Weekly output: Safari reloading, screenshots and privacy, Windows 8, SXSW and smartphones (x2), syncing, Android keyboards

I wrote the first three stories on this list using an external keyboard hooked up to my ThinkPad. That move came courtesy of the busted keyboard that stopped responding to certain keystrokes–including Enter, Backspace, 8 and h–sometime between my going to bed the night before SXSW and my getting on the first flight to Austin. That did not add to the business-travel experience.

3/11/2012: Tip: Avoid hiccups in Safari browsing, USA Today

I’m glad this column’s format doesn’t require using a specific reader’s name, because this problem comes from my own experience with Apple’s browser. (The day after this posted, Apple issued a 5.1.4 update to Safari that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t do much to solve the problem.) In the rest of the column, I offer a reminder that I too often leave out of pieces on privacy: If something online is sufficiently interesting, people will take a screengrab of it and share that image, regardless of whatever privacy settings once protected that item.

3/12/2012: Windows 8: The Shock Of The New, And The Old, Discovery News

I wanted to like Microsoft’s upcoming replacement for Windows 7. I still do. But blowing up a smartphone interface, Metro, to laptop-screen dimensions seems like a fundamental mistake. So does making touchscreen gestures critical to so many routine actions. Yes, many of my peers in tech journalism–see, for instance, ZDNet’s Ed Bott–have been far more positive about Windows 8. But most of those reviews were done on touchscreen tablets loaned by Microsoft , while I installed the Consumer Preview release alongside Win 7 on a non-touchscreen laptop.

3/13/2012: Smartphone Battery Life Goes South By Southwest, CEA Digital Dialogue

Forgive me for writing yet another rant about lame smartphone battery life–but my experience at the conference set a new low. And I wasn’t alone in this dilemma. The night after I wrote this, I found myself at a bar next to a spare power outlet. I plugged in my travel power strip and soon had people coming up to me with dead or dying phones, offering to trade a drink ticket for one of the remaining outlets on the strip.

3/16/2012: Which Apps Might Outlive SXSW, Discovery News

In retrospect, I could not have picked a much worse time for this post to go up–on the morning that Apple’s new iPad arrived, and only hours before the news of Mike Daisey’s duplicity would break. What was I thinking? Anyway, I do like how this piece turned out, so please read it when you get bored of reading about tablet computing and journalist standards–if not sooner.

3/18/2012: Tip: A cautionary tale about syncing, USA Today

I wasn’t sure this reader’s question about unexpected BlackBerry contacts syncing would be relevant enough until Andy Baio wrote a great piece for Wired.com about the perils of giving too many third-party apps access to your Web services. That inspired me to pivot from one person’s glitch to the larger issue of being too generous with access to our data. The balance of the column, a reminder to check for alternate software keyboards on an Android device, came about because commenters on my Boing Boing review of the Samsung Galaxy Note asked why I didn’t tell readers to switch from Samsung’s obnoxious keyboard.

Since I’ve now posted this summary on a Sunday two weeks in a row, I’m going to continue with that schedule. I trust that you all are okay with that. Also: If you don’t want to wait until the end of the week to see where I’ve been writing and/or find my Twitter feed too noisy, I’ve set up a tumblr blog under my LLC’s name, Prose Hacking, where I link to each story I’ve written more or less in real time. This is probably a misuse of tumblr, but–hey, I needed to develop a minimal level of competence with that platform, and I needed to do something with the domain name I registered for my company.

Weekly output: Timeline, connected TVs, podcast, passworth myths

Today’s realization: It’s a mistake to wait to write this post until after getting back from a bike ride, when I’d rather take a nap than string together any sentences. Can somebody remind me about that next week?

1/29/2012: Timeline your chance for a Facebook do-over, USA Today

This was an update of the advice about Timeline grooming that I gave in a December post for Discovery News–written with the benefit of a month of seeing how friends have adopted Facebook’s new profile interface. The Q&A part of the piece offered some context on why Adobe Reader will sometimes ask you to restart after installing an update–and, it seems, confused readers unfamiliar with the column’s two-part structure.

1/31/2012: What belongs on your next TV’s app menu?, CEA Digital Dialogue

A critique of the  selection of Internet apps on “connected TVs” was one of the first topics I suggested to the people at CEA; it just took me a few months to get around to writing it. As you can see from the comments thread on Google+, the piece may need to be corrected if it turns out that Vizio–contrary to the info on its site–does include a YouTube app on its connected sets. (I’m waiting to hear back from the company’s PR rep.)

2/1/2012: Rob’s January Podcast: The Successful SOPA Fight and Post-CES Recap, CEA Digital Dialogue

I chatted for a good half an hour with veteran telecom analyst Gary Arlen about the past, present and future of CES and a few trends afoot in the electronics business. Gary’s been going to the show for some 30 years (conveniently enough, his birthday often overlaps it) and has quite a few stories to tell; until we talked, I had forgotten that Apple introduced the Newton at CES. Maybe that’s why the company wants nothing to do with it these days.

2/2/2012: You Didn’t Need To Change Your Password Yesterday, Discovery News

I hope you enjoy the gruesome collage of log-in interfaces I put together to illustrate this post, which critiques three common and incorrect suggestions about creating and maintaining passwords. As you might guess, I’m not a fan of password-expiration policies, especially when coupled with irritating “minimum complexity” rules. But I’m embarrassed to admit how many of my passwords feature the number and symbol substitutions for letters that password-cracking tools already factor in.

The privacy-scare story arc

Please don’t stop me, but you have read this before: A widely-used tech product is found to have a privacy flaw, spurring consternation among users and calls for action in Congress–as well as panicked “we need something on this” story-assignment e-mails from editors. And then we learn that the situation isn’t as horrific as first portrayed.

The latest version of this tech trope involves the discovery that Apple’s iPhones and 3G-equipped iPads regularly save your location, as determined from nearby wireless transmitters, in a hidden but easily-accessed “consolidated.db” file, and do so without your notice or consent. O’Reilly and Associates researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden summarized their “discovery” yesterday and posted an iPhoneTracker application that lets you see these records on a map.

That quickly led to numerous blog posts illustrated with iPhoneTracker-generated maps portraying their authors’ wanderings in fascinating detail. (That was not the case when I ran this app: Since it only shows data from the most-recently-synced iOS device, its map correctly indicated that the iPad 2 loaned by Apple PR had not left my house.) Congress and the FCC quickly began demanding explanations, while Apple engaged in its characteristic routine of not answering anybody’s questions. (FYI to Apple PR: That’s a good way to make your company look guilty.)

The massive Web traffic typically generated by pieces about Apple and the iPhone could not have hurt this story’s popularity among editors.

But… there’s no evidence that Apple is collecting this data from its users’ computers, an iPhone needs to save its location to help location-based apps function, iOS has always done this and people have known about the log in consolidated.db for months, as computing-forensics research Alex Levinson blogged today. Also, wireless carriers already track your location.

There are still serious issues: Why store this information in perpetuity instead of keeping only recent data? How does this conduct square with Apple’s insistence that third-party apps get your permission before tracking you? The answer to that first and most important question likely boils down to a programming oversight, perhaps fostered by the ever-lower price of flash memory–why bother automatically trimming a log file if you’ve got plenty of room for it?

That’s not nearly as outrageous as a headline like “Apple tracks your location” might suggest. Too bad.

I saw this kind of story arc play out repeatedly in my time at the Post. After two different Facebook privacy scares–each involving the Web’s standard “referrer” feature–turned out to be far less frightening on closer inspection, I wrote a column critiquing over-caffeinated coverage of data breaches.

The next time you see a story along these lines, remember two things. One, software development is rarely tidy. Two, companies exist to make money, preferably with less effort rather than more. Before you freak out over an alleged privacy issue, consider which factor provides a more plausible explanation for the problem.

4/22, 11:40 a.m. The Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin and Jennifer Valentino-Devries provide much more context in a story today. They write that both Apple and Google automatically collect data on nearby WiFi hotspots to build out databases that iPhones and Android phones can use to determine their locations faster than GPS would allow. But this doesn’t seem to be much of a secret: As I recall, the setup screens in Android clearly note that Google collects location information to improve its services, and Apple explained its conduct in a letter provided to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) last summer and posted on his site.