About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

Weekly output: Verizon earnings, Netflix casting, Verizon Fios TV apps, Redbox + Wurl, AT&T earnings, Twitter tests downvotes, Locast comes to Pittsburgh

I spent three days filling in at my trade-pub client FierceVideo covering industry developments–which allowed me to spotlight yet another example of customer abuse by a telecom conglomerate.

7/21/2021: Verizon Q2 earnings show video continuing to shrivel, FierceVideo

As I wrote in a Forbes post months ago, the sales pitch awaiting at Verizon’s site suggests this company is already acting like a post-pay-TV provider.

7/21/2021: Netflix launches in-house casting department, FierceVideo

Before writing this post, I would have guessed that Netflix had set up its own casting operation long ago, but I’m not exactly a student of Hollywood’s workings.

Screenshot of the story as seen on an iPad mini's copy of Safari

7/22/2021: Verizon adds Apple TV, Fire TV apps for Fios TV, FierceVideo

I had this story mostly written when I thought I should step through the ordering process on Verizon’s site to see if it would suggest its new Apple TV and Fire TV apps as alternatives to renting its Fios TV boxes–and then I was surprised and annoyed to see the company list a $20 monthly fee for the privilege of using these apps. Verizon’s inability to read the room here–even after it’s seen more than 20% of its TV subscriber base boil away in the last four years–is something to behold.

7/22/2021: Redbox turns to Wurl to boost its free-with-ads streaming TV, FierceVideo

My editor asked me to write up this bit of embargoed news she’d gotten; no problem.

7/22/2021: AT&T continues to shed video subs but touts HBO Max success, FierceVideo

AT&T’s earnings call confused me more than a little when the company spent so much time talking up the HBO Max video business that it will soon spin off into an independent company.

7/22/2021: Twitter tests downvotes, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on to discuss Twitter’s new experiment in letting some iOS users downvote replies–with that negative feedback only shown to the authors of those replies, not to the general Twitter public.

7/23/2021: Locast lights up Pittsburgh, FierceVideo

My last post for Fierce this week covered the expansion of this non-profit organization’s free streaming of local broadcast stations to the Pittsburgh market, which I used as an opportunity to educate readers about that region’s unusual second-person plural pronoun “yinz.”

Post-road-trip reflections

Ever since fleeing my rural upbringings for college in D.C., I have taken pride in how little I rely on driving to get around–to the point that I didn’t buy my first car until I was 26. But over the last week and change, I clocked 1,117 miles in a rented vehicle and did not hate it.

Getting paid for the time I spent behind the wheel as part of PCMag’s upcoming Fastest Mobile Networks report made a difference. But having each day’s drive be a one-off proposition instead of the latest iteration of a dreadful commute made its own difference. The first multiple-day road trip I’ve had in about 25 years took me to some interesting places, away from home and around the District.

Photo shows a black Chevy Spark with Hawaii plates, with the High Museum of Art across the street and midtown Atlanta buildings in the background

To start, having to stop and test the wireless carriers’ performance at multiple places scattered around each city on my itinerary–Baltimore, D.C., Raleigh and its Triangle neighbors, Charlotte, and Atlanta–allowed me to indulge my interest in transportation and development just by looking around.

All of these cities feature beautiful neighborhoods I wish I’d had time to walk around on this trip, and all made some dreadful mistakes decades ago with urban highways. (Spoiler alert: They often shoved them through Black people’s homes.) Some now seem to be making amends for those auto-centric excesses with bike lanes, light-rail lines and streetcars, sights that delighted my Greater Greater Washington-reading heart.

After months of having all three meals almost exclusively at home, I also had the challenge of getting breakfast, lunch and dinner without falling back on chain restaurants. All the mandatory test stops often got in the way of this and led me to atrocious lunch times after 2 p.m., but I did meet that challenge and now have a short list of places to return to. I’m not sure when I’ll next have a chance to get lunch at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack in Atlanta or NoDa Bodega in Charlotte, among others, but Open Crumb in Anacostia is only a few blocks off a bike trail I’m overdue to return to.

PCMag’s instructions for this drive testing encouraged avoiding Interstates between cities in favor of smaller, more rural roads that might expose the limits of the carriers’ networks, and that changed up the journey a little more. The four- or two-lane roads I found ate up more of my time but also relieved me of the sight of other cars’ brake lights–and often, of other cars at all. Large swaths of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia remain forests with only the occasional town of a few intersections to change up the scenery.

(As a native New Jerseyan and now Northern Virginia resident, I did wonder how often I’d see Confederate battle flags on these rural stretches. I only spotted four such displays, which is more than I’d like but much less than I’d feared.)

All of this driving in not-straight lines and my own lack of experience with the drive-testing routine, however, left little time for me to play tourist or even meet people along the way. My late departure for Raleigh barely allowed the minutes for a detour through Richmond to see Monument Avenue devoid of most of its Confederacy whitewashing; I wrapped up my testing around the Triangle in time to go to a Durham Bulls game last Friday; I made sufficiently good time between Charlotte and Atlanta to get a quick lunch in Athens, Ga., and gawk at the remains of the trestle pictured on the back cover of R.E.M.’s Murmur; that was about it. I finally met a friend for dinner Monday night in Atlanta–better yet, it was at his house and he cooked.

Since coming home Tuesday night, I have yet to open the door of our car, much less take it anywhere. That’s been a pleasure, but I have to admit I won’t mind the next chance to drive somewhere on an indirect, inefficient route if it’s part of a reasonably well-paying freelance gig.

Weekly output: out of office

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–For the first time since January of 2019, I have no work to my name over the past week. That’s mainly because I’ve tied down since Tuesday working as one of the drivers for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks report, as I noted here yesterday; days spent clocking a couple of hundred miles between cities or driving in circles around those cities leave little time for outside work. Fortunately, the jaunt through the Southeast that brought me here Saturday afternoon ends Tuesday in Atlanta. I’m looking forward to falling asleep in my own bed and not having to think about where to get breakfast the next morning.

Road trips, now and way back then

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–I’m in the middle of my first multiple-day road trip since… um… 1996. Things about motoring around the U.S. have changed just a bit for me since that trip from Los Angeles to D.C., much less the 1992 trek from Sacramento to the District that was my first cross-country drive.

The biggest differences are that I’m doing this trip solo instead of with a college friend–and that instead of having a room in a group house or apartment awaiting at the end of the trip, I am looking forward to seeing my wife and almost 11-year-old daughter again.

Then comes the fact that this road trip is for work instead of fun, or what passes for fun when you’re in your twenties. I’m spending a week as one of the test drivers for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project, taking a rental car and six specially configured test phones to locations picked in a series of cities.

Photo shows my rental car with the door open, six test phones sitting on the passenger seat, and a row of storefronts in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh.

This freelance gig on wheels started with a train–I boarded Amtrak Tuesday for the first time since February 2020 for a short ride to BWI to pick up this car Tuesday, after which I met the previous driver in Baltimore to get the test phones and spend the afternoon driving around Charm City. I devoted Wednesday to driving around D.C., went from home to Raleigh, N.C. Thursday; spent all of Friday on the roads of the Triangle; and had a considerably shorter day of driving Saturday to reach here. My tour of the southeast wraps up in Atlanta Tuesday, after which I fly home.

The vehicle in question, a Chevrolet Spark, isn’t much bigger than the Toyotas involved in 1992 and 1997. But it’s as new as rental cars get, versus the 1977 Corolla with a four-speed manual transmission that made it across the U.S. in 1992 or the 1986 Tercel with a crack in the windshield that did the same in 1996. And it has such modern conveniences as air conditioning, power windows and a backup camera.

And instead of driving entirely offline–taking old cars across deserts with neither GPS nor the ability to communicate must seem bizarre to my kid–I have a smartphone to navigate and keep me in touch via calls, text messages, e-mail, multiple social networks, and the Slack channel PCMag set up for this test. Plus the six test smartphones that spend each day on the passenger seat running their automated tests, as seen in the photo above taken in Raleigh Friday morning.

(I wrote a more detailed explanation of the testing process for Patreon readers Friday.)

But in one respect, the technology of road trips may have backslid a bit from the 1990s. Those old cars lacked CD players but did include tape decks, while this Chevy is like many new cars in not including any playback hardware for prerecorded music. I can plug in a flash drive or pair my phone via Bluetooth, but I have yet to get around to cobbling together a road-trip-relevant playlist on my phone or copying one to a flash drive. Instead, I have instead relied on a more traditional soundtrack source: the radio. And since I had an excellent college-rock station to keep me entertained around Raleigh, that hasn’t been so bad.

7/22/2021: Updated to fix a couple of inaccuracies I only realized when checking this post against old photo albums.

Weekly output: Spotify privacy, Halo’s 5G-powered car service, Internet providers

Our kid was out this week at camp, but in a few days it will be my turn to be out of the house: I’m doing some of the drive testing for this year’s edition of PCMag.com’s Fastest Mobile Networks guide. Yes, on the road for actual business travel.

7/7/2021: At Spotify, private listening is not a simple proposition, USA Today

I’ve had the idea for a while of a column unpacking the inconsistent and often unhelpful privacy settings in Spotify, but the chance to interview a Spotify executive for the virtual edition of Dublin Tech Summit last month gave me quotes to anchor the piece.

Screenshot of the Fast Company story on Halo as seen on an iPad mini.7/8/2021: This driverless car-sharing service uses remote human ‘pilots,’ not AI, Fast Company

I was supposed to write this story last month about the Halo car service and its use of T-Mobile 5G to have remotely-driven vehicles show up before car-share customers. But then T-Mobile said they wanted to push the embargo back; that gave me time to get an industry analyst’s perspective and write an explainer for Patreon supporters about PR embargoes.

7/8/2021: Internet Providers, U.S. News & World Report

My latest round of work at U.S. News–consisting of profiles of AT&T, Comcast, Spectrum, and Verizon; comparisons of Spectrum and AT&TComcast and AT&T, and Verizon and Spectrum; and guides to fiber broadband, cheaper Internet access, and ways to speed up your connection–was much more work than my previous efforts. That is mostly the fault of the many large Internet providers that show no interest in clearly displaying their prices, speeds and terms of service. Las Vegas hotels and their resort fees are models of transparency compared to this lot–although maybe I can’t be too cranky about their willful opacity, since it gave me the material for a USA Today column.

An update on my Forbes experiment

It’s now been a year and change I started writing about the intersection of media, policy, and technology at Forbes. It’s also been two months and change since I last published anything there.

That might look like a conclusive verdict against the experiment I started last June, but the reality is a little more nuanced. On one hand, I’ve very much enjoyed the ability to “write and publish as I see fit instead of waiting for an editor to okay a pitch and then edit my copy” (as I wrote last summer). On the other hand, I’ve yet to clock enough page views in a month to earn above the minimum rate.

So when I had a bunch of new work come my way starting in April, I had to decide at the start of May if I would commit to writing my monthly minimum of five posts–my arrangement doesn’t provide partial pay for posting less than that–or take a break to focus on this new business. And since I had gone months without seeing any Forbes post crack a five-digit number of page views, that was an unavoidable call for me.

My most-read story at Forbes, a post I wrote at the end of November about the strange lifeline AT&T and, to a lesser extent, Verizon provide to the hoax-soaked One America News Network, has drawn a total of 35,747 views as of today. But most have done much worse than that unspectacular total, with many failing to crack a thousand views. That’s frustrated me to no end–not least since I’ve seen pieces at other outlets do great in the same time–but at a certain point, I had to stop banging my head against that wall and direct my attention to work that didn’t have Web-traffic stats between me and my payment. 

It’s possible that the subscription paywall Forbes put in place late last year (you should see the dialog above after reading five stories at the site in a month) has made it much harder for a post to go viral there. But I’ve seen at least one friend who writes at Forbes continue to hit numbers that should earn a decent bonus. Maybe I’m just page-view Kryptonite at this client in particular?

If I am, and if I decide to call it a day for this experiment, I will have no regrets. I’ve been able to address important topics–for example, Apple’s retelling of app-distribution history, the self-owns of some senators trying to interrogate tech CEOs, Google’s abusive conduct of its display-advertising business, President Trump’s clumsy and illegal attempts to regulate social media–as I saw fit. (Thinking about that, it would have been nice to toss up a post Thursday about the lawsuit by 36 states and D.C. against Google over its control of the Play Store instead of limiting my commentary to a Twitter thread that made me no money at all.) And the effort I put into focusing on media-policy issues also made me a sharper, better-sourced reporter in that area.

Meanwhile, management at Forbes has made some smart moves–in particular, bringing on the Houston Chronicle’s former tech columnist Dwight Silverman to cover the computing industry was a great call on their part. And nobody there has told me that time’s up on my contributor gig. But I do know that July already looks shot in terms of writing bandwidth that would let me return to it.

Weekly output: Gmail storage management, ShowStoppers TV, Starlink reality check, ClearStory Connects

Happy Fourth! This year’s Independence Day is so much better than last year’s.

Screenshot of column as seen in USAT's iPad app6/28/2021: With Google’s new limit on free data storage, don’t forget your Gmail inbox. It could be stuffed, USA Today

This column started, as many do, with tech support for a relative: My mom was nearing the 15-gigabyte cap on her Google account, and almost all of that was the fault of various e-mail marketers unwilling to shut up.

6/28/2021: MWC 2021, ShowStoppers

I emceed this virtual demo event for companies looking to get some publicity out of this year’s mostly-virtual Mobile World Congress trade show. It was fun, but I would have rather been in Barcelona.

6/30/2021: Elon Musk says Starlink’s satellite internet is probably not for you, Fast Company

My own MWC coverage consisted of this writeup of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s reality-check interview at MWC (he also appeared remotely), in which he splashed cold water on some Starlink hopes while also not addressing a few concerns about that low-Earth-orbit satellite-broadband network.

7/2/2021: ClearStory Connects, ClearStory International

This Dublin-based PR firm had me on a video call to talk about my work and what I find works and doesn’t work in tech marketing. Spoiler alert: The “any interest?” follow-up remains unlikely to close any deals for me.

Weekly output: Facebook clones Clubhouse, sustainable news business models, Washington Apple Pi

This week had me spending an above-average time staring into my webcam while trying not to glance away at my notes too often.

6/21/2021: Facebook adds live audio rooms, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me to discuss the “live audio rooms” Facebook launched Monday, part of a suite of upcoming audio features I wrote about at Forbes in April. The hosts wanted to know how Facebook’s clone of the Clubhouse app’s core feature might go over; I noted that Facebook starts out with the advantage of not requiring every user to create a new social graph but then holds itself back by initially only opening this feature to selected users.

Screenshot of the panel video as seen in an iPad's copy of Safari6/24/2021: The Future of Innovation in News Production: Models for Sustainability, Competition Policy International

Two months and change after the last time I moderated a panel about the state of the news business for CPI, this group (and event co-organizer Computer & Communications Industry Association) had me back to hold forth on what could put news on a sounder footing. My co-panelists this time were Poynter Institute media business analyst Rick Edmonds, Accenture managing director Andrew Charlton, Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro (who’s both a research fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and CEO of the National Trust for Local News), and LION Publishers executive director Chris Krewson. As you can watch in the video CPI has temporarily posted, our discussion was a lot less pessimistic than you might expect for this subject.

6/26/2021: Rob Pegoraro Zooms into the Pi 2021, Washington Apple Pi

I was hoping my return to the local Apple user group would not be virtual like last June’s appearance, but the Pi is sticking to Zoom for now–so I’ll have to wait for a future opportunity to appear in person and give away some of the tech-event swag that’s been collecting dust in my office closet for the past year and change. Most of my talk covered my own experience getting through the pandemic, but I also discussed Apple’s transition to using its own Apple Silicon processors and its recent privacy moves–and, because why not, space launches.

Yet another way to overthink shopping: discounted gift cards via AARP Rewards

Late last year, I hit the half-century mark and then, several weeks later, made my advanced age quasi-official by getting an AARP membership card. The discounts and benefits touted by the nonprofit once known as the American Association of Retired Persons seemed like they would justify the small cost of a membership that I’d already reduced by prepaying for five years (quite the vote of confidence for me to cast in late January!) and getting a cash-back deal on it from my Citi Double Cash card.

It took me a little longer to realize that the real payback would come from AARP Rewards. This program, partly open to non-members, offers points you can collect by completing such simple tasks as answering quizzes or just visiting the Rewards page, then redeem for gift cards as well as magazine and online subscriptions. The return on those points hasn’t been good for me, between the high number required to procure a gift card (for instance, 25,000 points for a $10 Spotify card) and the low odds of picking up one for less in an instant-win or sweepstakes entry (I’m batting .000 there after nine attempts, but at least I’ve only burned 450 points this way).

But AARP Rewards also sells a wide variety of gift cards at good-to-excellent discounts, some of which cover common if not unavoidable expenses and therefore amount to free money. For example, you can get a $15 Google Play gift card for $13, a 13.3 percent savings, while Home Depot, Safeway and REI gift cards come at 8% off. (All of those examples but Home Depot require an AARP membership, which younger people can get at an “associate” level while full benefits are reserved for my new demographic of 50 and older.)

AARP Rewards also sells a limited number of daily-deal gift cards at a deeper discount; for example, last month I picked up a $15 Crate & Barrel gift card for $10. But deals from the best-known retailers vanish almost immediately, as I’ve learned in multiple failed attempts to snag a Home Depot gift card at 30% off.

So far, I’ve racked up $24 in savings this way–although since I haven’t used all these gift cards yet, the savings are somewhat theoretical. The downside is that I now have yet another place to check after credit-card sites and miles-and-points shopping portals before I make an online purchase. And I now have yet another reason to feel a little dirty if I forget to do that and later realize I missed out on a chance to save a few bucks.

Two ways your mailing list could be less terrible

Monday’s USA Today column on cleaning out an overloaded Gmail inbox required me to spend an unpleasant amount of time scouring my own inbox to find the most prolific senders. The experience left me mostly convinced of the grotesque selfishness of many e-mail marketing types, but it also yielded some grounds for optimism.

Photo shows a series of bulk-mail stamps

As in, the user experience with some of these companies’ mailing lists let me at least think that they recognized concepts like cognitive load, limited attention span and finite storage space. Here are two practices in particular that I liked:

  • Don’t send promotional e-mails from the same address as order confirmations. This makes it so much easier to find and bulk-delete the sales pitches that no longer carry any relevance–or, if you use Microsoft’s Outlook.com, to set up a “sweep” filter that automatically deletes those messages after a set period of time. Ecco, Macy’s and Staples all seemed to follow this polite, filter-friendly custom.
  • Let me choose how often to get emails–a message a day is often just clingy, but one a week could be less obnoxious–and let me specify what kind of pitches might interest me. Best Buy (“Receive no more than one General Marketing email per week”) and Macy’s (“Let’s Take It Down A Notch—Send Me Fewer Emails, Please”) get the frequency thing right, while L.L. Bean not only lets people choose between weekly, monthly or twice-monthly frequencies but invites them to request only messages about departments like Men’s, Home, or Fishing.

I’d like to close by writing something like “see, it doesn’t have to be this hard”–but a look at my Gmail inbox shows that some of my visits to the mail-preference pages of some retailers hasn’t led to them putting a smaller dent in my inbox. I guess they’d prefer I click their unsubscribe link–or use Gmail’s “block” command.