Weekly output: CableCard, two-step verification

It’s now been a month and a half since my last air travel for work. Crazy, huh? I hope the airline industry can deal with my absence.

Yahoo Tech CableCard post4/22/2014: Dept. of Diminishing Choice: Cable Industry Wants Out of the CableCARD It Invented, Yahoo Tech

I returned to a topic I last covered in an August post for Ars Technica about the emergence of a bill that would weaken the regulatory framework behind the CableCard that TiVo and a few other manufacturers rely on to make cable-compatible hardware.

Notice that I don’t write “Card” in all-caps here: Those four letters aren’t an acronym, so capitalizing them all just plays into some marketer’s idea of text hacking.

4/27/2014: Two-step verification: It’s a trust issue, USA Today

This column began on Tuesday, when a local tech-policy type asked why Google’s two-step verification kept inviting him to mark a computer as trusted and therefore exempt from this security check. I decided that query was too narrow–but that there could be a column looking at the broader topic of how strictly different sites implement this concept.

Weekly output: mobile mergers, future of music, Google+ image recognition, Mavericks Mail, Yahoo security

If I didn’t have a calendar to tell me November had arrived, the recent acceleration in the frequency of CES PR pitches would clue me in almost as well.

10/29/2013: M&As: Industry Pulse Check, Enterprise Mobile Hub

I returned to my occasional role as Twitter-chat host for IDG Enterprise’s site for this discussion of the upsides and downsides of mergers in the wireless industry.

10/30/2013: Streaming, Selling Scarcity And Other Ways To Remix the Music Business, Disruptive Competition Project

My recap of the discussions at this year’s Future of Music Summit spotlighted some enlightening data about where musicians make they money these days and conflicting views on the potential of streaming-music services such as Spotify. I left the conference thinking, once again, that more journalists should pay attention to indie artists’ attempts to find a more solid economic footing–our business-model issues are not too different, even if we’re a lot less cool.

Google+ image-recognition post11/1/2013: Google+ Gambles on Image Recognition, Discovery News

My final post at Discovery (see yesterday’s post for more about that), had a little fun with Google+ image recognition’s performance in some sample searches of the photos I’ve been uploading from various mobile devices since G+’s debut. If only the screengrabs I took to illustrate this were not so unavoidably boring…

11/3/2013: How to fix Mail glitches in Mavericks, USA Today

My editor said my first draft of this column was a little in the weeds, and she was right: The issue here isn’t just Apple’s Mail app reacting badly when asked to sync with Gmail, it’s Apple’s failure to give users a heads-up about the change or explain it later on. As you can see in the comments, I goofed about the price of Mailplane–it’s $24.95 instead of free–so we’ll get that bit corrected.

On Sulia, I applauded the maturity of iPad users who didn’t mob Apple’s stores to buy the new iPad Air, voiced a similar skepticism about the need to trade in my Nexus 4 phone for the new Nexus 5, predicted some awkwardness in Twitter’s automatically displaying many shared images and complimented Spotify and services like it for being a much easier way to discover the Velvet Underground (RIP, Lou Reed) than radio.

Weekly output: Doug Pray, mobile-app monetization, mugshot sites, T-Mobile, ad-free Web-mail, Shared Endorsements

I managed to head into D.C. four of the five workdays this week, thanks to various meetings. That’s unusual. And that won’t be possible this week coming up, as I’m departing Tuesday morning for the Demo conference in Santa Clara.

DisCo Doug Pray post10/7/2013: Documentary Evidence: A Director Opens Up About Distribution, Gatekeepers and Piracy, Disruptive Competition Project

After a visit to Seattle, I wanted to watch a great documentary of the mid-’90s grunge scene, Hype!–but could not, as it had vanished from all the legitimate streaming and downloading channels. So I looked up its director, Doug Pray, and wound up having a great chat over e-mail about the state of movie industry from an indie perspective. I appreciate his honesty… and hope it doesn’t get in the way of him lining up a new distributor so I can see this flick for the first time since 1996.

10/8/2013: Mobile App Monetization Models, Enterprise Mobile Hub

This Twitter chat covered ways to cover a mobile app’s cost: showing ads to the user, charging the user, charging for an upgraded version of the app, or subsidizing it through other means.

10/11/2013: Mugshot Mess Provides A Reminder: You Don’t Want “Search Neutrality”, Disruptive Competition Project

I wrote a response to a couple of thought-provoking pieces: David Segal’s long NYT feature about sites that make it easy to browse mugshots of arrested suspects and also charge to have mugshots removed, then Mathew Ingram’s GigaOM post worrying about how quickly Google and payment processors moved to cut off mugshots sites after they started getting press queries about them.

10/12/2013: T-Mobile to eliminate international data fees, WTOP

T-Mobile announced that it would give its users free 2G data service overseas, and WTOP’s Kristi King sought out my input. My voice sounds sharper than usual not because I was in studio, but because I recorded my end of the conversation with a desktop microphone and then e-mailed the MP3 to King.

10/13/2013: Are any e-mail sites ad-free?, USA Today

A reader asked a question I’d answered last May, but enough things have changed in the Web-mail market for me to revisit the question. And this time around, Outlook.com’s $19.95 ad-free option looks a lot more attractive now that Microsoft’s service supports standard IMAP synchronization. The column also includes a brief explanation of Google’s new “Shared Endorsement” ads and a comparison of them with Facebook’s “Sponsored Stories.”

On Sulia, I posted a couple of reports from an Intuit press event and reception in D.C. (one on how it “ended up distracting the Mint team for the greater good of the company,” another on how its SnapTax app unintentionally makes a case for the direct e-filing that Intuit has lobbied long and hard against), scolded Facebook for taking away the option to hide your name from its search, reported some startups’ testimony about patent trolling, and noted how the advertised prices for CenturyLink’s new gigabit fiber service in Las Vegas understate what you might pay.

Nexus 4 long-term evaluation

About seven months ago, I turned on a new Android phone and started installing and configuring my usual apps. That’s not an unusual event for me, except this time it was a phone I’d bought for the sum of $327.94. I’ve been using this Nexus 4 every day since, so I’ve gotten to know this device a little better than the average review model. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Nexus 4 backBattery: This was my number-one concern–a loaner model had tested poorly in this area, and it was only after I found a loaner Nexus 4’s battery life workable during Mobile World Congress that I decided to go ahead with the purchase. Seven months later, I’m surprised by how rarely the phone’s battery has gotten into the red.

I’ve learned to put this phone on WiFi whenever possible (that extends its battery life considerably) and I’m more careful about recharging it if I’m sitting down than I once was. But this experience has me a little more skeptical about relying too much on any one battery-life benchmark. I mean, if a phone can make it through SXSW without dying or needing a recharge every few hours, its battery life can’t be that bad.

Android: I love using the stock Android interface, without any spackled-on layers of interface from a phone vendor and without any bloatware locked in place unless I root the device. I also love not having to wait more than a few days for an Android update to land on the phone. I’m trying to think of what would get me to buy a non-Nexus Android phone… still thinking… let me get back to you on that.

Camera: This is the weakest part of the phone, even if it’s not enough to induce  buyer’s remorse. The lack of optical image stabilization makes this 8-megapixel camera clumsy at most outdoor photos after dark, and its shutter lag is just bad enough to make taking pictures of our toddler or any other fidgety subject (like, say, a monkey) a trying task.

In this camera’s favor, it can take some great photos, and not just with the sun overhead. One of my favorite shots involved early-morning sunlight streaming into the National Airport; I suspect the aging Canon point-and-shoot I had with me would have had trouble balancing that exposure. The Nexus 4’s also done well with food porn, sunsets, panoramas and photo spheres.

Bandwidth: The Nexus 4 doesn’t have LTE, and I don’t care. T-Mobile’s HSPA+ routinely hits 15-Mbps download speeds in the Speedtest.net app. LTE can run faster still, but when my phone’s mobile broadband matches my home’s Fios access I’m not going to mope about the difference. (Those mean things I wrote about carriers marketing HSPA+ as “4G”? Maybe not so much.)

T-Mobile’s coverage is not what I’d get with Verizon. It can also be frustrating to have the phone lose a signal inside a not-large building. But I’m saving about $50 a month compared to what VzW charges. And since this phone is an unlocked GSM phone, I can also pop in any other GSM carrier’s micro-SIM card–as I did when I went to Berlin last month for IFA.

Storage: As the price I mentioned should have indicated, I cheaped out and got only the 8-gigabyte version. So far, that hasn’t been an issue–I still have almost a fifth of the 5.76 GB of user-available space free–but at some point I may have to delete some of the apps I’ve installed and then forgotten about. If I could pop in a microSD card, I wouldn’t have that concern. But I can’t.

Durability: Considering how beat up my older phones have gotten, I worried a little about buying a phone with a glass front and back. But I’ve babied this thing (I never put it in a pocket with change or keys) and after seven months it still looks pretty sharp. You need to hold it up to the light, as in the photo above, to see any faint scratches. I remain paranoid about dropping it–which may explain why I haven’t. Should I buy Google’s bumper case anyway?

Extras: You may not be surprised to read that after seven months, I have yet to buy anything with the Nexus 4’s NFC wireless. I have, however, used that feature to install apps, look up data and stage quick Android Beam file transfers. This phone’s Qi cordless charging has also gone unused at home, although I’ve verified that it works at a couple of trade-show exhibits.

Any other questions? I’ll take them in the comments.

Weekly output: NSA surveillance, PR and the press, digital journalism, Android-iPad photo sync, deleting photos, Republic Wireless

On my first week back from vacation, I attempted to catch up with the NSA-surveillance story and took part in a couple of great panel discussions. I’d hoped to get a little more writing done, since I’ll be in New York from Tuesday through Thursday for the Consumer Electronics Association’s CE Week conference.

6/18/2013: More Tech Firms Now Question Government Snooping. What About Congress?, Disruptive Competition Project

My timing on this piece–in which I expressed my appreciation and alarm that large tech companies, in which I have no vote, seem to be doing a better job of advocating for our civil liberties online than the elected representatives we hired to do that–was pretty good. Maybe two hours after it went up, Google filed suit to challenge the gag orders that prohibit it from discussing the decisions handed down to it by the secretive, compliant and largely unaccountable Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

6/19/2013: Behind the Story: Breakfast Series With the Media, Cision

I talked about the intersections of journalism, PR and social media with the Washington Business Journal’s Jennifer Nycz-Conner, USA Today’s Melanie Eversley and moderator Shonali Burke. There should be video posted soon, and I’ll add a link when that happens.

Vocus panel photo6/20/2013: The Evolving State of Digital Journalism, Demand Success

I talked about some of the same topics, plus such bigger-picture issues as how much the chase for Web traffic should influence story assignments, at the marketing firm Vocus’s conference with WJLA journalist Jummy Olabanji. Tech Cocktail co-founder Jen Consalvo and moderator Paul Sherman of Potomac Tech Wire. Again, I’ll link to video whenever it’s posted. (There’s more at my Flickr set from the event, which took place at the the Gaylord National hotel in National Harbor, Md.)

6/23/2013: Tip: Google+ transfers photos between Android and iPad, USA Today

This question came straight from my father-in-law, who had just picked up a new iPad and upgraded from one Android phone to a newer model. The tip part of the column advises making a habit of deleting lesser photos to develop your photographic skills; I remember writing something like that for the Post but I can’t find it anywhere now.

6/23/2013: A $19 Unlimited Smartphone Plan: Just Add Wi-Fi, Discovery News

I tried out Republic Wireless’s WiFi-centric smartphone service and liked it, aside from the embarrassingly obsolete Android phone this company hopes to replace with a newer model soon. (Update, 7/1: I didn’t realize this at the time, but Mashable reposted the story, as part of a content-sharing deal it has with Discovery. And now I have a bunch of comments to read…)

On Sulia, I noted the demise of ESPN’s 3D channel, reported on my experience with the “Auto Enhance” photo editing at Google+, discussed NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen’s thoughtful presentation at Demand Success, described my experience getting a cracked iPad screen repaired and suggested a few tools to help you spot the International Space Station overhead.

Fortnightly output: Google and ITA, Android APIs, digital-TV converter boxes, cable-box power use, NFC, Android File Transfer

I had originally thought I’d post my usual weekly summary last Sunday, but then I remembered that I was on vacation–and besides, it would have been a short list then. So instead you get a two-for-one special, and I get a chance to use “fortnightly” for the first time on this blog.

6/4/2013: Remember When Google Was Going To Annex The Travel-Search Industry?, Disruptive Competition Project

One of the first ideas I pitched to the DisCo people was a look back at the predictions of doom that we all heard–and that I found somewhat credible–when Google proposed to buy the travel-search firm ITA Software. When I finally got around to writing it, I was surprised to see how little of a dent Google has made in the market for airfare queries.

SmartBear Android APIs report6/5/2013: Google I/O Android News: Location, Location, Location (Plus Cloud Messaging and Bluetooth), Software Quality Matters

A friend edits this blog, hosted by the software-testing firm SmartBear, and was looking for a report about the new Android application programming interfaces Google had unveiled at I/O. This was a lot more technical than I usually get, but I’m glad I did it. And I’m looking forward to seeing apps built on these new APIs, in particular those involving location services.

6/9/2013: How to get an analog TV set back on the air, USA Today

A friend on Facebook had bought a flat-panel set just before they all started shipping with digital tuners and wanted to know what her options were. And so, once again, I wrote a how-to piece about tuning in digital signals. I didn’t want to leave out cable subscribers, so I added a tip about a new initiative by major cable and satellite providers to ship boxes that use less electricity–which won’t help existing subscribers unless they ask for an upgrade.

6/16/2013: What exactly is ‘NFC’ wireless?, USA Today

My phone includes a Near Field Communication transmitter, and I’m still waiting for a chance to use it outside of specialty environments like tech trade shows. This column explains why, and adds a tip about Google’s Android File Transfer app for Macs that is really a plea for Google to update the thing so it doesn’t fit in so poorly with OS X.

I didn’t post anything on Sulia while I was out (thought about it, decided not having a work obligation outweighed passing up a week’s worth of stipend). But before and after my travel, I summed up a briefing about that cable-box efficiency program, compared the AT&T and Sprint versions of the Galaxy S 4, explained how car2go was more useful to me in Portland and Seattle than back home in D.C., and reviewed an Android app that can get a GPS fix on your position from 32,000 feet up and at 550 miles an hour.

Ways to read the Google-Motorola Mobility deal

Did somebody forget to remind Google that August is supposed to be a slow news month? At 7:35 this morning, the Mountain View, Calif., company announced in a blog post by CEO Larry Page that it had agreed to pay about $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility.

The sum involved alone sets this apart from the average tech merger. So do the relationships that would be upended by Google’s planned purchase of the consumer-oriented half of Motorola spun off in January. (Also unusual compared to other mega-mergers: How nobody leaked the news in advance.)

The reactions I’ve been reading this morning have fallen into three broad categories.

What does this mean for other Android phone vendors?

Motorola wasn’t the first company to ship a phone running Android, so it’s a little awkward to see Google bring it in-house while saying it will continue to license Android to such competing firms as HTC, LG and Samsung. That’s not how things usually work; normally, the operating-system developer either keeps the hardware business to itself (Apple) or lets other companies mess with circuit boards and batteries (Microsoft). There aren’t many cases of an OS vendor both shipping its own devices and licensing its software to competitors–although Palm did this for a while during the Palm OS’s heyday a decade ago, when Sony, Symbol and Handspring also shipped handheld organizers running its software.

The comical conformity of the supportive quotes from HTC, LG, Samsung and Sony Ericsson executives that Google trotted out this morning adds to the weirdness here. Veteran tech observer Dan Gillmor (like me, a former newspaper columnist) suggested that HTC and Samsung must be “absolutely furious.” But if Google uses its control of Motorola to strip out the bloatware that has gummed up too many Android phones, consumers may not mind. (Here’s a tip for Android phone manufacturers: Instead of wasting your time on proprietary software add-ons, get your developers and engineers working on battery life–the single weakest aspect of Android relative to other smartphone operating systems.)

Google says it will run Motorola Mobility as a separate shop, but AllThingsD’s Ina Fried and others have already suggested that it might do better to flip the company’s hardware business.

What about the non-phone half of Motorola Mobility?

Contrary to the “Mobility” moniker, this firm also makes cable boxes–a category of hardware both widely resented by consumers and one of the bigger obstacles to Google’s Google TV project. Commentators such as Tech.pinions’ Steve Wildstom, ZatzNotFunny’s Mari Silbey and GigaOM’s Ryan Lawler and Ryan Kim have all noted this morning that Google will now be in a position to ship a cable box with Google TV software built in–well, if the cable companies don’t mind shipping hardware that puts YouTube and other non-cable video services front and center on the subscribers’ TVs.

To me, this is the biggest reason for optimism about this deal.

What about the patents?

And here we have the most depressing aspect of this transaction–Google needs a stash of patents to defend Android against all the mobile-device patent lawsuits flying around. Motorola Mobility has 17,000 or so, and by gaining control of them Google can then threaten such opposing litigants as Apple and Microsoft with its own patent lawsuits–then propose to settle these fights with cross-licensing deals that extinguish the litigation but will do almost nothing to improve the products in question.

As the New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson notes in a post this morning, this demonstrates how badly the patent system has failed to promote innovation:

Meanwhile, customers and shareholders will pay for the lawyers. And engineers will spend too much time worrying about violating someone else’s patents, and not enough time figuring out how to build the next magical thing.

He’s right. Suppose we didn’t have this overhang of too-obvious tech patents that should not have been issued in the first place; can’t you think of more productive uses for $12.5 billion than procuring an extra layer of legal armor?

Should I review a product that you can’t use?

Tuesday, Google launched a new social-media service called Google+ that almost none of you can use. A long blog post by engineering vice president Vic Gundotra about Google+ touts such flexible info-sharing options as “Circles,” “Hangouts” and “Sparks,” then offers an apologetic note in red, italicized text in the third-to-last paragraph:

We’re beginning in Field Trial, so you may find some rough edges, and the project is by invitation only. 

Well, then. A notice on the Plus sign-in page comforts shut-out users that “it won’t be long before the Google+ project is ready for everyone,” but in the meantime you may face a Twitter stream full of invited Plus users yammering on about the service and whether it’s a Facebook killer or just a Tumblr killer.

(Google has refrained from describing Plus as a killer of anything. Good idea: Calling your new product a “[fill in the blank] killer” usually guarantees its imminent demise in the market. Just ask all the companies that bragged about their iPod, iPhone and iPad killers.)

After an initial rebuff by Google’s PR agency and a subsequent appeal to a contact in the Mountain View, Calif., company’s D.C. office, I’m told that I have an invite on the way. (Disclosure: I’ve spoken at a couple of Google events.) When that arrives, I’m certainly interested to see how Plus works–and if it lives up to the hype or will flop just as badly as the enigmatic, since-shelved Google Wave communications application or the initially privacy-deprived Buzz sharing service. And yet: Since I probably won’t find my closer friends on Plus–and can’t extend them an invite–I’d only use a subset of its capabilities.

It’s not an easy question, but I’d like to know what you think. Should I join the in crowd and review Google+ for Discovery or anybody else? Or should I direct my attention this week to something that you can use without getting on a guest list? (The likeliest candidate: HP’s new TouchPad tablet.) Take the poll and explain your vote in the comments.

Update, 7/1, 12:41 p.m. Thanks for your votes. I went ahead with the Google+ first-take analysis, which you can now read on Discovery’s site.