Weekly output: Audi stoplight smarts, Big Tech banter at SXSW, SXSW strangeness, Facebook outage, Spotify vs. Apple

I’ve been recuperating from SXSW in the lamest way possible: by spending a lot of time weeding the lawn. Early returns suggest that my prior years of springtime toil have led to less chickweed, so I’ve got that going for me.

3/11/2019: How traffic lights might talk to your next car, Yahoo Finance

I spent a few days driving around D.C. and northern Virginia in an A8 that Audi loaned to test its Traffic Light Information system. The whole experience got a little more terrifying when I looked at the spec sheet for the loaner vehicle and realized that I was trying test-driving Audi’s stoplight-to-car data service in a sedan with a list price above six figures.

3/13/2019: Breaking up Big Tech: Advocates spar over how to trim sails of technology giants at SXSW, USA Today

I did not get to as many SXSW panels as I wanted, but I did watch the session featuring Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.). Warren advocated forced break-ups of tech giants, and over the next several days multiple SXSW speakers took it to task. The critiques you’ll see in USAT comments on this piece, however, amount to trash.

3/13/2019: SXSW 2019: Synthetic sushi, a buggy demo, and other weird gadgets, Yahoo Finance

I didn’t even have the SXSW trade-show exhibits on my must-see list until meeting a friend for lunch, at which point he strongly suggested I check out Sushi Singularity. He was right.

3/14/2019: Facebook outage, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on to talk about the Wednesday outage of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. My takes: Securities and Exchange Commission regulations give us strong reasons to take Facebook at its word about the causes of this downtime; we should all work to depend less on Facebook and its vassal states for communication with bystanders, customers and fans.

3/15/2019: Spotify has a point about Apple’s App Store fees, Yahoo Finance

If you were reading me eight years ago, this column should not have surprised you. My opinion hasn’t changed since because Apple still acts as if it has a God-given right to annex up to 30 percent of the content income of many App Store developers.

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Two sides of airline customer support

My trip home from SXSW Wednesday started with my first of two flights getting delayed by at least two hours, ensuring that I’d miss my connection in Houston–and I never worried about getting home that day.

That was because I had some of the best possible support in my corner: the agents at the United Club in Austin. Within minutes of the United app warning of a delay for my AUS-IAH flight–and the FlightAware site showing not just a delay, but the inbound plane for my flight returning to Houston instead of battling through a line of storms–they started lining up alternatives.

First they booked me on a 2:20 p.m. flight from Houston to Dulles, then they put me on standby on a 12:15 nonstop from Austin to Dulles. And after I asked about options in case my delayed AUS-IAH flight got off the ground even later and said I’d be fine flying into National instead of Dulles, they protected me on a late-afternoon IAH-DCA flight.

In the end, we got out of AUS a little after noon, allowing me to make that 2:20 flight to Dulles. My upgrade even cleared on both flights–something that hadn’t happened on a domestic flight since September.

That’s exactly the kind of help I’ve gotten at United Clubs the one or two times a year I have an itinerary go sideways. The agents behind the desks there are empowered to fix problems and bend rules if needed, and they seem to enjoy the challenge. As View From the Wing blogger Gary Leff regularly reminds readers, it’s that level of assistance–not the free cheese cubes and prosecco–that justifies the expense of a lounge membership.

(The cost for me is $450 a year, the annual fee for the lounge-membership-included United credit card I use for my business. I recoup most or all of that cost each year by using the extra frequent-flyer miles the card generates on free tickets for my family.)

Feb. 22, my brother had an entirely different experience on United. A late-arriving crew delayed he and his family’s flight from San Diego to Dulles, ensuring they’d miss their connection home to Boston. He has no status or club membership with UA, so he could only call the regular United line. From John’s accounts, this was pretty terrible all around; were he on Twitter, some epic Airline Twitter would have resulted.

With none of the next day’s flights from IAD to BOS offering four seats open, United’s phone rep tried to ticket them on American. But apparently that didn’t take in AA’s system, and it took much longer for the rep to rebook the four of them on Delta–from DCA to LGA to BOS. The process took long enough that John was still on the phone when I landed in Brussels on my way to Barcelona–so I texted him from the lounge there and called United’s 1K line myself to make sure they’d fixed his reservation.

John and co. did finally get home that Saturday, and at least they could stay at my house Friday night for free. But his treatment didn’t make him want to fly United again, while mine did.

Unfortunately, a lounge membership doesn’t make financial sense unless your travel patterns justify consolidating your travel on one airline and building status there. So I can’t endorse that for everyone. Instead, I will repeat an earlier endorsement: FlightAware really is great for tracking the status of an inbound aircraft, and you should never take an airline’s word for your flight’s departure time until you check it there first.

Weekly output: value-priced Android phones, Star Alliance lounges, Howard Schultz, bots and bias

AUSTIN–I’m here for my eighth SXSW conference, but only my second with a speaking role. And this one, unlike the tech-policy panel I moderated here in 2012, came together much later in the game.

3/4/2019: MWC highlights include affordable smartphones, not just foldable ones, USA Today

This MWC recap covers a few phones coming to the U.S. market, plus one that’s not–but whenever Xiaomi does bring its budget-priced Android phones here, a lot of other vendors will find themselves in serious trouble.

3/6/2019: The Lounges You Didn’t Know You Could Use on Domestic Flights, The Points Guy

I’ve had this how-to post in my head ever since the first time a United 1K elite told me he had no idea he could use the Lufthansa lounge at Dulles.

3/10/2019: Howard Schultz just showed he doesn’t have a grasp of the issues, Yahoo Finance

I saw not one but two talks by the former Starbucks CEO–his morning SXSW talk and a later appearance before an entrepreneurs’ group. They left me convinced of Schultz’s ethical-capitalist aspirations and of his fundamental unseriousness in talking about such issues as health care and the definition of “socialism.”

SXSW 2019 mic

3/10/2019: On Bots and Bias: When What Machines Learn Is Wrong, SXSW

I basically vultured my way into moderating this panel. Speakers Anamita Guha, with IBM Watson, Pandorabots’ Lauren Kunze, and Dashbot’s Justina Nguyen had gotten their topic approved months ago but needed a moderator, and when my friend Mike Masnick asked in a Feb. 20 tweet if any journalists he knew wanted that gig, I replied almost immediately that I did. Fortunately, the short-notice panel prep did not turn out to be a problem. My fellow panelists were all aces and capably explained this complicated subject.

Here’s my Web-services budget

The annual exercise of adding up my business expenses so I can plug those totals into my taxes gave me an excuse to do an extra and overdue round of math: calculating how much I spend a year on various Web services to do my job.

The result turned out to be higher than I thought–even though I left out such non-interactive services as this domain-name registration ($25 for two years) and having it mapped to this blog ($13 a year). But in looking over these costs, I’m also not sure I could do much about them.

Google One

Yes, I pay Google for my e-mail–the work account hosted there overran its 15 gigabytes of free storage a few years ago. I now pay $19.99 a year for 100 GB. That’s a reasonable price, especially compared to the $1.99 monthly rate I was first offered, and that I took too long to drop in favor of the newer, cheaper yearly plan.

Microsoft Office 365

Getting a Windows laptop let me to opting for Microsoft’s cloud-storage service, mainly as a cheap backup and synchronization option. The $69.99 annual cost also lets me put Microsoft Office on one computer, but I’ve been using the free, open-source LibreOffice suite for so long, I have yet to install Office on my HP. Oops.

Evernote Premium

This is my second-longest-running subscription–I’ve been paying for the premium version of my note-taking app since 2015. Over that time, the cost has increased from $45 to $69.99. That’s made me think about dropping this and switching to Microsoft’s OneNote. But even though Microsoft owns LinkedIn, it’s Evernote that not only scans business cards but checks LinkedIn to fill in contact info for each person.

Flickr Pro

I’ve been paying for extra storage at this photo-sharing site since late 2011–back when the free version of Flickr offered a punitively-limited storage quota. This cost, too, has increased from $44.95 for two years to $49.99 a year. But now that Yahoo has sold the site to the photography hub SmugMug, the free tier once again requires serious compromises. And $50 a year doesn’t seem that bad, not when I’m supporting an indie-Web property instead of giving still more time to Facebook or Google.

Private Internet Access

I signed up for this virtual-private-network service two years ago at a discounted rate of $59.95 for two years, courtesy of a deal offered at Techdirt. Absent that discount, I’d pay $69.95, so I will reassess my options when this runs out in a few months. Not paying for a VPN service, however, is not an option; how else am I supposed to keep up on American news when I’m in Europe?

LastPass Premium

I decided to pay for the full-feature version of this password manager last year, and I’m already reconsidering that. Three reasons why: The free version of LastPass remains great, the premium version implements U2F two-step verification in a particularly inflexible way, and the company announced last month that the cost of Premium will increase from $24 a year to $36.

Combined and with multi-year costs annualized, all of these services added up to $258.96 last year. I suspect this total compares favorably to what we spend on news and entertainment subscriptions–but that’s not math I care to do right now.

Weekly output: EU digital copyright, MWC (x4), USB-C headphone-jack adapters, HoloLens 2, tech’s privacy gap, 5G phones, good affordable phones

I came home from Barcelona Thursday, then further trashed my jet-lagged, MWC-damaged sleep cycle Friday night by staying up until 3 a.m. to watch the liftoff of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule on its debut, unmanned flight to the International Space Station. I assure you that was worth the multiple naps I needed Saturday afternoon.

For more from MWC 2019, see my Flickr album after the jump.

2/25/2019: How Europe could cement American online dominance, Yahoo Finance

The proposed changes to copyright law nearing a final vote in the European Parliament are criminally stupid.

2/25/2019: U.S.-Huawei fight becomes focus of Barcelona’s trade show, Yahoo Finance

I talked to host Alexis Christoforous via Skype over a bad connection about Huawei’s role in the industry. For a second Yahoo video hit that day–I haven’t been able to find a link to that–I switched to a spot in the press center that not only had much better WiFi but also had a good backdrop: the MWC hashtag on a wall visible behind me.

2/26/2019: Foldable phones are taking over the Mobile World Congress, Yahoo Finance

I made another appearance on Yahoo’s morning show, once again in the press center. The prop for my laptop each time? A trash bin dragged into position in front of my chair.

2/27/2019: Why a USB-C headphone adapter can’t amount to jack, USA Today

A friend’s report last October that a third-party USB-to-3.5-mm adapter didn’t work with his phone led me to realize I didn’t hate the removal of headphone jacks from phones quite enough.

2/27/2019: How Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is bringing augmented reality to your job, Yahoo Finance

Before heading out to MWC, I e-mailed a couple of friends who have been developing on HoloLens for a while, then followed up to get their impressions of the new version.

2/28/2019: Why tech still can’t explain its own requests for your data, The Parallax

I wrote this essay after yet another bout of outrage over tech privacy that was made worse an inability to explain things clearly to customers (as opposed to investors and advertisers).

2/28/2019: No, you don’t need a 5G phone yet, Yahoo Finance

I know, I’m usually cranky about the first generation of anything. But in the case of 5G, the limits and likely high costs of the first generation of phones compatible with this new wireless standard make them an especially unwise purchase.

3/1/2019: The best cheap phones from Mobile World Congress, Yahoo Finance

I had meant to file this early in my flight back from Barcelona to Newark, but the already-sluggish WiFi was particularly hostile towards Gmail and Google Docs, leaving me unable to file or e-mail my editor for much of the flight.

3/3/2019: The weirdest gadgets from MWC 2019, Yahoo Finance

I wrote much of this short, fun list of bizarre MWC hardware at Newark and then on the short flight from EWR to DCA, then banged out the rest at National Airport before taking Metro home–some 18 hours after my day had begun on the other side of the Atlantic.

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My least-replicable travel hack: an Irish passport

Thursday, I wrapped up another trip to Europe that left me with zero passport stamps. I haven’t gotten any coming home since my Global Entry subscription kicked in five years ago, but I also haven’t picked up any arriving in the European Union since the spring of 2017.

That’s when I started traveling to the EU with an Irish passport. The backstory: As I’ve mentioned here before, my grandmother was born in Ireland, which qualifies me for Irish citizenship–and my parents did the extensive paperwork to secure that so I could work in my dad’s office in Paris in 1991 without getting a work visa.

The passport I got then expired after a few years of my using it only as an ID at bars on St. Patrick’s Day (bouncers were uniformly unimpressed), and I didn’t think further about it until being in Europe in November of 2016.

No, Trump’s election alone didn’t drive me to get a new Irish passport. The dreadful non-EU passport lines I saw at Lisbon’s airport did–on top of the even-worse ones I sweated out in Paris that summer.

Renewing a citizenship document that far out of date took exponentially longer than I expected. The post office somehow lost the certified letter with all the required documents–starting with my birth certificate and Irish foreign birth registration–for a few long weeks, leaving me worried that I’d wind up undocumented in two countries. But that envelope finally made its way to the embassy on Sheridan Circle in D.C., and at the end of April I had a passport in burgundy as well as one in blue.

The time savings since then have been enormous in some places. In Paris and Lisbon, I’ve easily dodged 40-minute waits; at Heathrow last summer, my wife and our daughter got to share this EU-citizenship benefit, avoiding what looked like an hour-plus queue for the “All Passports” desks.

At better-run airports like Barcelona, Brussels, and Munich, this passport has only yielded a few minutes that I could spend in a lounge instead of on a line–plus the robotic experience of having my passport read at an electronic gate instead of by a person–but that’s still quality time. In all cases, my Irish passport has gone unstamped, as per EU policy.

It’s not like I get a choice: I have to use an EU passport when entering and leaving the EU, just as I have to use my American passport when returning to the States.

(Yes, the Feds know about my international alter ego. I stopped by the Global Entry office in the Reagan Building not long after getting this passport to have it added to my file.)

There is, however, one country where I’ve yet to derive any benefit from my Irish passport: Ireland. Shamefully enough, I haven’t been back since Web Summit in 2015, and I should do something about that.

Weekly output: tech talk with Mark Vena

MWC 2019 badgeBARCELONA–I’m now into my seventh Mobile World Congress, and the experience has been reminding me that it’s a treat to come to this city for work. Plus, the WiFi generally works at MWC.

(Minus: I’m typing this from my second morning press event at which there’s no free coffee. What kind of monsters run these things?)

2/21/2019: Moor Insights & Strategy Podcast (2-21-19), What’s Hot in Tech

I talked to analyst Mark Vena, an occasional source, about 8K television, cord cutting, Samsung’s Galaxy S10 announcements, and foldable phones. He also gave me a little grief about my city’s football team, and I can’t blame him for that one bit.