Thursday, January 3, 2019

OTR: Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs

Apple is in trouble... again. Tim Cook says people aren't buying iPhones. He blames a lot of factors, but I don't think he's really being honest.

I'm one of those folks who didn't buy an iPhone again. Why? Too darn expensive for one. I was generally good on price points up to $500 when I could see incremental value on the next iteration of the phone. But dropping up to $1000 on a cell phone? Nope. I can get a decent laptop for that.

I moved over to Android and found some Motorola (Moto) phones in the $200 to $300 price range, unlocked, with more storage and decent features. I've taken that $1000 and bought three different Motorola phones in the past 18 months or so to find out what works for me. The android world is full of options -- and many of those options are at really good price points.

I use a cell phone to make a few calls, look at email and my calendar, do some internet searches, take an occasional picture, and poke at some apps from time to time. Yeah, I'd like my iTunes, but I still have an iPad and I get iTunes there when I travel.

So why are people really not buying iPhones?

1) Cost. Reaching in your wallet for $500 to $1000 every couple years, times the number of phones in your household, is just a non-starter for most people. And adding $30+ a month to your bloated cell phone bill to pay for a new phone is also a non-starter.

2) Functionality and innovation (or lack thereof). What does the new phone do that the old one didn't do? Not very much. Maybe the CPU is a little faster or there are more pixels in the pictures, but I'm not wowed by the feature set anymore. There's nothing that I must have in a new phone.

3) Saturation. Most everyone has a smartphone, so first time buyers are few and far between and phones being purchased are generally replacements for dead or lost phones. You're not going to give your ten-year-old a $1000 iPhone.

In moving to Android and Motorola, what are some of the things that I really like?

1) MicroSD cards. I have a phone with 32 GB of storage onboard, but I've added 128GB of storage in a MicroSD card -- so no futzing with storage issues.

2) Dual SIMs. Not a huge thing, but I've played with this on a couple phones and it is a feature that some people likely must have.

3) The Google ecosystem. Say what you want about Google, but if you have the Chrome browser, Gmail and Google Drive in your life, an Android phone makes a lot of sense. And setting up an Android phone is a breeze. Couple in ChromeOS devices, and you can move from screen to screen with little difficulty.

Apple also has an ecosystem. But I don't find it as mainstream as Google, particularly when you look at email and browsing. That is the sole saving grace, outside of people who simply worship all things Apple. For people with (literally) a huge investment in iTunes, I suspect that is a driving factor, but I haven't found much more. I know that my daughter loves moving from iPhone to her Mac pretty seamlessly, but that isn't me.

Apple is at the same place plenty of other companies have been at. I was at Motorola when the RAZR fell off the cliff. Motorola was printing money with the RAZR and got stupid, failing to invest in R&D for the next big thing. Steve Jobs came and learned how to make cell phones and the rest was history. All Motorola could do at that point was come up with new colors for the RAZR. I'd argue that RIM / Blackberry had the same experience. RIM owned the "smartphone" space, but made it too much of a walled garden as people started to want more consumer functionality. RIM would have been smarter to become a software company rather than try to do both hardware and software.

Is Apple in the same place? Well, when your CEO starts making fairly lame excuses for why people don't buy your product, I'd say so. Apple is a bit of a walled garden because it ties the OS to the hardware and reserves certain applications (iTunes in particular) to its mobile OS. On the one hand, you're not waiting for a hardware manufacturer to sort out getting an OS update released, but you're now solely tied to Apple's determination of a product lifecycle. When Apple decides the device is EOL, that's that. And I think that is another factor to consider. While I don't think that Apple has started to compress the product lifecycle, there is a consideration to be made there for when someone buys a device. If you wait until an iPhone model is no longer the latest and greatest, you likely have allowed a year or so to go by. Apple currently says that it will maintain a five to seven year lifecycle, but that assumes you buy the device when released. Instead of making the next generation of devices compelling to buy (from both feature set and cost), the new phones don't have any significant innovation and might sit at prices points that are .5X to 2X what the consumer paid for the now obsolete device that is only a few years old.

There are also considerations for product serviceability. If you can't easily replace a worn out battery on a device that is only a couple years old, you're going to have a bad attitude about that product.

The same thing happening to Apple also happened in the personal computer space. In the early 1990's, computer CPUs were popping out almost annually, with more power and speed. There was a new OS every year and software was being developed at an incredible pace. You couldn't afford to not upgrade every couple years. There always was something new under the sun. Now, PCs are sold mostly as replacements for ones that break down or simply can't handle whatever application the user needs to have. There are always some enthusiasts who need to have the latest and greatest, but most users buy a computer and keep it until it dies.

The net of this is that Tim Cook really isn't being honest and needs to find the next big thing. That was the one thing that Steve Jobs was simply ruthless about.

Friday, June 22, 2018

OTR: Saying Good Bye to Facebook

Back in the early days of the online world, I was an enthusiastic participant in the world of AOL -- America OnLine. The nightly melody of my modem connecting, followed by a hearty, "You've got mail!". I discovered a whole new connected world -- and the ugliness of much of it. Long before the term "troll" was used widely, AOL hosted plenty of them in chat rooms and I learned the meaning of the phrase, "If you roll in the mud with pigs, you're going to get dirty and the pig will enjoy it." I learned early on to try not to engage with people who were just there to provoke you -- but it didn't always keep my fingers off the keyboard.

When Facebook came about, I wasn't a real early adopter. I finally joined and became somewhat addicted to it, accumulating over 300 connections to family, friends, and acquaintances. They represented almost every aspect of my life from grade school friends to former co-workers. I had one hard and fast rule -- never connect to a current co-worker.  By and large, these were folks who I knew fairly well at some point in life. Some connections were re-established courtesy of Facebook and it was fun to see what people were doing, often decades removed from when we last connected in real life.

Much of Facebook was fairly benign -- vacations and food, kids and random thoughts. Sunsets, pets, an interesting article. I posted much of the same. But over the past couple years, Facebook has become a place to vent your spleen. I've learned much about the political leanings of friends and colleagues. And I didn't always like what I saw. People that I respected as colleagues made me angry or caused me to question their intelligence. I unfriended a few at the fringe of acquaintanceship and stopped getting posts from a few others. But then I saw people that I knew fussing at each other, with others clearly posting things to incite people. While I treasured looking at Facebook for the fun and happy things, I found myself getting angry and depressed about what was out there.

The security guy inside me started to worry about posting real time pictures on vacation or during work travel. And what was left was a lot of stuff that not a whole lot of people likely cared much about.

Then all the blather started about how Facebook was selling data. While I knew that was pretty much always the case (I've used the cartoon above a lot over the years), it became much more real. I thought about pulling the plug on my account. But I kept coming back for connections with people that I truly cared about and didn't see much. I wanted to see the latest pictures or video of my grand-nephew. I wanted to see what was happening at the train museum or the Air Force Museum. But people kept making me angry.

I finally decided to pull the plug on just about everyone. Family generally got a pass. Neighbors and my longest friends got a pass. And I hung on to a few friends who hadn't ticked me off yet. Everyone else was unfriended. Well over 200 people. In the process I also realized that four of my friends were no longer with us, except on Facebook. I really didn't want to unfriend them, but it seemed silly to maintain a connection that would never be active again in this life.

I cleaned up some other things, deleting some "likes"and continued to do so in my News Feed as it settled into its new content. Suddenly, Facebook seemed a lot calmer and quieter. I was seeing content that I really cared about. And I didn't feel like I had to check in regularly to see what I had missed.

I'll continue to whittle things down as I adjust to my new view of Facebook. I want it to be about family and close friends, fun and happiness.

So if I disappeared from your feed, now you know why. No offense. You may never have raised my blood pressure, but it was time to take stock and refocus. If you're a professional colleague, you can find me on LinkedIn. Odds are, we had that connection as well. And yes, you can find me in real life, too.

Friday, June 1, 2018

OTR: Mobile Phone Mobility

I got my first cellular phone in the early 90's. My Dad had a "car phone" pretty much when they came out in the mid-80's, but the price points weren't good for me until 1994 or so. Even then, you didn't use the phone for continual talking and you were mighty careful about "roaming charges" when you were outside of your home coverage area. And those phones were heavy -- and battery life sucked.

I'm not sure that I could name all of the phones I've had since then, but I'm pretty much managed to keep the same phone numbers and service provider (Cellular One turned into AT&T) for almost 25 years. Along the way, I've also had employer-provided devices at different times, but always maintained a personal mobile phone account. At different times, I carried two phones until "BYOD" became more popular and I decided that I could use my personal phone for limited business purposes.

One of the keys along the way was that getting the cell phone from the carrier was rarely a heart-stopping financial proposition. The phones were "subsidized" and could generally be purchased (with a two-year contract) for $100 to $200 or so. That has stopped and top of the line smartphones are now a $600 to $1000 expense. Phones that are a generation removed from what's current are cheaper and there are dozens of phones out there from various manufacturers at many price points. But if you want the new iPhone or the latest Galaxy, be prepared to pay up -- or pay the phone company on an installment plan.

About a year ago, as my iPhone 5 aged and I found out that Apple had set an end of life date (no more updates), I started to think about a replacement. But the thought of dropping $600+ on a cell phone wasn't where I wanted to be. I can get a decent laptop at that price point and while my phone is always with me, I'm just not prepared for that kind of expense on something that I'll likely be looking to replace in 24 to 36 months.

At the same time, one of my daughters was going to be spending the summer abroad and needed a phone that worked locally for emergency purposes. I had decided by then that I probably needed to move away from Apple and look for an unlocked phone that had global capabilities. If I could find the right phone at the right price point, my daughter would have a phone to use for the summer abroad. When she got home, she could go back to her iPhone and I'd use the phone she had taken on her trip. It was time to shop.

Once you leave the Apple ecosystem, your only real choice is something Android. With Android, you're wedded to Google, which isn't horrible. It's just a different ecosystem. The problem, however, is that with lots of different phone manufacturers, you can't be sure what flavor of Android you're going to get and how long it will be updated and supported. But poking around Amazon, I found more palatable price points. These days, your market-leading Android phones tend to be from Samsung. The challenge of Samsung is the price points are similar to Apple. Once you get past Samsung, you see a lot of names you might not be familiar with. I knew of some of these companies from my past employer and had varying degrees of distrust of some of them. I ended up going back to look at Motorola. Even though Motorola is owned by Lenovo now (just the mobile phone company), I still know a few people there and I know the phones are still mostly designed and engineered in the US.

I turned to features. I wanted a removable memory card so I could add the amount of storage I needed for photos and apps. I always seem to be out of space on iPhones. One feature I was keen to try out was dual SIM capability. The mobile phone can hold two SIM cards and thus operate on your "home" carrier as well as another carrier. This is useful when traveling abroad because you can purchase a local SIM card and use that for calls where you are, while retaining access to your "home" number and text messages. This reduces the roaming costs abroad. However, no US-based carrier sells dual SIM phones. So I was off to Amazon. After some searching, I found a Motorola G4 with dual SIM capability (model XT1621). The phone had a nice look and after reviewing Frequency Check (, I found that it had very good support for most carriers globally -- and particularly for the country where my daughter was going. The price point was under $200. I picked up a protective case and a 128GB MicroSD card (the nice thing about Android phones is that they have expandable and removable memory capacity) for another $50 or so.

The phone arrived in a couple days. First thing I noticed when setting it up was that it was a phone designed for Mexico and Latin America, so I had to change the language setting to English. After that, it was fine, but when device updates show up, you see the update description in Spanish. A minor issue, to be sure. Android devices are easy to set up, assuming you have a Google account. What was interesting is that Google remembered my prior Motorola Android phones, even though I hadn't used Android in a number of years. So I was reunited with a few apps. Setup was quite smooth and easy. I stopped by a Target store to pick up a TracFone SIM card so I could try out the phone before committing to it. That process wasn't as smooth as I would have liked, but I was able to get the phone functioning and making calls.

I played with the phone for a week or so, getting used to the interface again and then decided to move my primary SIM card over from my iPhone. Ooops. The SIM card was the wrong size. A trip to the AT&T store solved that issue. So now I had two SIM cards functioning in the phone. What's interesting with this setup is that you can select which SIM card does what. In theory, you could have a SIM card that is used primarily for data, and one that is used for voice calls. Or you can make one used for most things, with the second just listening for calls. When you make a call or send a text, you can also select which SIM is used. I did notice, however, that you needed to put the SIM for data use in Slot 1 to benefit from high speed data connectivity. The radios associated with Slot 2 were slightly degraded, so Slot 2 is best used for voice and text only.

My daughter came home from school and I proudly showed her the phone. She poked at it for a bit and declared that she didn't like the interface. She ended up taking her iPhone with her, but only using it for wi-fi, which actually worked well. She ended up getting a local phone from her host family because she could never find a SIM card that worked right.

Since I had the phone set up, I continued to use it, ultimately upgrading to the Motorola G5 Plus (XT1681), which is also a dual SIM phone. Frequency Check confirmed that it was compatible around the globe. I've hung on to the TracFone SIM because it is a nice back up and super cheap -- although I sometimes wonder about who had the number previously because I've gotten a few odd phone calls. That phone was a little more expensive, but still below $300. That's been my everyday phone for six months. It works well, has a nice screen size, and I have few complaints. The biggest complaint is that they apparently had to remove one feature to accommodate the second SIM slot -- the magnetometer that is used as a compass. Not a huge deal, but sometimes the GPS gets confused. You also can't use one of my favorite apps, Sky Map, because the app can't track the orientation of the phone against the sky. But I live outside Chicago and you usually can't see a whole lot of stars in the night sky anyway.

The nice thing is that I've purchased two phones in one year for less than an iPhone. They work well and have greater flexibility. Both will work well in most countries around the globe, and if I want to get a local SIM card, I won't be fussing with AT&T to unlock my phone. If I get bored with the phone or see a new one, I'm not wrestling with justifying a huge price tag. If  I lose or break the phone, I'm not going to be crying over the cost to replace. I've found mobile phone mobility.

OTR: The "Free" Conference Invitation

It's been a while, but there was a period of time where it seemed like I was getting fairly regular invitations to be "qualified" to attend educational conferences for "free" -- just get to the venue and the education, lodging, and meals were "free". (You'll note that I keep putting quotes around "free".)

Most of these conferences had a technology or legal angle. Most of them held no interest for me. Finally, one came my way that actually looked pretty good. I did a little research on the organization that sponsored the event and didn't find any big red flags. Some people complained that the organization didn't pay for transportation, but that didn't seem to be a big deal.

The "qualification" process was pretty extensive and, in retrospect, boiled down to whether or not I have some authority to buy stuff and whether or not I was in the market for various things associated with the focus of the conference. As it happened, I was looking for a solution and also wanted to look across the marketplace. So I qualified. Apparently it also didn't hurt to have "Director" in my job title, as this was an "executive conference". The contract (wait, what?) came and I found out that not only did I have to commit to be there, but I also needed to have sit downs with something like six or seven vendors. (Uh. oh.) The sit downs were supposed to be for no more than ten minutes each and I could actually find the required number that I wanted to talk to. The fine print in the contract indicated that if I didn't show or failed to make the requisite number of vendor meetings, I'd be on the hook for the full price of the conference, lodging, and meals (multiple thousands of dollars). Had the lawyers take a look at the contract and sign on behalf of the company and I was good to go.

So off I went to some faux chateau winery setting an hour out of Atlanta. The venue was nice, the accommodations were fine, and there was a good crowd. The sessions were good enough, if not memorable. The meals were heavy. The days were long. The vendor sit-downs were... interesting. Think speed dating with vendors. In my itinerary, I had a schedule of vendor meetings. There were dedicated times during the day where you had to take the meetings. Picture a ballroom full of curtained 8 by 8 spaces consisting of a vendor name, a small table, and a few stackable banquet chairs. First you had to find your "date", then a chime or something started the conversation. Awkward introductions, a quick outline of what the vendor could do, then you got to talk about what you needed. Then a chime and you were off to find the next one. After the first day, the vendors were looking pretty ragged. They talked to a lot of people and I got a sense that a lot of the attendees were not planning to buy anything, so there were lots of very forced conversations. The funny thing was, while I got the usual post conference blizzard of mail and phone calls, the people I talked to generally had done a really bad job of taking notes and recalling what I was interested in. Wasn't a very effective sales process.

The lesson that I learned, though, was that when you're offered a "free" conference, you're probably paying for it in some way.