Weekly output: unlocked phones, headphone jack, foreign phones, Android security, smartphone trends (x2)

I had a busy week in Barcelona at my fifth Mobile World Congress smartphone show, and in just a few days I head to Austin for SXSW. So I may need a little more time to flesh out my Flickr album from MWC.

2/27/2017: 3 ‘unlocked’ phones that might make your carrier unhappy, Yahoo Finance

My first file from MWC focused on a few phones that manufacturers will sell direct to consumers, not locked to any one carrier–a trend I applaud.

yahoo-mwc-2017-posts 2/28/2017: Sorry, Apple, the headphone jack isn’t going anywhere, Yahoo Finance

This post must have fetched the biggest audience of anything I did from MWC. The Verge’s Vlad Savov gave me a shout-out, and a Reddit thread on my story racked up more than 2,000 comments–about 70 times as many as people left after the piece itself.

2/28/2017: 4 new smartphones you can’t get in the US, Yahoo Finance

You’d think “is this phone coming to the U.S.?” would be a question any MWC show-floor rep could answer. You would be wrong.

3/1/2017: What you should and shouldn’t worry about in Android security, Yahoo Finance

Some enlightening conversations with security professionals led to this report. Key lesson: While you’re far safer sticking with Google’s Play Store, malware can sneak into it. And as a visit to the MWC exhibit of an Iranian app store reminded me, some parts of the world don’t get the Play Store at all.

cr-mwc-2017-recap3/2/2017: Best Smartphone Tech of 2017, Consumer Reports

I fired off an e-mail to my editor at CR in the middle of packing two Fridays ago, asking if he needed any sort of a wrap-up post from MWC. This wound up being the last thing I filed from the show floor, then the next morning I sent in a revision from my Airbnb addressing my editor’s comments before I headed to the airport.

3/4/2017: 4 changes coming to Android phones, USA Today

This shorter look at Android-phone trends went through two changes after posting: We corrected the headline so it no longer referred to five changes, then we fixed an errant reference to a Galaxy S3 on the show floor (it was a Galaxy S7 Edge). As is my practice, I called out those alterations in a comment.

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Five-time MWC results: working harder and maybe faster, and a lot more obsessive about travel

Re-reading the coverage I filed from Mobile World Congress in 2013, I can only think of what a slacker I was back then: one post for Discovery News about the state of smartphones, an extra column for USA Today about much the same topic, and a post for my tech-policy hangout at the time, Disruptive Competition Project, on how weird the U.S. phone market seemed after my overdue introduction to the workings of wireless in the rest of the world.

mwc-17-camera(That last one holds up reasonably well, I think.)

During my fifth trip to MWC, I filed six posts from Barcelona and need to finish a seventh about the hype and reality of 5G wireless. Unlike four years ago, I wrote enough stories from the global phone show on top of my typical weekly output to cover my travel costs, even though the contracts I write on today aren’t as generous as 2013’s.

I’ll admit that I would have liked a little more free time to play tourist beyond the Saturday afternoon I spent traipsing around Park Güell, but I also hate feeling like 700 words must require a day’s work or that I’m somehow above cranking out copy from a tech event. So I wrote as fast as I could but not as fast as I’d like.

I’d like to think that motivation led me to take more notes from the show floor, and I hope the practice sticks in my head on weeks when I’m at home and have free time to tempt me to poke around with a post.

mwc-2017-floorThe more important upside of this exercise was a lesson in the virtues of showing a little entrepreneurial initiative, even when you’re running around like crazy.

For example, one of the stories I sold started with a pitch I made to an editor in between gobbling down lunch Friday and packing for my flight out that evening. That was totally worth setting aside my luggage for a few minutes.

After the jump, more about travel: The other part of my approach to MWC that’s changed since 2013 is how having an elevated elite status on one airline has left me even less capable of booking flights like a normal human being.

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Weekly output: wireless plans (x2), broadband infrastructure, ATSC 3.0, wireless discounts

BARCELONA–I arrived here Saturday morning for my fifth Mobile World Congress trade show. Most of that afternoon was spent wandering around Barcelona and trying to stay awake, while today involved a series of press events scattered around town. The show formally starts tomorrow morning, which is also when I start owing copy to various editors. I’m here through Thursday morning, so if you have questions about upcoming (non-Apple) smartphones, this would be a good time to ask them.

2/20/2017: Unlimited-data plans, WTOP

This interview was supposed to happen, as my conversations with Washington’s news station usually do, over Skype. But the app kept dropping the call within seconds of my clicking to answer it, so the producers punted and called my cell phone instead. Microsoft, please try to make Skype less painful to use.

2/22/2017: Broadband companies can’t build out their networks, and it’s hurting consumers, Yahoo Finance

Not for the first time this week, I got to revisit a topic I’d first covered in any detail several years ago.

Screenshot of story from NYT iPad app2/22/2017: Picking a New Phone Plan? Here Are Your Best Bets, The New York Times

The NYT’s Brian Chen interviewed me, in my role as maintainer of the (Times-owned) Wirecutter’s guide to wireless service, for this story breaking down recent changes to the big four carriers’ rate plans. The analyst he talked to gave recommendations I wouldn’t agree with, but on the other hand Chen gave me the last word in the story.

This, incidentally, represents the second time I’ve been quoted in the Times and the first time I’ve been quoted correctly. That other time happened in 1993, when the NYT’s Frank Prial wrote a feature on how Georgetown University had changed since Bill Clinton’s undergrad days. He interviewed a bunch of students at the Georgetown Voice’s offices and attributed a quote from somebody else (I’m guessing then-photo editor Darren Carroll) to me.

Lest it seem like I’m complaining about my treatment by Timesmen, I should note that looking up that 24-year-old story also led me to a few NYT pieces about my dad’s exploits playing football for Columbia University, including this section-front story about his game-winning field goal against Brown. Yes, they spelled our last name correctly.

2/23/2017: The FCC just gave you a reason to hold off on buying a 4K TV, Yahoo Finance

This post provided this week’s other stroll down memory lane. (Does this column I wrote just after the end of analog broadcasts in 2009 suggest a certain amount of built-up cynicism?) I’m cautiously optimistic about the coming, voluntary transition to “ATSC 3.0” broadcasts. I’m also content in my decision to hold off on buying a new TV until it includes a tuner for this new broadcast standard.

2/26/2017: The hidden wireless discounts you might be missing, USA Today

If you use AT&T, Sprint or Verizon, you may be able to chip 10 percent or so off your bill by taking advantage of your connection to an employer, a school or an association.

Old-school browser debugging seems to have made Safari a little less bloated

I’ve written/ranted before here about Safari’s horrific abuse of memory without then doing anything about about it beyond getting in the habit of force-quitting Apple’s Mac browser every day or so to stop it from locking up my laptop or my desktop.

Safari iconBut given enough time feeling lost, I will eventually stop and ask for directions. A few weeks ago, that led me to a corner of the browser I’d forgotten about: the plug-ins dialog in Safari’s preferences. As this OS X Daily post reminded me, opening Safari’s prefs, then clicking the Security tab and then its “Plug-in Settings…” button will reveal which random bits of code are active in the browser.

I had forgotten about that because I haven’t intentionally installed a plug-in in years and, long after banishing Oracle’s Java and Adobe’s Flash from this browser, thought I had a clean configuration. Nope! On my iMac, it revealed a Cisco plug-in that I could only blame on a long-ago WebEx session, a SharePoint plug-in or two that my wife might have used for work, a couple of Google Talk plug-ins that I remembered from the occasional “do you want to trust” dialogs, and maybe one for Apple’s QuickTime software.

Isafari-prefs-plug-ins-button deactivated every one of them, then went into the systemwide Library’s Internet Plug-Ins folder to delete the Cisco and SharePoint offenders, both of which I was sure I would not use again.

The results so far have exceeded the placebo effect I expected from changing a setting in an app. The browser is much less likely to jam up my Mac and leave the Activity Monitor app filled with “Safari Web Content” processes lit in red to indicate their unfriendly unresponsiveness.

I’m not done wishing that macOS Sierra would exercise some competent memory management, though. The occasional miscreant page can still zoom to the top of Activity Monitor’s memory-usage graph, while Twitter’s site continues to slowly eat RAM and forces me into a browser restart after maybe two or three days.

But having Safari not devour my computer’s memory much more than Chrome has to count as a victory, since Apple’s browser continues to integrate better with some core Mac features. My exercise in bug management has made using an old Mac less painful… which is good, since Apple seems in no rush to update the iMac or the MacBook Air.

Weekly output: Verizon’s unlimited plan (x3), video-game economic impact, chatbots, broadband competition

Presidents’ Day used to feel like a real holiday–preferably experienced while enjoying views from a chairlift somewhere–but Monday doesn’t feel like much of one. I’m facing an abbreviated workweek, thanks to my Friday departure for Barcelona to cover Mobile World Congress. On the upside, I’m about to spend a few days in Spain for work.

2/13/2017: How Verizon’s new ‘unlimited’ plan compares to the competition, Yahoo Finance

This workweek technically started Sunday afternoon, when Verizon announced that it would once again sell an unlimited–more accurately called “unmetered”–data plan. After I’d filed this post, I got to rewrite a quarter of it to catch up with T-Mobile lifting the two worst restrictions on its own “unlimited” plan.

esa-panel-screengrab2/14/2017: Achievement Unlocked: The Video Game Industry’s Economic Impact, Entertainment Software Association

The nice thing about moderating a panel with members of Congress: They are guaranteed to make you look timely. Rep. Pete Aguilar (D.-Calif.) had to duck out halfway through this discussion, just as Rep. Doug Collins (R.-Ga.) made his belated entrance. You can watch the conversation, also featuring Higher Education Video Game Alliance president Constance Steinkuehler, on Twitch (this is the first and probably the last time I’ll appear on that game-centric network) and see photos from the event at ESA’s Facebook page.

2/15/2017: A Chatbot Is Here to Help, FedTech

I filed this story about the potential of chatbots to ease federal-government services in a simpler time when a Facebook Messenger bot would walk you through sending a message to the president. The Trump administration shut that down; I don’t know why, as my e-mailed inquiry to the White House press office did not yield a response.

2/15/2017: Here are the catches in Verizon’s new plan, USA Today

My editors at USAT asked if I could file my column early, recognizing that something about Verizon advertising unlimited data was driving readers bonkers. The piece now has 27,788 Facebook shares, which suggests they had the right idea.

usat-facebook-live2/17/2017: Unlimited data! But at what cost?, USA Today

My USAT editors also asked if I could do a Facebook Live spot with tech and media reporter Mike Snider. This allowed me to see what USAT’s Tysons Corner newsroom looks like–yes, more than five years after I started writing for the place.

2/18/2017: Wireless carriers are fighting for your cash, and that’s good news, Yahoo Finance

While I was gathering string for a story on broadband infrastructure, I realized I already had almost everything needed to write a post about the wireless industry’s recent display of the benefits of competition–and the equally telling behavior of residential-broadband services that face few or no rivals.

SXSW FYI

South By Southwest has somehow been on my calendar every March since 2012, which should mean I know what I’m doing in Austin. I don’t really–but with friends coming to SXSW for their first time, I’m due to share what I’ve learned over these five years of practice at hanging out with the unelected hipster elite.

sxsw-microphonePacking: SXSW is properly understood as CES in a more walkable city. Bring your most comfortable shoes and socks, take a jacket you can stuff in a bag (it gets warm during March days in central Texas), and ensure your bag/backpack/purse/satchel always includes a power adapter and external battery for your phone.

If you have a travel power strip and extra USB cables, bring them. Helping other people charge their devices is a recognized good deed at SXSW.

I hear that packing a sufficiently ironic t-shirt can’t hurt, but every year I forget to bring anything from my dwindling collection of ’80s concert attire.

Getting around: With Lyft and Uber having fled Austin after it enacted rules that require fingerprinting drivers, getting around CES may be more complicated as you deal with various smaller-scale ride-hailing services. I haven’t tried those alternatives, but I usually stick to walking back and forth–downtown is compact enough.

For travel from and back to the airport, the 100 bus is an underrated option, especially compared to cab lines on SXSW’s opening day of March 10. The Red Line light rail can be helpful for getting to spots on the east side of town, and if you have a car2go membership, that works in Austin too. The city also has a bike share network, but I’ve yet to try that. If only my Capital Bikeshare membership got me a discount on a day pass…

sxsw-6th-streetPanels and venues: At the risk of sounding like a dweeb, SXSW panels deserve your time. They gather smart people who have learned insightful things about the intersection of technology and culture, and you will learn from them if you pay attention. In the bargain, they provide a valuable opportunity to recharge your devices.

Unfortunately, they are also scattered around Austin. The core venues–the Convention Center, he JW Marriott, the Westin, even the Hilton across the street from the convention center–are placed just far enough apart that running into one random acquaintance will lead you to miss the panel you’d put on your schedule in a fit of optimism. If you’d set out to hit a more distant SXSW location like the Hyatt Regency across the river: good luck!

Get used to tearing up those plans in favor of going to whatever you can make in the next 10 minutes. Besides, randomly running into people is one of the best things about SXSW.

Don’t overlook the compact trade-show floor in the convention center. Last year, that led me to headphones 3D-printed to fit only my ear canals (unable to sell that review hardware to anybody else, I donated its sale value to the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica) and a nonprofit campaign collecting USB flash drives on which to smuggle non-totalitarian information into North Korea.

Eating and drinking: The amount of corporate-subsidized food and beverages available during SXSW is ridiculous. I’ve spent the last five years waiting for all of these marketing managers and brand ambassadors to be held accountable for the expenses they run up, but no such thing has happened. So it’s quite possible to spend all five days of SXSW’s Interactive festival without paying for lunch, dinner or drinks.

Breakfast is another thing. So is the late-night snack that may become necessary after attending a SXSW event with more booze than chow. Either way, you’re in one of America’s food-truck capitals: Fire up your eats-finding app of choice, be prepared to walk a few blocks, and you should be fine.

Weekly output: net neutrality, Vizio surveillance, Amazon ads

Our daughter spent the first three workdays of the week home sick with a cold, which had a calamitous effect on my productivity. Especially on Monday, when my wife’s schedule left her unable to take any time off from work.

iPad screengrab of Yahoo post2/7/2017: Open-internet rules look dead. Now what?, Yahoo Finance

This look at the fate of net-neutrality regulations under new Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai benefited from an interview that was supposed to happen during CES. But I could never coordinate my schedule with that of political commentator and TYT Network founder Cenk Uygur during the show, so the publicist who had suggested a CES meeting instead arranged a sit-down when Uygur was in Arlington for a conference last weekend. Since TYT’s news and talk shows depend on Internet distribution, the possible effect on Internet video of weakened open-Internet rules was an obvious topic to discuss.

2/10/2017: FTC’s case against Vizio illuminates terrible tech industry habit, Yahoo Finance

This is a post that I would have written sooner had my workweek not been so thoroughly disrupted. When I finally had some free time, it hit me that Vizio’s deceptive presentation of the “Smart Interactivity” feature that tracked your viewing habits could fairly be called a “dark pattern” user experience–and that I could get an informed ruling on that by asking the guy who coined that term, London-based user-experience designer Harry Brignull.

2/12/2017: How to stop seeing your Amazon searches everywhere, USA Today

The Amazon ad-preferences setting that stops the retail giant’s ads from featuring your recent shopping searches on other sites has been around for a while. But to judge from the appreciative response I’m seeing on Twitter and Facebook to this column, its existence was news to many Amazon shoppers.