All vaxxed up and nowhere to go (especially for work)

Thursday was my V-day: two weeks elapsed since my second dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine, and therefore cleared for takeoff into a normal life. But I still feel like I’m on the runway, if not still on the taxiway waiting for my clearance.

I’m blaming work. I had thought it would be nice to celebrate this milestone Friday by having a drink at an actual bar indoors, but I had deadlines to meet that kept me at the keyboard until almost dinnertime. One reason why I still had fingers at the keyboard that late: I spent part of Friday afternoon volunteering at a vaccination clinic, which was arguably a better way to mark the occasion anyway. I did at least wear only one cloth mask instead of doubling up as I had before.

Photo shows my COVID-19 vaccination card atop my new passport and a route map from United Airlines' Hemispheres magazine.

(Another difference between now and my first volunteer shift in early April: Positive test rates have plummeted to well under 2% in Arlington and D.C.)

Work also factors into this in-between feeling, because it’s become so obvious that business gatherings will be a trailing indicator of America’s victory over this disease. As I type this, my also-fully-vaccinated neighbors are having people over on their back deck and that seems completely normal, but I have no idea when the first (non-pandemic-denying) think tank, trade association, PR firm or other corporate outpost around here will dare to host an in-person briefing, luncheon or reception.

The forecast is also fuzzy for in-person conferences. Wednesday, the management of the IFA trade show announced that they had to cancel this year’s edition of that electronics event in Berlin. I had thought they had good odds of pulling it off, considering how fast Germany is getting vaccine doses into arms. But IFA is a global show, and many of the countries that would be sending companies there remain far behind in vaccinations.

(MWC Barcelona, the first tech event to succumb to the pandemic, is somehow still set to happen next month, albeit on a grossly exhibitor-deprived scale. I don’t know what the thinking is there.)

Conferences that take place in the U.S. and draw a mostly-American audience look more likely to happen as planned, which on my calendar would probably make the first such IRL event the Black Hat information-security conference. Subjecting oneself to the blast-furnace heat of Las Vegas in August is not most people’s idea of fun–but after a year and change of only experiencing events through a screen, I legit would enjoy it. Besides, it really is a dry heat there.

Weekly output: password managers, exposure-notification apps, talking tech with Mark Vena

Six months ago, I expected to be busy tonight packing for the IFA tech trade show. But although that conference in Berlin is proceeding on a drastically-scaled-down basis, I’m not flying to Germany tomorrow because of the European Union’s ban on Americans traveling to the EU. Given how thoroughly we’ve botched this pandemic, I can’t blame them for imposing that restriction.

8/24/2020: Extra security or extra risk? Pros and cons of password managers, TechRepublic

I shared my experience with password managers–mainly LastPass and 1Password–with TechRepublic’s Veronica Combs for this overview of the advantages and disadvantages of these services.

8/25/2020: COVID-19 tracking apps, supported by Apple and Google, begin showing up in app stores, USA Today

Writing a lengthy report for O’Reilly about contact-tracing apps did not mean I could write this much shorter piece from memory and my existing notes. In addition to getting useful adoption data from Virginia’s Department of Public Health about its COVIDWISE app, I also reported that VDH plans to support a national key-server project from the Association of Public Health Laboratories that will let these state-developed apps relay and receive warnings of potential COVID-19 exposure across state lines.

8/28/2020: SmartTechCheck Podcast (8-28-20), Mark Vena

I talked about exposure-notification apps, the future of tech events like IFA, 5G wireless and Apple silicon with my analyst pal at Moor Insights & Strategy–another tech type who would have been packing for Berlin tonight but is instead grounded. You may notice a break in the recording about halfway through, when I had to get a glass of water so I could resume speaking normally. Note to self: Before sitting down to record a 45-minute podcast, make sure a glass of water is on the desk.

Weekly output: IFA, Pay TV 3.0, everything as a service, where to buy an iPhone 11, iOS needs a kids’ mode

If you’re going to have a bunch of long-in-the-works stories finally post, you could pick a worse time than the week you’re at a journalism conference. This coming week has me at a different event: the Competitive Carriers Association’s conference in Providence, where I’m moderating a panel discussion on 5G wireless in rural areas. (Yes, readers, the title of that panel is 100 percent my fault.)

9/9/2019: 3 ways tech has gone astray at Berlin electronics show, USA Today

USAT took a day or two to post this, for which I was grateful–that lag gave me time to remember to throw in a quote that I’d forgotten to include when I first filed this last Sunday morning before flying home from Berlin.

9/10/2019: What ‘Pay TV 3.0’ will mean for viewers and channels, FierceVideo

This story started with the panel I moderated at a conference this this trade pub hosted outside of Denver in May, hence the above long-in-the-works comment.

9/10/2019: “Everything as a service” is coming—but we’re not there quite yet, Ars Technica

Some of you saw this feature on cloud services briefly appear last week before it vanished without explanation. As Lee Hutchinson, senior tech editor at Ars, later explained in a comment, the story got posted early by mistake. Yes, that is apparently a thing that is possible.

Since the first instance of this story didn’t feature any ads from its sponsor HPE–Ars correctly did not tell me the sponsor’s identity until after I’d filed copy that didn’t mention that firm anyway–it looks like the problem was some mixup on the advertising end.

Anyway, about this lengthy post: Researching the finer points of cloud storage and management services had me leaning well over my skis, but the experience left me with some helpful new sources to consult the next time I’m writing about cloud security and privacy.

9/12/2019: Ordering iPhone 11? The one thing wireless carriers might not want you to know, USA Today

You sort of have read this story before, and you will probably keep reading this as long as most of the major carriers continue to lock phones sold on installment-payment plans.

9/12/2019: The one feature Apple should have added to iOS 13 and iPadOS, Yahoo Finance

My daughter gets credit as the assignment editor on this: Handing over an iPad for her limited allotment of screen time kept reminding me of how unhelpful iOS is in this scenario. I could have written this any time in the last few years, but the impending release of Apple’s iOS 13 and iPadOS–neither with a real kids’ mode–provided a news peg for this story.

Weekly output: Amazon Fire TV, Roku TV, social-media propaganda, IFA

I’m back from Berlin and my eighth IFA is in the books. I feel more wiped out than usual from jet lag, maybe because my five-hours-late departure Monday left no time for me to walk around the city Wednesday afternoon and get some sunshine into my head. I had better be recovered in three days, when I’ll be back on a plane for the Online News Association’s conference–this year in New Orleans, one of my favorite travel destinations.

If you need more gadget pictures in your life, there’s a slideshow of photos from this year’s IFA waiting after the jump.

9/5/2019: Amazon bids to spark new markets for Fire TV, FierceVideo

I wrote this from an Amazon event in Berlin Wednesday night, at which I had the advantage of being able to quiz a couple of analyst friends who had watched the same sales pitch.

9/7/2019: Roku expands Roku TV program to Europe, FierceVideo

Roku CEO Anthony Wood gave an uncommonly concise keynote at IFA Saturday morning–it ran only 24 minutes.

9/7/2019: Social-media marketing for Sudan’s military, Al Jazeera

I offered my perspective on a weird case of social-media propaganda via Skype from my hotel room.

9/8/2019: 2019 IFA Trade Show Recap with Rob Pegoraro, Moor Insights & Strategy Podcast

I shared my thoughts on this year’s IFA with Moor’s Mark Vena from a semi-quiet table at a restaurant in our hotel; I hope the background chatter from other guests isn’t too distracting.

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Weekly output: IFA oddities, Windows laptop trends

PORTLAND–I’m nearing the end of one work trip, after which I’ll get to spend a whole 40 or so hours at home before heading out for a second. No, I’m not heading to the Bay Area for Apple’s new-iPhone event Wednesday (I haven’t gotten an invitation to one of those occasions since 2010, which is fine); I will instead spend that afternoon flying to Austin for the Online News Association’s conference.

Like XOXO here, ONA is an event that has me paying for the conference badge. In a few days, I will try to write why I think it sometimes worthwhile to put this kind of dent in my business model.

Yahoo Finance IFA-oddities post9/4/2018: The weirdest, most interesting, and most unavailable gadgets from IFA 2018, Yahoo Finance

This illustrated recap of the oddest hardware I saw at IFA, including a robot dog and a “Solar Cow,” ran a couple of days after my return from that gadget show in Berlin. This sort of listicle has become a staple of my tech-trade-show coverage, because the gadget industry doesn’t seem to be getting any less weird. And after I’ve filed a few thousand words from a faraway city, stringing together a post from 200-word chunks feels exponentially easier.

9/7/2018: Laptops get thinner, lighter, more secure – and, in one case, audio-hostile, USA Today

This overview of laptop-design trends seen at IFA–most of which I like, one of which I absolutely hate–took a few more days to appear online. I can’t say that any of these changes made me feel bad about my almost-year-old laptop… which is fine! Most people should not buy a new computer every year.

 

Weekly output: Facebook diet, 8K TV, social-media hearings

Another trip to Berlin for IFA is in the books, which means I’ve spent another year wondering when Berlin Brandenburg Airport–which was originally scheduled to open before my 2012 introduction to the show–will ever inaugurate scheduled commercial service.

8/28/2018: How to detox from Facebook, Yahoo Finance

I’d had the bones of this piece in mind since sometime after writing a similar how-to on reducing Google’s role in your life. I’m going to guess that most people didn’t install the Facebook Container extension for Firefox (although I am now running that on my Windows laptop), but I do hope that a good fraction of readers opted out of Facebook’s noisier mobile notifications.

Yahoo Finance IFA 8K post9/1/2018: Forget 4K TVs — 8K televisions are already here, Yahoo Finance

If it wasn’t obvious enough the last time I covered this topic: No, I really don’t think anybody should pay extra for 8K resolution, and if this entire format vanishes into consumer irrelevance as 3D TV did, I won’t be too sad. Meanwhile, I appreciated seeing Yahoo give this a little more publicity with a repost on Yahoo Sports.

9/2/2018: What to expect as Google, Facebook and Twitter face Capitol Hill lawmakers, Yahoo Finance

I wrote a curtain-raiser for Wednesday’s grillings of social-media executives in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Based on how prior House interrogations of tech execs have gone, my expectations for the latter hearing are exceedingly low.

How I inspect laptops at tech events

BERLIN–I’ve spent the last three days here at the IFA tech trade show poking and prodding at new laptops to see if they might be worth your money. That inspection has gotten more complicated in recent years, thanks to some new features I welcome and a few others I could do without.

The following are the traits I now look for after such obvious items as weight, screen size, if that screen is the rare Windows laptop display that doesn’t respond to touch, advertised battery life, storage, memory and overall apparent sturdiness.

Acer Swift 7 close-up

  • Screen resolution: On smaller screens, 4K resolution eats into battery life without making a meaningful difference in picture quality–from most viewing distances, you can’t even see the pixels on a 1080p laptop screen anyway.
  • USB-C charging: Now that I have a laptop and a phone that can both use the same charger, I never want to go back to needing a proprietary power cable for a computer. You shouldn’t either.
  • USB ports: Laptops that only include USB-C ports can be thinner than those with full-sized USB ports, but I’m willing to accept a little bulk to avoid having to pop in an adapter for older USB cables or peripherals.
  • Other expansion options: For people who still use standalone cameras, SD or microSD Card slots will ease data transfer. I also look for HDMI ports, which ease plugging the laptop into a TV. (Since my own laptop doesn’t have one of those: Anybody have a recommendation for a USB-C-to-HDMI cable?) And now that I’ve seen a laptop here without a headphone jack, I need to confirm that audio output’s presence too.
  • Backlit keyboard: Typing without one in a darkened hall is no fun. While I’m looking for that, I’ll also see if the trackpad is governed by Microsoft’s simple Precision Touchpad control or janky third-party software.
  • Webcam placement: Some laptops stash the webcam not at the top of the screen but below it, which leaves video callers stuck with an up-the-nostril perspective of the laptop user.
  • Windows Hello: Fingerprint-recognition sensors are cheap, while having to type in a password or PIN every time you log in imposes its own tax on your time. I’m not so doctrinaire about Windows Hello facial recognition if fingerprint recognition is there.

This list is a little involved, but on the upside I no longer have to worry about things like WiFi or serial ports. So now that you know what I fuss over when inspecting laptops at tech events like this, what else should I be looking for on each new computer?

Weekly output: New laptops, IFA gadgets, online-video subscribers, wireless plans, Equifax

Technically speaking, I didn’t wrap up my IFA coverage until Sunday night, when I posted an album of photos from the show. Monday afternoon, I’m off to San Francisco for Mobile World Congress Americas, a successor to the CTIA wireless-industry show that I skipped last year.

9/5/2017: Why you might not want a laptop with a 4K display, Yahoo Finance

I liked most of what I saw in Windows laptops at IFA, but the idea of cramming Ultra High Definition resolution into a 13- or 14-inch screen seems idiotic to me.

9/6/2017: 4 amazing new gadgets you can’t get in the US, Yahoo Finance

Going to a gadget show overseas means you’ll see some hardware that you won’t be able to buy back home in the States.

9/7/2017: Best Cell Phone Plans, The Wirecutter

If I’d filed this on time, I would have had to rewrite the update to factor in Verizon’s downgrade of its most-advertised “unlimited” wireless plan. Instead, I had a hurried few days of revising the text I’d last updated in March to reflect that and many other pivots among wireless services.

9/7/2017: Measuring the OTT Subscriber, FierceCable

This piece–you’ll have to cough up an e-mail address to read it–covers how some online video services try to get a sense of their customer metrics.

9/8/2017: Why Equifax needs to give up some details about how it got hacked, Yahoo Finance

Equifax’s massive data breach–yes, I seem to be included among the victims–made me mad. Then it made me think about other posts I’ve written to denounce the reflexive silence of too many tech companies after they realize a third party has broken in and stolen customer data.

The “hands-on area”: tech journalism at its busiest, not its finest

BERLIN–Three days into IFA, I’ve spent a disturbing amount of time at this tech trade show standing around and looking at my phone. The distractions of social media explain some of that, but I can blame more of it on the “hands-on area.”

That’s the space next to a gadget product-launch event, kept roped off until the end of the press conference or the keynote, in which the assembled tech journalists get to inspect the new hardware up close.

I enjoy the chance to pick up a just-announced gadget, see how it works, play with its apps and settings to see if any surprises emerge, and grab a few quick photos that are hopefully unblemished by glare, fingerprints or dust.

But increasingly, this requires waiting as each scribe ahead of me whips out a camera or phone not to take their own pictures, but to shoot or even livestream a video recapping the highlights of the product. Often these are not two-minute clips but four- or five-minute segments, but that’s not obvious at the start–and professional courtesy mandates that you give the other journalist a chance to finish his or her job.

Many of these video shoots are also one-person productions, which leaves me looking on in some frustration at bloggers who are literally talking into one phone about another. If only one of them would burst into song or something to liven up the scene!

Instead, an overseas show like IFA or Mobile World Congress provides the pleasure of hearing people run through the same basic script in a dozen different languages. Eventually, this may teach me how to say “the phone feels good in the hand” in German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Hebrew and Japanese… if the news industry’s lemming-like pivot to video doesn’t first force me to start shooting these clips myself.

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A taste of Nougat on a Nexus 5X

DENVER–Two weeks ago, I tossed caution out the window of a hotel room and installed Google’s Android 7.0 on my phone one day into a business trip. The computing gods smiled on me, and the upgrade proceeded without incident and allowed me to experience the rest of the IFA show with the smartphone operating system Google also calls Android Nougat.

android-n-patch-install

Google’s sales pitch for Nougat may lead off with this release’s inflated inventory of emoji, but the change I appreciated first is the Settings app. In Nougat, it doesn’t just show categories of system preferences–it shows the current status of most of them.

That’s a thoughtful change. Too bad that phones with third-party interface tweaks will probably bury it.

The Nougat feature I use most often, however, is its new multitasking shortcut: Tap the recent-apps button twice, and Android jumps back to the second-most-recent app.

Nougat also offers a split-screen multitasking mode (that leads off the Google’s list of Android 7 features for developers), but my phone’s 5.2-in. screen doesn’t offer the kind of real estate that would make this useful.

I’ve also made little use of my newfound ability to customize the Quick Settings panel after removing the screen-rotation control (which I only ever used by accident). I do, however, appreciate being able to reply directly to more messages from the notifications list.

android-n-settings-appMonday brought a chance to try out the faster system-software updates Google has been touting. September’s security patches took 7 minutes and 15 seconds to install, which is less than instant but much faster than before–because I didn’t have that long wait as every installed app had to get reloaded.

At Google I/O, the company talked up Nougat’s more efficient use of memory. That got my attention, since the Nexus 5x’s 2 gigabytes of memory have often proved insufficient. I have yet to see my phone bog down the way it sometimes did before, although at least once I saw it fail to display my screen wallpaper for a moment after a round of switching between apps.

The Nougat feature that got me to do something as crazy as install a major software update to a critical device in the middle of a business trip was improved battery life. I haven’t done any detailed testing, but the phone does seem to last longer on days when I’m not using it like a tech journalist–that is, when I’m not constantly tweeting, replying to e-mails, and taking photos and notes, I can see the phone predict another 10 hours of battery life after I’ve gone seven hours without a charge.

But here at the Online News Association’s conference, no such luck applies. The phone doesn’t spend enough time in my pocket to benefit from Nougat’s ability to slow the system to a gentle stroll anytime the phone’s screen is off. So as I type this, my phone and my laptop are tethered to an outlet.