for almost all of my commute. I could not wrap my head around the idea of having to use a pay phone to call my wife or the copy desk after work. So–boy, does this look embarrassing now–I took the cheapest adequate option, the Palm Centro Sprint offered for free.

The Centro was no prize, but I figured I could limp along until Android phones arrived for Sprint or Verizon. (AT&T did not wind up offering coverage underground until October of 2009–and still doesn’t work in the two stations closest to my home.)

At my next upgrade window in early 2010, AT&T had shown itself to be a poor steward of Apple’s device by supporting picture messaging months late and failing to upgrade its network in D.C. and elsewhere. On a personal level, I didn’t care to underwrite Apple’s inscrutable App Store curation/censorship–and after enduring two rounds of the “OMG, the iPhone’s here!” get-a-life-you-people media circus, I took perverse satisfaction in thinking differently.

I’d liked the Sprint HTC Hero I’d tried out a few months before, so that’s what I went with instead. In retrospect, that represented dubious judgment on my part; I could have switched to Verizon and gotten the Droid, or I could have suffered with the Centro for another few months and picked up an Evo. Instead, I got a decent phone that got old fast.

Much of that is Sprint and HTC’s fault for abandoning it. They delivered one Android update, an upgrade to Android 2.1 that arrived after I saw Google executives demo Android 2.2, aka “Froyo,” at a developers’ conference in San Francisco. Not long after, I had to root the phone to nuke the bloatware Sprint had welded to it.

After coming back from CES in 2011, thoroughly fed up with how sluggish the phone had become, I wiped the factory software to install an independently-developed build of Android, CyanogenMod. This brought the Hero up to Android 2.2 and, for a time, rejuvenated it. My phone was vastly more responsive, had better battery life, could run new software incompatible with 2.1 and, because I could park apps on its microSD Card, no longer kept flashing “phone is running low on storage” nags. I was all set to rave about the transformation wrought by aftermarket firmware when this thing started crashing a little too often.

“A little too often” degenerated to “all the damn time.” I upgraded to the 7.0 release of Cyanogen, and that briefly fixed things while also bringing free WiFi tethering and an update to Android 2.3 Gingerbread. But this installation, too, became hopelessly afflicted with crashes as its battery life steadily decayed. Upgrading to 7.1 hasn’t improved things much. When this thing crashes for no reason–then crashes again before it can finish rebooting–I feel like throwing it at the floor. (If any of you have tips about what I could to fix this, please share in the comments.) It’s a good thing I happen to have some review phones around to lean on.

I’m now out of contract, and my options are more open than ever. I could get an iPhone 4S on Sprint or Verizon, or I could get another Android phone. As a platform, I like Android. Really. Free turn-by-turn navigation is a huge benefit that makes the iPhone look pathetic. The selection of apps is tremendous–I can’t think of any iOS-only software that I miss. Android’s onscreen widgets and (in 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich) multitasking have no parallel in iOS. I’m just afraid of what the manufacturers and the carriers might do to my next Android phone. It is reassuring that Android offers the escape hatch of third-party firmware–but would that prove as unstable as my current sorry software?

I hope I haven’t gotten myself stuck in yet another abusive phone relationship.

Reader reports on AT&T data throttling

Since my USA Today column covered AT&T’s recent habit of throttling back the connections of unlimited-data subscribers judged to be in the top 5 percent of users in a given market, I’ve been hearing from readers subjected to this penalty. To judge from their input, you really don’t want to be among the 5 percent at that carrier.

Of the five people to report getting AT&T’s warning and then having their connection throttled, all said their downloads downshifted to 100 to 150 kilobits per second. (A sixth didn’t specify a number but also said the slowdown came without a warning.) That’s about the speed of AT&T’s decade-old GPRS data service, which was barely adequate for the WAP browsers of 2002.

The screenshots at right, showing the warning sent via text message and a post-throttling bandwidth test, come from Kevin Reifel of Williamstown, N.J.

Two of these readers cited monthly bandwidth usage above 5 gigabytes, fueled by the fast LTE service on their new Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket phones. Three iPhone users, however, reported bandwidth use below or barely above the 3-GB quota of AT&T’s current $30/month option.

Dave Spenik, of Walnut, Calif., said he also received warnings for hitting just 2.1 GB and change but avoided throttling those months–matching one of the first reports I got about this issue.

There was no real pattern to the locations of these reports, aside from them coming from outer suburbs of various metro areas (Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles).

But–you knew this was coming–these customers do share a pronounced unhappiness with AT&T. Gaithersburg, Md., resident David Rothfeld declared: “I will never go back to ATT again.” Wrote Spenik: “I plan to lodge complaints with the FCC, Calif State Attorney General, and Calif Public Utilities Commission, and am going to begin preparation to sue in Calif Small Claims Court.” Reifel: “I would have more respect for ATT if they simply just advised all their current unlimited data users that the plan was going away and to please pick a new plan.”

(The company did that in 2010 when it terminated an unlimited plan for users of some data-only devices.)

It’s true that most users don’t come near 2 gigs a month. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus that I’ve been testing extensively shows only 866 megabytes used over the last three weeks, nowhere near Verizon’s monthly 2 GB quota. But at least that’s an obvious limit. I would not be comfortable worrying that crossing an undefined and changing threshold would get my smartphone kneecapped through the rest of the billing cycle.