Weekly output: Open RAN, 5G marketing, Google’s display-ads business, tech and journalism

We’re down to the last full week before Election Day–a point that seemed painfully distant just under four years ago. Note that for myself and more than 59 million other Americans (per the University of Florida’s United States Elections Project), the voting’s already happened.

Patreon readers got an extra post this week: a recap of things I’ve done to give a little less business to Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.

10/21/2020: Can OpenRAN Hit its Stride?, CCA Convention

Last year, the opportunity to moderate a panel at the Competitive Carriers Association’s conference got me a free trip to Providence. This year, it got me some free time in front of my computer’s webcam to speak remotely with Dish Network executive vice president Jeff Blum, Mavenir senior vice president for business development John Baker, and OpenRAN Policy Coalition executive director Diane Rinaldo about the prospects for building next-generation radio access networks off open standards (aka, OpenRAN) instead of proprietary stacks.

10/22/2020: Why the 5G Pushiness? Because $$$, The New York Times

Shira Ovide, author of the NYT’s On Tech newsletter, quizzed me over e-mail about a reader’s concerns over possibly needing a 5G smartphone. My advice: no need to worry just yet.

10/23/2020: The Lucrative Google Business That The Justice Department’s Antitrust Suit Doesn’t Touch, Forbes

I took a little extra time to cover the Department of Justice’s antitrust lawsuit against Google–by which I meant, write about the Google chokehold on display advertising that goes unaddressed in the DoJ complaint.

10/25/2020: Emerging Media Platforms, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications

After interviewing my long-ago Post colleague Dan Pacheco, now a professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, for an upcoming story about augmented-reality interfaces, he asked if I could make a remote guest appearance for one of his classes. I talked a little bit about the state of freelance journalism about heard out his students’ pitches for upcoming projects (most frequent elements: drones, chatbots and voice assistants).

WordPress Block Editor considered harmful

The drop cap that starts this paragraph is something I could not have readily done in the Classic Editor here at WordPress.com, so I hope everybody reading this understands that I’ve spent some time looking for upsides to the Block Editor that has replaced it.

But those upsides still look scarce. Five months after WordPress.com anointed the Block Editor as the new default–and well over three years after this project’s debut–I still find basic tasks more difficult in the Block Editor than in the now-deprecated Classic writing interface. Four examples:

  • Inserting an inline image with text wrapped around it, as seen at right, apparently requires a detour to a separate block menu in which you reduce the image’s size, followed by a click on a menu to right-align the image. In the Classic Editor, those options sit in the dialog to select an image from the Media Library.
  • There’s no way to indent text outside of making it part of a bulleted or numbered list. This one sticks in my craw a bit: I told two WordPress representatives this was a problem after they gave a presentation at least year’s Online News Association conference, and they seemed to agree that indenting was a legitimate formatting tool.
  • This may be more of a bug than a design decision, but when I right-click on a link in Safari and paste its address into the Classic Editor, the link appears in a post as a complete hypertext link under the linked page’s title. In the Block Editor, pasting yields the address of the link, leaving it to me to copy its title and then turn that into a link.
  • The addition of a menu option to switch between editing and selecting modes, as if I were back into learning desktop publishing on Aldus PageMaker in 1991, allows for the chance to realize I clicked my way out of revising whatever I’m writing.

I think I understand where WordPress is going with this. The Block Editor offers a lot more options to embed different types of content, as seen in the screengrab above, and for bloggers looking to mash up their media, I can see why that would make sense. I also have a lot of faith in WordPress, having picked this platform instead of keeping my Web home on Facebook real estate and remaining convinced of the soundness of that decision.

Plus, speaking as a long desktop-publishing geek who may still have some muscle memory of PageMaker keyboard shortcuts: Yes, drop caps are cool.

But from my words-first perspective, the Block Editor makes the everyday writing here a little harder. And since indents are a basic element of the weekly-output posts I’ve been writing here since the fall of 2011, sometimes it makes my usual habits impossible.

I can still switch to the Classic Editor at the start of or halfway through a post, so I’m not doomed. But I worry that at some point, its deprecated status will lead to it being deleted. Will that point arrive before WordPress’s developers can get this editor to interface parity with its predecessor? Please wish me luck.

Weekly output: iPhone 12 (x3), Pippa Malmgren, sustainable online commerce, Fig O’Reilly, Apple vs. Telegram

In case you hadn’t heard, Apple announced a new set of iPhones this week.

10/13/2020: iPhone 12, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language channel had me on to discuss the key features of this new lineup, starting with 5G. I felt sorry for the translator–the differences between millimeter-wave, low-band and mid-band 5G are confusing enough to native speakers of English.

10/14/2020: On Apple iPhone 12, it’s a battle of the 5G bands among AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, USA Today

I’m still puzzled by all the airtime Verizon got at Apple’s event, because its millimeter-wave 5G service increasingly looks like an epic disappointment. T-Mobile’s mid-band makes a better case for 5G–if you’re in one of the markets with the superior 5G flavor that T-Mobile has yet to highlight on its own coverage maps.

10/14/2020: Fireside: Friends or Foes? The impact of AI & Robotics on the Modern Workforce, Dublin Tech Summit Virtual

The first of three pre-recorded talks I did for this online conference had me interviewing science advisor and roboticist Pippa Malmgren about the future of drones–on Earth and across the solar system.

10/14/2020: Panel Discussion: Shopping for Sustainability, Dublin Tech Summit Virtual

My second DTS panel–but the last one I recorded–had me quizzing Etsy sustainability director Chelsea Mozen and Zalando product head Mike Mulligan about how these two online platforms are working to make their operations and their supply chains carbon neutral. We stuck around afterwards in the conference’s chat forum to answer audience questions.

10/14/2020: Fireside: Reach for the Stars, Dublin Tech Summit Virtual

As I noted in opening my talk with Fionnghuala (Fig for short) O’Reilly, who among things helps make NASA’s Space Apps challenge happen, the two of us share a few things in common: We both went to college in D.C., hold Irish passports, have pronunciation-defying names and know the joy of experiencing space launches.

10/15/2020: Apple To Telegram: Delete Posts Exposing The Belarus Dictatorship’s Enforcers, Forbes

I had meant to write this post last week, but held off on it to get some input from outside experts. Fortunately, nothing changed with the underlying story of Apple making the bizarre decision to tell the developer of a social app to delete individual posts allegedly doxing people propping up the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.

10/17/2020: SmartTechCheck Podcast (10-16-20), Mark Vena

I returned to the podcast Vena hosts for his employer Moor Insights & Strategy to talk about the pros and cons of Apple’s iPhone 12 lineup with fellow tech journalists Stewart Wolpin and John Quain.

Is it iPadOS 14 or iPadOS 13.8?

It’s been almost a month since I installed iPadOS 14 on my iPad mini 5, and not much about my tablet-computing experience since has reminded me of that.

Why? Compare Apple’s list of new iPadOS 14 features with its brag list for iOS 14: Apple tablets don’t get home-screen widgets or the App Library, even though their larger displays might better fit those interface changes. Apple’s new Translate app, a privacy-optimizing alternative to Google’s? iPhone only for now. Even emoji search in the keyboard is confined to Apple’s smaller-screen devices.

Like earlier iPad releases, iPadOS 14 omits the basics of weather and calculator apps. I guess Apple still couldn’t find a way “to do something really distinctly great,” as its software senior vice president Craig Federighi told tech journalist Marques Brownlee in the least-persuasive moments of a June interview.

There’s also still no kid’s mode that would let a parent hand over their iPad to a child and have it locked to open only designated apps. The continued absence of this fundamental feature–even the Apple TV supports multiple user accounts!–is especially aggravating after so many American parents have spent the last eight months mostly cooped up at home with their offspring.

Apple did add a bunch of fascinating new features in iPadOS 14 for Apple Pencil users–but my iPad mini 5 and my wife’s iPad mini 4 don’t work with that peripheral.

This new release has brought lesser benefits that I do appreciate. Incoming calls in FaceTime, Google Voice, and other Internet-calling apps now politely announce themselves with a notification at the edge of the screen instead of indulging in the interface misanthropy of a full-screen dialog, and Siri shares this restraint with screen real estate. Safari catches up to Chrome by offering automated translation of their text and surpasses Google’s browser with a privacy-report summary, both available with a tap of the font-size button. I can finally set default mail and browser apps–but not navigation, the area in which Apple remains farthest behind Google. And a set of new privacy defenses include the welcome option of denying an app access to my precise location.

But as nice as those things are, they don’t feel like the stuff of a major annual release–more like the pleasant surprises of an overperforming iPadOS 13.8 update. And they certainly don’t square with what you might reasonably expect from a company that reported $33.4 billion in cash and cash equivalents on hand in its most recent quarter.

Weekly output: social-media misinformation, Comcast voice remote vulnerability, Cambridge Analytica, T-Mobile 5G, phone plans

I had at least one work event on my calendar each workday of this week, which has not happened in quite some time. Since CES, to be exact.

10/6/2020: Social-media misinformation, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language network had me on for half an hour to talk, once again, about governments staging misinformation campaigns on Twitter and other social networks. 

10/7/2020: Hackers could have used Comcast’s XR11 voice remote to spy on homes, Fast Company

The security firm Guardicore figured out how to load malware onto a widely-used Comcast remote control that would turn its voice input into a remote eavesdropping tool–and then Comcast promptly responded to their disclosure and fixed the flaws that made this possible. 

10/8/2020: The Real Problem Wasn’t Cambridge Analytica, But The Data Brokers That Outlived It, Forbes

An online talk by David Carroll, the New York professor who went to court in the U.K. to try to force Cambridge Analytica to disclose what data it had collected about him, gave me an opportunity to revisit everybody’s least favorite political consultancy.

10/9/2020: T-Mobile’s 5G sales pitch continues to miss on mid-band , Fierce Wireless

T-Mobile staged a bit of a dog-and-pony show for journalists about its wireless ambitions that had some entertaining moments but left some big questions about its 5G strategy unanswered. 

10/9/2020: The Best Cell Phone Plans, Wirecutter

I updated this guide to cover slight changes to the “unlimited” plans at Verizon, Mint Mobile’s new “unlimited” plan, Cricket’s addition of a 5G plan, the Verizon prepaid brand Visible, and a set of simpler plans at TracFone.

DVR debt, but for virtual-conference panels

For the past two months, I’ve been looking at the same five tabs left open in my Mac’s copy of Chrome. They’re all from Black Hat–as in, the security conference that happened online in early August, but which remains incomplete in my own viewing.

If this event had taken place in Las Vegas as usual, I would have watched almost all the talks I’d picked out from the schedule. That’s a core feature of traveling to spend a few days at a conference: All of the usual at-home distractions are gone, leaving you free to focus on the proceedings at hand.

Online-only events zero out my travel costs and offer the added benefit of vastly reducing the odds of my catching the novel coronavirus from a crowd of hundreds of strangers. But because they leave me in my everyday surroundings, they’re also hard to follow.

If I have a story to write off a panel–meaning a direct financial incentive–I can and will tune in for that. But for everything else at an online conference, it’s just too easy to switch my attention to whatever work or home task has to be done today and save the panel viewing for later, as if it were yet another recording on my TiVo. (Or to let my attention wander once again to Election Twitter.) It’s not as if other conference attendees will be able to note my absence!

So I still haven’t caught up with the talks at Black Hat. Or at the online-only DEF CON hacker conference that followed it. I haven’t even tried to follow the panels at this year’s online-only version of the Online News Association’s conference… mainly because I couldn’t justify spending $225 on a ticket when this conference’s usual networking benefits would be so attenuated. I feel a little bad about that, but on the other hand I also feel a little cranky about submitting a panel proposal for ONA 20 and never getting a response.

I would love to be able to return to physical-world events with schedules crowded by overlapping panel tracks that force me to choose between rooms. But there seems to be zero chance of them resuming in the next six months, even if a vaccine arrives before the end of the year in mass quantities. Web Summit, CES, SXSW: They’ll all be digital-only, happenings experienced only through a screen.

I should try harder to cultivate the habit of experiencing these virtual events in the moment, not weeks or months afterwards. Or at least I should try to catch up on the backlog of panels I’ve already accumulated. This last hour would have been great for that… except I spent it writing this post instead.

Update, 10/10/2020: It turns out none of those Black Hat panels were available for viewing anymore. Whoops! At least the tab bar in Chrome looks cleaner now, I guess.

My $5 solution to woeful webcams on my laptop and desktop

It’s only taken me seven months of fumbling iteration, but I think I’ve finally found a video-conferencing setup that doesn’t leave me yearning for an upgrade to my hardware right after a video call.

That’s taken a while. Back when All This started, I thought the iSight camera on my aging iMac could suffice. But while it delivers fine footage for its 720p resolution, having it attached to a computer essentially fixed in place left me with bad lighting–when I face the screen, daylight only hits one side of my face.

My HP Spectre x360 laptop (at almost three years old it also now must be considered “aging”) features a 1080p camera and is no problem to move, even if I can only elevate it by parking it atop a stack of books. But while I knew its video could look a little washed out, I didn’t realize how bad its white balance could get until I saw it turn a dark-blue shirt bright purple. Next!

I did a few panels with a thoroughly janky setup: my iPad mini 5, propped upright between the keyboard and screen on my laptop. That tablet has a much better camera, but that excuse for a tripod limits my options for positioning it. And pressing the iPad into service as an expensive webcam meant I couldn’t use it to read my notes for a talk.

Installing the Zoom app on my phone solved the positioning issues–I have a tripod and a phone-clamp attachment–and let me easily address any producer’s request to move the camera just a bit up or town. But the Pixel 3a’s front camera is nowhere as good as its back camera, and its microphone can’t match the USB mic that I can plug into my desktop or laptop.

I finally got around to researching apps that could let my laptop or desktop borrow my phone’s camera–meaning, the higher-quality one on its back–as their own. I followed Whitson Gordon’s advice in PCMag to use Dev47AppsDroidCam, a duo of Android and Windows apps that can communicate via WiFi or USB. Getting rid of the ads in the Android app and enabling a high-definition option requires its $4.99 Pro version, an expense I gladly paid.

DroidCam’s Android and Windows halves aren’t much to look at, and the Windows app was fussy to set up. But once the two devices are paired, the software just works, reliably adding DroidCam as an input option in Zoom. 

Optimizing this setup required configuring the phone and laptop to link via USB to reduce the risks of overloading a WiFi network or introducing some lag in my video, which in turn entailed some entry-level Android tinkering to enable Developer Options and then USB Debugging. And now I have a video-conferencing setup that lets me position my best camera wherever an event producer wants, use a desktop USB microphone for the best sound quality, and keep my iPad free for consulting notes.

Things would be easier still with the Wirecutter-endorsed Logitech C920S webcam. But that gadget must have key components made out of unobtainium, considering its perpetually out-of-stock status.

I thought I’d finally broken through when Best Buy’s site reported it last week as available for delivery today to my nearest store, so I eagerly punched in my order. But as today ground on without a pickup notice from that retailer, I knew what was coming: a “Rob, there’s a delay with your order” e-mail sent at 6:22 p.m. 

Update, 10/5/2020: To my pleasant surprise, the Logitech webcam was available for pickup on Friday. Video quality on it seems to be great, so I’m sure some other malfunction will arise on my next video call.  

Weekly output: 5G frequency farming, delivery robots, Blacklight privacy assessment of Forbes, pay-TV apps

My major non-work accomplishment this week: voting. The ballot I filled out Monday represented my earliest ever vote in a presidential election. And my easiest choice ever.

9/21/2020: Faster 5G is on its way, and here’s how we’ll get it, Fast Company

This explainer about the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to free up more mid-band 5G spectrum kicked off a useful Twitter conversation about phone compatibility when PCMag’s Sascha Segan questioned the willingness of the carriers to certify existing phones to use on these upcoming 5G bands.

9/22/2020: Contactless delivery robots may soon hit a sidewalk near you, Fast Company

Writing this piece allowed me to circle back to some of the same experts I’d consulted for two earlier features on smart cities for the Urban Land Institute’s magazine.

9/23/2020: A Privacy Watchdog Built A Tool To Show How Sites Track You. Here’s What It Says About Us., Forbes

When the privacy-focused news site The Markup released a Web tool called Blacklight to inspect the tracking practices at news sites, I had to point it at the site where I do most of my writing about media issues these days. The results were not flattering for Forbes. As for this blog, Blacklight found 12 ad trackers and 23 third-party cookies just now but no other tracking–thanks in part to my removing Facebook widgets from here.

9/27/2020: Do you really need to rent a cable box? No, there’s an app for that, USA Today

I revisited an issue I’d last covered in 2017 and was pleased to find serious progress among major TV providers in providing apps that can take the place of rented boxes–especially Comcast, the biggest of them all.

Updated 9/28/2020 to fix a broken link.

A one-man pandemic book club

The past six months have given me exponentially more time at home than I would have thought possible before this pandemic-afflicted year. Normal people would have occupied those hours by catching up on deferred household maintenance or learning a new language, but instead I’ve whiled away many of them by reading two of the denser novels written in English: James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

That was not a quick process. Both doorstop-thick tomes feature their authors free-styling their way through prose as they get lost in the inner worlds of a complex set of characters without any strict reference to time or place, which is a longwinded way of saying they can be intimidating to read.

I tackled Ulysses first, since I’ve had a vintage hardcover copy silently taunting me from a bookshelf for the past 20 years or so. There are deeply poetic moments in Joyce’s Dublin-steeped novel–“history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” resonates too well this year–and parts that suggest the author’s profound conviction that he would get paid by the word for every word. Also, I’m impressed that the censors of the 1920s made it all the way through to the really naughty bits towards the end.

After I tweeted out my victory over Joyce’s title and asked “What famously dense novel should I read next?”, one of the first replies suggested Infinite Jest. I finally accepted that logic and put myself on the Arlington library’s waiting list for an e-book copy, but before I could claim that I saw a paperback copy available for all of $2 at a library used-book sale. Buying in print instead of borrowing in pixels meant I’d have all the time I’d need to digest Wallace’s 1,079 words of prose, endnotes, and footnotes to said endnotes.

(Seriously: Wallace’s endnotes eat up almost 100 pages, and a couple count as chapter-length in their own right. I realized early on I’d need to keep two bookmarks in my copy, one to mark my progress in the text itself and the other to preserve my place in the bits at the end–then saw that this book may be best read with three bookmarks. This may be the most hypertext thing I’ve ever read in print.)

Infinite Jest is even more of an atom-smasher of plotlines than Ulysses–it touches on growing up, tennis, drugs, Boston, digital media, addiction, people’s capacity for needless cruelty, crime, more drugs, pop culture, cinematography, Québeçois separatism, and even a smidgen of tech and media policy. And it does so without the standard narrative scaffolding of chapters. I kept having to flip forward to see when the next break in the story might happen, solely to know how late I’d have to stay up before putting the book down at a point that would not leave me too confused the next morning.

I could not help reading Wallace’s tales of Boston types battling depression and inner demons of various kinds without considering how Wallace himself succumbed to his own, because depression lies. Which made me think also of my late, literary-minded friend Mike Musgrove, who I’m sure read this book a long time ago and would have offered some smart or at least smart-aleck commentary about it.