MWC malaise: why a canceled conference has me feeling crushed

For the first time since 2012, my winter won’t involve me spending a week soaking in the wireless industry at MWC. I wish I weren’t overstating things to say that I feel gutted about this.

GSMA, the organization behind the trade show earlier known as Mobile World Congress, canceled the conference that drew 109,000-plus people last year–a week and a half in advance, and because of fear instead of evidence. The novel coronavirus afflicting China is a real threat, but it’s also remained almost completely confined to that country. And two weeks ago, GSMA announced security measures that essentially blackballed everybody from mainland China who hadn’t already left the country.

FCB logo Camp NouBut then a sequence of companies with the resources to know better decided to pull out of the show anyway: Ericsson, LG, Sony, Cisco, Facebook, Nokia, Amazon, Intel, AT&T… and on and on. After enough bold-face names had self-ejected from MWC, the only suspense left was when GSMA would take the loss and the likely scorn of the Barcelona and Catalan governments that had rightly stated no health emergency existed.

I won’t eat too much of a financial loss. I got half of my Airbnb payment back, while my airfare will be good for a future United flight (spoiler alert: likely). Friends of mine who booked refund-proof flights and lodging are harder up (one’s out at least $2,000). Some of them have already said they’ll proceed with that week in Barcelona and get in meetings with industry types who also stuck with their travel arrangements.

I can’t justify that business proposition but do feel a little jealous of those people after my happy history in Barcelona. MWC 2013 was the first international business trip I self-financed, and that trip cemented BCN as one of my favorite airport codes to have on my calendar. The show provided a sweeping overview of phones, networks and apps around the world that I couldn’t get at CES. And its logistics–from the moving walkways connecting the halls of the Fira Gran Via to Barcelona’s extensive and efficient metro and commuter-rail network–made CES look even more inadequate in that department.

MWC opened my eyes to all the different ways the wireless industry works outside the U.S.–as in, I would have covered the market better at the Post if I’d made this trip sooner, except the paper was too cheap to spring for that. At first, I didn’t sell enough stories from MWC to recoup my own travel costs (granted, I was also getting paid a lot more then), but after a few years of practice I got a better grip on my MWC business model and started clearing a decent profit. Making this a successful business venture ranks as one of my prouder achievements as a full-time freelancer.

I also improved my travel-hacking skills from that first year, in which booking flights in January left me with a seven-hour layover in Brussels on the way there and a two-stop itinerary home with a tight connection in Zurich that shrank to 20 minutes when my flight left BCN late. MWC 2017, in which I was able to leverage a United upgrade certificate to ensconce myself in seat 2A on a Lufthansa A330 home to Dulles, may be my most comfortable business trip ever.

Barcelona sculptureThe time-zone gap between Spain and any possible editor in the States also allowed me to explore my new favorite Spanish city. I carved out hours to visit all of Antonio Gaudí’s landmarks–yes, you should visit Casa Milà and Sagrada Familia–and spent not enough time getting lost in streets that sometimes weren’t wide enough to allow my phone to get a solid GPS location.

Barcelona has its issues, like seemingly annual transit strikes and the elevated risk of pickpocketing. But getting to go there for work has been an immense privilege.

This year was supposed to extend this recent tradition, but instead it will represent an interruption–at best. As my friend and MWC co-conspirator Sascha Segan explains in this essay at PCMag, knifing this year’s installment could easily lead to MWC going to another city in Europe. Or not happening at all again.

That makes me sad. Seeing the world retreat in unreasoning fear makes me angry.

The boring art of testing hotspot bandwidth and battery life

I’m nearing the finish line (I hope) of an overdue update to the Wirecutter guide to WiFi hotspots. The research for that had me repeatedly subjecting an array of loaner hotspots from all four nationwide wireless carriers to tests of the two core metrics of bandwidth and battery life.

It hasn’t exactly been my most exciting work.

For bandwidth testing, I’ve continued to rely on Ookla’s Speedtest.net Web, Android and iOS apps to clock the download speeds, upload speeds and ping times each hotspot has served up. This is pretty much an industry-standard benchmark, and these apps are simple enough to run.

But getting data out of them is another thing:

  • The iOS app creates a .csv file you can open in any spreadsheet app that includes every relevant bit of data–date and time, GPS-derived location, WiFi network name, download/upload/ping measurements, shareable public link–and attaches it to an e-mail message.
  • The Android app also generates a .csv file–except that choosing to have it saved to your Google Drive leaves you with a .eml mail-attachment file. You have to e-mail it to yourself to get a usable .csv, at which point you discover that this export doesn’t include the name of the wireless network.
  • The Web app’s “Export” button yields a third type of .csv file, one without a record of the WiFi network name, your location, or a shareable link.
  • No, the option to create a Speedtest account won’t help–because you can’t log into that from the mobile apps.

Ookla is owned by PCMag publisher Ziff Davis, but that has yet to result in any corporate pressure to make exporting measurements less janky for the hardworking journalists at that and other Ziff tech media properties.

Testing hotspot battery life only requires recording the times you started and ended each trial. But because these things often run for 12 hours or more, it’s not realistic to tether a laptop to a hotspot and keep working nonstop until the hotspot battery expires and the connection drops.

To ensure my laptop would be keeping each hotspot working full time, I opened a page to NASA’s live YouTube channel. Beyond running up the social-media metrics for one of my favorite four-letter government agencies, keeping the browser on a single live channel avoids the risk of YouTube’s recommendations sending me off to some nutcase conspiracy hub.

Because I’m not always that smart, I didn’t think to check my laptop’s ability to log a wireless connection going offline until after I’d spent an hour and change watching one hotspot linger at 1% of a charge.

As a helpful StackExchange thread pointed out, that logged data awaits inside Windows. Type “Event Viewer” in the taskbar search, open that app, select “Applications and Services Logs” in the left-hand pane, double-click the center pane’s “Microsoft,” “Windows,” “UniversalTelemetryClient,” and “Operational” entries in succession, then select “Filter Current Log…” in the right-hand pane. Type “55” in the resulting dialog’s Event ID field, hit “OK” and you’ll see a series of entries.

Assuming you check this right after seeing that the laptop went offline, opening the most recent should reveal a properties field consisting of “Is the Internet available: false,” with the time corresponding to when the hotspot died.

Since I don’t have a Mac laptop, I’m not sure how you’d do this on one. A different StackExchange thread suggests a Terminal command, but that doesn’t work on my iMac–maybe because this aging desktop isn’t running the latest macOS edition. It would be ironic if you have to hit the command line on a Mac to perform a task that Windows lets you accomplish inside a graphical user interface–but the Windows Event Viewer app is mighty ugly itself, and neither operating system covers itself in glory in this aspect.

CES 2020 travel-tech report: too much rebooting

My 23rd CES in a row featured an accomplishment I may never have pulled off before: I didn’t open my laptop the last day.

I got away with that because I’d filed all of the copy I owed from Las Vegas by Wednesday evening, leaving Thursday writing-free. And because I was starting to worry about having to rely on my laptop for one more day at the gadget show.

Each prior morning in Vegas, I awoke to find that my late-2017 HP Spectre x360 had crashed overnight and then failed to reboot, instead landing on a black-and-white error screen reporting that a boot device could not be found. Rebooting the laptop–sometimes more than once–allowed this computer to rediscover its solid-state drive, but I kept worrying that the condition would become terminal.

And then Friday morning, I dared to open the HP’s screen after my red-eye flight out of Vegas and had it awake normally, as it’s done every time since. I need to figure this out before I head out for MWC next month.

My HP is showings its age in other ways. The two rubber pads on the bottom have peeled off (this seems to happen a lot), and the battery life could be better.

My Google Pixel 3a, on the other hand, worked like a champ throughout my long work week as I took pictures and notes, stayed mostly on top of e-mail and tweeted out my usual snarky CES commentary. This phone didn’t crash once, and its battery lasted long enough for me not to get anxious about it–though having it recharge so quickly also helped with that.

But my Pixel 3a also briefly hijacked my Twitter account when I apparently didn’t press the phone’s power button before shoving it in my pocket after I’d tweeted my congratulations to a friend on his new job. And then I didn’t even realize this storm of pocket-tweeting had erupted until a few minutes later. Ugh.

Unlike last year, I benefited from the fortuitous overlap of an update to Wirecutter’s WiFi-hotspot guide. This let me borrow the bandwidth of the top two devices in this review, a Verizon Jetpack 8800L and an AT&T Nighthawk LTE, while also subjecting them to the harshest use possible. The 8800L also doubled as a battery pack for my phone; the Nighthawk also offers that function, but not via its USB-C port–and I forgot to pack a USB-A-to-C cable.

The Belkin travel power strip that I’ve been packing since 2012 also proved instrumental in keeping my devices charged, because there are never enough power outlets in CES press rooms. This gadget had the added advantage of not needing any firmware updates or reboots. So did the handheld storage device I used to access my notes for a panel I led Wednesday: a Field Notes notebook.

Six updates in, iPadOS still needs work

It hasn’t even been two months since Apple shipped iPadOS, but in that time the tablet offshoot of iOS 13 has seen six maintenance updates–from iPadOS 13.1.1 to 13.2.3.

That plethora of patches has squashed some obvious bugs, like the ones that made Dock shortcuts to recently-opened non-Apple apps inert. They have not, however, cured other trying aspects of iPadOS:

• The new QuickPath gesture-typing option is, for some reason, confined to the floating keyboard you can invoke, not the standard-sized one. Has nobody at Apple tried using Google’s Gboard?

• The new multiple-windows option for an app is buried beneath a long-press of a Dock icon–sufficiently hidden that I did not realize that feature existed until reading Ars Technica’s iPadOS review.

• I appreciate Apple’s attempts to make me aware when apps request my location in the background, but after being nagged 10 times about my choice to let the Dark Sky weather app check my coordinates in the background, I’d appreciate having an option to the effect of “I know what I’m doing and you can stop asking about this.”

• Seeing which apps have updates or have been recently updated takes more steps than in iOS 12–presumably, so that Apple could use that spot at the bottom of the App Store app to promote its Apple Arcade subscription gaming service.

• The process of moving app icons around feels even more maddening than before, especially if I happen to drop an app inside a folder by mistake. Meanwhile, the OS still affords no relief from its inflexible app grid; I can’t leave a row or a column blank as negative space to set off particular icons.

• AirDrop remains as enabling of anonymous harassment as ever.

• I still see display glitches like the charming overlap of portrait and landscape screen modes shown in the screengrab above.

It’s not that I regret installing iPadOS–some of the new features, like the privacy-preserving Sign in with Apple option, are only starting to reveal their promise. Others, such as the Sidecar Mac screen-mirroring option, require newer hardware than the aging iMac on which I’m typing this. But seeing these obscure, illogical or insensitive bits of user experience, I can’t help thinking of all the times I’ve taken a whack at Windows for the same sort of design stumbles.

Android 10 first impressions: location, location, no you can’t have my location

A dozen days after installing Android 10 on my Pixel 3a, this operating-system update’s major accomplishment has been helping me to chain down a bunch of my apps.

That’s good! The location-privacy improvements in Android 10–starting with the ability to deny an application access to your location when it’s not running in the foreground–more than justify the roughly seven minutes I spent installing this release.

I expected that after seeing Google’s introduction of Android 10, then named Android Q, at Google I/O this May.

But I didn’t know then that Android would actively warn me when individual apps checked my whereabouts when I wasn’t running them, in the form of “[App name] got your location in the background” notifications inviting me to take the background-location keys from that app.

I was already planning on limiting most of the apps on my phone to foreground location access only, but these reminders have sped up that process and helped spotlight the more obvious offenders. (Facebook Messenger, go sit in the corner.) This is an excellent case of Google borrowing from Apple.

There’s much more that’s new in Android 10–if you’re curious and have an hour or so free, Ron Amadeo’s novella-length review at Ars Technica exceeds 2,000 words on the first of nine pages–but its other changes have made less of a difference in my daily use.

• The battery, WiFi and signal-strength icons are now simple outlines, and when swiped down the notifications area shows your remaining battery life in human language instead of a percentage: “1 day, 2 hr.” Less attractive: The text of notifications doesn’t appear in Android’s usual Roboto font, which bugs me to no end.

• The array of icons in the share sheet no longer painstakingly paint their way onto the screen. And the one I employ most often–the copy-to-clipboard icon–always appears first and at the top right of this list.

• The switch to gesture navigation (for instance, swiping up to see all open apps) hasn’t been as confusing as I’d feared… because Android 10 didn’t touch my previous “2-button navigation” system setting, which keeps the back and home buttons one swipe away. I guess I should try the new routine now.

• I still think dark mode is an overrated concept, having had that as my everyday screen environment on too many DOS PCs, but I get that it can be less distracting at night. And on phones with OLED screens, dark modes also extend battery life. So now that dark theme is a supported Android feature–hint, edit your Quick Settings sheet to add a “Dark theme” tile–I would like to see more apps support it. Starting with Google’s own Gmail.

Finally, I have to note that my phone has yet to crash or experience any impaired battery life since updating it to Android 10. I hope I didn’t just jinx this update by writing the preceding sentence.

 

This is the most interesting conference badge I’ve worn

LAS VEGAS–I’ve spent the last two days wearing a circular circuit board topped with a slab of quartz, which is not just normal but required behavior to attend the DEF CON security conference here.

DEF CON 27 badgeI had heard upfront that DEF CON badges–available only for $300 in cash, no comped press admission available–were not like other conference badges. But I didn’t realize how much they differed until I popped the provided watch battery into my badge (of course, I put it in wrong side up on the first try), threaded the lanyard through the badge, and soon had other attendees asking if they could tap their badges against mine.

These badges designed by veteran hacker Joe Grand include their own wireless circuitry and embedded software that causes them to light up when held next to or close to other badges. As you do this with other attendees of various classes–from what I gathered, regular attendees have badges with white quartz, press with green, vendors with purple, and speakers with red–you will unlock other functions of the badge.

What other functions, I don’t know and won’t find out, as I’m now headed back from the event. That’s one way in which I’m a DEF CON n00b, the other being that I didn’t wear any other badges soldered together from circuit boards, LEDs and other electronic innards.

(Update: Saturday evening, Grand, aka “Kingpin,” posted detailed specifics about his creation, including source code and slides from a talk I’d missed.)

You might expect me to critique the unlabeled DEF CON badge for flunking at the core task of announcing your name to others, but forced disclosure is not what this event is about–hence the restriction to cash-only registration. And since I have mini business cards, this badge met another key conference-credential task quite well: The gap between the circuit board and the lanyard was just the right size to hold a stash of my own cards.

From Pixel 1 to Pixel 3a

I changed smartphones this week without being forced to–my old phone hadn’t suffered any catastrophic failure or fallen into a weird cycle of malfunctions. Instead, I retired my first-generation Google Pixel because two years and change is a good run for a phone, and upgrading to a Pixel 3a with a better camera and superior network coverage would only cost $400 and change.

I could shop free of duress because my Pixel 1 has been the best smartphone I’ve ever owned. It’s taken a lot of great pictures, it’s had an almost-entirely crash-free existence, it’s benefited from every Google update almost as soon as each was released, its battery life has been fine (except for maybe the last few weeks, and obviously not at battery-devouring tech events like CES), and it’s survived multiple drops on hard floors that left all four corners scuffed.

The Pixel 3a I bought last week–after spending a couple of months trying out a loaner picked up at Google I/O in May–should share most of those virtues. It also cost about two-thirds the Pixel 1’s list price (although I was able to buy mine at a substantial discount when Google refunded the purchase price of the Nexus 5X that succumbed to a fatal bootloop cycle). And like the Pixel 1 but unlike the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3, this device includes a headphone jack, so I didn’t have to underwrite the gadget industry’s latest idiotic design-minimalism fetish.

The obvious upgrade with the 3a is its camera, which includes most of the optical hardware of the far more expensive Pixel 3. But because it also supports the low-frequency LTE band that T-Mobile has lit up over the past few years, this device should also deliver much better connectivity.

(I really hope I haven’t jinxed this purchase with the preceding two paragraphs.)

Finally, after struggling with earlier Android migrations, I have to give Google credit for easing this path. This time around, I only had to connect the two devices with a USB-C cable, start the migration process, and see some 13 minutes later that my app-icon layout had been copied over, after which I could sit through a tedious app-download process. That’s still not close to the simplicity of swapping iOS devices–like, why did my screen wallpaper not copy over?–but I’ll accept that added inconvenience if it means I can still have a phone with a headphone jack.

(No, I’m never letting that go. Why did you ask?)