Weekly output: Sprint-T-Mobile, Tech Night Owl, iMessage

I was a lot more productive than usual this week (much of that activity went into a project that’s not ready to post yet), even though I lost all of Monday to travel. Funny how that works…

3/25/2014: Dear Feds: Hang Up on a Sprint/T-Mobile Merger, Yahoo Tech

I still don’t know if Sprint is going to try to go through with what seems a phenomenally bad idea, but I wanted to go on the record about my dislike of further consolidation of the four big wireless carriers. I also thought this was a good time to denounce the idea that government regulators can manage away the risks of mega-mergers by imposing complicated conditions on the conduct of the combined firm; saying “no” is easier, cheaper and permanent.

3/29/2014: March 29, 2014 — Rick Broida, Daniel Eran Dilger and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

I made one of my occasional appearances on Gene Steinberg’s Apple-centric podcast; we talked about the arrival of Microsoft Office on the iPad and my column on Sprint-T-Mobile.

USAT column on iMessage mess3/30/2014: iMessage: How to make it stop, USA Today

I’ve been hearing complaints from friends and acquaintances for at least the last year about how switching from an iPhone to a non-Apple device (especially if that switch happens after the loss or theft of the iPhone in question) causes text messages from friends on other iPhones to vanish. I finally looked into this for my column and found things were even worse than I’d thought: You can have messages go down a black hole even if you do things right, Apple’s documentation is woefully incomplete, and the company’s tech support can’t be relied on to play by even the undocumented rules.

Note that until we can get a revision in, the column describes one aspect of iMessage incorrectly: I wrote that iMessage-routed messages appear in green bubbles and regular texts show up in blue when it’s the other way around. If Apple fans seize on that error to call the rest of the column into question–well, they’d be wrong, but it’s still my job to get the details right.

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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.

Making use of misfit review hardware

One of the recurring First World problems in technology journalism is possessing review hardware that you don’t get around to reviewing anywhere. That’s easier to happen than you might think: The device you want to review only works with another one that doesn’t warrant a writeup from you; a PR shop sends along a gadget you don’t need along with one you requested; you ask for a loaner device but then can’t interest a paying client in a story on it.

Chromebook Pixel with Galaxy Note 3 and Republic Wireless Moto XEither way, I hate to send the hardware in question back without getting some journalistic value out of it. (No, I don’t get to keep review hardware for my own use–and selling it on eBay isn’t an option either.) Here’s how I’ve tried to make additional use out of three gadgets that found their way to me without making it into a detailed review by me.

Galaxy Note 3: This size-XL phone was a supporting actor in my reviews of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear watch. I’ve since used this Sprint-spec Note 3 as a guinea pig in tests of the charging speed of its forked USB 3 cable (it was only about 22 percent faster than a generic USB cable) and of Absolute Software’s Lojack kill-switch app. I’ve also been taking notes on which of Samsung’s default settings merit changing–starting with that annoying whistle notification sound. Look for a cheat sheet on that topic, here or somewhere else.

Moto X: When Republic Wireless sent me its version of this phone, I was sure I could sell somebody on an assessment of how its WiFi-centric wireless service has evolved since last summer’s cruder offering. Nope! The loaner unit got a brief mention in a post about some positive trends in the mobile-phone industry and hasn’t shown up in any stories since then. I’ve used it to check the speed of Sprint’s LTE in my neighborhood (just now at my desk, a weak 4.51 Mbps down and 4.58 Mbps up) and to check its battery life (unsurprisingly enough, it’s vastly better on WiFi).

Chromebook Pixel: At Google’s I/O conference this May, journalists were invited to take home loaner units of this $1,299 Chrome OS laptop. I thought it would be educational to see how the Web looked on an ultra-high-resolution, 2560-by-1700-pixel display. Answer: pretty sharp! But I’ve spent surprisingly little time on the thing. For me, at least, the utility of a laptop with all of my usual apps trumps the beauty of a screen bereft of those tools. My last intensive use of the machine was to set up a fake Facebook account so I could check the social network’s default settings for a how-to post at Yahoo Tech, but this laptop’s smooth gray finish has also served as a backdrop in a few gadget close-up shots.

If you have any lingering questions about these devices that I might be able to answer, speak up now–sometime in the next few days, they’re all going home.

Weekly output: tech exceptionalism, mobile UX, smarter wireless, wireless-phone portability

This was an unusual week: For a change, it was my wife out of town on business and me doing the solo-parent thing at home. If you were wondering why I seemed absent from Twitter in the evenings, there’s your answer.

11/18/2013: Tech Exceptionalism with a Dose of Reality, Disruptive Competition Project

This was the essay about the Techonomy conference that I mentioned in last week’s recap. I hope the repeated rewrites paid off, but you can be the judge of that. Also unclear: Whether my skeptical take will get me uninvited from the conference next year.

eMobileHub mobile-UX chat11/19/2013: How to Ensure Top-Notch Mobile User Experiences, Enterprise Mobile Hub

After a few weeks off, I rejoined IDG’s Twitter chat series. In this week’s installment, we talked about ways organizations can make their mobile apps less awful, which at one point led to me using the phrase “reeducation camp.”

11/22/2013: Promising Signs For Smarter Wireless: Better Cheap Phones, Smoother WiFi Substitution, Disruptive Competition Project

This post came to mind after noting the arrival of a couple of cheap-but-good unlocked phones, then spending a couple of weeks trying out Republic Wireless’s new version of the Moto X… and then failing to sell a review of the latter item to an outlet that I was sure would be interested in it. Sigh.

11/24/2013: How to bring your own phone to another carrier, USA Today

A reader query about bringing a paid-up, out-of-contract Sprint iPhone to a prepaid carrier gave me an excuse to talk about phone-unlocking policy issues–and possibly get one Sprint reseller in trouble.

On Sulia, I called out a phone-unfriendly invitation from Amazon, said that mobile-malware metrics mean little without breaking out how many bad programs make it into default app stores, questioned the value of smaller, discount-priced 4K TVs, scoffed at the idea of Comcast buying Time Warner Cable, and shared some disturbingly inconsistent results from a Verizon Wireless mobile-broadband hot spot.

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.

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.

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.