Categorized: Technology

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!

How I Almost Fell for the “Google Docs” Phishing Scam

Less than an hour ago, I received an email saying that a former student has invited me to view a Google Docs document. I hovered over the link and saw that URL was one at Google, beginning with https://accounts.google.com/o/oauth2/auth.

I followed the link and went to a Google login page. My Google accounts were listed there. But a suspicious feeling gave me pause, and I closed the “Google accounts” window.

Some moments ago, I learned that this wasn’t an ordinary phishing attempt. It is one of the more clever phishing attempts in recent memory.

  1. You get an email from a known contact.
  2. The “Open in Docs” link is to a google.com domain.
  3. You are taken to a Google accounts page, where you grant access to the fake “Google Docs” app.

The scam is “well designed” in that it doesn’t try to steal your credentials—username and password—but instead gets you to authorize the scammers complete access to your Google account. Even a strong unique password and two-step authentication won’t protect you.

I alerted a few colleagues earlier today, and as I did so, I felt like I was forwarding some chain mail–type warning that would have circulated twenty-odd years ago.

Senate Eliminated Broadband Consumer Privacy Protections Today

Earlier today, the Senate voted 50-48 to repeal rules meant to protect broadband consumers’ privacy from being collected and sold by requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The rules, passed last October in the final months of the Obama administration, required ISPs to do two simple things:

  • allow users to opt-out of collecting consumer data
  • require ISPs to opt-in to the collecting of more sensitive data, such as financial information and browsing history

This still has to pass the House and get signed by the President, but if you’re expecting either to block passage of this repeal, I have a bridge to sell you.

With the Senate passing the repeal, those rules protecting your privacy are now history. Your ISP can collect and market any information they have about you or can gather through sniffing your broadband connection. Of course, in an ideal world, you could switch to another ISP, which might not do this collecting. But because of the great expense required to enter the broadband market, there is no true ISP competition. Hell, even a well-heeled company like Google couldn’t penetrate this market. Online privacy is basically toast.

As an armchair political observer, two things stick out:

  1. Is this against the Senate’s own rules? Repealing these rules was because Congress passed and the President ratified the “Congressional Review Act.” The Act’s aim is to allow Congress to repeal any rules that had passed in the last months of the Obama administration with a simple majority, which the Republicans currently have in both chambers. Accordingly, repealing broadband privacy protection rules needed just a simple majority, rather than the filibuster-proof sixty-plus votes required to pass new legislation. I wonder if someone could argue that repealing old laws requires the passage of a new law. Isn’t that how it worked with Prohibition: repealing the 18th Amendment required passing the 21st Amendment?

  2. Since when is privacy a partisan issue? Except for the legislators who are in the pockets of the telecom industry, I don’t see how this is a partisan issue, where fifty Republicans supported it and forty-eight democrats opposed it. I can’t imagine how even the most right-wing fascist would be in favor of this, much less entertain the idea of a left-wing extremist consenting to corporations harvesting selling our consumer data. Like globalization, free trade, and income inequality, these are issues that bind the left and the right together more than it divides them. I thought only corporate fat cats and their lap dogs favor this kind of stuff.

Perhaps it’s time to consider tunneling all your traffic through a VPN to protect your privacy, although that is not a very practical solution.

When Clouds Go Dark

During my frequent flying days, I was a fan of Mobiata’s FlightTrack mobile app. As the name suggests, the app tracked your flights, including delays and cancellations, as well as more routine information such as departure gate information and updated arrival times. I liked it over the other apps, even the free ones, for two reasons:

  1. It used to synchronize with TripIt, which meant that as soon as you booked your flight and forwarded your email confirmation to TripIt, FlightTrack would begin tracking your flights.
  2. Each notification would be accompanied by the familiar airplane cabin chime.

Last week, Mobiata announced that FlightTrack and their FlightBoard apps would stop working after February 28. They are “sunsetting” both apps and are apparently joining the mobile development team at Expedia to work on all-in-one travel app that could include FlightTrack’s functionality. While Mobiata can’t reach out and delete the apps from my phone, the apps will stop working because, on March 1, they will shut down the servers that FlightTrack and FlightBoard use to get flight data.

Mobiata’s shutdown made think about how many of my mobile apps I use that rely on a developer’s cloud server to work. As I suspected, it’s a lot. Here are the just apps on my iPhone’s home screen that communicate with a server and why.

iPhone Home Screen Feb 2017

  1. iCloud, including my calendar, contacts, email, messages, web browser bookmarks and tabs, photos, music, and activity to share with my friends. I also need a server to use Maps.
  2. Dark Sky to get its hyperlocal weather data.
  3. Paprika to synchronize my recipes across devices and the web browser bookmarket to quickly add recipes.
  4. Bankitivity to synchronize transactions between my desktop and iPhone applications.
  5. OmniFocus to synchronize tasks, projects, and contexts across desktop, iPhone and iPad applications.
  6. Deliveries to synchronize package tracking across devices and get delivery tracking data.
  7. Day One to synchronize journal entries across devices.
  8. Drafts to synchronize text clippings across devices.
  9. Dropbox to access files on my Dropbox.
  10. Downcast to fetch podcast episodes and synchronize across devices.
  11. Untappd to fetch beer data and post my check-ins and notes.
  12. At Bat to stream baseball games and fetch news.
  13. Bus NYC to fetch realtime bus and subway data.
  14. Transit to fetch nearby bus and subway data and to plan routes.
  15. Citi Bike to fetch data on bike and dock availability, posting my trips, and fetching account information.
  16. 1Password to synchronize my 1Password keychain across devices.

For each app listed above, my phone is communicating with a different server to post and fetch data. No wonder I need an unlimited data plan.

But what’s even more alarming is the prospect of a server going dark. It’s not so much that the server will fail. Any cloud computing platform is designed to mitigate collapse, such as an extended outage or a hardware failure. But no server is designed to keep running after the developer has ceased to do business: because the developer couldn’t pay their server bills (e.g., Everpix), because the developer couldn’t raise funding (e.g., Avocado) to keep operating, or because the developer died.

At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, it’s not a matter of if these cloud services will go dark, it’s a matter of when. And when it does happen, each app and the data contained within it will go dark, just as the lights in the developer’s office and their Amazon AWS account.

Why I Switched to New AT&T Wireless Unlimited Plan

Last week, was a whirlwind week in the US wireless industry. Before then, only T-Mobile and Sprint offered unlimited data plans to all customers, but by the end of the week all four major carriers offered them. On Monday, Verizon announced that it was resurrecting its unlimited wireless plan, and a few days later, AT&T announced that it was also offering an unlimited wireless plan to all customers, whereas it was only available to DirecTV subscribers.

Although all four carriers offer 4G LTE data, there’s an implicit hierarchy among the wireless carriers in the United States. At the top, AT&T and Verizon have the most mature networks that cover the most terrain and carry the most expensive pricing. Below them is a second tier of carriers, namely T-Mobile and Sprint. Their networks cover less terrain and are perceived as being less robust in terms of network connectivity. Because of this perception, they have been the most aggressive about pricing. That is why they were, before last week, the only carriers to offer unlimited plans.

To be sure, the only reason Verizon’s and AT&T’s unlimited plans emerged last week was because of the competitive pressure that T-Mobile and Sprint have put on Verizon and AT&T. Verizon likely felt the squeeze was too much to bear and capitulated with its new unlimited plan. AT&T likely saw this and quickly reacted by expanding its unlimited plan to everyone. It’s safe to say that none of this would have happened had AT&T been allowed to acquire T-Mobile.

For readers who are carrier-agnostic and are considering switching to an unlimited plan, Mac Rumors has produced a nifty comparison between the four unlimited plans offered by the majors. But as the kids today say, YMMV.

Unlimited vs. Unlimited

I was immediately intrigued by these new offerings. I have been on the grandfathered unlimited data plan that AT&T once offered with iPhones. I have held on to it despite the introduction of less-expensive metered data plans and a $5-per-month rate increase instituted last year that was due to increase by another $5 next month. Another factor in my intrigue was that I have two other lines on my plan: one is on a metered 3 GB data plan (labelled below as “Line 2”) and the other (labelled “Line 3”) is on a grandfathered unlimited data plan. I also receive a 20% employee discount through my employer.

Here’s a comparison between my current talk, text, and data plan; my current talk, text, and data plan after the impending rate hike in March; and AT&T’s new unlimited plan. (All prices are rounded to the nearest dollar, and they do not include taxes and fees, which I am considering as a wash between all these plans.)

Description Talk, Text, Data Plan Effective March 2017 New Unlimited Plan
Base Plan $60 $60 $60
Text Messaging $30 $30
Line 1 $35 $40 $40
Line 2 $45 $50 $40
Line 3 $40 $40 $40
Discount -$32 -$34 -$12
TOTAL $178 $186 $168

As you can see, the new unlimited plan for all three lines is about $10 less than the current talk, text, and data plan that I share with two other lines.

The savings are greater after factoring in the impending $5 per-month rate increase, effective March 2017, for each grandfathered unlimited data plan (Lines 1 and 3 in the table above). I guess AT&T’s strategy to bully us off the unlimited data plan finally worked!

Another factor to consider is that Line 2, the metered plan, often exceeds the 3 GB data allotment. AT&T bills the data overage at $10 per GB. I considered switching to a plan with more data, but the next higher offering is $50 for 5 GB. There is no “discount” for more data at this next plan; it’s similarly priced at $10 per GB, as is the base 3 GB and any associated overages. With Line 2 on an unlimited plan, there will be no more overage charges.

If I add a fourth line, it will, in effect, be free because AT&T reimburses you $40 each month for that fourth line, after a two–billing-cycle “waiting” period. That would significantly reduce the price per line.

But Why Stick with AT&T?

Although AT&T’s new unlimited plan is the most expensive of the four major wireless carriers and is the only one that doesn’t offer tethering, I prefer to stay with AT&T for three reasons:

  1. I am receiving $650 in bill credits from AT&T for my iPhone 7. When Apple introduced the iPhone 7 last September, AT&T allowed you to trade-in your iPhone 6 for up to $650 in credit towards an iPhone 7. You could get effectively get a base model iPhone 7 for free. Since I opted for the 128 GB instead of the base 32 GB model, I am paying the extra $100 over 30 months, which works out to about $3.30 per month. Should I leave AT&T, I will have to pay the remaining balance, which is significant.
  2. The AT&T wireless network is superior to the others where I live and work. Although it was hardly true a few years ago, AT&T has a very reliable wireless network in New York, particularly the neighborhoods I frequent. I considered switching to the more affordable plans on T-Mobile or Sprint, but after speaking to friends and colleagues, I resisted switching because those networks are not as reliable as AT&T’s. Moreover, Verizon had a potent 3G network that put AT&T’s to shame. In the 4G LTE era, the opposite is true. AT&T operates a robust network in New York that seems to outperform Verizon’s network, according to the testimony of my friends and colleagues.
  3. Tethering is not a factor. The unlimited plan never allowed tethering so I am not going to miss what I don’t have.

What Should You Do?

An unlimited plan isn’t for everyone. Most mortals use a surprisingly small amount of data, less than 3GB per month, so an unlimited plan would be excessive for them. Personally, I wonder if that’s because most wireless users have conditioned themselves to restrict their data usage for fear of overages. For the majority of those users, I say stick with your metered plan.

But I use a lot of data, regularly between 3 GB and 6 GB, per month, as sometimes as high as 12 GB. I like not having to worry about overages. Also, Line 2 on my plan, the one with the 3 GB plan, would regularly exceed those allotments. I doubt he would be happy turning on “safe mode” to slow down the data transfers to 2G speeds. The unlimited plan works for us, but it might not be the best for you. As I literally said before, YMMV.

Conclusion

In the end, the small but measurable savings between the talk, text, and data plan of yore and the new unlimited plan made a lot of sense. But also, my wanting to stay loyal to AT&T played a significant factor. As much as we all hate the cable company, the airline, and the wireless carrier, AT&T has been just fine for me. I certainly suffered when the iPhone was exclusive to AT&T, as making a phone call or transmitting data seemingly never worked, but in the 4G LTE era, things are different. Of course, this might change when 5G emerges as a standard, but that is still a couple of years away. And if AT&T falters, I’ll be off-contract. I can always switch to another plan or provider.

Update: AT&T announced on Monday, February 27, that it is introducing two new unlimited plans. I’m mulling it over and will repost here about what I think to do.

Late to the OCR Party

I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t use OCR for converting documents into plain text as much as I probably should. It is a very handy utility, and it is one that computers have been doing for a long time. Indeed, I remember using OCR in college, at the computer lab where I worked, scanning a single page of print and watching the software read it and turn it into plain text with astonishing accuracy. It seemed like magic.

And what did I do with that magical text? I took that text, put it in a Word document, and printed it out.

Today, there’s many more useful things to do with OCR, particularly for scholars and academics. One example is to share the text of historical primary documents instead of an image files of the documents.1 For years, I have been sharing with my students readings as PDF files, but in the mobile-first era of the web, it makes much more sense to share a webpage that someone can easily read on a mobile device, instead of a PDF that they have to pinch-and-zoom—or even print out—to read.

Earlier this week, I began sharing with my students plain text files, instead of PDF scans, of readings not available in their textbooks. Doing this yields some benefits:

  • They can read the text on mobile devices.
  • Visually impaired students can use a screen reading device to “read” the document.
  • They can search the text.
  • They can resize the text, either bigger or smaller.
  • They can parse the text to read with a browser utility like Apple’s Safari Reader or a read-later application like Instapaper.
  • They will appreciate the much smaller file size, like 100 times smaller, especially for students using a mobile device.

If sharing readings as plain text instead of PDF files makes so much sense, what took me so long?

Honestly, I didn’t know what tool I should use. I can’t remember the software I first used in 1997, but it’s safe to assume it doesn’t exist anymore. Acrobat offers OCR, but I haven’t had a Creative Cloud license since the days of Creative Suite 3. Although I have a lot of apps that can scan and convert to text, such as the one for a Doxie scanner or PDFPen+Scan for iOS, most of these readings are in PDF already. I don’t want to print and scan them just to do OCR.

Lo and behold, Google Drive converts PDF to text. I just learned about this yesterday, and I like the results. To use Google Drive for OCR, follow these three steps:

  1. Upload your PDF file to Google Drive, if it’s not there already.
  2. Right-click on the file
  3. Select Open With > Google Docs

After a few minutes, depending on the size of your document, you can see the converted text. The results are pretty good. Obviously, the clearer and better your text, the more accurate the OCR will be. One cool feature is that it “respects” the pagination and hyphenation of your original document. If your document has page headers or page footers, those will appear. Since I’m interested in capturing only the text—not the pagination or hyphenation—of the document, I have to remove those from my final text document.

The nice thing about having a plain text document is that you can lightly format it as needed. Since I use Markdown, I recommend using a Markdown-capable text editor to parse the text. You’ll have a relatively unadulterated text file and can export it to any format you want from there. You can export to PDF, unstyled HTML, or RTF. And as I did with my first try at OCR in 1997, you can even print it.


  1. One of my big complaints about #kidstoday is that are keen to share screenshots of a website—or worse, a photos of computer display with the browser window—instead of sharing the URL of the site.