Weekly output: 5G possibilities, Comcast-NBC revisited, switching to Windows, big-media serfdom, Face ID hack, online abuse

Good luck with your Thanksgiving family tech support, everybody!

11/13/2017: 5G’s Economic Prospects: Flexibility and Fuzziness, FierceWireless

Researching this piece about possible business models for 5G wireless helped inform me about story angles I’ll want to look into over the next few years. As with my past work for Fierce’s e-book bundles, you’ll have to cough up an e-mail address to read this one.

11/13/2017: Comcast + NBCUniversal Produces Mixed Bag, FierceCable

Disclosure: Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal has benefited me directly, in the form of Comcast PR inviting me to NBCUniversal movie screenings in D.C.

11/13/2017: How Apple sold me on buying a Windows laptop, Yahoo Finance

An angle I didn’t have room to address in this post: Windows 10’s “tablet mode” represents a long-delayed fulfillment of the promise of Windows XP’s watching-not-creating Media Center interface.

11/14/2017, Barry Diller says big media will be ‘serfs on the land’ of tech giants, Yahoo Finance

The media mogul’s pessimistic assessment of traditional media’s future was an easy sell from the Internet Association’s Virtuous Circle conference in San Francisco.

11/17/2017: You should still use the iPhone X’s Face ID even though hackers say they beat it, Yahoo Finance

I’ve written a few posts over the past year or two on the theme of “security nihilism”–the unhelpful belief of many infosec types that if a defensive measure can’t protect you from the most experienced and motivated attackers, then it’s worthless. Maybe this was more persuasive than the others?

11/16/2017: Technical and Human Solutions to Problematic Behaviors, Family Online Safety Institute

I moderated this panel at FOSI’s conference about ways to deal with people being jerks online. My thanks to TeenSafe’s Tracy Bennett, Verizon’s Ginelle Brown, Twitter’s Patricia Cartes and the Born This Way Foundation’s Rachel Martin for making me sound smarter on the subject on a day when I had to function on about four hours of sleep after a fuel leak forced my flight back from SFO to divert to Denver, after which I didn’t land at Dulles until after 1 a.m.

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The other shocking secret about my latest laptop purchase

To judge from the 840 comments on Monday’s Yahoo Finance post about my first laptop purchase in a few years, the fact that this computer runs Windows 10 surprised many readers.

Another aspect of this acquisition may be even more shocking: I bought this computer in person, not remotely.

HP laptop keyboard

Over some 28 years of computer use, I had somehow avoided procuring every prior laptop or desktop in a store. My first two Macs came via Georgetown’s student-discount ordering, I bought a Power Computing Mac clone either over the phone or at the company’s site (too long ago for me to remember for sure), and I’d purchased three iMacs, one MacBook Air and a Lenovo ThinkPad online.

I had planned on ordering an HP Spectre x360 through my iMac’s browser, but HP’s site listed the new version as back-ordered. Finding a reseller at Amazon that had the 2017 model, not last year’s, quickly got me lost. Best Buy listed the latest version online–with the lure of credit towards a future purchase through its rewards program–but the profusion of different model numbers made me want to inspect the hardware in person to make sure I’d get the features I had in mind.

At about that time, I recalled that D.C.’s sales tax is fractionally lower than the rate in Northern Virginia, 5.75 percent versus 6 percent. And since that retailer’s site said this computer was on display at its Columbia Heights location on a day when I already had to be in D.C. for a conference and would be departing for Web Summit the next evening, why not stop by?

The exact set of options I wanted came in a configuration with more memory and storage than I’d normally buy, of which the store only had one unit in stock. But after taking a moment to contemplate the time I spend on laptops, I rationalized the added expense and handed over a credit card. So it was done: I walked out with a box in a bag that I lugged around that afternoon, and then I began a trip the next night with a newly-purchased laptop for the first time in five years.

One part of my work, however, remains incomplete: finding a home for a 2012 MacBook Air with a broken T key and a “Service Battery” alert. Any ideas?

FYI, Microsoft: Time-zone support isn’t a luxury feature in a calendar app

A day into trying out the shipping version, Microsoft’s Windows 10 Creators Update doesn’t look too different from the prior release.

That’s not all bad–already, Win 10 was at best the most pleasant and at worst the least annoying version of Windows I’ve used. But in addition to leaving out some advertised features hyped by me and others, Creators Update doesn’t fix a problem Microsoft shouldn’t have shipped in the first place: no time-zone support in the calendar app.

When I add an event outside of Eastern time, I have to factor in the time-zone offset before typing in its start and end times to see my appointment shown accurately away from the East Coast. And if there’s one task computers are supposed to free us from doing, it’s basic math.

I’ve seen this movie before, but the last time featured a quicker resolution. In the spring of 2010, I teed off on Google Calendar for the same feature failure–but by the end of that year, Google had fixed that and earned my forgiveness.

Microsoft’s intentions have remained a mystery for much longer. In October, I asked a publicist about the absence of time-zone support in the calendar app and got this mealy-mouthed answer:

“We are always exploring new features for Windows 10 and will continue to add new features and updates over time to help users get more done. We have nothing more to share at this time.”

It turns out that Microsoft really did “have nothing more to share.”

I could fix this issue by paying for Microsoft’s Outlook app as part of an Office 365 subscription, but that would feel like paying ransom. And it would unquestionably represent signing up for “groupware” features I don’t need as a sole proprietor. Or I could make my next laptop a MacBook Air–except that’s another case of an unfeeling company ignoring clear customer desires, this time with more money at stake and a longer history of neglect.

I’ve looked for free or paid alternative calendar apps with time-zone support in the Windows Store but have yet to find one. Is this a giant collective blind spot among Windows 10 developers? Do they all work in one time zone? I know Microsoft employees don’t.

I guess I’ll have to continue grumbling intermittently whenever I use Win 10. Fortunately, I have plenty of practice with that.

My Apple problem

I spent a little time checking out Apple’s new MacBook Pro today, and from my cursory inspection in an Apple Store I can confirm that it’s a very nice computer. It’s also an $1,800-and-up computer, and I am not an $1,800-and-up shopper in this category of hardware.

macbook-air-touchbar-closeupI’m more of a $1,000-ish guy, and Apple doesn’t seem to want such a small sum of money. At that price, the company has nothing new to offer–the MacBook Air saw its last update 621 days ago. But Apple continues to price that model as if it were new.

(I’m not counting the single-port MacBook, because a computer that makes me choose between recharging itself and recharging my phone will never work for CES.)

While Apple neglects the more-affordable end of its laptop lineup, Windows vendors have been doing some interesting work. Many Windows laptops include not just touchscreens but the ability to fold up the laptop into a tablet for easy economy-class use.

And some Windows laptops also include Windows Hello biometric login–like the TouchID authentication on the MacBook Pro, except you don’t have to pay $1,800 for it.

All this means that my next laptop is far more likely to be something like a Lenovo Yoga 910 or an HP Spectre x360 than a Mac. That feels weird–I’ve been buying Macs as a primary computer for over two decades--but to ignore what’s happening on the other side of the fence would make me less a shopper than a supplicant.

The other weird thing is, what I think I’d miss most from the Mac is a feature that’s seen little attention from Apple over the past few years: Services. That little menu you see in each app and when you right-click items in the Finder saves me an enormous amount of time each occasion it provides a two-click word count or image resizing. If only Apple would know this exists…

Meanwhile, Windows 10 suffers the embarrassing defect of not allowing separate time zones in its calendar app. Microsoft, too, shows no signs of being aware that this problem exists.

So if I get a Windows machine, how much will I regret it? If I get another MacBook Air, how much of a chump will I feel like for throwing even more money in Apple’s direction?

 

Weekly output: cybersecurity disclosure, Facebook bots, White House Science Fair, Apple’s aging computers, Mac Bluetooth

HONG KONG–I am in this fair city for the first time since 1998 for the IFA Global Press Conference, a gathering put on by the organizers of the IFA trade show at which I’m going to speak on a panel (with my old Yahoo boss Dan Tynan) about virtual reality. I accept that it’s rather shameful to have waited 18 years to return to this part of the world.

4/13/2016: After hospital ransomware attack, time for some blunt talk about cybersecurity, Yahoo Tech

MedStar Health’s vague and dismissive responses to press queries got this story rolling, but this is about more than condescending PR. Compare this “we don’t have to tell you” attitude to the complete and mandatory disclosure you see in commercial aviation, and you will not be amused.

4/14/2016: Facebook bots, Al Jazeera

As I was already wearing a suit to cover the White House Science Fair that afternoon, I was better dressed than usual for this appearance on the Arabic news channel. My take on Facebook’s Messenger bots: Customer service is hard enough to do with actual people answering chat queries, and I’m not fond of having such an interrupt-driven medium take over more of my online interactions.

Yahoo Tech White House Science Fair post4/15/2016: Beyond the robot: White House Science Fair celebrates a nation of nerds, Yahoo Tech

As I wrote on my Facebook page after chatting up many of the intimidatingly smart and poised middle-school and high-school exhibitors here: “I can only hope they will prove to be benevolent bosses when we all wind up working for them.” Tip: Don’t read to the end of the comments if you’re not in the mood to see some mean, ignorant white-guy resentment of brown kids and white girls doing well.

4/15/2016: Hey Apple, how about shipping a new computer sometime?, Yahoo Tech

This column began life as a cranky tweet that spawned a little group therapy with Ars Technica’s Andrew Cunningham. I then turned it into a post with the help of some useful context from NPD’s Stephen Baker, a longtime source of mine.

4/17/2016: Stop your Mac from singing the Bluetooth blues, USA Today

An unadvertised benefit of owning an older Mac: Its random malfunctions provide a steady stream of topics for my USAT column. Fortunately, this crop had a happy ending–so maybe I don’t need to buy a new Mac just yet.

The other thing that happened this week: Friday marked five years since my last day at the Post. I didn’t expect at the time that half a decade later, my taxes would not have featured a new W-2 from anybody. I’ll have more to say about that later this week.

A different sort of spring cleaning: keyboards

A pocket knife, Q-tips, a toothbrush, paper towels, rubbing alcohol and dishwashing soap aren’t normal computing accessories, but I needed all six the other week when I gave the keyboards on my iMac, my MacBook Air and my mom’s old 2006-vintage iMac a desperately-overdue cleaning.

2006 iMac keyboard strippedWith the old iMac that Mom had retired in favor of an iPad Air, I had to get the keyboard looking decent before I could think of donating it anywhere. (If I’m overlooking potential buyers for a 10-year-old Mac, please tell me who they are in the comments.) With the other two, I was simply tired of seeing what a slob I am every time I stared down at the keyboard–the iMac’s keys had gotten especially begrimed over the last few years.

On the vintage iMac, the process was no different from the one I outlined in a 2006 column for the Post: Unplug the keyboard, pry the keys off and hand-wash them in the sink, and carefully scrub out the recessed area below. That last task required some painstaking work with a toothbrush to get out all the dirt that had piled up in that recessed area.

On the other two Macs, there was no removing the keys, so I had to use paper towels dipped in rubbing alcohol–it dries almost instantly–to swab the tops of the keys, then run a Q-tip dipped in the same to clean the gaps between them and get some of the dirt off their sides. Of course, now that I look at the iMac keyboard I’m typing this on, I see I missed a few spots.

(The How-To Geek has a guide to cleaning keyboards that should come with a trigger warning for its disgusting photos of Superfund-site keyboards. It does not, however, mention one recourse that I once tried with eventual success: sticking the keyboard in a dishwasher.)

After less than an hour of effort, I had all three keyboards in a state that no longer had me appalled at my own greasy, grimy slovenliness. And I had a renewed appreciation for what should now be a basic rule of multitasking: If you must eat while doing something on a computer, please make that a device a tablet or a smartphone, where you only need to wipe the screen clean.

All of my aging gadgets

As I’ve been plugging away at my taxes this year, one thing’s become blindingly clear: I’m not doing my share to prop up the electronics industry. My Schedule C will show only one gadget purchase for all of 2014, a $35 Google Chromecast.

Old laptop and phoneEvery other device I use for work is older, sometimes a lot older. I have my reasons for not upgrading, and some of them may even be valid… while others probably just testify to my own persnicketiness.

The oldest one of the bunch is my late-2009 iMac. I really should replace it–trying to edit a RAW image file taken with a friend’s camera made it painfully apparent how its processor has aged.

But buying a new iMac or Mac mini would require me to get an external optical drive, as if it’s 1997 all over again. (Doing without is not an option: Have you seen the lifespan of a DVD in the hands of a toddler?) One thing’s for sure: Whenever I do purchase a new Mac, there’s almost no chance I’ll pay Apple’s elevated price for an external DVD burner.

My 2011 ThinkPad X120E has not held its value nearly as well–the AMD processor inside was never that fast to begin with, and these days I only run it to test things in Windows 8. What I should do is replace it with a convertible laptop like one of Lenovo’s Yoga series–that’s a kind of device I can’t buy from Apple at any price. Maybe once Windows 10 ships?

The 2012 MacBook Air I’m typing this on shows its age on the outside–I’ve let this laptop pick up so many scuff marks that it’s unclear whether I even deserve a MacBook. But while its battery life has faded a little bit, it remains a great travel companion overall. I suspect I’ll wait to upgrade this one until I can get a new model with that charges via USB-C.

The upgrade calculus is simplest with my first-generation iPad mini. When I can buy a replacement that has not just the Touch ID sensor of the latest iPad mini but the better camera of the current full-sized iPad (or something close to it) and, ideally, a default storage allocation bigger than 16 gigabytes–boom, I’ll be throwing down my credit card.

On the other hand, I’m seriously anxious about how I’m going to replace my Nexus 4. This phone has aged remarkably well, not least since Android 5.0 Lollipop seems to have stretched out its battery life (I’ll write more on that separately). And I’ve somehow only dropped it onto an unyielding surface once, with the damage confined to a small crack on the back that I fixed in place with a bead of Krazy Glue.

But the Nexus 4’s camera remains mediocre in most situations, and the phone doesn’t have enough storage. Unfortunately, I can’t replace it with a newer Nexus model–the Nexus 6 is almost offensively enormous if you value one-handed use. So are most of the other high-end Android phones. If I shattered the screen on my generally-beloved phone tomorrow, I guess I’d buy the second-generation Moto X… which itself no longer ranks as new.

Finally, there’s my Canon 330 HS camera. I bought that bargain-priced model because the Wirecutter liked it at the time–and because the larger-sensor point-and-shoot models I initially coveted all required trade-offs. As far as I know, that’s still the case with the two leading candidates: Sony’s pricey RX100, now in its third generation, still can’t geotag photos from Sony’s smartphone app, and Canon’s S120 and newer G7X can’t take panoramic photos.

Now that I’ve described my intentional technological backwardness at length, I’m sure some of you would like to explain why I’m mistaken or which new gadgets I should be considering instead of the potential upgrades I listed above. Please have at it in the comments.