The “hands-on area”: tech journalism at its busiest, not its finest

BERLIN–Three days into IFA, I’ve spent a disturbing amount of time at this tech trade show standing around and looking at my phone. The distractions of social media explain some of that, but I can blame more of it on the “hands-on area.”

That’s the space next to a gadget product-launch event, kept roped off until the end of the press conference or the keynote, in which the assembled tech journalists get to inspect the new hardware up close.

I enjoy the chance to pick up a just-announced gadget, see how it works, play with its apps and settings to see if any surprises emerge, and grab a few quick photos that are hopefully unblemished by glare, fingerprints or dust.

But increasingly, this requires waiting as each scribe ahead of me whips out a camera or phone not to take their own pictures, but to shoot or even livestream a video recapping the highlights of the product. Often these are not two-minute clips but four- or five-minute segments, but that’s not obvious at the start–and professional courtesy mandates that you give the other journalist a chance to finish his or her job.

Many of these video shoots are also one-person productions, which leaves me looking on in some frustration at bloggers who are literally talking into one phone about another. If only one of them would burst into song or something to liven up the scene!

Instead, an overseas show like IFA or Mobile World Congress provides the pleasure of hearing people run through the same basic script in a dozen different languages. Eventually, this may teach me how to say “the phone feels good in the hand” in German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Hebrew and Japanese… if the news industry’s lemming-like pivot to video doesn’t first force me to start shooting these clips myself.

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Weekly output: IMAX VR, HDR, laptops, IFA

My fifth IFA is in the books. The biggest surprise of this year’s trip to Berlin: I did not get into any involved conversations about the election with Germans, only with other Americans. In a weird little bookend to that, I spotted Donald Trump’s 757 parked at the far end of Newark International Airport earlier today.

Note that as in prior years, the organizers of IFA are covering most of my travel costs, an arrangement my regular editors okayed beforehand and with which I’m okay in certain situations.

8/31/2016: IMAX wants to add VR to your next movie, Yahoo Finance

I finished writing this at the evening event during which Samsung introduced its new Gear S3 smartwatch. Having a hard deadline–as in, wanting to get dinner at Samsung’s reception upstairs–helped me get this done faster than other stories this week.

Fierce HDR story9/1/2016: The Progress of HDR, FierceCable

This post about cable, satellite and online video’s adoption of high dynamic range video is my first for this outlet. One thing I’ve realized I like about writing stories for trade publications: The research required to get into the weeds for those clients can save me serious time when I need to write something quickly about the same subject for a consumer site. Note that you’ll have to cough up an e-mail address and some other details to read the post and the others collected in Fierce’s miniature e-book.

9/2/2016: Your next laptop could have a fingerprint reader and USB C, Yahoo Finance

This report from the show floor went up with a stupid typo–I wrote that a Lenovo laptop was 5.6 inches thick, not the correct .56 inches. I haven’t done something like that since I made the reverse error for a Post review of an Apple laptop, describing it as a quarter of an inch thick instead of (if I recall correctly) 1.25 in. thick. My Yahoo colleagues fixed that on Saturday.

9/4/2016: Cheaper phones, brighter TVs rule IFA tech show, USA Today

I wrote a quick recap of notable consumer-relevant trends in laptops, smartphones and TVs seen at IFA. If this story doesn’t offer enough detail, I should have two last IFA items going up at Yahoo in the next day or two.

Lesson re-learned: Daytime offsite events at a trade show rarely work

BERLIN–I had a decision to make about my schedule Thursday morning here: Would I cut away from IFA to attend a Huawei event on the other side of town from the Berlin Messe, or would I stick with the official show schedule and check out some press conferences that might not prove all that newsworthy?

Huawei Nova phone

I opted for the unusual, thinking that a firm on the scale of that Chinese vendor would have to commit some news–and in any case, the event wouldn’t take too long and I would be able to get over to the Messe soon enough.

I was wrong on both counts. The taxi I shared to the Velodrom with some journalist friends took 25 minutes, after which we needed another 15 minutes to find the entrance to this half-buried arena. Huawei’s event went on for an hour, after which the hands-on area to try its Nova and Nova Plus phones and MediaPad M3 tablet opened and consumed more of my time.

And when I finally walked over to the S-Bahn station and got on a train to the Messe, I had to exit halfway there because of a scheduled closure that Google Maps didn’t warn me about when saying transit would be as quick as a taxi. After failing to puzzle my way through substitute bus service, then taking a different train with an extra connection to IFA’s venue, I finally showed up at 1:30–an hour and a half later than I’d expected in my earlier, delusional moments.

It’s true that attending Huawei’s event did allow me to witness some extended selfie coaching from social-media celebrity Xenia Tchoumi (a few tweets highlighting audience reactions follow after the jump), which yielded some much-appreciated humor.

But if I’d made the more boring choice, I wouldn’t have lost more than half the day to an event that featured no details about U.S. availability of the new hardware. It’s something I will recall immediately the next time somebody suggests I step aside from the daytime schedule of the first day or two of a sprawling show like CES or Mobile World Congress to have a client monopolize my time for what should only be an hour.

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Weekly output: AR in academia, Yosemite in VR, messaging apps, mobile-app nags, municipal broadband

I haven’t traveled anywhere for work since the end of June, but tomorrow I depart for Berlin to cover the IFA trade show for my fifth year in a row. My passport has collected a lot more stamps since August 2012 and I know I won’t feel too lost when I emerge from a U-Bahn station, but the prospect of temporarily putting 4,000-plus miles between me and my family still leaves me with mixed emotions.

EdTech AR in academia post8/23/2016: Higher Ed’s Augmented-Reality Ambitions Highlight Infrastructure Requirements, EdTech

This short, technically-inclined piece allowed me to quiz an old Post colleague–Dan Pacheco, now a professor at Syracuse University’s journalism school–and follow up with a University of Maryland professor I met last winter.

8/25/2016: You can visit Yosemite National Park with Obama … in VR, Yahoo Finance

I got an advance look at this virtual-reality tour of Yosemite narrated by President Obama. Having myself immersed in a place I haven’t seen since 2001 filled me with an almost painful level of nostalgia, so I had no choice but to reference a certain Mad Men episode.

8/26/2016: Here’s why email is still the best messaging app, Yahoo Finance

Months after the idea landed in my head, I finally wrote this get-off-my-lawn post about the cognitive load of having too many messaging apps on my phone.

8/27/2016: Avoid downloading mobile apps with these iPhone tricks, USA Today

I spaced about marketing this Q&A item about getting mobile browsers to impersonate desktop browsers because the column went up on USAT’s site on Saturday, not the usual Sunday. Note to my editors: I’ll get into PR mode about it tomorrow morning, I promise.

8/27/2016: Municipal broadband, KGO

I talked to the San Francisco station’s Jason Middleton about the sorry state of broadband competition and the prospects of municipal broadband increasing our choices. Note to myself: The next time a radio host gets my last name wrong, correct that immediately instead of waiting for the right moment.

CTIA ROI: Did I need to go Vegas for this?

LAS VEGAS–My stay here only ran about 38 hours, but even if my itinerary hadn’t gotten upended by flight delays Tuesday I would have only spent 42 hours here. That was by design: I didn’t choose to go to CTIA’s Super Mobility Week until I’d already committed to going to Portland for the XOXO conference.

CTIA logoThat way, I didn’t risk much on the news value of an event that hasn’t exactly padded out Vegas taxi lines the last two years–selling one story should cover my additional travel costs.

But even by those low standards, the show organized by this D.C. trade group underperformed. The floor was a vast expanse of peripheral players hawking cables, cases, chargers or the industrial hardware that keep our phones online, from cell towers to backup generators to drones to inspect cell towers.

Among companies most wireless customers might know well, only Verizon, Samsung, AT&T and Tracfone had a notable presence on the floor. None committed any real news. (A Tracfone staffer said that prepaid carrier didn’t have any publicists around when I stopped by. PR tip: Not helpful!)

The opening keynote Wednesday featured appearances by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, but neither yielded enough material for a story for my usual outlets. If you missed my tweeting Wednesday morning: Wales is helping to launch the U.S. branch of a U.K. wireless reseller called The People’s Operator that lets you direct some of your spend to charity, and Wheeler said he’s confident that next March’s auction of some broadcast-TV spectrum to wireless carriers will succeed and that the FCC’s net-neutrality rules won’t stop wireless carriers from investing in their networks.

And then I spent the next two hours watching Apple’s event. This is the second year in a row that Apple has elected to introduce a round of new products on the opening day of what’s supposedly the wireless industry’s leading domestic event. The people at CTIA must be so pleased by that.

Many tech journalists were in San Francisco for Apple’s event. Others sat out CTIA because they’d gone to IFA the week before and didn’t want to deal with that much travel.

I’m not writing this to trash-talk CTIA’s efforts, although their decision to stage this show right after the electronics extravaganza in Berlin now looks a huge unforced error. Wireless is one of the most interesting and important parts of the tech business today, and you’d think it needs and could easily support an annual gathering like any other industry’s.

But one that’s marked by an absence of news and exhibitors, which happens only a day or two after a larger event that involves 9,000 miles of travel, and which takes place in a city that’s not quite my favorite place to go, is not something I need on my travel budget again. Sorry, CTIA.

Checking my linguistic privilege

BERLIN–The past four days have reminded me how often being an American means never having to learn another language.

Departure sign in GermanI’m not proud of that fact, but when almost everybody you meet speaks English and does so well, you can get by with a knowledge of German that goes little further than “danke” and “bitte.”

That’s especially true at the IFA electronics trade show that has me here for the fourth year in a row (once again, with most of my travel costs covered by the show’s organizers). Veterans of the show tell me that IFA press conferences used to be conducted in German, but now everything runs in English. And not only are almost all of the labels on the exhibits here bilingual, most of those are English-first.

But earlier today, I was on a tour conducted entirely in German. I realized I was not quite as dumb in the language as I thought, in the sense of recognizing nouns and developing a sense of the other words around them from their context. If nothing else, that means my pattern-recognition skills haven’t completely atrophied.

It also reminded me of what it felt like when I began to learn French. It was frustrating to feel so lost at interpreting words made by other human beings–and yet I was fluent in the language by the end of college, with a certificate of proficiency to prove it. Sadly, a near-complete lack of practice since then has undone much of that learning. Maybe I should have taken Spanish instead, which I’d have plenty of opportunities to use around D.C.

I can’t undo those things, but I can at least try to knock some of the rust off my French or develop some marginal competency in Spanish. Any suggestions for a language-learning app to put on my phone or tablet?

(Meanwhile, my daughter has magically  progressed in five short years from baby babble to learning to read. This transformation is fascinating, and I’m not sure I could inventory what I’ve done to make that happen.)

Weekly output: vacation mode for phones, whither unlimited-data plans

The next few weeks will involve a lot of airplanes, starting tomorrow when I fly to Berlin for my fourth annual trip to the IFA electronics show there. I’m back on the 6th, then depart two days later for the CTIA wireless-industry gathering in Las Vegas. That will be a brief stay, as I move on to Portland on the 10th for the XOXO conference. A week and a half later, I’m off to L.A. for the Online News Association conference.

At least this travel schedule isn’t as insane as last September’s (when, for example, less than 24 hours separated the IFA and CTIA trips). But still: Conference organizers, maybe you could find other months to host your events?

Yahoo Tech vacation-mode post8/25/2015: The One Feature Every Smartphone Needs: Vacation Mode, Yahoo Tech

I wrote this essay, sadly enough, while on vacation. But I did leave time that day for a nap! Of course, half the comments were along the lines of “just turn off your phone.” Thanks, dude, that’s a really practical bit of advice.

8/30/2015: New math hurts case for old unlimited data plans, USA Today

Speaking of comments, something weird happened with them on this post tonight–the previous 16 comments, including some replies of my own, vanished, and now there’s just one. (It’s from a guy who says his phone is his only Internet device, and he therefore burns through 40 gigabytes of data. I am pained thinking of spending that much time online on any phone.) I’m not sure what happened. Never mind–I was reading a syndicated copy of the story on the site of the St. Louis TV station KSDK but completely ignored the different header atop the story. Duh.