Duly keynoted

SAN FRANCISCO–I set a personal record for keynote livetweeting with the 3.5-hour production that opened Google’s I/O developer conference here on Wednesday morning. That was by far the longest tech-event keynote I’ve sat through, but nowhere near the strangest.

I:O logo onstageFor that, I might have to give the nod to Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ freakshow of a CES keynote this year that somehow included Steve Ballmer, Bishop Tutu, Guillermo del Toro and Big Bird. But I could also point to last year’s I/O keynote, capped off by a livestreamed skydive onto the Moscone West roof. Or what about the epic networking meltdowns of one of 2010’s two I/O keynotes?

The Microsoft keynotes that opened CES through 2011 were their own breed of weird, thanks to their history of random celebrity-guest appearances and technical meltdowns.

The keynotes Steve Jobs led for Apple were models of restraint in comparison. (I can’t speak to the live experience of those since his death, as I haven’t been gotten given a press pass to any of them.) Jobs spoke at a measured pace, the slides mostly consisted of white text on black backgrounds, supporting speakers didn’t come onstage to their own at-bat music, and the guests who didn’t work at Apple were almost always confined to executives at other tech firms cooperating with Apple on various projects–not random boldface names.

But the Steve Jobs And Apple Show made its own mistakes. The extended dissertation at Macworld NY in 2001 over how Apple’s PowerPC processors weren’t really slower than Intel chips was both legendarily dull and distinctly dodgy, given that Apple was already working on its subsequent switch to Intel. (Trivia: I think was also the one and only time a review of mine got favorably cited in an Apple keynote, when Jobs gave a shout-out to my iDVD review.) And was it really necessary to end each one by playing an ad for the new product not once but often twice?

I can’t think of too many other forms of creative output more in need of editing than the average tech-industry keynote. But if the people involved can’t do that, I have two lesser suggestions: Keep any slides with numbers on the screen a little longer, so we can jot them down correctly, and follow Google’s good example by providing power strips and Ethernet in at least the first rows of seats for the press.

Weekly output: iPad mini (x), Windows 8 (x2), Lightning cable, OS X updates

Was there any surprise about which two stories would dominate my time this week?

10/23/2012: New iPad Mini Eats Steve Jobs’ Words, Discovery News

My reaction to Apple’s announcement of a smaller iPad had to remind readers of Steve Jobs’ lengthy explanation two years ago of the functional impossibility of a quality tablet experience on a screen smaller than 10 inches.

10/23/2012: Apple’s iPad Mini much pricier than rival tablets, Fox 5 News

That evening, the folks at the local Fox station had me on to talk about the iPad mini. Our conversation focused on the gap between its $329 starting price and the $199 cost of two smaller tablets, Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD. I left out the iPad mini’s lack of a Retina display, but then again I’m not sure I’ll notice that when using the thing. (I’ll find out soon enough, as I pre-ordered one on Friday; if I don’t like it enough to keep after writing up my reviews, Apple doesn’t charge a restocking fee.)

On Wednesday the 24th, I moderated a good panel discussion with Potomac Tech Wire’s Paul Sherman, the Washington Business Journal’s Bill Flook and the Washington Post’s Steven Overly about how tech reporters interact with public-relations types. But there’s no record of this event, hosted by the PR agency Environics Communications, besides a round of tweets.

10/25/2012: Windows 8 release, Fox 5 News

Two days later I was back in WTTG’s newsroom–even standing on the same marker tape on the floor–to talk about the impending arrival of Microsoft’s Windows 8. I spent most of this brief hit talking about its new, wildly different interface and didn’t even mention Windows RT and the Surface tablet. Considering that Microsoft has papered the Gallery Place Metro station with ads for Surface, that might not have been the best call.

10/27/2012: Windows 8: Twice The Interface, Third The Price, Discovery News

This review was supposed to run on Friday, but a miserable all-nighter of an installation experience ensured I’d need more time. I’m glad I took it; the insight that Windows 8’s new Start-screen user interface could be seen as a descendant of such simplified, media-playback front ends as Microsoft’s Media Center and Apple’s Front Row didn’t come to me until Saturday morning.

10/28/2012: Apple’s Lightning cable: Making the switch, USA Today

This is my attempt at summing up the long-term complications of Apple’s switch to a smaller cable for its mobile devices. Anybody want to bet how long it will be before cars that today ship with dock-connector cables will leave factories with Lightning cables instead? The column wraps up with a reminder about how you can repair a botched OS X patch installation by downloading a large “combo update” from Apple’s site.

To all reading this along the Northeast Corridor: Stay safe, stay dry, and I’ll see you on the other side.

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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.)

Doubting Mr. Daisey

In retrospect, I’m glad that I thought to take a slightly skeptical tone in a blog post about my reaction to Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which I saw him perform at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre last April.

In the play, he describes such unconventional, perhaps implausible research techniques as standing in front of mega-contract manufacturer Foxconn’s factory gates before armed guards and soliciting workers’ testimony at the end of their shift, then posing as an American executive looking for a new outsourced manufacturer.

My skepticism was well-placed: Daisey lied about how he got these stories, in some cases making up sources.

Rob Schmitz, Shanghai correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace, uncovered these fabrications in a story posted Friday that led This American Life to retract January’s “Mr. Daisey And The Apple Factory” episode. TAL (produced by Chicago public-radio station WBEZ, distributed by Public Radio International, and a favorite on the radio in our car) is devoting this weekend’s episode to unpacking how it bought Daisey’s story.

(3/17, 1:04 p.m. I listened to that episode late last night, and you should too–or at least read the transcript. The dead air between some of host Ira Glass’s questions and Daisey’s measured answers are some of the most uncomfortable moments I’ve ever heard on radio. Oh, and it turns out that Daisey fabricated more than just sources.)

In a blog post this afternoon, Daisey defended his monologue as using “a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story” but expressed “regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue.” Schmitz’s story quotes him as explicitly apologizing for lying to TAL’s fact-checkers.

It’s an appalling turn of events all around. Making things up is the worst sin you can commit in journalism, worse than plagiarism and multiple levels worse than simple sloppiness with facts. It will get you excommunicated from the profession, then it will tar your employer and your colleagues for years to come.

But in this case, Daisey’s fabrications also gets in the way of an unpleasant reality that his flawed work helped publicize: Some of the gadgets that we use are made under conditions we would never endorse. The New York Times’ in-depth reporting from China documents this. (Yes, my client the Consumer Electronics Association has an interest in this; see this Investor’s Business Daily op-ed by CEA president Gary Shapiro, in which endorses stepped-up efforts by vendors to enforce labor standards after saying he was “horrified” by two earlier visits to Chinese factories.)

I’d planned to have written something about this myself before I got sidetracked by some other stories. I suppose it’s good that this delay rescued me from placing too much trust in Daisey’s testimony. But if his errors lead to people concluding this entire issue has been overblown… well, another one of Daisey’s monologues is titled “How Theater Failed America.”

Steve Jobs storytelling and Apple history

I knew I would have to write an obituary for Steve Jobs someday. I didn’t think it would happen this soon–or that the subject would draw so much interest.

But it did, and it has.

I haven’t seen such a rush by people to document What They Felt since… okay, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 last month. But I understand where that comes from: When certain big things happen, if you don’t instinctively clutch for a keyboard or a notepad, you’re not much of a journalist.

So after learning the news–through a voicemail from a local TV producer who wanted to know if I could come on the Thursday morning show to talk about Jobs’ passing–I spent about two hours writing an appreciation of Jobs. Then I spent another two hours rewriting it. Something about an obituary does not tolerate factual errors or even merely inelegant writing.

Every other tech journalist seems to have done the same thing. A few shared stories of getting repeated phone calls from Jobs, sometimes even at their homes–or of visiting Jobs at his home–while others only connected with Jobs in brief interviews.

What’s surprised me since has been the expressions from individual users: the posts on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ (some from users who changed their avatars to Apple icons or pictures of Jobs); the “what Apple products I’ve owned” inventories (mine appears after the jump); the testimonials that have been piling up in front of Apple Stores. The photo at right shows the Clarendon location, where passerby have been leaving messages on Post-It notes (provided by the store, I think). One of my favorites reads “Thanks for ignoring the focus groups”; another simply has the word “Sleep” inside a rounded rectangle, as if it were a button in an OS X dialog box.

It’s all a reminder: These things with screens and buttons aren’t just tools we use and then set aside. They change us. They are part of our culture.

Today’s commemorations of Steve Jobs remind me of another, less pleasant reality: The price of being around at a time when you can meet the inventors of the technologies that changed your world is eventually having to say goodbye to them. There will be other farewells like this, I hope not too soon.

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