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.

Five-time MWC results: working harder and maybe faster, and a lot more obsessive about travel

Re-reading the coverage I filed from Mobile World Congress in 2013, I can only think of what a slacker I was back then: one post for Discovery News about the state of smartphones, an extra column for USA Today about much the same topic, and a post for my tech-policy hangout at the time, Disruptive Competition Project, on how weird the U.S. phone market seemed after my overdue introduction to the workings of wireless in the rest of the world.

mwc-17-camera(That last one holds up reasonably well, I think.)

During my fifth trip to MWC, I filed six posts from Barcelona and need to finish a seventh about the hype and reality of 5G wireless. Unlike four years ago, I wrote enough stories from the global phone show on top of my typical weekly output to cover my travel costs, even though the contracts I write on today aren’t as generous as 2013’s.

I’ll admit that I would have liked a little more free time to play tourist beyond the Saturday afternoon I spent traipsing around Park Güell, but I also hate feeling like 700 words must require a day’s work or that I’m somehow above cranking out copy from a tech event. So I wrote as fast as I could but not as fast as I’d like.

I’d like to think that motivation led me to take more notes from the show floor, and I hope the practice sticks in my head on weeks when I’m at home and have free time to tempt me to poke around with a post.

mwc-2017-floorThe more important upside of this exercise was a lesson in the virtues of showing a little entrepreneurial initiative, even when you’re running around like crazy.

For example, one of the stories I sold started with a pitch I made to an editor in between gobbling down lunch Friday and packing for my flight out that evening. That was totally worth setting aside my luggage for a few minutes.

After the jump, more about travel: The other part of my approach to MWC that’s changed since 2013 is how having an elevated elite status on one airline has left me even less capable of booking flights like a normal human being.

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Weekly output: wireless plans (x2), broadband infrastructure, ATSC 3.0, wireless discounts

BARCELONA–I arrived here Saturday morning for my fifth Mobile World Congress trade show. Most of that afternoon was spent wandering around Barcelona and trying to stay awake, while today involved a series of press events scattered around town. The show formally starts tomorrow morning, which is also when I start owing copy to various editors. I’m here through Thursday morning, so if you have questions about upcoming (non-Apple) smartphones, this would be a good time to ask them.

2/20/2017: Unlimited-data plans, WTOP

This interview was supposed to happen, as my conversations with Washington’s news station usually do, over Skype. But the app kept dropping the call within seconds of my clicking to answer it, so the producers punted and called my cell phone instead. Microsoft, please try to make Skype less painful to use.

2/22/2017: Broadband companies can’t build out their networks, and it’s hurting consumers, Yahoo Finance

Not for the first time this week, I got to revisit a topic I’d first covered in any detail several years ago.

Screenshot of story from NYT iPad app2/22/2017: Picking a New Phone Plan? Here Are Your Best Bets, The New York Times

The NYT’s Brian Chen interviewed me, in my role as maintainer of the (Times-owned) Wirecutter’s guide to wireless service, for this story breaking down recent changes to the big four carriers’ rate plans. The analyst he talked to gave recommendations I wouldn’t agree with, but on the other hand Chen gave me the last word in the story.

This, incidentally, represents the second time I’ve been quoted in the Times and the first time I’ve been quoted correctly. That other time happened in 1993, when the NYT’s Frank Prial wrote a feature on how Georgetown University had changed since Bill Clinton’s undergrad days. He interviewed a bunch of students at the Georgetown Voice’s offices and attributed a quote from somebody else (I’m guessing then-photo editor Darren Carroll) to me.

Lest it seem like I’m complaining about my treatment by Timesmen, I should note that looking up that 24-year-old story also led me to a few NYT pieces about my dad’s exploits playing football for Columbia University, including this section-front story about his game-winning field goal against Brown. Yes, they spelled our last name correctly.

2/23/2017: The FCC just gave you a reason to hold off on buying a 4K TV, Yahoo Finance

This post provided this week’s other stroll down memory lane. (Does this column I wrote just after the end of analog broadcasts in 2009 suggest a certain amount of built-up cynicism?) I’m cautiously optimistic about the coming, voluntary transition to “ATSC 3.0” broadcasts. I’m also content in my decision to hold off on buying a new TV until it includes a tuner for this new broadcast standard.

2/26/2017: The hidden wireless discounts you might be missing, USA Today

If you use AT&T, Sprint or Verizon, you may be able to chip 10 percent or so off your bill by taking advantage of your connection to an employer, a school or an association.

Weekly output: e-commerce #fail, Lunar XPrize, Tech Night Owl

If you’ve been wondering what my workspace looks like, have a look at the Pinterest board the Wirecutter and Sweethome posted this week to accompany a guide to home-office setups. The photo I took of my desk and its surroundings is at the right; as you can see, it’s a lot less slovenly than my cubicle at the Post.

Washington Gas fail post2/29/2016: E-commerce fails: Why big-time websites can be completely screwed up, Yahoo Tech

I was originally going to write a rant here about Washington Gas’s new and horrifically-bad customer-service site, but then I remembered that I should try to be a good capitalist and get somebody to pay me for the post. I also realized I could put my utility’s fiasco in the context of large organizations botching IT deployments.

3/3/2016: J.J. Abrams makes movies about Google’s robots-on-the-moon XPrize: what’s not to like?, Yahoo Tech

Any time I can write about DIY robots on the moon, I will. This column also allowed me to make some overdue use of the notes I took at the White House’s Demo Day last August.

3/5/2016: March 5, 2016 — Bill Carey, Daniel Eran Dilger and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

My latest appearance on this podcast involved a lot of discussion of the Apple-encryption case, plus a little banter about what the next iPhone might look like.

Weekly output: old TVs, Mark Zuckerberg, rebooting, deleting old e-mail, wireless charging, Android phones, wireless carriers, smartphone features, smart apartments

Another Mobile World Congress went into the books when I flew home from Barcelona Thursday. I’m glad that show and that city have become a regular part of my travel schedule.

2/21/2016: It’s really time to let go of that old tube TV, USA Today

Circling back to a topic I covered in 2013 allowed me to note some good HDTV options for under $200–including the Wirecutter’s $170 pick–and the unfortunate end of Best Buy’s free TV recycling.

Yahoo Tech Zuckerberg MWC post2/22/2016: Zuckerberg at MWC: Getting the World (and Someday His Daughter) Online, Yahoo Tech

The Facebook founder’s Q&A session started at 6 p.m. local time, meaning the press room closed while I was still writing my recap. I finished it on a bench in the hall outside–MWC, unlike CES, has free WiFi throughout the facility.

2/22/2016: Tip: Sometimes You Really Do Need to Reboot the Damn Thing, Yahoo Tech

I’d written this tip item weeks before, not knowing that a colleague had just filed a different tip item around the virtues of rebooting. Fortunately, our devices did not get any less buggy over the ensuing month.

2/23/2016: Tip: How to Quickly and Easily Get Rid of Old E-Mails, Yahoo Tech

You read a version this three and a half years ago at USA Today, but that didn’t give enough credit to Microsoft’s Outlook.com for nailing the task of automatically deleting e-mails over a certain age.

2/23/2016: Why Wireless Charging Is Still a Tangled Mess, Yahoo Tech

Once again, the wireless industry seems dead set on balkanizing itself between two ways to do the same thing.

2/24/2016: Your Next Android Phone: Smaller but Expandable, Yahoo Tech

This was my attempt at a State of the Union address for Android phones.

2/24/2016: Best Wireless Carriers, The Wirecutter

Our first major update to this guide since September factored in the end of two-year contracts at AT&T and Sprint… and two days after it went up, I learned that Sprint had restored two-year contracts. We should have yet another update up in a few days.

2/26/2016: Your next smartphone should have these features, USA Today

My last MWC post inventoried six features that I think you’ll want on your next phone–and another that nobody should care about for a few more years.

2/27/2016: Emerging Multifamily Technologies Panel, NWP Energy Summit

The morning after I got home from Spain–professionalism!–I moderated this panel discussion with NWP’s Howard Behr, Greystar’s Pam Darmofalski, Embue’s Robert Cooper and Remotely’s Mike Branam about how smart-home technology is changing apartments.