Weekly output: inflight WiFi (x2), cheaper broadband, Google I/O, Texas social-media law, DEA data-portal hack, Twitter mourns Shireen Abu Akleh, SpaceX recap

BOISE–For the second year in a row, I’m on the road for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project. And this time the work has taken me much farther from home: After completing the network drive testing I started here after arriving Sunday afternoon, I’m heading to Seattle, Portland and then the Bay Area before flying home.

5/9/2022: Wi-Fi on the plane: Here’s how in-flight connectivity is changing (and costing), USA Today

I know everybody loves to complain about the unreliable state of inflight WiFi, but I see two positive trends worth a little applause: flat-rate pricing and free use of messaging apps.

5/9/2022: White House Lines Up 20 ISPs to Offer Free 100Mbps Broadband to Qualifying Households, PCMag

I wrote up the Biden administration’s announcement of a partnership with 20 Internet providers that will lower service costs to zero for households eligible for the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program–and noted how this deal’s ban on data caps make some of these companies’ existing broadband plans look even worse.

5/10/2022: Wi-Fi on the plane: Here’s how in-flight connectivity is changing (and costing), This Morning with Gordon Deal

The business-news radio show had me on talk about recent developments in using the Internet from a chair in the sky.

Screenshot of story as seen in Safari on an iPad mini 55/12/2022: Here are the 4 most surprising takeaways from the first day of Google’s I/O conference, Fast Company

Part of the keynote that opened Google’s I/O conference reminded me of today’s Apple, while another part evoked a previous decade’s Microsoft.

5/12/2022: US Appeals Court Rules Social Media Content Moderation Should Be Restricted, PCMag

I wrote about an unexplained and inexplicable ruling by a panel of federal judges that allowed a blatantly unconstitutional Texas law to take effect. My post had its own inexplicable error: I linked to the wrong one-page ruling and therefore named the wrong judges. No readers yelled at me about the mistake before I realized it on my own, but I feel stupid about it anyway.

5/12/2022: Hackers Reportedly Gain Access to Drug Enforcement Administration Data Portal, PCMag

My old Washington Post pal Brian Krebs had a scoop about what seems to be a massive data breach made possible by poor security practices, which I wrote up while adding some context about the White House’s recent moves to improve federal infosec.

5/12/2022: Twitter reactions to Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on Thursday night to discuss how Twitter reacted to the horrible news of their correspondent being shot and killed, apparently by Israeli soldiers, while reporting in the West Bank.

5/13/2022: Here’s How Close We Came to Relying on the Russians for ISS Trips, PCMag

I spent Thursday afternoon in D.C. at Ars Technica’s Ars Frontiers conference, and an insightful interview of former NASA deputy administrator by that estimable news site’s space reporter Eric Berger yielded this recap.

The multitasking interface in iPadOS 15 is not aging well for me

It didn’t take too long after I installed iPadOS on my iPad mini 5 for me to restore order to my app-icon grid–even if I’m still tweaking that arrangement and dreading the moment when the next iPad system update sends it higgledy piggledy. But another part of Apple’s tablet operating system continues to grind my gears: its multitasking options.

I can’t fault Apple for trying to make this UI more discoverable. In the previous release, I had to look up how to run one app on a third of the screen and leave the other two-thirds to another app every time I wanted to have the clock app and my notes visible side by side for a virtual panel. But in iPadOS 15, I have the opposite problem–the system keeps thinking I’m trying to split the screen between two apps when I have no such intention.

The most common scenario involves me wanting to go to a different site in Safari, when tapping the browser’s address bar routinely invokes the three-dot multitasking button that Apple added to iPadOS 15. That bit of chrome may stay out of the way more often on a larger-screen iPad, but on the 7.9-in. display of my iPad mini, it’s a different story. There, only a few millimeters of screen real estate–either from the top of the screen to the address bar, or between the center of the address bar and address-bar controls like the text-size/display/privacy button and 1Password’s button–seem to separate me from successfully entering a Web address or having the multitasking button thwart that attempt.

The other involves a situation almost as common: iPadOS flashes a notification, and I swipe down to see what it was. From the home screen, this continues to work as it did before–but in an app, iPadOS keeps acting as if I’d meant to invoke the Split View multitasking display by tapping that dreaded three-dot button. Eventually, I will reprogram my muscle memory to swipe slightly off-center to avoid running my finger across that ellipsis icon, except the home-screen behavior keeps telling me I don’t have to change.

So here I am, more than six months after installing this update, and I’m still thumb-wrestling my way around one of its core features. And I’m not alone in feeling this irritated, to judge from my mom’s review of this wayward user experience: “the most distracting thing in the world.” She’s right, and Apple’s wrong.

Weekly output: Rocket Lab booster catch, passwordless logins, Mark Vena podcast, Chris Krebs cybersecurity-policy assessment, Facebook to end background location tracking

Friday marked two years since we adopted our cat. Abel still ignores us when we tell him not to jump on the dining-room table but is a sweetie in most other ways. And every time I expand the online world’s inventory of cat photos by posting one of him, I feel like I am being a good citizen of the Internet.

Screenshot of the PCMag post in Safari for iPadOS, showing the screengrab I took of Rocket Lab's stream showing the Electron booster and its parachute at right, with the helicopter's cable at left.5/3/2022: Watch a Helicopter Catch an Electron Booster Rocket, PCMag

I watched a helicopter catch and briefly hold a spent first stage of a rocket as it descended under a parachute, a first-time experience for me, and then tuned into Rocket Lab’s press conference hours later to get some quotes from Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck for this story.

5/5/2022: Google lines up with Apple and Microsoft to nix passwords in favor of nearby-device authentication, Fast Company

I got an advance on this three-company news announcement from Google, so all the quotes in this post are from two Googlers. If you’d like to read more about this initiative, please turn your attention to Dan Goodin’s writeup at Ars Technica.

5/5/2022: S02 E19 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I rejoined this podcast after missing it last week due to travel.

5/6/2022: Ex-CISA Chief: Biden Cybersecurity EO ‘Raises the Standard’ on IT Vendors, PCMag

I wrote up the closing session at the Hack the Capitol event in D.C., in which former Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Administration director Chris Krebs shared his insights about the state of information-security policy.

5/6/2022: Facebook Unfollows ‘Nearby Friends,’ Other Background Location Features

Facebook bulk-erasing everybody’s location history will be its biggest data-minimization move since scrapping its facial-recognition database. And yet the company’s sole announcement of this move Friday was in-app prompts and e-mails for some users.

A long wait for an app notification

Twenty-one months ago, I installed the Virginia Department of Health’s COVIDWISE app on my smartphone and urged everybody reading that post in Virginia to go and do likewise. Back in August of 2020, I expected that this app developed with the Apple-Google COVID-19 exposure notifications framework would soon be warning me that I’d been near somebody else who had tested positive and had then used this app or another built on that foundation to send a thoroughly anonymized warning.

But the notifications of possible exposures didn’t appear, even as the U.S. suffered repeated waves of novel-coronavirus variants and the positive-test rate in Northern Virginia shot up above 30 percent at the start of this year. And as I got my first vaccination, second vaccination and booster shot, the continued silence of this app bothered me less and less–to the point that I briefly forgot to activate it after moving from my Pixel 3a to my Pixel 5a.

That silence ended Thursday morning, when my smartphone greeted me with a notification of a probable exposure. “You have likely been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” the app told me. “COVIDWISE estimates that you were last exposed 5 days ago.”

The app further informed me that “Most people who are fully vaccinated and free of COVID-like symptoms do not need to quarantine or be tested after an exposure.” Fortunately, I had already self-tested negative on an antigen at-home kit Wednesday morning to verify my health before heading to the Hack the Capitol security conference.

Because this app and others built on the Apple/Google code don’t store location data, I can only wonder when this possible exposure happened. And since five days ago was Saturday, when I flew home from Latvia via Munich and then Boston, I’m looking at thousands of miles of possibility. A second notification from COVIDWISE referencing North Carolina’s SlowCOVIDNC app suggests that my possible exposure source lives there, but the privacy-preserving design of this system ensures I’ll never know for sure.

A five-day turnaround, however, now seems quick after seeing three people reply to my tweet about this notification to report that they didn’t get their own heads-up from one of these exposure-notification apps until 10 days after the possible exposure–a uselessly long lag. My conclusion from those data points: Get vaccinated and boosted, because that will do more than anything else you could possibly undertake to ensure that receiving one of these exposure alerts remains a drama-free experience.

Weekly output: Elon Musk buying Twitter, chief impact officers, U.S.-led Internet declaration, airBaltic’s NFT ambitions

Work took me on a short trip to the Baltics this week–one made a little longer on the way home by a date-validation glitch in a COVID-testing app. Have I mentioned how much I hate the CDC testing rule for returning international flights that has no counterpart for domestic flights?

This week’s bonus for Patreon readers: a post unpacking a curious case of a telecom company’s publicists going out of their way to avoid telling the press about a welcome development in their product lineup.

4/25/2018: Elon Musk buying Twitter, Al Jazeera

Somehow, my only paid-for opining about the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire’s bid to buy Twitter came in this appearance on the Arabic-language news channel. Please note that I didn’t write “somehow” as a synonym for “regretfully.”

Photo of the TechChill logo as seen on a display in front of the stage in Riga, Latvia4/28/2022: What do Chief Impact Officers Really Do?, TechChill

I led a discussion about this new c-suite slot with two recently-hired chief impact officers: Contentsquare’s Kat Borlongan, who appeared via video, and Maanch’s Sianne Haldane, who joined me onstage.

4/29/2022: US Gets 60 Countries to Sign ‘Declaration for the Future of the Internet’, PCMag

I contrasted this White House-led declaration of open-Internet principles with a list of countries that indulged in Internet shutoffs most often in 2021–meaning India and then everybody else.

4/29/2022: AirBaltic CEO Touts Cryptocurrency Experiments, Predicts NFT Airline Tickets. PCMag

A TechChill panel featured airBaltic CEO Martin Gauss holding forth on the airline’s ambitions to rebuild such core functions as ticketing on NFT foundations. I get that these announcements win the carrier some extra publicity (as seen in this post), but the real reason to fly airBaltic (should their routes match your travel patterns) is their flying the Airbus A220, one of the finest regional jets ever made.

Twitter really isn’t the digital town square, but it might as well be the newsroom coffee counter

A blue pin handed out at the 2012 Online News Association conference, photographed on a piece of lined paper, reads "Keep Calm and Tweet #ONA12"

When Twitter’s management accepted Elon Musk’s offer to buy the company for about $44 billion–a sentence that still makes me pause and think “wait, really?”–the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire called his upcoming property “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

That two-word phrase comes up in a lot in discussions of this compressed-prose, collective-angst platform that a dozen years ago I had to define for readers as a “San Francisco-based microblogging service.”

Twitter’s own management has liked to call the service a town square of own sort or another. Obsessive coverage of the Twitter habits of certain boldface names (case in point: @elonmusk) suggests as much. And many complaints over Twitter exercising its right and business obligation to moderate content assumes that you have the same right to tweet something–meaning have Twitter spend its computing, network and human resources to “use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute” your output–as you would in a physical town square in the U.S.

But the Pew Research Center’s surveys of social-media habits have consistently revealed a more humble reality: Just 23 percent of American adults use Twitter, far below the 81 percent on YouTube, the 69 percent on Facebook or even the 31 percent on Pinterest and the 28 percent on LinkedIn. And Twitter’s share has essentially stayed flat in that Washington-based non-profit’s surveys, with the service’s high point being an almighty 24 percent in 2018.

It is entirely possible to live a rich, meaningful online social life without being on Twitter. It’s also possible to exercise considerable political power without being on Twitter–Donald Trump’s expulsion from that and every other mainstream social platform after his January 6, 2021 self-coup attempt has not stopped the Republican Party from wrapping itself around its own axle over the guy.

Journalists, however, may be another matter. Many of us flocked to the site early on because of its utility as a public notebook and for communication with readers and sources (it took longer for some us, meaning me, to realize how Twitter could also empower distributed abuse), its self-promotional possibilities (which can turn self-destructive when editors fall for bad-faith campaigns to attack journalists who fail to perform like story-sharing automatons on Twitter), and for the way its brevity allows us the chance to pretend we’re headline writers for New York tabloid newspapers. And, especially over the last two years, it’s become a valuable online substitute for the work chit-chat that once took place at a newsroom coffee counter–or, after work, at a nearby bar.

Twitter’s own outreach to journalists, as seen in that souvenir from the 2012 Online News Association conference and in such favors as the service verifying me in 2014 basically because I asked nicely enough times, has also played a role in that popularity.

I’d miss those things if Musk runs Twitter into the ground, as seems a real possibility given how often he’s suggested that Twitter’s real problem is not keeping up everything that’s not actually banned by U.S. law. A logical outcome of that would be making such First Amendment-protected trash like Holocaust denial and ISIS propaganda safe on Twitter, although I am keeping my mind open to more optimistic possibilities.

But I’ve also been online for almost three decades and I’ve seen much bigger allegedly essential online platforms fade into irrelevance. Should Twitter come to that, I imagine I and other journalists will do what we usually do when we meet some occupational obstacle: swear a lot and then figure out some other way to do the job.

Weekly output: streaming-media survey, U.S. wireless-industry history, Cue Health vulnerability, United app’s flight simulator, Earth Day optimism, federal broadband-buildout plans

In 48 hours from now, I will once again be on a plane over the Atlantic. My excuse this time is leading a panel discussion at the TechChill conference in Riga, Latvia–a new-to-me conference at which a few friends of mine have spoken before. (One of these guys may have put in a good word for me with the organizers, in which case I guess I’ll be buying him dinner some time this week.)

4/18/2022: Why Do People Stream? Must-Watch Shows, Not Cord-Cutting Cost Savings, PCMag

I wrote up a MoffettNathanson survey about people’s streaming-media habits.

Screenshot of the MEF page as seen in Safari on my Pixel 5a, with a still from the video in which I'm holding up a Nextel-logoed hourglass.4/20/2022: A historical perspective of the USA Wireless market, Mobile Ecosystem Forum

I met Dario Betti, the CEO of this industry group, at MWC Barcelona in February, and afterwards he asked if he could interview me about my experience watching the U.S. wireless industry evolve over the past 30 years. I was delighted to geek out about that and brought a couple of props to our video discussion–for instance, a Nextel-logoed hourglass and a 1990s-vintage Nokia analog cell phone.

4/21/2022: Flaw in COVID-19 Testing Gadget Could’ve Been Exploited to Change Results, PCMag

This report about a found-and-fixed flaw in the Bluetooth component of Cue Health’s COVID-19 test reader initially called the security company that found the flaw WeSecure, not WithSecure. That error crept into the post during the editing process for reasons that nobody could untangle after the fact.

4/22/2022: United Airlines Adds a Boeing 787 Flight Simulator to Its App, PCMag

The first video-game review that I’ve written in maybe 20 years involved a flight simulator added to the airline app I use all the time. How could I not write that up?

4/22/2022: 5 technologies that should give us some hope for the planet’s future, Fast Company

One of my editors at FC asked if I could write an Earth Day post outlining some reasons to feel less doomed about the environment’s future. The resulting post started off close to home–the giant Dominion Energy wind farm planned off Virginia Beach, along with the turbine-blade manufacturing facility set to be built near there at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal.

4/22/2022: Feds: Before We Spend Billions on Broadband Rollout, We Need Better Maps, PCMag

The infrastructure bill passed last year includes $65 billion to extend broadband to Americans with slow or no Internet access, but the feds can’t spend that money effectively without accurate connectivity cartography.

Flickr’s Android app still needs some work

Today brought yet another rerun of a mobile-app routine that I’d like to see closed out: I saw an update for Flickr’s Android app waiting on my Pixel 5a, I installed the update, I went out and took some photos, and I saw that Flickr still isn’t saving location data when it backs up pictures automatically.

As bugs go, this one is not too consequential. But it’s also gone unfixed since late December, when I first noticed it. Flickr’s customer support promptly responded to that tweet, asking me to send in a sample photo, and the response I got hours later let me hope for a fairly quick resolution.

“We did some testing with the image you provided, and got mixed results upon uploading to a private test account that we use for cases like this,” the rep wrote. “The issue seems specific to the app, and possibly to the new update of 4.16.6.”

But the Flickr app has since seen multiple updates–it’s now up to version 4.16.15–and I’m still seeing automatically uploaded photos stripped of their geotags. That seriously erodes Flickr’s use as an unlimited-storage image backup vault; fortunately, I mainly employ Flickr for its original purpose of photo sharing, and for that I can use the share menu in Google Photos to post pictures, GPS data intact, to Flickr.

Flickr reps have remained a pleasure to deal with over e-mail, and the most recent one added three free months to my Pro subscription, which was a nice gesture.

But I also don’t feel that I can get too mad here, given that Flickr is my only major social-media platform that isn’t the property of a tech or media conglomerate, having been rescued from Yahoo’s erratic stewardship by the privately-held photo-sharing firm SmugMug in 2018.

And not only does Flickr have the advantage of being Not Google and Not Facebook, its support for albums has no equivalent on Instagram. And its support for Creative Commons licensing (my photos are free for non-commercial use while commercial users are welcome to pay) and groups of like-minded photographers (for instance, Capital Weather) have no equivalents at either Instagram or Google Photos.

I don’t even mind having this expense of a Flickr Pro subscription, now $71.99 a year and increasingly hard to avoid, in my Web-services budget. And while I would not turn down getting a few more months free, I would just as soon see Flickr fix this bug and restore this app to complete functionality.

Weekly output: Nielson streaming-spend study, Apple TV+ + MLB, SpaceX so far, FIFA+, Netflix double thumbs-up, CNN+ viewership, VR interest, Stellantis + Qualcomm, Mark Vena podcast, new Amazon CEO shareholder letter

Happy Easter! I hope this holiday’s message of reborn life resonates in Ukraine in particular.

(Patreon FYI: Readers there got a bonus post about a few shopping tactics that can let you buy an Apple gadget below list price.)

4/11/2022: Nielsen study shows most streaming viewers spend $30 or less, FierceVideo

I spent the first three days of the week filling in at my trade-pub video-industry client, starting with this writeup of some Nielsen research.

4/11/2022: Apple TV+ debuts Friday Night Baseball, FierceVideo

I used this post to share my own review of Apple’s baseball-coverage venture, as viewed during Friday’s Nationals-Mets game.

Fast Company SpaceX history post4/12/2022: How SpaceX came to dominate the launch business, Fast Company

I knew that a lot of aerospace-establishment types were skeptical of SpaceX a dozen years ago, but digging up their actual quotes was something else.

4/12/2022: FIFA makes a new bid for soccer fans with FIFA+ streaming, FierceVideo

If any sports organization can afford to bankroll a streaming service and then let anybody watch for free, it would be FIFA.

4/12/2022: Netflix adds double-thumbs-up option for rave reviews, FierceVideo

Remember: Don’t call this new Netflix review option “two thumbs up,” because that’s a trademarked Ebert & Siskel phrase.

4/13/2022: Report cites fewer than 10,000 daily viewers for CNN+, FierceVideo

Maybe CNN’s subscription streaming service would have more paying viewers if the news was less depressing?

4/13/2022: Adults remain uninterested in VR live events, FierceVideo

The Morning Consult survey that I wrote up referred to virtual reality as “the metaverse,” but I was not going to use Facebook’s preferred word in the headline or lede if I could help it.

4/14/2022, Stellantis Partners With Qualcomm for 5G-Connected Cars, PCMag

Writing up this connected-car news allowed me to use some leftover notes from Qualcomm’s Tech Summit and then from CES.

4/14/2022: S02 E16 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I joined this podcast (also available in video form) via my laptop, once again using my phone’s camera in place of the laptop’s webcam.

4/15/2022: In First Shareholder Letter, Amazon CEO Sticks With the Bezos Playbook, PCMag

I made a point of noting the things new Amazon CEO Andy Jassy didn’t mention in his first letter to shareholders.

Post-purchase Pixel 5a praise

Near the end of last year, I retired a functioning smartphone that had aged at a remarkably slow pace over a year of pandemic-induced home confinement and replaced it with a new model. Almost four months later, that $422.94 purchase has proven to be the right call.

The immediate upgrade I got with the Google Pixel 5a I bought on sale for $50 off to succeed the Pixel 3a I’d purchased in the innocent summer days of 2019 is storage space. As in, the 3a’s 64 GB had become an increasing irritant, requiring regular dives into the Settings app to clear app caches and data; the 5a has twice as much storage, and so far I’ve only used up 69 GB of it even after I haven’t bothered to uninstall conference apps after coming home from those events.

Photo shows Pixel 5a on a wooden surface, with the afternoon sun glinting off the cameras on its back.

The advertised upgrade with the 5a–formally known as the “Google Pixel 5a with 5G”–was its 5G connectivity. The next generation of wireless broadband hasn’t delivered much for many wireless customers, but T-Mobile’s midband 5G (which it brands “Ultra Capacity”) has frequently served up download speeds in excess of 500 megabits per second outdoors.

I did not expect to get a comparable advance in battery life on this phone, knowing how often smartphone vendors have hyped that metric. But in everyday use, even at battery-abusing events like CES, my 5a has been a champion. As I type this after more than 11 hours of low-key use, the phone is estimating one day and 12 hours of additional runtime. That’s nuts–and believable after what I’ve seen over the past four months.

The one upgrade I didn’t even think about when buying the 5a but have since come to appreciate on a daily basis is the 16 megapixel wide-angle camera on its back that augments its regular 12.2 MP camera (the same Sony IMX363 that Google has been sticking in its phones since the Pixel 3). This extra lens has opened up my phone photographic possibilities, by which I mean it’s freed me from having to step off a sidewalk to get an especially large building in the frame.

I do wish the 5a were a little smaller, as its 6.34-in. touchscreen is just big enough to thwart easy placement of a thumb at the far corners of that display when I’m using the device one-handed. But as I realized testing $500-and-under smartphones for CNN Underscored (the 5a came away as my top pick), almost every other Android phone is bigger.

The compromises this phone has entailed have been unobjectionable. It lacks cordless charging, but the only place I could have used that has been my home. It doesn’t support millimeter-wave 5G, but T-Mobile barely offers those fast, fragile frequencies anywhere and even Verizon’s mm-wave network remains evanescent. I would like to see Google commit to more than three years of operating-system updates, but over the time I’m likely to keep this phone I’m unlikely to exhaust that support but do stand to benefit from Google’s recent move to sell authorized repair parts through iFixit.

But while I expect my 5a to serve me well through at least late 2023, I don’t expect it to be sold nearly that long: All signs point to Google introducing the Pixel 6a at Google I/O next month. And while that model will apparently add Google’s faster Tensor processor, its fingerprint sensor will reside under the screen and may be fussier to use–and it will apparently omit a headphone jack. The prospect of that unnecessary, unrequested “simplification” already has me dreading the next upgrade cycle.