Categorized: Technology

The 2016 Mac Notebooks Can’t Take “Crumbs in the Keyboard”

It’s been a year since Apple released the 2016 models of the current MacBook Pro and MacBook notebooks, and it looks like the new butterfly-switch keyboard suffers from a major design flaw that allows a piece of dust—or a crumb in the keyboard—to render it useless.

This is not something I’ve experienced firsthand, as I own a 2015 MacBook Pro. That was the first one to offer the new 3D Touch Trackpad, but it still used the legacy scissor-switch keyboard.

Apple blogger John Gruber has taken up this cause and rightly argues that a notebook computer keyboard should be “totally reliable. So reliable that it’s confusing when something does go wrong.” He also notes that Apple laptop keyboards have been “totally reliable” until the release of the 2016 notebooks, although I can point out a different experience with my second Apple laptop—a 15-inch Aluminum PowerBook G4, released in early 2005.

This was a great laptop, and I used it from 2005 to about 2009, when I sprung for a unibody MacBook Pro that I used for another six years. One major part of its longevity was that I was able to upgrade the RAM after a couple of years, and after running out storage, I was able to replace the hard drive with a larger one. Waiting a couple of years for these upgrades allowed the price of memory and storage to drop.

But this particular laptop did have one notable flaw: the keyboard. The keys were a bit spongy, and they lacked a satisfyingly quick “tap.” This was more or less typical of Apple keyboards before the Aluminum keyboard from the late-2000s. Another issue with this keyboard is that the key caps would break.

I experienced this on multiple occasions, but at the time, I could take my Powerbook to any Apple Store, and a Genius would replace the key cap at no charge. This took about ten minutes. As with the easy upgradability of the memory and the storage, the easy repairability of this Powerbook model made this a very long-lasting machine.

This was also true of my 2009 MacBook Pro. Because I could open the case and remove parts as needed, I was able to rescue it after I spilled seltzer on it by opening the case. And when I broke the fan cable in trying another repair, I was able to solder it back on to the logic board.

However, this is not true of the current MacBook and MacBook Pro lineup. Apparently, if a single piece of dust or a crumb gets underneath the key cap, you won’t be able to type. And removing the offending scrap of food could require replacing the entire top case.

Over the last decade, Apple has made their laptops much harder to repair in order to shrink their size and weight. Many of these steps offered other benefits. For example, when Apple stopped making batteries that you could remove and swap with a spare battery, the life of the new built-in battery increased: from three hours to about seven. Yes, the laptop became thinner, but it offered such a dramatic improvement in battery life that no one missed carrying (and charging) a spare battery.

However, these steps have now gone too far. Apple has prioritized the lightweight and thinness of their notebooks over the repairability and upgradability. At first, they made the memory permanent. Whatever memory you have for your MacBook or MacBook Pro notebook is basically all you will ever have. Upgrading the storage is also next to impossible. But those are solid-state components, and it’s unlikely that you will need to replace those under normal circumstances. As my dad told me when I was kid, solid-state parts don’t break, but moving parts do.

Curiously, the keyboard is the only part of the MacBook and MacBook Pro that moves and it is just as important as the memory and the storage. For that reason, it needs to be both functional and serviceable. Sadly, should you be eating lunch while working on your MacBook Pro might be render the keyboard to be neither functional nor serviceable.

Distrust and Verify: Your ISP and Choosing a VPN

Earlier this year, I noted that the Senate had eliminated consumer protections for broadband customers. This change could result in Internet Service Providers sniffing your broadband data to potentially sell your browsing history to marketers. Yes, it sucks.

I also noted that one way to counter this practice would be to mask your broadband traffic through a Virtual Private Network (VPN). When you tunnel your traffic through a VPN, your ISP can’t tell what websites or Internet hosts you are visiting. All it can see is that you’re transmitting and receiving encrypted data to your VPN provider.

However, tunneling all your traffic through a VPN is not an ideal solution because the performance of your broadband connection will suffer. There are still perfectly good reasons for using a VPN:

  1. You’re connected to an untrusted network, such as a public WiFi hotspot in a cafe, hotel, or airport.
  2. You’re trying to access geofenced content, such as information that is not available in your country but is in another.
  3. You don’t trust your Internet connection because you’re in a foreign country or on the premises of a business competitor.

But a VPN doesn’t provide you with 100% security or privacy. Instead you’re simply replacing the ISP you might distrust with a VPN provider that you might trust a bit more. Your VPN provider will “know” every website that you visit while you are connected to it. And just as your ISP does, some VPN providers keep logs of what sites their users are visiting.

Boni Satani recently coauthored a guide on The Best VPN that surveys 118 VPNs and their policies that indicate that they do not keep logs of their subscribers’ activity. If you’re considering subscribing to a VPN, I would recommend reviewing this guide to help find a VPN that does not log your traffic. Of course, you’re the final arbiter of what is the best VPN for you. Do your homework and choose widely.

Personally, I use TunnelBear for occasions when I’m at an untrusted public WiFi network and don’t want someone to “sniff” my data. Their privacy policy states that they do not “store users originating IP addresses when connected to our service and thus cannot identify users when provided IP addresses of our servers.” They may log what site you visit but they cannot associate that information with you. And they have those cute bears.

Update: I should reiterate that using a VPN doesn’t guarantee complete privacy or anonymity. For example, the FBI was able to use PureVPN’s IP address logs to determine that a PureVPN user was allegedly cyberstalking a former roommate and her friends. PureVPN was listed in the Best VPN survey of VPNs that do not keep logs. They apparently do.

Panic over the Bluetooth and WiFi Buttons in iOS 11

iOS 11 came out yesterday. iOS 11 release day is an exciting occasion for many people. Hardcore users anxiously await 10:00 AM Pacific Time after which they can download and install the update. Developers push updated versions of their apps to take advantage of new features available to iPhone and iPad users. (The feature that developers seemed most excited to utilize was drag-and-drop.) And then, the tech press gets crazy trying to find something wrong so they can write headline-grabbing warnings about some supposedly fatal flaw in the operating system.

One such iOS 11 “flaw” that has been getting some panicked attention is the Bluetooth and WiFi buttons in Control Center. In previous versions of iOS, turning off either of these radios from Control Center completely disabled these radios. However, in iOS 11, they remain active to allow connections with Apple devices and services, such as “AirDrop, AirPlay, Apple Pencil, Apple Watch, Location Services, and other features.” You can see that the Bluetooth button in Control Center does not disable Bluetooth in Settings in this video.

Writing for VICE Motherboard, Lorenzo Francheschi-Bicchierai notes that turning off WiFi or Bluetooth has a lot of utility for security reasons because it “reduces your exposure to potential attacks.” The new Bluetooth and WiFi buttons in Control Center interface will not quarantine you from such an attack.

However, none of these pieces mention that you can disable WiFi and Bluetooth with one tap: you can activate Airplane Mode.

I tested this myself when I saw that AirDrop still works when I turn off Bluetooth and WiFi in Control Center. However, AirDrop didn’t work after I turned on Airplane Mode from that Control Center button.

While turning off WiFi and Bluetooth might seem like a way to disable to radios in your phone there are at least two others that are still running, independent of WiFi or Bluetooth:

  1. Cellular radios. You can still connect to your cellular network without WiFi or Bluetooth and those radios still operate.
  2. GPS. I learned this when I turned off Bluetooth and WiFI on an airplane, and a photo I snapped while airborne had geolocation data. Apparently, sitting near the window was enough to receive a GPS signal.

As with Bluetooth and WiFi, you can disable these radios with a single tap of the Airplane Mode icon.

Dear Cousin, Here’s What I Think About Apple’s September 2017 Event

Apple Watch Series 3

Of all the products introduced at Tuesday’s Apple Event, I’m most excited about the new Apple Watch Series 3.

After the September 2017 Apple Event, where Apple introduced the iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, AirPods and other things that I already forgot about, one of my cousins went to this site looking for my opinion about the then-new iPhone 7 family. I never got around to posting anything. Sorry, Denise.

But if you still care what I think a year later here are my takeaways from what Apple introduced in September 2016:

  1. The iPhone 7 was basically an iterative improvement over the iPhone 6S, which itself was an iterative improvement over the iPhone 6. In fact, I almost wanted to call the iPhone 7 the iPhone 6SS. If you had anything older than an iPhone 6, then I hope you got an iPhone 7! In fact, in 2017, you still can.
  2. The AirPods are really cool, no matter what you hear about them. I have been using them since March, and I really like them. They work great with Apple products, and they sound just as good as the EarPods. If you can wear EarPods and like their sound quality, you’ll never go back to your wired EarPods. I haven’t!

This year, however, I couldn’t bear to let my cousin down and wait another year to post my thoughts on the new products introduced at the September 12, 2017, event. So, cuz, here are my thoughts on the stuff Apple introduced last week.

Apple Watch

I bought the first Apple Watch, even though I had mixed feelings about whole idea of a smartwatch in the first place. Although I eventually caved and bought one, I still have mixed feelings about Apple Watch in general.

First, it didn’t work like I expected. I was hoping to have apps on my wrist that would in many cases replace the need for my iPhone. However, the first-generation, which nerds mockingly refer to as the “Series 0,” Apple Watch is too darn slow for that. The recent improvements in watchOS made it a little better, but it’s maddeningly slow to open an app and get the information I need.

Second, while I found only a limited amount of utility with Apple Watch, I can’t go a day without wearing it. Part of this is because it tells time, and, it turns out, that I find that glancing at my watch for the time to be very useful. Also, some apps work really well as complications. For example, Dark Sky gives me the current temperature and the likelihood for rain. Also, Fantistical has a really cool complication that tells me about my current or upcoming appointments. And because I color-code my calendars, I can tell what kind of event it is: red for teaching, green for softball and cycling, blue for leisure and cultural events, yellow for travel, etc.

Third, like many others, I’ve enjoyed using Apple Watch for fitness, even if I loathe the idea of self-tracking. Apple Watch has been cool for tracking my physical activity, especially to compare my active days to my inactive days.

However, the new Apple Watch Series 3 look like really compelling upgrades. Not only does the improved processor sound like a worthwhile upgrade, perhaps making Apple Watch work like the app watch I always wanted, having a real GPS and an altimeter would be cool for outdoor adventures. The only question I have is whether I would care to spend an extra $70, plus $10 each month, for LTE.

Yes! I’m going to upgrade from my current, first-generation Series 0 to a Series 3, but I might wait until I can get a refurbished one… or one as a Christmas gift (hint, hint).

Apple TV 4K

I don’t have a 4K TV, and I already have an Apple TV that I got “free” when I signed up for DirecTV Now last year. Nonetheless, $179 seems like a lot to spend on a streaming box, even if it’s a premium one from Apple.

No. If you have a 4K TV and can get a good deal on a Apple TV 4K down the line, this might be something for you. But at the moment, it’s not for me.

iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus

Note: I’m not in the market for a new iPhone so I don’t have much to say about this or the iPhone X.

If the iPhone 7 was really the iPhone 6SS, as I quipped earlier, the iPhone 8 is certainly more than an iPhone 7S (or if you prefer, the iPhone 6SSS). However, there are some nifty new features that you can’t deny:

  • True Tone display.
  • All-glass body, kind of like the iPhone 4, which was my favorite of all the iPhone designs.
  • A better camera, as you expect from a new iPhone each year
  • The A11 Bionic chip that might not excite many people, but the idea of six cores working together—instead of just two or four—will make this phone scream in terms of performance.
  • The new, really cool Gold color!

Certainly, these are all great improvements, and I like the new storage tiers: 64 and 256 GB are great. Power users will appreciate having a quarter-terabyte in their hand, and casual users will be fine with only 64 GB. It’s hard to believe that the original iPhone could only store 4 and 8 GB!

However, as I am still really happy with my iPhone 7, and the 4.7-inch iPhone 8 lacks the dual-camera to power the computational photography features of the iPhone 8 Plus, I’m saving my money for another year.

No. The iPhone 8 represents the maturation of the 6-6S-7 form factor. But that does not warrant me to upgrade my iPhone 7. In fact, I would pause before upgrading even an iPhone 6S, unless that phone feels especially sluggish to you.

iPhone X

Finally, there’s the iPhone X. If you notice, I didn’t consider the Plus-sized phones. That’s because I don’t like the 5.5-inch phones. They’re too big, and I derisively call them “Dad Phones,” to associate them with “dad jokes” and “dad jeans.”

That’s why I like that Apple brought the features and the display of the big, 5.5-inch phone to smaller, 4.7-inch form factor. The bezel-less design looks great. Face ID is a pretty significant technological breakthrough, and I am confident that someday we will see this is in every Apple product—like we did with Retina Displays and with Touch ID. Bravo, Apple!

Although I’m very impressed with all the engineering that went into making iPhone X possible, there are two things I don’t like about this phone:

  1. That unsightly notch! I understand that the notch is where the camera, speakers and microphone live, but it looks ugly. It makes the display look like an index card, which seems like a strange design metaphor to use for a “future” phone.
  2. While I applaud the decision to get rid of the home button, I am skeptical how great the phone will work without it. The new swipe gesture to go home and to switch apps appears to be a great solution because it relies on the decade-long muscle memory we’ve developed for pressing that button. However, that feature only seems to work when the phone is awake, much like it does on the Apple Watch. That might pose a problem: Raise to Wake doesn’t reliably work for me so pressing the screen, as I do on Apple Watch, will have to be the new default gesture. Or maybe Raise to Wake will work 100% of the time now… who knows?

These are admittedly minor quibbles. But then again the advantages of this particular phone also appear similarly trivial. It’s cool, but I still don’t see this as a fully baked product, as I do see with Apple Watch Series 3 or with iPhone 7 and 8.

No… Not yet. We all know this will not be the only bezel-less iPhone Apple will ever make. I certainly look forward to what they will introduce in the coming years because while we’ve seen the evolution of the iPhone mature in the 6-6s-7-8 and series, iPhone X looks to be beginning of a revolution for Apple’s smartphone.

Software

That’s not to say that you won’t get anything new from Apple without spending money this fall. Every Apple product noted above, and even ones not mentioned such as the Mac and iPad lines, are due to receive really compelling software upgrades.

Software Upgrade Target Hardware Release Date
iOS 11 iPhone and iPad September 19
tvOS 11 Apple TV September 19
watchOS 4 Apple Watch September 19
macOS High Sierra Mac September 25

I am planning on upgrading the software on my devices as soon as they are released, except that I might wait to upgrade my Mac to High Sierra and APFS.

But, dear Cousin, I should offer this warning first: between download time and the painfully long amount of time it takes to update the software on Apple Watch, you might spend a good part of the day doing these upgrades.

Once these upgrades are done, however, it might feel like you got all-new devices. Or they might start running slow and make you wish you bought new ones.

Square Cash, You’ve Changed

Square Cash, the peer-to-peer payment service by Square, has undergone some changes over the years, and some of them I do not like. However, the final straw came when they required me to verify my account by connecting to Facebook to add funds to my Square Cash balance. To echo the sentiment that John Gruber holds towards Facebook, I’d like to tell Square Cash… we can’t be friends!

I was a fan of Square Cash for years, and I even defended it against my friend’s protestations. In fact, I preferred using it to other peer-to-peer services such as Paypal or Venmo, which are incidentally owned by the same company but do slightly different things. Venmo, for example, has emoji.

Square Cash was better than either of these peer-to-peer services because:

  1. You could send money via email. This was so simple. You emailed your friend and cc’ed cash@square.com and put the amount in the subject line. After a quick setup, the money was transferred between user’s bank accounts.
  2. Square Cash used debit cards to process transactions, instead of ABA routing and account numbers. This made signing up a lot faster and, also, most banks offers some fraud protection with debit card purchases. I don’t believe they offer such protection with these ABA transfers. How secure can an ABA transfer be, considering that it was developed in 1910?
  3. Most payments were free and instantaneous. When you sent money, it would charge your debit card as a purchase and then withdraw the funds from your checking account. When you would receive funds, it would add the funds to your checking account, as if you had returned a purchase.

But over the years, many of these advantages have gone away.

  1. Most transfers over email fail so you have to use the mobile app or login to your account on a browser to send someone money.
  2. New users reports that they must provide an ABA routing and account numbers when sending money over a certain amount.
  3. Transfers from one bank account to another are no longer instant. Now, you must “cash out” to transfer the money to your bank account. Also, instant transfers to your bank account are no longer free. You can opt for an instant transfer, but Square will deduct 1% of the amount as a fee. Next business day transfers, however, remain free.

I don’t mind that last one because as I wrote years ago, they need to make money somehow, which is why they made a virtual debit card that you can add to your Apple Wallet and pay anywhere Apple Pay is accepted. The card withdraws from your Square Cash balance. I liked this feature because it allows Square to make money from the merchant via the interchange fee, and it doesn’t directly cost me anything.

When AT&T revamped their unlimited wireless plans earlier this year, they offered a $10 discount to customers who signed up for auto-pay with a debit card or a bank account. (Credit cards are excluded presumably because it costs AT&T more to process these payments.) When I changed to the new unlimited wireless plan, I added my Square Cash virtual card as the payment method for my AT&T Wireless account. This made sense because two other people pay me for their share of the wireless bill through Square Cash, and it was more convenient for AT&T to just bill against my Square Cash balance instead of transferring that balance to a bank account and then paying AT&T there.

Billing against that Square Cash virtual card, however, has been painful.

For the first month, I didn’t have enough funds in my Square Cash balance to cover the transaction so it failed due to insufficient funds. This seemed counter intuitive. If I initiate a peer-to-peer payment and don’t have enough funds, Square Cash will charge my debit card to cover the transaction. This was not expected behavior.

To get around this, I had to add funds from my checking account. Since my bill is about $200, I tried to add $100, but when I did, I was surprised to see a request to connect my Square Cash account with Facebook.

No, Square Cash! We can’t be friends.

Dammit, Square! I don’t have a Facebook account! Well, I do have an account, but I deactivated it almost three years ago after Sarah and I split up. While I have long ago recovered from that break up, I really enjoy not having a Facebook account, and I don’t see adding $100 to my Square Cash account as the reason to reactivate it.

There’s no way around this. There are only two options: selecting “Continue,” which takes me to a Facebook login page, or tapping on an “x,” which only returns me to the previous screen. If I tap on that “x,” I’m back trying to add $100 to my Square Cash balance, thus requiring me to connect a Facebook account. I’m caught in a loop.

I asked Square on Twitter about this. However, I forgot to include a screenshot, although I did link to Gruber’s post about Facebook.

To their credit, they did reply.

But I am not starting out. I’ve been using Square Cash for several years and have transacted thousands of dollars in that time.

The ironic part of all this is that I am encountering this problem because I am trying to let Square Cash make money. Assuming a 1.5% debit card processing fee, Square stands to make about $3 from my nearly $200 monthly wireless bill.

I did find a workaround. Like a criminal, I have to “structure” my transfers, adding small amounts, around $50, each day to build up enough of a balance to cover my wireless bill. That avoids the requirement to connect my Facebook account to my Square Cash account.

But I’m not doing this again. I am switching my payment method over to my bank’s debit card. I’m certainly not reactivating my Facebook account just to make Square a few bucks.

What’s Your Age?, How Old Are You?, When Were You Born?

If you ever participated in a research survey or a focus group, you’ve likely had to answer a question about your age. But have you had to answer three?

This is a screenshot of a survey from a major focus-group market-research company based here in New York. It asks for your age in three different ways:

  1. Enter your age in a text field.
  2. Select your age range.
  3. Input your date of birth.

In other words: what’s your age?, how old are you?, and when were you born?

It could be that they do this to ask so you don’t lie about your age. But I think they do this so they can filter the results in their spreadsheet and quickly find the subjects they want. For example: find people who were born before 1990, find people who are less between 28 and 34, or find people who reported to be between the age range of “28-34 years old,” etc.

Someone should show them that even in Google Forms, you can add calculation columns to help you find respondents within certain age ranges, respondents of specific ages, respondents who were born during certain years, or whatever combinations of these data. Honest. I’m not making this up. Isn’t Technology Great?!?

I won’t show them how to do it, but someone should…

But, hey, at least, this survey wasn’t as ugly as ones I’ve seen in the past.

Why You Shouldn’t Believe That You Shouldn’t Buy AirPods

Back in September, shortly after Apple announced the new AirPods, the folks at Lightning Cans posted a lengthy article explaining why you shouldn’t buy Apple AirPods.

Their conclusion is based on two claims. Unfortunately, both are wrong.

“Because AirPods use Bluetooth, and Bluetooth ‘Is Terrible,’ Thus AirPods Sound Terrible”

First, they claim that AirPods will produce terrible audio because they use Bluetooth, and Bluetooth produces terrible audio. In both theory and in practice, sending an audio signal over a wire is much better than sending one over a wireless connection. As the article notes, “Audiophiles have long been repulsed by Bluetooth audio. The frequency range is limited, the sounds are distorted, connecting can be a nightmare and audio can stutter or stop mid-stream.” But Apple might have overcome many of these challenges, not by sending a raw audio signal over the wire, but instead sending a digital audio stream that is decoded by the new W1 chip.

In practice, these standard criticisms against Bluetooth headphones aren’t there with the AirPods. The quality of the audio is about the same as what you get with the wired EarPods. I wouldn’t have expected any less (or any more) than that. However, there are some issues with audio dropping out from time-to-time. I notice this mostly when I’m streaming audio in busy areas, such as Union Square in Manhattan, for example. I’m not sure if this is because my iPhone can’t stream the audio, using the cellular radio, and send the digital audio signal to both AirPods, in a crowded area with a lot of radio interference.

Also, while it is true that pairing a Bluetooth audio device, such as headphones or a speaker, can indeed be difficult, connecting these AirPods take no time. I opened the case with one hand while I had my iPhone in the other, and after one tap to connect my AirPods, I was listening to them in a matter of seconds. This process also invisibly paired my AirPods with my other devices: my iPad, my Apple Watch, and my MacBook Pro. This was the ultimate Apple experience: It Just Works.

In short, compared to the wired EarPods, AirPods sound just as good, and they work almost as well for keeping an audio stream going. However, there’s one difference between AirPods and EarPods: there’s no tangled wire that becomes a white bird’s nest in your hand.

“AirPods Require a Wired Connection for Charging”

Second, they claim that although AirPods are wireless, they require a charging case that is wired. They write, AirPods “have an internal lithium ion battery that works for a whopping 5 hours (so like, maybe a couple days), and then when they die, you need to put them into their special ‘charging case,’ which then needs to be plugged into a power source via a cable.”

This misrepresents how one charges AirPods. While it is true that you have to use the case to charge the AirPods, the case itself has its own battery. The charging case itself does not have to be connected to anything to charge the AirPods. However, because the case has a battery, which does become depleted after about five AirPods-charging cycles, it does need to be connected to a Lightning cable and a USB power source. You can use the same charging cable as the one you have for your phone. Moreover, charging the case takes a very short amount of time, less than an hour.

At some point, yes, charging AirPods requires a wired connection. But this is similar to what you have to do with just about any mobile device but less often. If you have an iPad, you normally don’t have to charge it on a nightly basis like you have to do with your phone. This is similar to what you do with the AirPods charging case. An occasional wired charge will suffice. But otherwise, using and charging AirPods is a wholly wireless experience.

Conclusion

This is the danger is writing a review of a product before it is released. Having used AirPods for a little more than two months, I can tell you that this is the best new Apple product the company has released in a long time. The audio is comparable to what you get with wired EarPods. Apple has produced wireless, Bluetooth earphones that sound as good as the wired ones. No doubt, EarPods provide a more reliable connection, but the convenience of going wireless outweighs those occasional connection issues.

Ultimately, consumer goods succeed not just on quality but on convenience. CDs provide superior audio fidelity than MP3/AAC files, but carrying around CDs is inherently inconvenient. And if you don’t believe that Bluetooth can succeed in the consumer space, I will admit my early skepticism about WiFi nearly twenty years ago: “isn’t Ethernet more reliable?” It is, but imagine what a smartphone would be like if we were tethered to a network router, untangling bird’s nests of Cat-6 cables.

And, no, they don’t fall out of your ears.

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Ride with GPS Now Supports Apple Watch Navigation for Bicycle Routes

When Apple announced the Apple Watch back in 2014, I was at first skeptical about its utility but then after some consideration I reversed my position and saw how a smartwatch could be useful. One possible function that excited me was using the watch for navigating bicycling routes planned with route-planning software, such as Strava or Ride with GPS. At the time, I wrote:

In due time, I can see [Strava and Ride with GPS] making apps for the Apple Watch, just as they do for iPhone and other smartphones. Their smartwatch apps could communicate with an iPhone, securely stored in a Ziploc bag and safely tucked away in a jersey pockets. In fact, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that both of these companies have at least considered developing for the Apple Watch.

While I don’t use Strava, I learned earlier this week that Ride with GPS’s Apple Watch app can now display alerts for navigation. While I still rely on a Garmin Edge bike-mounted computer for navigation and to record my rides, this helps bring the smartwatch closer to what I saw as its potential. In fact, if you have an Apple Watch Series 2 (the one with a built-in GPS), you can leave your phone at home: the Apple Watch will navigate and record your ride all on its own.

I’ve said it before, but it might bear repeating. Sorry, Garmin. The days of the dedicated GPS bike computer appear to be numbered.

“MP3 is Dead,” or Real Fake News

A little over a week ago, I learned from Marco Arment that a number of news organizations erroneously reported that the MP3 format was dead. (NPR, d’oh!) The real news, however, was lot more complex and a lot less dramatic.

Technicolor and Fraunhofer, which owned and licensed the patents used to make MP3 work, had terminated the licensing program for software developers and hardware manufacturers to encode and playback MP3 files. Technicolor and Fraunhofer terminated the program because the patents they held and were used for MP3 had expired. Technicolor nor Fraunhofer no longer had a legal right to charge to license those patents. Thus, MP3 is now freely available for anyone to use: software developers and hardware manufacturers need not pay royalties to support MP3.

But that does not make for a dramatic story. Instead, either unintentionally or through sheer negligence, the story was that “MP3 was dead.” One writer even concluded his article with a eulogy of sorts, embedding the Susan Vega song that was the first to be encoded in MP3, in part to test the fidelity of the compression algorithm. Pour one out for MP3 while reciting “Tom’s Diner.”

MP3 is Free, Buy AAC

However, MP3 is not dead. The storyline that MP3 is dead seems to come from the former patent holders themselves. They likely pushed this storyline to gain support for a newer format that is still patent-protected, AAC. AAC is, by many measures, a better compression format. But as Marco Arment points out, MP3 is still overwhelming supported for most applications, including podcasts, because it’s a de-facto standard. And because it’s so widely supported and because a lot more people recognize “MP3” than those who know what “AAC” is, it’s unlikely that MP3 will disappear, especially now that it is free.

Because Technicolor and Fraunhofer could no longer profit from MP3, it meant they would have to find a new way to earn royalties on another audio codec. Declaring MP3 dead was a way to move users from the now-free MP3 codec to the patent-protected AAC.

The Techdirt podcast covered this subject in depth this week. They seemed unsympathetic to the former patent holders, and I can’t blame them. The patent holders could have announced something like “starting today, we’re suspending our MP3 licensing program and now anyone can use MP3 for free. This will give us a chance to focus on promoting new compression technologies, such as AAC, to become the newer and better successor to MP3.”

MP3 is dead, but only to Fraunhofer because they can’t make money from it.

OTA Isn’t Dead, Either

Declaring MP3 dead reminded me of what happened almost a decade ago with the digital broadcast TV transition.

In 2009, the FCC required almost all broadcast TV stations to turn off their analog over-the-air (OTA) signals. The most immediate effect was that, for people with older, analog-only TV receivers, they would have to get a digital-to-analog TV converter box or subscribe to a cable or satellite TV to continue to watch TV. Those with newer digital TV receivers would have to take no significant action to continue watching TV.

However, the storyline that came from this was that over-the-air broadcast TV was dead. As I noted in 2013, this was simply not true: rabbit ears still work. In fact, the DTV transition did lead to more cable and satellite subscribers. As a form of poetic justice, those gains have been wiped out by cord-cutting.

A profit motive seemed to drive the story that there would be no more “rabbit ears.” In the case of the the digital TV transition in 2009, I wrote that “cable and satellite companies took this as an opportunity to sign up new customers thinking that those that received over-the-air television would be doomed. Instead, they were just duped.”

Neither OTA nor MP3 is dead. In fact, both are very much alive and, best of all, they are both free!

Defend Net Neutrality…Again

John Oliver did it again. Two nights ago, on Last Week Tonight, he covered net neutrality, explaining it in an accessible way, and advocating everyone to visit the FCC’s website to comment on the proposed rules.

As he explained on the show and what should not come as a surprise given the corporate lapdog that now runs the FCC, commenting on the proposed rules to revoke net neutrality regulation is a lot harder than before. But the Last Week Tonight producers made it easy to comment. They mapped the domain name http://gofccyourself.com to the comment form. (Deep linking FTW!)

While Oliver explains a lot of reasons why net neutrality is important, it might be better to see this from the perspective of Title I vs. Title II. Oliver offered to contrast it, but the explanation comparing the difference between the two didn’t materialize. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to think about Title I vs. Title II in these terms:

  • Title I is an information service. A cable company operates under Title I because the cable company curates the channel lineup and offers a package of television channels. Users have little choice in what channels they get, aside from choosing a tier of channels.
  • Title II is a common carrier utility. A landline telephone company operates under Title II because it doesn’t not select or curate your phone calls. It simply connects one telephone to another.

Most of us think of our Internet service provider as a common carrier. We subscribe to one ISP versus another based on a few factors: upload and download speeds, reliability, and price. We don’t do so because of “exclusive content” or any synergistic nonsense like that. With any ISP, we expect to reach any website, connect any device, and run almost any application.

On the other hand, we think of major platforms on the Internet, such as Facebook or Google, as an information service. However, no one relies on only one of these platforms. Remember when Facebook partnered with HTC to make a “Facebook Phone?” It was a disaster because no one wants to live in this walled garden, even if we might spend a lot of time there.

We have only had net neutrality for two years, but we must keep it because we don’t want our Internet service providers to become an information service.

When an ISP acts like an information service, we get something like we had with America Online (AOL). Today, most people shudder when I mention AOL because think of slow dialup connections and the shrieking modem-handshake sound. But honestly, what made AOL so bad was that it was your internet service provider and your content provider, and while it was easy to use, it was really bad. It was not only a walled garden, like Facebook today, but unlike Facebook, you paid by-the-hour while you were on AOL. I don’t think any consumer wants to go back to these days.

AOL CD 700 Free Hours

You don’t want to know how much you had to pay after AOL’s free 700 hours.

The same is true for wireless. The iPhone was revolutionary, not only as a mobile computing device, but because Apple insisted that it have complete control over the hardware: the wireless carrier could not install any software nor brand the phone. The iPhone was a success in part because Apple relegated AT&T to the role of a wireless common carrier, keeping them from acting like an information service.

I certainly remember this was not the case with some of my old phones, such as a Sprint-branded phone that I got in 2001, that came with the “wireless web.” It was basically an AOL-like service provided by Sprint that had local weather, news, and sports scores. It sucked. The only redeeming feature of this service was that it allowed you to enter a URL, and there were a handful of sites that offered mobile WAP sites, largely because of the success of Palm handhelds.

Sprint PCS Wireless Web, circa 2001

This was the Web on a Sprint PCS Wireless Phone, circa 2001.

The one thing that Pai gets right about “net neutrality” is that is a confusing term. But in this case, let there be no confusion. Internet service providers are by their very nature common carriers. That’s how they market themselves, that’s why consumers subscribe to one ISP versus another, and that’s how the Internet as we know it has flourished in the last decade and a half. Moving ISPs to Title I—as information services—will invite those ISPs to become gatekeepers and walled gardens that stymie innovation. Let’s not go back to the days when “surfing the web” meant scrolling through a mobile “wireless web” browser’s menu or, heaven forbid, entering AOL keywords.

Tell Chairman Pai: Go FCC Yourself-dot-Com!