WeChat, but I can’t

SHANGHAI–It wasn’t until shortly before I left for CES Asia that I realized showing up here without a WeChat account would mark me as some kind of hick. I’m now about to head home, still bereft of a WeChat account. But I tried!

WeChat, for those as uninitiated as I once was, is the service AOL Instant Messenger became in an alternate universe. Tencent’s messaging app not only connects almost one billion users in real time, it functions as a wallet, a business card, a news feed and a great many other things.

So I downloaded the Android app, plugged in my Google Voice number–as the work number on my business card, it’s what I ordinarily use without a problem on phone-linked messaging systems.

But what worked in WhatsApp and Signal did not in WeChat. After creating an account and entering the security code texted to my number, I got this error message:

“This WeChat account has been confirmed of suspicious registration in batch or using plugins and is blocked. Continue to use this account by tapping OK and applying for an account unblock.”

Whoops. I tapped through to a “Self-service unblock allowed” screen, tapped its  “Read and accept” button. That presented me with CAPTCHA prove-you’re-not-a-robot interface that had me tap the letters in one graphic that matched those in another.

But after going through that, I still couldn’t log in. Instead, the app told me to get another WeChat user to verify my existence on their phone. I’ve now tried that a few times with both U.S.-based and local users, and after each try the app has offered a vague error message about the other person not being eligible to vouch for me.

After some further research, I think the problem is my using a Google Voice number. That possibility goes unmentioned in WeChat’s English-language online help, but a Quora post reports that Tencent quashed that option years ago.

And thinking about it, it does make sense: I can’t imagine that the Chinese government would look fondly on any communications service that allows people to use a number likely to be untethered from a billable address.

When I get back to the States, I will see if I can’t get WeChat to work with some kind of a burner number still attached to a real account–maybe from a loaner phone. Otherwise, I guess I’ll have to set up WeChat with my “real” phone number. I can’t stay illiterate in this service forever, right?

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Weekly output: Trump tech policy, cyber attacks, watching Oscar nominees online, security attitudes, Android messaging apps

Like most Americans, I’m a descendant of immigrants. My dad’s grandparents came over from Italy and Croatia and my mom’s father arrived from Gibraltar before WWI, while her mother landed in New York from Ireland in 1923–only months after the end of the Irish Civil War. It is easy to imagine a rule like President Trump’s executive order keeping her out.

1/24/2017: President Trump’s tech policy is a mystery, Yahoo Finance

I’ve been going to the State of the Net conference on and off since 2007, and this was the first time I saw so much confusion over what a new administration would do in so many areas of tech policy.

1/24/2017: Cyber attacks, Al Jazeera

The Arabic news network had me on for a segment about cyber attacks like the Shamoon virus that recently crippled government and business PCs in Saudia Arabia.

Screengrab of Yahoo Finance Oscars post1/26/2017: Why you can’t stream this year’s Oscar nominees on Netflix, Yahoo Finance

One of the first posts I wrote for Yahoo Tech looked at the crummy online availability of the year’s critically-acclaimed movies. I enjoyed a chance to revisit the topic and shed some light on how the industry works.

1/26/2017: Study finds most people are scared they’ll be hacked, but don’t do much about it, Yahoo Finance

The Pew Research Center’s study on Americans’ attitudes on cybersecurity painted a depressing picture–aside from a figure on use of two-step verification that I found more reassuring but also suspiciously high.

1/29/2017: The best Android messaging apps in a crowded field, USA Today

Google’s blog post announcing the revival of its Google Voice apps couldn’t explain the differences between them and the Hangouts apps most GV users had switched to a couple of years ago. That gave me an opportunity to do so and remind readers of other noteworthy Android messaging apps.

You can leave me voicemail

My phone’s been doing something weird over the past few weeks: It’s been ringing and buzzing with incoming calls.

Missed callsAnd not just any calls, but those in which the callers don’t leave a voicemail when I don’t pick up. I don’t pick up because it’s December and calls from tech-heavy area codes–206 and 415, I’m looking at you–usually mean CES PR pitches that, by virtue of referencing something happening weeks from now, do not require my immediate attention.

I keep wondering if one of these calls will break with the pattern and leave me with a voicemail summary. Instead, I only get Android’s after-the-fact identification of the PR agency behind the number. What happened? Was the caller on the verge of leaving a brilliant little soliloquy before he or she had the iPhone stolen. Did an attack by a bear interrupt things? I can only wonder.

I whined about this on Twitter, and one PR rep responded that he didn’t want to annoy journalists by adding yet another voicemail to their queue. I get where he’s coming from. But here’s the thing: A voice call without any here’s-what-you-missed followup (could be voicemail, could be e-mail, could be a tweet) basically reads as “my message is so important that I will not say it unless you drop everything to hear it in real-time.”

And that’s not something I want to do when I have this many to-do-list items to finish before CES.

Look, I have visual voicemail through Google Voice; playing messages is not that painful, and GV’s automatic transcription often makes it amusing too. Besides which, at the moment I can’t seem to get anybody to leave me voicemail. So if you do, PR friends, you can tell your client how this one weird trick made your message stand out from everybody else’s.

The missing “let me be clear” line: No, Google isn’t killing Google Voice

Google did not axe Google Voice today. Sunday’s USA Today column didn’t say it would—it covered Google’s scheduled shutdown, effective today, of a protocol that other Internet-calling apps had used to connect to Google Voice—but many of you thought it did.

Google Voice Play Store iconMy first reaction on getting questions like “Is Google Voice being discontinued?” was to think “Gah! If that was really happening, don’t you think I would have said so right at the top of the story?”

My second: “Google, this is your own damn fault for neglecting the service for so long that people now expect the worst.”

My third reaction was a grudging acceptance that I should have foreseen readers skipping over my description of how Google Voice was shutting down the “XMPP” support that had allowed third-party VoIP clients to connect (admit it, you skimmed past that jargon just now) and instead seeing only the words “Google Voice” and “shutting down.”

That realization could have led me to write the column with fault-tolerance in mind: If there’s a way readers could get the wrong idea, throw in a “let me be clear” graf to disabuse them of that incorrect assumption. A little extra defensive writing then would have saved time since spent answering nervous reader e-mails and story comments.

I should know that by now, but apparently I’m still figuring out this writing thing after some 20 years of doing it for a living.

In other news: The Android Hangouts app still can’t place VoIP calls from your GV number (a capability the iOS version has had since October), officially leaving Android users in the lurch. Heck of a job, Google.

Weekly output: Apple-Samsung patent fights, Rocky Agrawal, Google Voice

On a trip where I was supposed to be covering other people’s news, I wound up ever-so-slightly in the news myself after my friend Rocky Agrawal had a Twitter meltdown for a few days. I wrote about our meeting Monday night and tried to suggest that onlookers consider more than the past 72 hours in judging his character, and Business Insider ran a story written around my post. (Hi, new readers. Please stick around.)

Yahoo AppSung post5/6/2014: Apple v. Samsung, Unspun: Patent Warfare Is a Slow, Costly Habit with Few Winners, Yahoo Tech

I led off this analysis of the latest Apple v. Samsung verdict by suggesting that the only sure winners were the children of the patent lawyers involved, who could now count on having their college tuition fully covered. A reader countered in a comment: “As the spouse of a former patent litigator, I take issue with the first paragraph. The children of these attorneys do not win in this scenario. The hours spent on this case are hours these parents will never get to spend with their kids. So pretty much everyone loses.” Fair point.

5/9/2014: Concern on Twitter for the mental health of a former PayPal executive, The Columbia Journalist

Freelance journalist and Columbia j-school student Sara Ashley O’Brien interviewed me for this recap of my friend’s situation.

5/11/2014: Google hangs up on Internet calls for many Voice users, USA Today

Google’s imminent end of support for a protocol that let third-party Internet-calling apps hook into its Google Voice service meant I had to explain why advice I’d offered a year ago in my USAT column is no longer operative.

Weekly output: Jawbone Up, Google Voice, international phone use

It was another week that ended with a couple of stories filed but not yet posted (look for a long item on the Disruptive Competition Project in the next day or two about the state of competition in browser layout engines). But it’s not every week that sees me finishing it on the other side of the Atlantic–I’m spending the next four days in Barcelona to cover the Mobile World Congress show.

Discovery Jawbone Up review2/21/2013: Jawbone Up Logs Your Days and Nights, Discovery News

I took an unusually long time to try this activity-monitoring wristband–starting after CES. That leisurely pace allowed me to note the recent arrival of a similar background exercise-tracking option in Android’s Google Now app. Something like that won’t replace this wristband’s scrutiny of your sleep, but it could prove good enough for reporting whether you get off your duff often enough.

There are some other devices like this coming out over the next few months–the Fitbit Flex and Withings’ Smart Activity Tracker come to mind–so hopefully I can do a follow-up review of them.

2/24/2012: How do I place a call from my Google Voice number?, USA Today

My annoyance at having two Google Voice calls via Gmail leave the other person sitting there in puzzled silence led to this cheat-sheet guide to dialing out from your GV number. The column concludes with a tip based on a reader’s query on my Facebook page–yes, I really do read the comments there.

On Sulia, I mocked HTC’s new One smartphone for including more resolution than people can see, then shipping an outdated version of Android; called out MBL’s At Bat app for once again not letting fans pay to watch their local teams online; questioned the price of Google’s new Chromebook Pixel laptop; and wondered if news publishers aren’t delighted about all the ink and pixels spent on Sony’s substance-starved introduction of the PlayStation 4