Google-induced mail migration malaise

A week ago, I learned that one of my longest-running online freebies would end this summer. The seven days since haven’t been enough time for me to decide how to replace the no-charge Google account that’s hosted my home e-mail since early 2010–but they have allowed me to find a reason to dislike each obvious alternative.

Yes, I should have seen this coming. The Google that launched “Google Apps for Your Domain” as a free service in 2006 was a much scrappier firm that could not assume potential customers’ attention. Even in 2010, when I moved my home e-mail to a Google Apps account under a custom domain and set up (just in case!) a work e-mail address under a different custom domain at another Google Apps account, Google hadn’t risen to become an obvious choice for business collaboration.

The Gmail logo under an "Apps" banner, taken from a 2008 Google presentation.

Google did end signups for this free option in December of 2012, but it let existing Apps customers keep their free accounts. That grandfathered, privileged status continued as Google Apps became G Suite in 2016 and then Google Workspace in 2020.

The Google of 2022, however, is a different entity that’s been unplugging other free services. So I was not too surprised to learn that starting July 1, I’d have to pay to keep these two mail accounts hosted–just annoyed to read about this at the 9to5Google blog instead of in an e-mail from Google to me.

I’m fine with paying Google for my work account–make that, paying more on top of what I’ve been spending for extra storage since 2016. A Google Workspace Business Starter account will cost another $6 a month, which is reasonable considering how many other Google services I have tied to this account and how $72 a year would still rank among my cheaper business expenses.

But my home account is just an e-mail account. I don’t use it with Google’s other “workspace” tools; because I keep a separate, standard Gmail account for shopping, banking and other non-work stuff, my home account barely gets used as an e-mail service. Paying $72 a year makes a lot less sense, much less spending that much on addresses I’ve set up for family members who use them even less.

But the options I’ve evaluated first have their own issues:

iCloud+: Since my wife is already paying for extra storage on Apple’s cloud service, I could set up a custom domain there for free. But by associating my home e-mail address with iCloud, I would revive the problem of iPhone-using friends who think they’re using the Messages app to text me on my phone and instead have Apple’s iMessage system silently divert that to the Messages app on my iPad.

Microsoft 365: I already pay for Microsoft’s cloud storage to back up my Windows laptop, and adding multiple e-mail accounts by upgrading to Microsoft 365 Family would add only $30 to my yearly cost. Except Microsoft, for some inane reason that probably looked sharp on a marketing PowerPoint, limits this option to domains hosted with GoDaddy, and that’s not the registar I’ve been content with using for this domain. (One thing I don’t like about this registrar: Their own mail hosting only covers 1 gigabyte of storage per address, which is why they don’t make this list.)

Fastmail: This mail-first service isn’t tied to any larger cloud platform, a simplicity of mission that I appreciate. I also like how I could use this with 1Password to generate “masked,” disposable e-mail addresses for individual services. But with pricing for a custom domain starting at $50 a year per user for 30 GB of storage, this, too, feels like overkill for my own little use case.

Meanwhile, Google may have realized the foolishness of treating every user as one type of business customer. Wednesday afternoon, Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo flagged an addition to Google’s support note inviting input from people who don’t use legacy Google Apps accounts for work.

Will Google offer a cheaper tier for personal use, and how long will we have to wait to find out? The May 1 deadline Google set for ex-Apps users to choose between upgrading to Workspace or moving their mail elsewhere leaves plenty of time for the indecision-making process to grind on at this company. And among perplexed customers like me.

Weekly output: FTC/DOJ merger guidelines, Intuit updates Mint, proposed “surveillance advertising” ban

This was a reasonably relaxed week, along the lines of what I hope for after CES every year.

Screenshot of story as seen in Safari on an iPad. 1/18/2022: FTC and DOJ: Have We Been Getting Digital Mergers Wrong? Let Us Know, PCMag

If two companies that already don’t charge for their basic services propose a merger, can federal regulators fairly judge that corporate combination by a standard centered on consumer prices?

1/19/2022: Intuit Updates Mint With Bill Negotiation, Premium Tier, PCMag

News of a new premium tier for Intuit’s personal-finance app allowed me to revisit Mint’s problematic history under Intuit’s ownership.

1/19/2022: RIP Online Ads? Proposed Bill Would Ban ‘Surveillance Advertising, PCMag

I wrote about yet another bill introduced to regulate large tech companies, which I don’t expect to fare any better in this Congress than prior proposed tech-policy bills.

Two belated desktop operating-system upgrades

Both Apple and Microsoft shipped major new releases of their desktop operating systems last year. And then I, somebody who writes about computers for a living, didn’t get around to installing either macOS Monterey or Windows 11 until this month.

I guess it looks a little embarrassing written out like that. But I had my reasons, the first among them being the absence of story assignments that would require me to familiarize myself with either OS. My regular clients all had other writers evaluating Monterey and Windows 11 and, as far as I could discern, they weren’t in the market for stories taking a closer look at any one feature in either new release.

A collage features Apple's round, stylized-mountains logo of Monterey and the square blue "11" logo Microsoft sometimes uses for Windows 11.

Further, desktop operating systems just don’t figure as much in my coverage, even factoring in the six years that elapsed between Windows 10 shipping (which I covered in July 2015 at Yahoo Tech) and the debut of its successor. My last piece focused on a macOS release seems to have been a June 2017 Yahoo post suggesting features for the upcoming macOS High Sierra (Apple, as is its habit, did not take my advice).

That freed me to take my own time, so I ignored my Mac mini’s suggestions to install Monterey after its late-October debut and instead waited to see if early adopters would report any glitches. Enough such reports emerged–in particular, with third-party USB hubs–that I decided I’d wait until the first update to Monterey shipped before I’d put it on my mini, on which I rely heavily on the USB hub built into the Philips monitor I bought with the computer.

My late-2017 HP laptop’s copy of Windows 10, meanwhile, didn’t even suggest installing Windows 11 when that update shipped in early October, in keeping with Microsoft’s phased rollout of this OS. But by the time Windows Update finally offered Win 11 sometime in December, it was too close to CES, and I didn’t feel like complicating my show prep by installing a new OS on a five-year-old machine.

After surviving CES, however, it was finally time. I installed Monterey on this Mac without incident a week ago, but Windows 11 threw one last obstacle at me: Both Windows Update and Microsoft’s PC Health Check app said my laptop was no longer compatible, citing an issue with its Trusted Platform Module security chip. And after re-enabling that in the HP’s BIOS, I had to wait another day for Windows Update to agree with PC Health Check that it was time for Windows 11–allowing me to install it Friday.

You may have noticed that I’ve now written more than 400 words in this post about these releases without discussing any one new feature in either. That is not by accident–and that’s why, now that I’ve finally caught up with 2021’s updates in 2022, I don’t feel like I missed out on too much by waiting to install Apple and Microsoft’s latest work.

Weekly output: CES 2022 recap (x3), NextGen TV, RCS explained, terms-of-service bill, Mark Vena podcast, Facebook class-action suit, DirecTV to dump OANN

Instead of trying to get out of D.C. while snow was falling–my situation two Mondays ago–I got to play in the snow this afternoon and evening. That was a lot more fun.

1/10/2022: What it was like to cover a very uncrowded CES during a pandemic, Fast Company

I didn’t start writing this recap of my CES experience until two days after coming home–meaning after I’d had two negative antigen tests.

Screen shot of the story as seen in Safari on an iPad mini 5.1/10/2022: Signals for NEXTGEN TV get a little stronger at CES 2022, FierceVideo

I wrote most of this on my flight back from Vegas, aided by my inflight-productivity hack of not connecting to the WiFi until I had the piece almost entirely written.

1/11/2022: Exploring the Practical and the Fantastical in 5G, Virginia Economic Review

I missed this (non-bylined) feature when it posted; in it, I unpack some interesting work researchers and business types are doing with 5G wireless in my state.

1/11/2022: RCS Explained: Why Google Is Riled Up About It, and Why You Probably Haven’t Used It Yet, PCMag

Google isn’t wrong to complain about Apple leaving iOS-to-Android phone messaging mired in an old, insecure standard, but Google has a lot of work to do in its own house.

1/13/2022: ‘TLDR’ Bill Would Make a Federal Case Out of Unreadable Terms of Service

If a tech-policy story gives you a reasonable opportunity to quote a John Oliver line, you should probably write it.

1/14/2022: SmartTechCheck PodcastS02 E01, Mark Vena

I didn’t join this podcast until the last third of it, owing to a video parent-teacher conference running later than I’d thought possible.

1/14/2022: Pending Facebook Class-Action Suit in UK Claims $3.15B in Damages, PCMag

I made sure to note that the people announcing this lawsuit hadn’t actually filed a complaint, making it hard to judge the merits of their argument.

1/14/2022: CES Virtual Roundtable, Globant

This software consultancy had me on to talk to some of their executives and clients about what I saw at CES.

1/15/2022: Clubhouse Saturday, Washington Apple Pi

I joined this virtual meeting of the local Apple user group for some post-CES Q&A.

1/15/2022: OANN and Done? DirecTV to Dump One America News, PCMag

I enjoyed writing about the impending demise of the sugar-daddy deal this hoax-soaked “news” channel has enjoyed with DirecTV, a bizarre arrangement I critiqued at Forbes two Novembers ago.

Updated 1/23/20222 to add the Virginia Economic Review article.

2021 gardening report card: a belated basil assessment

This annual recap of my gardening efforts should have been written last month, but then I got distracted by other topics–much as the return of travel in the second half of last year distracted me from tending to plants during what were, in retrospect, some critical parts of the summer.

In fewer words, I’m still figuring out this gardening thing, more than two decades after my first successful experiments with growing herbs in pots on an apartment balcony.

(For your reference: my 202020192018201720162015201420132012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Herbs: A

Parsley was not as prolific as in previous years, but basil was 2021’s pleasant surprise, between the two plants I bought at the farmers’ market that kept yielding gorgeously green leaves through fall and the smaller crop I got from seeds in a pot in the dining room. Mint and rosemary grew reasonably well too, and the the same indoor pot yielded enough dill to flavor the occasional plate of scrambled eggs.

Arugula: A-

My most reliable green lived up to past performance in the spring but then took a mighty long time getting in gear after I planted a second crop of seeds in September. That second batch looked to be finally coming into its own after we returned from Christmas travel–and then we had snow while I was out at CES, and I think it may be done for now.

Beans: B

We repeated last year’s apathetic strategy of trying to grow beans in random containers around the back patio, but they were not quite as productive this year. My being around less often to tend to them after July also probably figured into this shortfall.

Lettuce: C-

Someday, I will figure out what I did right to get lettuce to grow as well as it did in 2017. That day did not come at any point in 2021, so I had to content myself with just enough lettuce for some springtime sandwich fixings.

Tomato: D+

This grade would have been a D or lower had it not been for all the plum and cherry tomatoes that either volunteered or grew from seeds that I didn’t expect to do much of anything. They contributed to some delicious pasta sauces–but the slicing tomatoes I value most for their contributions to sandwiches fell victim to my being out of town in mid-July and again in August.

Spinach: D

Here’s another vegetable that did much better before, even though I tried growing it in almost the same spot this year and gave it the same overall amount of care. But there’s nowhere to grow but up in 2022, right?

Weekly output: wireless for less, Alexa in lunar orbit, learning in AR and VR, search-engine competition, Vegas Loop, CES weirdness

I didn’t realize this until adding up the numbers, but I have now covered CES 25 times–24 times in person, from 1998 through 2020 and again this past week, plus last year’s virtual version of the show. None of those previous trips to Las Vegas featured an infectious-disease test after returning, but this week’s has; fortunately, the rapid antigen tests I took Friday night and Sunday afternoon have each yielded negative results.

1/3/2022: How to get your wireless carrier’s network for less – if you can live with these trade-offs, USA Today

This column outlining ways to save money on wireless phone service from resellers of the major carriers (some of which are owned by those big three companies) was the last piece I filed in 2021.

1/5/2022: Amazon to Send Alexa to Lunar Orbit, PCMag

I wrote up an embargoed announcement from Amazon about plans to send a version of Alexa on the Artemis 1 lunar orbital test mission of NASA’s Orion spacecraft. After I filed this post the evening before the embargo time, I was amused to see a giant video sign on the Strip in Vegas tout the “Alexa, take me to the Moon” command that was only supposed to be revealed the next morning.

Photo of the screen in room N259 of the Las Vegas Convention Center showing my panel lineup1/5/2022: Learning in a Virtual World, CES

Four days beforehand, I got asked to moderate this panel on AR and VR learning after the previous moderator had somebody in his household test positive. That’s not a lot of prep time, but my fellow panelists Rohan Freeman (founder of Sine Wave Entertainment), Chris Stavros (founder and CEO of makeSEA) and Michel Tzsfaldet (CEO of Tekle Holographics) made my job as understudy moerator easy.

1/7/2022: The little-known reason why competing with Google is so hard, Fast Company

This was another post I filed at the end of 2021. It started in early November in Lisbon, when I happened to sit next to a search-engine startup executive on a Web Summit shuttle van and started quizzing him about business.

1/7/2022: Tunnel Vision: What It’s Like to Ride in Elon Musk’s Vegas Loop, PCMag

I had to try out the Vegas Loop, the Teslas-in-tunnels system that Elon Musk’s Boring Company built underneath the Las Vegas Convention Center. And then I had to sell a post about my experience of it.

1/7/2022: The weirdest stuff we saw at CES 2022: John Deere’s self-driving tractor, robot masseuses, USA Today

The “weird stuff seen at CES” piece has been a staple of my coverage of the show for years. As usual, the hardest part was deciding what exhibits to include and what to leave out.

CES 2022 travel-tech report: a new phone and a renewed laptop

Uncharacteristically light attendance at CES this week allowed me to pack uncharacteristically light. With so many tech-news sites canceling plans to send journalists to the Consumer Technology Association’s annual gathering, I knew I wouldn’t need my traditional CES accessory of a travel power strip to free up outlets in any crowded press room.

I also opted not to pack any of the WiFi hotspots I had sitting on my desk from the last update of Wirecutter’s guide to same. Even in the likely event of the show’s WiFi being its usual inadequate self, I figured I had sufficient backup bandwidth in the form of the new Pixel 5a in my pocket, the expanded mobile-hotspot quota on my account, and the T-Mobile 5G network my previous phone couldn’t use.

Photo shows my HP Spectre x360 laptop sitting on the wood floor of my home office, on top of which sit my CES badge, the laptop's charger, a USB-C cable to charge the phone, a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, headphones and my Pixel 5a phone.

My other smart move before heading out to Vegas was replacing my late-2017 HP laptop’s battery with an aftermarket unit, a bit of laptop surgery I did in October. All of this helped make CES much less of a gadget-abuse scenario in my return to covering it in-person after last year’s distanced, digital-only conference.

The Google Pixel 5a, the only new device in my messenger bag, acquitted itself especially well. On a good day, its battery can run well into the next afternoon, and even at CES–where I did rely frequently on the phone’s mobile-hotspot feature to get my laptop online–I never saw this Android device’s battery get into the under-33% state that would get me nervous. My charging the phone at lunch happened out of habit, not necessity.

I also quickly grew to appreciate how the 5a’s wide-angle lens helped capture some of the bigger exhibits on and off the show floor. The sole quibble I can think of: The phone reported that it restarted overnight Friday morning, and I’d like to know what caused that crash.

My HP Spectre x360, meanwhile, was one of the oldest items in my bag but felt much newer with that replacement battery. It was nice to sit down to watch a panel and not need a spot next to a power outlet. And for whatever reason, this computer ran much more reliably than it had at CES two years ago, without any mysterious reboots sometimes interrupted by boot-device-not-found errors.

Lower CES attendance, estimated by CTA Friday at “well over 40,000,” did not banish CES bandwidth struggles. My laptop did not always connect to conference WiFi networks–have I mentioned that Windows 10’s “Can’t connect to this network” is not a helpful error message?–but all three press rooms had abundant Ethernet cables. The $10 and change I spent on a USB-to-Ethernet adapter in 2012 has turned out to be an exceptional deal.

As before, I took all of my notes in Evernote, but this time the app generated a few note conflicts when I switched from phone to laptop and back. If I could click or tap a “sync now” button before each device switch, I would–but Evernote removed that bit of UI out of a belief that its automatic sync is now reliable enough to make it obsolete.

The other app I leaned on heavily during my time at CES was the conference’s own mobile app. I hadn’t bothered with that in previous years, but learning that CTA had hired Web Summit to provide this event’s digital platform made me want to try it. Unsurprisingly, the CES app looks and works like the Web Summit and Collision apps, so I didn’t have much to figure out.

As at those other conferences, I leaned on this app to manage my schedule while ignoring in-app connection requests in favor of the kind of networking impossible at last year’s CES: masked-face-to-masked-face conversations that ended with an exchange of business cards.

Weekly output: the public domain expands, JetBlue resets passwords

Weather permitting, Monday morning will see me resume my annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas to cover CES. I expect to see a much smaller version of the usual gadget show, thanks to all of the exhibitors that have opted out of a physical presence; for once, CES traffic may be tolerable.

Screenshot of PCMag post as seen in Chrome for Android12/29/2021: Flood of Creative Works Enter the Public Domain on Jan. 1, PCMag

After writing about the overdue expansion of the public domain for Forbes at the end of 2020, I had to revisit the topic for PCMag on the eve of a new crop of creative works entering the public domain. This piece led to one of the more amusing correction requests I’ve ever gotten: The piece as posted envisaged a literary mashup of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in which Pooh and Tigger would journey to Hemingway’s 1920s Paris to indulge in some drunken debauchery, but multiple readers noted that Tigger doesn’t make his entrance until Milne’s The House on Pooh Corner, which won’t enter the public domain for another two years. I regret the error.

12/30/2021: JetBlue Tosses Most Passwords Out the Emergency Exit, PCMag

I’m beyond tired of seeing companies shove a mass password reset on their customers without explanation, and this time I had an opportunity to quiz one company briefly about what led to this kind of customer-hostile move.

 

2021 in review: return to flight

The course of this year abounded in bumps–from the horrifying sight of an attempted coup at the Capitol six days into January to the stubborn, vaccine-refusal-fueled persistence of the pandemic. But 2021 was still not 2020, and I refuse to brush that aside.

The most important dates on my calendar this year had no equivalent on last year’s: my first, second and booster shots of a coronavirus vaccine. Those Moderna doses helped give me so much of my life back, and I’ve tried to repay that continuing to volunteer at vaccination clinics.

They also allowed my writing to feature something last seen in January of 2020: datelines. My first travel for an assignment came in July, when I set out on a 1,000-plus mile road trip for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks report. That was followed in August by a transatlantic jaunt to Estonia and back, a quick September visit to Miami Beach to moderate my first in-person panels since February of 2020, an October reunion with Online News Association friends, and November trips to Lisbon for Web Summit and to the Big Island of Hawaii for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Tech Summit (note that organizers paid my travel costs for all of those events except the ONA gathering).

The long days I spent drive testing wireless networks for PCMag paid off a second time when the editors asked if I’d be interested in doing more work there. That solved a problem I had when I ended my experiment in writing for Forbes–where to cover tech-policy developments–but this gig has since allowed me to write about such non-political subjects as a test drive of a $120,000+ battery-electric Mercedes.

This year also saw me write for several new places–always a good thing for a freelancer, also a key factor in 2021’s income exceeding 2020’s by a welcome margin–while last week marked my 10th anniversary as a USA Today tech columnist. That’s approaching the length of my tenure as a Washington Post tech columnist, which is crazy to consider.

Among all of this year’s work, these stories stand out in my mind:

  • In February, I wrote about App Store ratings fraud for Forbes, because a company as self-righteous about its control of a mobile-apps marketplace as Apple should do a better job of policing it.
  • I teed off on exploding prices at Internet providers in a May column for USA Today after being inspired and irked by the poor disclosure I saw during the research for a U.S. News guide to ISPs.
  • In my debut at the Verge in early June, I explained how data-broker sites function as a self-licking ice-cream cone and offered practical advice about how to limit the visibility of your personal details.
  • Family tech support awakened me to the inadequacy of Gmail’s message-storage management, leading to a USA Today column teeing off on Google for that neglected user experience.
  • Who better to quote as a hype-puncturing source about SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband than Elon Musk himself? The reality-check video keynote he did at MWC in late June yielded a Fast Company post that helped inform my subsequent coverage of rural broadband.
  • I combined my notes from the Estonia trip with interviews of U.S. experts afterwards for a Fast Company story explaining that Baltic state’s e-government journey–including why it would be such a heavy lift here.
  • I used my PCMag perch to unpack Apple executive Craig Federighi’s disingenuous Web Summit talk about App Store security.

Having mentioned my business travel here–see after the jump for a map of where I flew for work in 2021–I have to note that the most important flights I took were the ones that reunited me with family members for the first time in well over a year. I hope your 2021 included the same.

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Weekly output: FAA vs. C-Band 5G, CES cancellations, Mark Vena podcast

For all of the stress 2021 has inflicted, its final days still represent a vast improvement over what the end of 2020 felt like.
 

Screenshot of USA Today column as seen on a Pixel 5a's copy of Chrome12/21/2021: How 5G could make a mess of your next flight, USA Today

The latest in a very long series of 5G explainers was more of an aviation-safety story than a mobile-broadband item, so I talked to a different set of sources. And they convinced me that there’s more to this than the Federal Aviation Administration getting persnickety at the last minute. 

12/22/2021: Some Tech Companies (and Tech Journalists) Scrap Plans for In-Person CES 2022 Visit, PCMag

I wrote about the cast of characters–mostly side-stage exhibitors so far, but also a lot of my tech-journalism friends–that had decided to sit out CES 2022 due to concern over the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus. After this ran, Lenovo announced that it, too, was canceling plans to show up in Vegas.  

12/23/2021: S01 E23 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I joined this podcast for one last time this year to discuss some Apple-shareholder activism, the log4j server vulnerability, the C-Band 5G fracas, and the status of CES.