Weekly output: locked phones, tax-return fraud

BARCELONA–Mobile World Congress officially starts tomorrow, but I’ve been here since Saturday morning and have already attended five vendor events here. The one you’ve read most about, Samsung’s unveiling of the Galaxy S9 and S9+ smartphones, is also the one MWC event I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t have to cover–my regular clients all got pre-briefed before the show and had copy ready when Samsung’s embargo expired. That freed me to take notes and play with the S9’s AR Emoji feature at my relative leisure instead of hunkering down with my laptop to file a report.

2/22/2018: Verizon’s decision to stop selling unlocked phones means travelers need to plan ahead, USA Today

Verizon’s impending move to lock phones it sells for some period after subscribers activate them won’t be as strict as its competitors’ policies, but it also reinforces the argument I’ve been making for years: Don’t buy your phone from your wireless carrier. So does the $70-above-list prices three of the big four carriers announced tonight for Samsung’s new phones.

Yahoo tax-return-fraud post2/23/2018: Tax return scammers are taking a big hit, Yahoo Finance

A year and a half ago, I’d started gathering string for a post about the problem of tax-return identity-theft fraud–sparked by my seeing a Facebook post from a friend who is both a privacy professional and a serial victim of that problem. For various lame reasons, I failed to turn those notes into a story at the time. But tax time inevitably rolled around again–and then the IRS served up a novel and more interesting news peg by making serious progress in reducing this problem.

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Last-minute MWC advice

Having to spend a week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress ranks as one of the easier problems to manage in the tech industry. I mean, would you rather go to CES?

But if you’re new to MWC, as I was only five years ago, the wireless industry’s global gathering can have its confusing moments. If so, the following advice may help you navigate your way around this trade show.

Fira Gran Via: MWC’s primary venue is a set of eight large halls that you can traverse much faster than the Las Vegas Convention Center, thanks to the overhead passages–most with moving walkways–that knit the Fira together. To get there, take the train: The L9 Sud Metro stops at the Europa | Fira and Fira stations, to the north and south of the Fira, while frequent commuter-rail trains from Espanya also stop at Europa | Fira.

Power and bandwidth: In addition to a plug adapter (you already have that in your bag, right?), you should also pack your laptop’s charger’s extension cord if it came with one. Distance from an outlet has nothing to do with that; a laptop power brick plugged into a plug adapter plugged into a wall outlet can easily fall out, but the extension cord will distribute that weight away from the outlet.

I hope you won’t show up to MWC with a locked phone that will prevent you from popping in a cheap prepaid SIM. But if your locked device is on Sprint or T-Mobile, you at least get free, slow and adequate roaming.

Eating and dining: Barcelona is one of the world’s great cities to eat and drink. Unfortunately, the press room in the Fira does not provide lunch, so you’ll have to forage elsewhere on the show floor (FYI, Ericsson’s exhibit in Hall 2 has offered a great free lunch the last few years). The press room does, however, offer an apparently inexhaustible supply of coffee from a bank of Nespresso machines, and plates of cookies occasionally show up there too.

Remember that dinner happens late in Spain, so don’t turn down a late-afternoon snack.

Getting around: Your MWC registration comes with a transit pass good Monday through Thursday; don’t just use it to commute to the Fira. Railfan tip: Because the L9 Sud line is automated, standing in the front of the train lets you enjoy the view of the tunnel ahead. Cheapskate tip: That line is also the most cost-effective way to and from the airport.

If you normally rely on Apple Maps, set it aside for the duration of MWC. This app still doesn’t offer transit directions in Barcelona–two and a half years after Apple bragged about adding transit navigation, which itself came nearly eight years after Google integrated the same in its own maps.

Barcelona has a not-undeserved reputation for pickpocketing. Don’t leave your wallet in an exposed and open pocket, and hang on to your bag or purse.

Other details:

If you’ve never seen Whit Stillman’s 1994 indie classic Barcelona, try to fix that before you depart. It’s not available on Netflix and Amazon’s free streaming, but you can rent it on Amazon, Google, iTunes and Vudu.

If you have some free time–by which I mean, if being six to nine time zones ahead of your editors gives you unsupervised time–try to spend some of it visiting architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpieces. The Casa Milà apartment building and the Sagrada Família basilica aren’t as far out of your way from MWC as Park Güell; they all have a kind of magic about them.

On your way home, if you have mid-tier or higher status on American, Delta or United or have a Priority Pass membership, you’re eligible to visit the Sala VIP Miro lounge at BCN, upstairs to the left and downstairs after passport control for non-EU flights. Nobody will mistake it for a Lufthansa Senator Lounge, but it works for a pre-departure snack and a drink or two before a long day spent over the Atlantic.

Updated 3/1/2018 to correct and expand lounge-access directions.

Weekly output: forced-redirect ads, broadband infrastructure, Russian indictments

After a workweek that I interrupted for an overdue reunion with my skis, I have another abbreviated week coming up. On top of Monday being a holiday, early Friday evening I depart for Barcelona to cover my sixth Mobile World Congress show. If you have any questions about the state of the smartphone–especially outside the U.S. market–the next five days would be a great time to get them to me.

2/12/2018: Surfing the web can leave you open to ad hijackings. A browser fix has been slow, USA Today

I revised earlier coverage of “forced-redirect” ads that hijack your Web reading to note that Google had wound up not activating an advertised defense against this scam in January’s update to Chrome.

2/16/2018: Trump needs to do more to get more Americans online, Yahoo Finance

A year ago, even some skeptics of President Trump voiced cautious optimism that his vaunted infrastructure plan would include a broadband component. This week’s release of that plan–yes, over a year after he took office pledging to rebuild America’s roads, rails, airports and waterways–pretty much crushed those hopes. This post outlines some ways that this plan could have done better.

2/17/2018: Russian social-media indictments, Al Jazeera

For once, I was able to chase down a link to one of my appearances on the news network’s Arabic-language channel. If you can speak Arabic, skip to the 11:15 mark in this evening-news roundup and please let me know how intelligent (or not) the live translation made me sound about the Justice Department’s indictment of 13 Russians and the St. Petersburg troll factory that calls itself the “Internet Research Agency.”

The two kinds of Airbnbs I rent

No travel site has saved me as much money as Airbnb–the 10 rooms and the two apartments I’ve booked through the site represent thousands of extra dollars I didn’t have to spend on overpriced hotels at events like Mobile World Congress and Google I/O. But no other travel site has left me thinking so much about its effects on the places I visit.

The vision that Airbnb sells, and the reality I’ve seen in half of those 12 stays, is somebody renting out a room or (when they’re traveling) their entire residence to make extra money on the side. I always appreciate the effort these hosts put in–the labels on everything, the well-placed power strips that hotels often forget, the advice about places to eat and drink nearby–and I like the thought that I’m helping people stay in their homes or apartments.

(A friend in Brooklyn has rented out the extra room in his apartment for years; seeing him favorably review an Airbnb room in Denver put me at ease with staying there for last year’s Online News Association conference.)

But Airbnb also features many other hosts who list multiple properties and, in some cases, have purchased many or all of the apartments in a building to rent out to budget-minded travelers like me. In the latter case–like the room in San Francisco I rented this week that appeared to have once been a single-room-occupancy apartment–you can easily imagine that without an Airbnb, people who live near those places would have more housing options.

That concern, sometimes pushed by the hotel industry, has led many cities to try to restrict Airbnb. In Barcelona, that crackdown meant the apartment in the Gothic Quarter that I’d stayed at for three years in a row was off the market this February because the host couldn’t get the required tourist license (I found another apartment that did have it, or at least said it did). In San Francisco, it’s led the company to start collecting occupancy taxes (which is fine with me).

I don’t want to overstate Airbnb’s effect on a housing market–certainly not in the Bay Area, where development policies founded on delusional entitlement have done far more to jack up residential costs. But I do worry about this.

And then I continue to book on Airbnb when crashing with friends isn’t an option. When the alternative is eating $200 or $300 a night on a hotel room or staying in distant suburbs, what else do you expect me to do?

The “hands-on area”: tech journalism at its busiest, not its finest

BERLIN–Three days into IFA, I’ve spent a disturbing amount of time at this tech trade show standing around and looking at my phone. The distractions of social media explain some of that, but I can blame more of it on the “hands-on area.”

That’s the space next to a gadget product-launch event, kept roped off until the end of the press conference or the keynote, in which the assembled tech journalists get to inspect the new hardware up close.

I enjoy the chance to pick up a just-announced gadget, see how it works, play with its apps and settings to see if any surprises emerge, and grab a few quick photos that are hopefully unblemished by glare, fingerprints or dust.

But increasingly, this requires waiting as each scribe ahead of me whips out a camera or phone not to take their own pictures, but to shoot or even livestream a video recapping the highlights of the product. Often these are not two-minute clips but four- or five-minute segments, but that’s not obvious at the start–and professional courtesy mandates that you give the other journalist a chance to finish his or her job.

Many of these video shoots are also one-person productions, which leaves me looking on in some frustration at bloggers who are literally talking into one phone about another. If only one of them would burst into song or something to liven up the scene!

Instead, an overseas show like IFA or Mobile World Congress provides the pleasure of hearing people run through the same basic script in a dozen different languages. Eventually, this may teach me how to say “the phone feels good in the hand” in German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Hebrew and Japanese… if the news industry’s lemming-like pivot to video doesn’t first force me to start shooting these clips myself.

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Weekly output: SXSW tips, Rudy Giuliani, 5G, WikiLeaks and CIA hacks (x2), SXSW marketing, Entrepreneur, Chris Sacca, Vint Cerf

AUSTIN–Welcome, readers frustrated by adjusting their Timex sport watches for Daylight Saving Time. You’re reading a weekly feature here, in which I recap my various media appearances over the last seven days. Most of this week’s items relate to the South By Southwest conference, which I’m covering for my sixth year in a row. Total number of tacos consumed so far: at least nine.

3/7/2017: 5 Insider Tips for Surviving SXSW, CyberCoders

My friend Andrea Smith interviewed me about how I try to stay on top of this sprawling conference. I was going to forget to pack a travel power strip until reading my own advice in this story–but I haven’t used that gadget here anyway.

3/7/2017: Giuliani talks security, Trump at cybersecurity conference, Yahoo Finance

I did not see the foaming-at-the-mouth Rudy Giuliani of the campaign season; instead, the former mayor drew a diagram to illustrate the cybersecurity contractors a company will need (see Violet Blue’s post on her Patreon page for context on that). He also noted that President Trump has more faith in private-sector cybersecurity efforts than the government’s, which led one reader to inquire on Twitter: “So a private email server would be more secure than a government server?”

3/8/2017: 5G data is coming, and it will supercharge your internet connection, Yahoo Finance

This last Mobile World Congress post explains the next generation of wireless generation–as in, why it’s a couple of years before you should be devoting any mental processor cycles to the topic.

3/10/2017: The real lesson of WikiLeaks’ massive CIA document dump — encryption works, Yahoo Finance

I wrote this largely out of annoyance with first-round coverage that played into the WikiLeaks-promoted storyline that the CIA has broken encryption apps. That group has yet to produce any such evidence, although some readers unaware of its increasingly apparent role as a Russian cut-out don’t seem to recognize that.

3/10/2017: WikiLeaks’ CIA-hacking disclosures, Al Jazeera

My Skype interview ended abruptly when the hotspot I’d been using ran out of battery, and that’s entirely my fault for assuming it had enough of a charge instead of checking beforehand. #fail

3/11/2017: How to avoid the marketing hype at SXSW, USA Today

There’s the SXSW that promises insights about the intersections of technology, society, culture, politics and business, and then there’s the SXSW that is essentially a Marketing Spring Break. Neither one can quite exist without the other.

3/12/2017: A Well-Known Tech Watchdog Dishes on the Writing Beat, Entrepreneur

Jordan French interviewed me in February about my history in the business. I’m not sure about the “well-known” part, but I’m not going to turn that description down either. Note that this story references me speaking at the PR Summit conference, which did not happen.

3/12/2017: Venture investor on Trump: ‘We are in absolute unmitigated crisis’, Yahoo Finance

Chris Sacca’s talk at SXSW was 💯, as the kids say. As a journalist, I had to appreciate his newsroom-level ability to use the f-word as a comma. I was only half-joking when I suggested this headline

3/12/2017: Google’s chief internet evangelist seems nervous about Trump’s tech policy, Yahoo Finance

Cardinal rule of tech journalism: If you have a chance to see the guy who co-wrote the core protocols of the thing you use everyday, you should show up. The payoff for me: a tweet that went slightly viral and a post I enjoyed writing–once I’d decided what parts of Cerf’s wide-ranging talk couldn’t fit in the post.

Weekly output: unlocked phones, headphone jack, foreign phones, Android security, smartphone trends (x2)

I had a busy week in Barcelona at my fifth Mobile World Congress smartphone show, and in just a few days I head to Austin for SXSW. So I may need a little more time to flesh out my Flickr album from MWC.

2/27/2017: 3 ‘unlocked’ phones that might make your carrier unhappy, Yahoo Finance

My first file from MWC focused on a few phones that manufacturers will sell direct to consumers, not locked to any one carrier–a trend I applaud.

yahoo-mwc-2017-posts 2/28/2017: Sorry, Apple, the headphone jack isn’t going anywhere, Yahoo Finance

This post must have fetched the biggest audience of anything I did from MWC. The Verge’s Vlad Savov gave me a shout-out, and a Reddit thread on my story racked up more than 2,000 comments–about 70 times as many as people left after the piece itself.

2/28/2017: 4 new smartphones you can’t get in the US, Yahoo Finance

You’d think “is this phone coming to the U.S.?” would be a question any MWC show-floor rep could answer. You would be wrong.

3/1/2017: What you should and shouldn’t worry about in Android security, Yahoo Finance

Some enlightening conversations with security professionals led to this report. Key lesson: While you’re far safer sticking with Google’s Play Store, malware can sneak into it. And as a visit to the MWC exhibit of an Iranian app store reminded me, some parts of the world don’t get the Play Store at all.

cr-mwc-2017-recap3/2/2017: Best Smartphone Tech of 2017, Consumer Reports

I fired off an e-mail to my editor at CR in the middle of packing two Fridays ago, asking if he needed any sort of a wrap-up post from MWC. This wound up being the last thing I filed from the show floor, then the next morning I sent in a revision from my Airbnb addressing my editor’s comments before I headed to the airport.

3/4/2017: 4 changes coming to Android phones, USA Today

This shorter look at Android-phone trends went through two changes after posting: We corrected the headline so it no longer referred to five changes, then we fixed an errant reference to a Galaxy S3 on the show floor (it was a Galaxy S7 Edge). As is my practice, I called out those alterations in a comment.