Weekly output: Mobile World Congress, cross-country skiing, SIM cards

One of these things is not like the others.

2/25/2014: Why Some of 2014’s Most Intriguing Gadgets Will Never Reach American Stores, Yahoo Tech

My Mobile World Congress report represents a sequel to the post I wrote for the Disruptive Competition Project from last year’s MWC, except I’m now more optimistic about the market for unlocked, unsubsidized phones. Even if a lot of people in the media still can’t grasp how to compare unsubsidized and subsidized prices.

Medium cross-country skiing post2/26/2014: Ski(d) Marks, The Magazine on Medium

I’d been meaning to write something for The Magazine’s outpost on Medium–in part because I like writing for that outfit, in part because I wanted to try the editing interface I’d heard so much about without writing for free. This essay about the joys and trials of cross-country skiing in the city–something I originally thought I’d write here–turned out to be that opportunity.

3/2/2014: It’s not so SIM-ple to trim a SIM card, but here’s how, USA Today

A reader asked a while back about whether she could pop the micro-SIM from a work-issued iPhone 4S into her own iPhone 5’s nano-SIM slot. I decided to wait to answer it until MWC, so I could see how much traction the nano-SIM was getting in the market. Answer: not much.

Sulia was all about MWC this week: my impressions of Nokia’s don’t-call-it Android X phones, a recap of the debut of the privacy-optimized Blackphone, how Samsung’s new Galaxy S 5 gets a little closer to the stock Android interface, an inspection of a $25 smartphone prototype running Firefox OS, why the developers of a phone version of the Ubuntu version of Linux think carriers will like it, and an update on the cordless-charging standards battle.

After the jump, a Flickr slideshow from the show and its surroundings.

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Your device can be too small and too thin (July 2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran July 27, 2012; it’s on my mind again after two recent stays with relatives who had broadband Internet at home but no WiFi router connected to it.)

For well over a decade, I’ve had the same wish list for each new gadget: smaller, lighter and thinner than its predecessors. But lately, I wonder if I should be more careful about what I wish for.

too-thin laptopI still appreciate carrying around devices that weigh less and take up less space than earlier models—preferably while running longer on a charge. But some recent devices I’ve tested or purchased suggest the costs of being too thin or too small.

Consider the connections around the edges of many new laptops, including the MacBook Air I just bought, but also many Intel-based Ultrabook PCs. The thinnest among them often leave out wired Ethernet ports and standard HDMI video outputs, requiring users to pack adapters.

That’s not a huge tradeoff for video. If you expect to plug a laptop into a monitor or an HDTV, you’re foolish not to bring your own cable, and one with a micro-HDMI plug at one end will take up less space than a full-sized equivalent. But with networking, you’ll need to bring an adapter supported by your operating system or trust that Wi-Fi will always work, no matter how many other people jam the airwaves near you.

And as just about anybody who’s gone to CES or any other tech conference can testify, that rarely happens. Veterans of these events know to look for Ethernet, and some companies have taken note: Google won compliments for providing wired Internet access in the press seats at its I/O conference last month.

The race to build the thinnest laptop, as opposed to the lightest, doesn’t make much sense from a usability perspective. An added eighth of an inch in thickness won’t make a laptop any more awkward to operate or carry. It’s not a thick phone that will break the line of a suit when tucked into a pocket.

Smartphones risk a different sort of miniaturization malfunction. Since the 1990s, phones using the GSM standard have used compact SIM (subscriber identity module) cards to store account data. This has made it easy to move a number from one phone to another and, with an unlocked phone, switch temporarily or permanently to a new carrier.

That’s given GSM a serious advantage over the competing CDMA standard, which doesn’t require any such physical separation of an account and a phone. (Trivia: Some CDMA carriers have employed a SIM equivalent called an R-UIM  or removable user identity module, but not in the U.S.)

In recent years, the SIM scenario has gotten a little more complicated with the arrival of micro-SIM cards. But you can still use a micro-SIM in place of a standard card (technically a mini-SIM) if you pop it into an adapter or position it so its contacts align properly in the slot (I’ve done it, but it took a few tries). And you can cut down a SIM to micro-SIM size.

Now, however, the industry has certified a “nano-SIM” standard that is smaller still and slightly thinner. So you won’t be able to shoehorn a micro-SIM into a nano-SIM slot, and using a nano-SIM card in phones designed for bigger cards will require an adapter instead of just careful placement.

Whether saving .0037 cubic inches of space over the already tiny micro-SIM card (in context, .1 percent of the volume of an iPhone 4S, considerably less in the current crop of big-screen smartphones) is worth that complication seems to have gone unexplored. Would we be better off if everybody had standardized on micro-SIM and let designers find other ways to condense phone hardware? We’ll never know.

Manufacturing ever-smaller gadgets also imposes costs we may not notice until later on. You may find that you can’t upgrade the memory on a new laptop—a serious risk if an operating system upgrade requires more memory than the last release. Are we ready to foreclose on the idea of upgradable hardware?

Repairing a tablet or a computer can also move from tricky to difficult once its components get tightly-packed together. The same goes for recycling a defunct device—although if a manufacturer provides its own, easily accessible recycling service for those gadgets, I’ll give it a pass.

The risk in making this kind of complaint is sounding like a grumpy old man, desperately clinging to his trusty old Ethernet cable and SIM card as he stands in the way of progress and the laudable goal of making computers simple, worry-free appliances.

But at a certain point, standards friendliness, repairability and expandability should outrank shaving yet another fraction of an inch or an ounce off a product. That would leave plenty of other things companies can try to beat each other on. Did I mention battery life?

Weekly output: iPhone 5, TechCrunch Disrupt, NFL Mobile, Gatekeeper

I’d like to have more items in this list, but travel took a big chomp out of this week. (And it’s going to do the same for next.) If you’re wondering about the absence of any CEA posts, we’re taking a break while their new communications guy Jeff Joseph gets up to speed and they decide if they want to make any changes to their online outreach.

9/12/2012: Apple’s iPhone 5: The Price of Thin, Discovery News

Confession: My first, peevish reaction when Apple didn’t invite me to its iPhone 5 event was to let somebody else write it up for Discovery–I’d have enough to cover at TechCrunch Disrupt, a couple of miles away. I’m glad I rethought that, since my post seems to be one of few to note the iPhone 5’s problematic fragmenting of the SIM card standard. (CEA readers got a preview of that argument in a post I wrote in July.)

9/14/2012: Smart Cycles, Transparent Time, Other Disruptions, Discovery News

Most of my coverage of TC Disrupt SF took the form of a prolonged stream of tweets (to readers who did not unfollow out of sheer fatigue: thanks!). Then I had to synthesize three days of watching startups pitch themselves and their products into 500 words and change. I did that by picking five of these companies–none of which won TC Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield–to note in this post. But in retrospect, I should have used a few more words to offer more details about their business models.

Also: If I haven’t written about at least one of these companies at greater length 10 months from now, can somebody call me out on the oversight?

9/16/2012: NFL Mobile app doesn’t work on new iPad, USA Today

As you can see, this piece doesn’t actually answer the reader’s question–the Verizon Wireless PR guy I’ve been e-mailing all week never provided a specific explanation. So I wound up making this post double as a critique of VzW’s failure to communicate with its users. It wraps up with a reminder about white-listing apps blocked by OS X Mountain Lion’s Gatekeeper; please use that advice wisely.

You can also read this story in USAT’s new design; what do you think of the updated look?

Weekly output: broadband, favorite gadgets, competition, Mountain Lion, miniaturization, location awareness, IP addresses

I don’t usually write this much in a week for my two oldest regular clients (“oldest” being a relative term, since it’s been just over a year since my first post for Discovery), but the scheduling worked out that way.

7/25/2012: Internet Costs and Choices Still Stink, Discovery News

This critique of the FCC’s latest study of the U.S. residential broadband market might have gone up last week had I not set it aside to write about Reddit’s coverage of the Aurora shootings. Instead, I gave it another couple of days. In that time, I came up with the somewhat contrived illustration shown here: an Ethernet cable twisted in the shape of a question mark in front of the FCC report as seen in a laptop’s browser. The headline here overstates things slightly–pricing for most consumer-grade connections doesn’t seem that bad, at least if you compare it to cable TV–but nobody can say the state of competition is good.

I updated the post a day later to add a reference to Google’s just-announced pricing for its Kansas City fiber-optic service (1 billion bits per second for $70 a month, 1 Gbps plus a set of TV channels that exclude ESPN for $120, or 5 Mbps for free after a connection fee).

7/25/2012: Tech Team’s Favorite Gadgets: Photos, Discovery News

As I mentioned upfront, it’s been just over a year since Discovery set out to cover tech and gadget news more closely. This photo gallery, featuring myself and the other regular Discovery contributors writing about gadgets we’ve appreciated more than most, marks that anniversary.

7/25/2012: Rethinking the State of Competition, CEA Digital Dialogue

This reassessment of the relative openness of a few key consumer-tech markets was going to be last week’s post for CEA–as you can see, it’s responding to Microsoft’s pulling out its MSNBC joint venture and Yahoo hiring Google’s Marissa Mayer as its new CEO–but got held up for various reasons. I’m not sure there was a solid 800-word blog post in this topic, but once I realized that I didn’t have time to crank out something different–I was late enough already.

7/27/2012: Your Device Can Be Too Small And Too Thin, CEA Digital Dialogue

Here I question the move to make ever-thinner gadgets at the cost of connectivity, expandability, compatibility and repairability. I could have written it at any time over the last few months, but buying a MacBook Air laptop–and realizing how much more I had to think about its memory allocation when I couldn’t upgrade that later on–closed the deal for me.

7/27/2012: Apple’s Mountain Lion: More of iOS in OS X, Discovery News

I feel better about Mountain Lion than I do about Lion–but I also recall that some of Lion’s annoyances took a few weeks to sink in. You’ll have to ask me in a month if I’m still spending much time checking the Notifications list, using the Share buttons in Safari and the Finder, or employing the Dictation feature to crank out short snippets of text. I also wonder if by then I will have figured out why the MacBook doesn’t see my Canon printer/scanner; nobody had an answer when I asked on Google+, and this post hasn’t generated any input on that subject either.

7/29/2012: How your phone gets location-confused, USA Today

Giving readers a refresher course in how smartphones fix their location through network signals, WiFi and GPS allowed me to bring orbital mechanics into an article, which doesn’t happen all that often. If I hadn’t written this a couple of weeks earlier (my editor was going on vacation), the second part of this column could also have noted the newfound interest of some U.S. Olympics viewers in using proxy servers to watch the BBC’s reportedly-excellent streaming video of the 2012 games.