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.

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.

 

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.

A long-distance tech-nerd reunion

WAIMEA, Hawaii–One major upside of flying almost 4,800 miles to attend a tech event here was finally catching up with a lot of tech-journalism friends I hadn’t seen in almost two years… many of whom live only 235 miles north of my home.

Two torches lit on a beach, with the ocean and a post-sunset sky in shades of coral beyond it.

But for whatever reason, New York has yet to host any high-profile tech events that would have given all of us an excuse to meet somewhere in NYC. Instead, Qualcomm staged its Snapdragon Tech Summit at a resort here and covered lodging and airfare for invited journalists and analysts (me included, something I discussed in more length in a post for Patreon readers). And so in between keynotes and demos, I’ve had versions of the following conversations:

  • remembering how much work it was to get vaccinated early in this year and the continued frustration of having friends or family members who still refuse to get vaxxed;
  • testimony about surviving COVID-19 infections; one friend recalled being barely able to breathe at the worst moments, something that sounds utterly horrifying;
  • shared sighs over the psychic damage a year of pandemic-enforced isolation has done to our kids (usually followed by me feeling guilty over leaving my wife alone to deal with that);
  • recaps of what it was like reunite with distant family members after months of living a coronavirus-cloistered existence;
  • comparing when we started traveling for work again, to where, and for what purposes;
  • discussions of who will be at CES and MWC, and if those events will happen at all given the rapid spread and unclear risk of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus..

That last question felt somewhat safe to contemplate on an island that requires either a negative test or proof of vaccination if visitors want to avoid a mandatory quarantine–see, who says a vaccination mandate for air travel is impossible here?–but now we’re going home to uncertain futures.

My next travel will be for Christmas, after which I’ve got flights and lodging booked for Las Vegas and Barcelona, all refundable. I would like to be able to proceed with those plans and see at least some of my tech-nerd friends in those cities, but it’s not up to me.

A laptop aging only somewhat gracefully

My not-yet-four-year-old laptop has spent most of the last year and a half parked on a desk and plugged into a power outlet, but the HP Spectre x360 I bought in November of 2017 is still showing its age in ways that are increasingly hard to overlook.

The most obvious sign of its time is the decaying battery life. It’s not so much that I can’t count on the battery to make it past two hours; it’s more an issue that the percentage-left estimates in the taskbar seem a lot less reliable once the computer falls below 30 percent. And that if I leave this laptop in sleep mode but unplugged, the battery seems to need much less time to exhaust itself.

Photo shows my laptop with its charging cable plugged in.

HP’s hardware-diagnostics app now rates the battery’s condition as “weak,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense considering it’s only seen 380 or so charge cycles out of the 1,000 for which it’s rated. If I had a major tech conference coming up, I would be looking at prices for a new battery. But with Black Hat behind me as an event I covered remotely, it now doesn’t look like I’ll have a battery-destroying, laptop-torturing tech event on my calendar before CES 2022.

The exterior of the laptop doesn’t look too banged up in comparison–unlike my previous MacBook Air at a younger age, none of the keys have had their labels start to wear thin. The hinges that let me rotate the screen 360 degrees and turn the device into a laptop–one of the primary reasons I ditched Apple to buy a Windows laptop–remain sturdy, even if the one on the left looks a little out of alignment.

But the rubber strips on the underside that were supposed to help it stay in place on a slick surface have almost entirely peeled away, making the bottom of the laptop look decidedly janky.

At least the computer itself still seems fast enough, its 512-gigabyte solid state drive is not that close to being exhausted, and Microsoft has yet to rule it too old for any Windows 10 updates.

Four years is a good run for any laptop, so the prospect of having to buy a new one doesn’t bug me that much. But I do wish I could get some extended hands-on time with upcoming hardware from the major vendors–which I won’t get until I can travel to a battery-destroying, laptop-torturing tech event like CES.

Weekly output: space tech, Fox earnings

Not going to Las Vegas for Black Hat deprived me of some conference receptions (excluding those that got canceled on account of the resurgent pandemic) and also reminded me of a failure mode specific to virtual events. As in, a speaker’s presentation stalled out on one slide, but he didn’t realize that because he apparently didn’t check the online chat and there was no IRL audience to say “next slide!” at increasing levels of volume.

8/3/2021: CES and Space Tech, Clubhouse

I finally opened my mouth on the audio-room app to chat about the intersections of private space-launch firms and next year’s CES with my space-nerd pal Doug Mohney. We had exactly one person show up in the audience, which I guess means we should have led off with cryptocurrency and blockchains.

Screengrab of FierceVideo post as seen in Chrome on an Android phone.8/4/2021: Fox touts Tubi in quarterly earnings, FierceVideo

Fierce asked me to fill in to write up Fox’s quarterly earnings. I found it weirdly fascinating to hear Fox execs voice total confidence in their prospects, pandemic or not–even though some of the most-watched Fox News hosts have repeatedly questioned the utility of mass vaccination against the coronavirus. (I made sure to include that angle in the story.) I hope people who have been suggesting that an ad boycott will bring Fox to its knees will read this story or one like it and be reminded of how much money this company makes from affiliate fees collected from every pay-TV subscriber, even those who never watch a second of Fox News.

A distanced, disconnected CES

Throughout this week I’ve spent covering CES in its all-digital incarnation, the Google Photos app on my phone has kept reminding me of how far this virtual experience is from the trade show that had me flying to Las Vegas every January from 1998 through 2020.

Photo of a 2020 CES badge held in front of a screen showing a schedule of on-demand videos from CES 2021

On one hand, the app’s Memories feature has been spotlighting the things I saw at CES years ago. On the other hand, Google Photos reveals that almost all of the pictures I’ve taken this week feature my cat–and none involve any new gadgets.

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show isn’t like other conferences that have had to adopt all-digital formats. (The same goes for the two other gadget shows on my calendar over the last several years, IFA and MWC.) Companies do their best to hype up their upcoming hardware, but you also get to inspect it firsthand and try to find the flaws the presenters didn’t think to mention.

That’s not an option at CES 2021, where the product presentations are even more like long-form ads than the CES press conferences of prior years. And while an online format can still allow for a live Q&A afterwards, that hasn’t been the case with the CES press events I’ve attended watched. I’ve had to e-mail PR types and wait for a response to a question I probably could have gotten answered in a few minutes were we all in the same physical space.

I don’t write that to take away anything from the people at the Consumer Technology Association who work incredibly hard to make CES happen in a normal year and then had to tear up the script in late July and write a new one from scratch. Some real-world interactions are just difficult or impossible to replicate online.

That also goes for all the unexpected connections you make at CES and the conversations you enjoy over bad food in a press room and better food at a reception or a dinner. As much as I hate tearing myself away from my family at the start of every January, the chance to catch up with old tech-nerd friends and maybe make a few new ones helps compensate for that.

Like most of the social interactions I’ve surrendered since last March, they now await at the far end of a long tether. I hope it’s not too many more months before I can pull myself back.

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.