Credit where it’s due: Thanksgiving tech support has gotten easier

I spend a lot of time venting about tech being a pain in the neck, but I will take a break from that to confirm that my annual Thanksgiving-weekend routine of providing technical support has gotten a lot easier over the last 10 years.

The single biggest upgrade has been the emergence of the iPad as something usable as the only computer in the house. It took a few years for Apple to make that happen–remember when you had to connect an iPad to a computer for its setup and backups?–but Web-first users can now enjoy a tablet with near zero risk of malware and that updates its apps automatically.

As a result, when I gave my mom’s iPad a checkup Wednesday afternoon, the worst I had to do was install the iOS 12.1 update.

That left me free to spend my tech-support time rearranging that tablet’s apps to keep the ones she uses most often on the first home screen.

Things have gotten easier on “real” computers too. Apple and Microsoft ship their desktop operating systems with sane security defaults and deliver security patches and other bug fixes automatically. The Mac and Windows app stores offer the same seamless updates for installed programs as iOS and Android’s. And while Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox aren’t in those software shops, they update themselves just as easily.

But the openness of those operating systems makes it easier for people to get into trouble. For example, a few weeks ago, I had to talk a relative through resetting Chrome’s settings to get rid of an extension that was redirecting searches.

Other computing tasks remain a mess. On a desktop, laptop or tablet, clearing out storage to make room for an operating-system upgrade is as tedious as ever, and it doesn’t help when companies like Apple continue to sell laptops with 128-gigabyte SSDs. Password management continues to be a chore unless (duh) you install a password manager.

Social media looks worst of all. Facebook alone has become its own gravity well of maintenance–notifications to disable to curb its attention-hogging behavior, privacy settings to tend, and propaganda-spewing pages to avoid. There’s a reason I devoted this year’s version of my USA Today Thanksgiving tech-support column to Facebook, and I don’t see that topic going out of style anytime soon.

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An iOS mystery: Where and when will Gboard not appear?

The fact that I own an Android phone has rarely been more obvious than when I use my iPad–and I try to “gesture type” as if I were using my smaller mobile device’s onscreen keyboard.

The arrival of iOS 8 and its support of third-party keyboards made tracing a path from letter to letter to enter text not just a pointless exercise but a possibility. And with iOS 9’s less buggy support, it’s become a less annoying possibility, but still not a sure thing.

Gboard app iconThat’s become clear to me since Google shipped its Gboard keyboard app in May and, after a satisfactory tryout, I made that free app the default keyboard on my iPad mini 4.

Most of the time, Gboard appears whenever I touch a text field. I can gesture-type with ease (except when I’m holding the tablet sideways), and I could season my prose with emojis and GIFs were I, you know, 20 years younger.

But Apple’s built-in keyboard keeps on surprising me by resurfacing on its own. To get a better sense of how often that happens, I tried taking notes on this behavior this week and reached three conclusions:

• The system works more often than I gave it credit for. The departures from the norm stick out, but keeping track of them made me realize how rare they are.

• In certain cases, the stock keyboard shows up because it’s supposed to. As an Apple tech-support note explains, iOS’s keyboard automatically takes over in secure data-entry fields like the password dialogs of the App Store and Amazon apps.

• In rare occasions, iOS does get confused about keyboards for no apparent reason. A tap of the address bar in Safari would sometimes invoke the stock keyboard instead of Gboard, while the Duolingo language-tutorial app proved itself capable of alternating between the iOS and Google keyboards in a single session.

It’s tempting to blame Apple, given the iffy quality of much of its software. But I can’t rule out this being Google’s fault. I mean, as good as Gboard is, I still had to do a copy-and-paste job from a Web site to enter the symbol that best captures my latest diagnosis of the situation:

 

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Weekly output: WWDC

This embarrassingly short list of stories doesn’t include one post I wrote for Yahoo Finance about changes to Apple’s treatment of subscription-based iOS apps and my USA Today Q&A column on the state of Android backup, both of which should go up Monday morning.

CR WWDC 2016 preview6/10/2016: Apple WWDC 2016: What to Expect From the App Store, Siri, and More, Consumer Reports

CR asked me to write a preview of the Apple event I still haven’t attended (I thought I could in 2012, but Apple PR had other ideas). You’ll be able to see how accurate I was in this forecast starting at 1 p.m. Eastern on Monday, when the keynote opening Apple’s developer conference kicks off.

 

Weekly output: financial and tax insecurity, Solo drone, future of radio, lost location apps

My trip to the NAB Show ended with a red-eye flight home to the East Coast, something I don’t think I’ve done for business travel since 1996. Let’s just say I can’t rally from the experience as well as I did back then.

Yahoo Tech tax-return fraud post4/14/2015: The Other Reason Tax Prep Should Make You Nervous, Yahoo Tech

I had meant to file this piece about financial-account security and tax-refund fraud before heading out to National Airport for the first of two flights to Vegas but instead pretty much wrote the whole thing on the ORD-LAS segment.

After reading it, please look over last year’s tax-time column: a recount of how Intuit, the company whose weak security helped grease the skids for a fair amount of identity-theft refund fraud, has worked to ensure it won’t face competition from federal or state governments when it comes to online tax prep.

4/15/2015: 3D Robotics’ Solo Drone Can Fly Circles Around You, Yahoo Tech

I’m still not sure what possessed 3D Robotics to debut this drone at a convention for the broadcast media, but I thought the product fascinating enough that it was worth writing up the experience. My one disappointment: Nobody besides my editor seems to have picked up on my “a Solo can shoot first” line.

4/15/2015: The Journalists Panel, NAB Show

My primary reason for going to the NAB Show was to participate on this panel, in which longtime radio exec Jeff Simpson quizzed Radio World editor Paul McLane and I about the competition AM and FM stations face from online alternatives. I emphasized locality: Stations should try to sound like where they are, something a worldwide app like Pandora can’t do. If only more commercial FM stations would follow my advice when it comes to music programming.

4/19/2015: How location-aware app can get lost on WiFi, USA Today

I’ve touched on this topic before, but this time I had the benefit of talking to some smart mobile-app developers who clued me into some important differences in how location-based apps work in iOS and Android.

Weekly output: GamerGate, iPad backup

What a dull week this was: no radio, TV or podcast appearances, no articles at new freelance clients, no speaking appearances. Nothing wrong with some relative downtime like that, as long as I don’t make a habit out of it.

Yahoo Tech GamerGate column10/14/2014: Twitter Could Fix Gamergate. Why Doesn’t It?, Yahoo Tech

This week I learned that writing about “GamerGate” is a good way to boost reader engagement with your content (sorry for all the marketing buzzwords, folks!). Ensuring that the bulk of this reader feedback will be positive… that’s another thing.

10/19/2014: Retiring an old iPad? Back it up first, USA Today

A chat with EcoATM CEO Mark Bowles at Super Mobility Week last month about how often people try to recycle iPhones through that company’s buy-back kiosks without first resetting them and disabling Activation Lock ultimately got me thinking that an explainer about backing up and resetting an iOS device prior to resale or donation could help on the week of a new iPad’s introduction.

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: Net neutrality, iPhone theft

NEW YORK–I’m writing this much later in the day than usual, on account of having a late Saturday night of WHCD silliness that was followed by a prolonged and pleasant brunch hosted by my client Yahoo. And then the Acela’s WiFi, which has been pretty reliable lately, was barely usable, thwarting my hopes of getting this post done on the way up here: Up next: three days of startup demos, panels and keynotes at TechCrunch Disrupt.

Yahoo net-neutrality post4/29/2014:  The FCC Appears to be Letting ‘Net Neutrality’ Die. Here’s Why That Matters., Yahoo Tech

I was one of a minority of journalists to not crucify FCC chair Tom Wheeler for his proposal to reconstitute a diminished set of net-neutrality regulations that would allow Internet providers to charge sites extra for faster delivery of their content. But I did say that the FCC had to do a much better job of explaining this idea and related proposals, which Wheeler then did in a blog post that afternoon.

5/4/2014: Will Apple’s ‘kill switch’ tamp down iPhone thefts?, USA Today

After two friends had their iPhones stolen in D.C., I had to wonder when the ability of Apple’s Activation Lock to render a stolen phone permanently unusable would start to deter iPhone theft. This column also gave me a chance to note the wireless industry’s recent commitment to offer kill-switch systems for other phones.