Category Archives: Mobile

Legalize Cell Phone Unlocking

Tem gente com idéia pra tudo! Cell phone lock up, ótimo para mesas de bares e restaurantes! Over the weekend a government ruling based on the DMCA took effect that determines how you can use your cell phone on different carriers. As of Jan 26th it is not legal for you to “unlock” your phone to move it from one carrier to another, unless your current carrier gives you permission.

This was a decision made oddly enough by the Librarian of Congress as an interpretation of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). The end result is that because of copyright issues, you can jailbreak for phone, you cannot jailbreak your tablet, and you cannot unlock your phone.

To clarify, there is a difference between jailbreak and unlock. Jailbreak is bypassing phone controls to put your own software, alter configuration, etc. on a particular phone. Unlock is merely dissociating your phone from a single carrier. When a phone is unlocked, it still has all the same software on it, but can now operate on different networks, say when moving an iPhone from AT&T to T-Mobile.

The theory from the Librarian of Congress it that this somehow is a copyright issue – I won’t explain it because it doesn’t make any sense. The theory from industry is that your cell phone is subsidized and therefore you don’t have rights. This might make sense, except that there is a termination clause. The subsidy comes with strings, for example if you stop your contract early, you pay an early termination fee, usually in excess of the actual subsidy. So in this case, the industry doesn’t actually have an direct loss, in fact probably has a short-term financial gain. On the other hand they lose you as a customer, so long-term there will be loss if they allow you to shop around.

If you like the idea of carrier choice and feel like you’ve paid for your cellphone, sign this petition to make unlocking your own cell phone legal again.

Map Ado About Nothing

Navigation It’s amazing how much noise in mobile technology is created for issues that are at best marginal. For example, there was the iPhone 4 Antennagate. Honestly, my iPhone 4 didn’t give me any antenna problems, nor did my iPhone 4s. I really love my current Nexus 4 phone, but it actually does have problems dropping signal or weak signal. Sometimes it just won’t connect in a place where I know it should, and I have to reboot it. Of course, there is no Nexus 4 antennagate, though perhaps there should be.

So I thought I’d touch on another non-issue… maps in smartphone navigation. I haven’t done any comprehensive test of maps that you could call scientific, but I do know what my own experience is, and it somehow doesn’t match what the noise on the internet says. For the record, I have an android phone and table, and an iOS phone and tablet, so I can currently run checks that should be pretty good.

One thing that I’ve done frequently when I travel with colleagues from work is have us both run our mapping apps at the same time. In the past, I’ve had multiple occasions where the android device using Google maps got us to the wrong location, while the Apple device was correct. Bit caveat here – I normally use a paid app on the iPhone, either Navigon or Magellan. I happen to believe that with maps you get what you pay for, and my experience continues to support that. With that in mind, I really was comparing Google maps to paid maps.

And there’s the rub – if you’re used to old-fashioned web-base map applications with static routes and static turn-by-turn, then the Google map app is amazing. More still if you’ve been stuck in the tar pits and are using a paper map. The experience is so much better with Google, that the fans tend to overlook the comparison with serious GPS applications and devices, where Google maps looks mediocre at best. Don’t get me wrong, Google has a good track record of improving things they care about, and maps seems to be one of them, so it probably will get there. At the moment however, it takes a back seat to the traditional GPS big boys.

So Apple dumped Google map late last year for their own app, how has that worked out? Well there was a lot of noise about how horrible it was and how much money it would cost and how long it would take to fix them. As it turned out, many fixes were made much faster than the naysayers predicted. Surprise – Apple has deep pockets! Note that Apple still has a ways to go, especially against the afore-mentioned GPS big boys, but overall it’s not bad. Like Google, if Apple cares, they’ll fix the problems. If it’s a “marketing checkbox” for them, then it’ll never get fixed. I’d hope for the former, but since I almost always use 3rd party map apps and currently carry the Nexus 4 as my primary, it doesn’t really matter to me.

As far as the reason Apple changed, I’ll leave that as an exercise for the aspiring journalist, but a few possible reasons are:

a) Apple wants to screw us
b) Apple wants to screw Google
c) Apple wants to stop sending revenue in Google’s direction
d) Apple wanted to build voice turn-by-turn full app and Google license didn’t allow it

apple_maps_tomtom1apple_maps_tomtom2 A point to remember in this comparison is also that many people still don’t seem to know that TomTom supplies at least some of the map data behind Apple maps. Note from the picture on the left the TomTom name right above the “Drop Pin” button. On the right look for TomTom intellectual property in the last paragraph. Everyone loves TomTom, everyone hates Apple – what does that tell you about anti-fanboi-ism? The people at TomTom say that the data is fine, and the app has problems, and I suspect they’re correct. I suspect the overall question of accuracy is less troublesome than people make it out to be.

The question is how does it work out in real life usage. I have three examples I’d like to share. My first actual test was traveling to San Francisco for a conference. It was a quick trip, so I decided to use public transit and my feet. Yes, here Apple has a problem, they need public transit support. I was lucky, because I knew basically what I was doing to get from Airport to downtown. The maps came into play when I exited the subway and tried to find my hotel.

In the past, I’ve not been very happy with GPS when I’m on foot in a city. Out in the field they’re great, but when trapped between tall buildings and weak signal it’s tricky, plus nuances of direction and signal accuracy can be far more confusing. On this point Apple scored big for me. When you drill down to their 3D view, you can actually tell not just where you want to go, but where you actually are. Foot travel was a win for Apple. I do happen to enjoy Google’s street view, but I don’t find it useful for navigation.

Best Buy SLO location in Google maps on a Nexus 4
Best Buy SLO location in Google maps on a Nexus 4

The second experience was a recent trip to San Luis Obispo. At the hotel I found myself missing a wanted cable, (gotta have that HDMI cable so I can connect my table to the hotel TV) so I set out in search of the local Best Buy. It was my first trip carrying the Nexus 4, so I was using Google maps.

Best Buy SLO location in Apple maps in iOS 6 on an iPhone 5
Best Buy SLO location in Apple maps in iOS 6 on an iPhone 5

As you can see from the maps on either side, Google got it wrong, while Apple got it right. Unfortunately for me, I was only carrying the Nexus 4 at the time, and had to resort to stopping at a few stores to get directions. When I tried it on my iPhone later, you can see that it put me at the store front, rather than the middle of an empty field.

I know that this happens to Apple maps users as well, the point is that Google also suffers from it’s own share of inaccuracies. I will note that in this instance, I definitely like the better imagery of the Google maps, but accuracy has to come first. Imagery quality varies by locations, sometimes giving the nod to Google, and other times Apple.

Another situation happened to me on New Year’s Eve at the Pomona Valley Mining Co in Pomona, CA. I’ve driven past the place numerous times, as it sits on a hill above the freeway, but I’ve never actually been there and wasn’t sure how to approach it, so I took to the phone maps once again.

pomico_la_iphone4 The top picture, captured from my iPhone, shows a good route using Apple maps. Unfortunately, this was captured after-the-fact, having been misdirected by Google I was curious once again to see if the Apple maps had it right.

The bottom photo is where my Google maps on my Nexus 4 tried to send me. Note that it was correct up until the last, where it directed me for a final right turn, instead of a left and a quick-right. Lucky for me I stopped at the intersection with no traffic behind me and figured it out. pomico_la_nexus4_google

As a funny afterthought, I tried the same thing at home using Navigon on android and it got me to the same wrong place as Google maps, while Navigon on iOS just stopped at the road itself where Android was telling me to turn right, without telling me to turn left or right. This one surprised me, as I’ve had pretty good luck with Navigon. Magellan on iOS did the “right” thing by telling me to turn left. I’m not sure what maps sit behind Navigon on both platforms, but it would be interesting to know.

So there you have it, so far I’ve tried Apple maps three times against Google, and where I live and travel, Apple works out better than Google. What have your experiences with maps been? What app do you really love?

[Update 2016-03-11 It really depends where you live. In the Tysons Corner / McLean Virginia area Apple maps is horrible. In California it’s generally pretty good. Waze is really great in lots of areas – but mostly where there is heavy population density.]

What Are You Doing With Android?

I’m trying to get a better feel for the Android development community from a testing perspective? If you’re creating Android apps or plan to in the near future, please fill out the survey and let me know more about what you’re doing.

If you have other areas or specific tools you’re interested in, let me know in the comments below.

Whacky Rumors – Will Microsoft Subsidize the Surface?

The Microsoft Surface tablet computer.
As I’ve written before, I’m generally opposed to all the silly tech rumors that fly around, such as what features may or may not be in the next Apple or Android device.

However, this idea is just too juicy to let go. Massive disclaimer upfront, I haven’t read this anywhere and have absolutely no proof whatsoever that Microsoft (MSFT) has any such plans. That being said, I’ve certainly wondered about it.

From the day the Surface was announced rumors have been flying about what the thing will cost. Microsoft said:

Suggested retail pricing will be announced closer to availability and is expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM (ARMH) tablet or Intel (INTC) Ultrabook-class PC.

This has lead a lot of people to speculate that the Arm version will be about $500 and the Intel version about $1000 give or take a hundred bucks. A few people asked about them going low like Google (GOOG) and Amazon (AMZN), say in the $299 price range, but conventional wisdom seems to be the higher figure, say Apple (AAPL) price range for Arm and Notebook price range for the Intel.

Personally, I immediately started thinking about the Microsoft strategy for X-box. Give the thing away for as close to cost as possible, even less if you can find a way to do it. Spend a few years subsidizing it and then make it back after you’ve clawed your way up to major market share.

For the most part this worked for X-box. Recently the division has had downturns, but so has the gaming industry on the whole. Overall most would say it’s been a successful strategy for Microsoft. In fact, many point to X-box as proof that the Surface will be successful, although I haven’t seen any such commentary that mentions the pricing strategy that was used. Note also that recently Microsoft began offering subsidies, further lowering the price of the hardware.

It’s undeniable that Microsoft has some work ahead of them if they want to make a dent in the tablet market. Apple has a pretty good lock at the moment. Amazon has gained some traction although with their method of sales reporting it’s difficult to get an accurate count. Google appears set to put some heavy competition on the low-end and small-device market with their Nexus. The Surface is exciting to Microsoft fans because of the OS and because it’s from Microsoft, but aside from that, for tablet customers there is nothing really new or outstanding about the Surface. This is evident from the obviously heavy attention given to the fact that it has a keyboard and a stand, both of which aren’t core issues and are available for every other tablet on the market. I’m not saying it’s a bad tablet, to the contrary it appears to be a decent machine. But nothing special to make it stand out, which is what you need if you’re going up against the iPad.

This is why I keep thinking about the pricing strategy. Microsoft could price it high and call it a premium device. This will keep the margins high, but undoubtedly limit its potential sales. Or Microsoft could go on and really attack the new market like they did with Xbox. This has the risk of alienating their OEM partners, but the upside is capturing real market share. Tell me Microsoft hasn’t at least discussed it internally.

This brings me to the rumor that I never actually heard but have thought about. Microsoft recently announced their Q4 earnings. In their 10-K filing with the SEC Microsoft says:

We may not achieve significant revenue from new product and service investments for a number of years, if at all. Moreover, new products and services may not be profitable, and even if they are profitable, operating margins for new products and businesses may not be as high as the margins we have experienced historically.

This got me thinking again about Surface pricing. If Microsoft is warning that they’re releasing a new product and it might cost them money, it may just be that they’re doing the fiduciary duty in warning investors. On the other hand, maybe they’re expecting to lose money on Surface initially, and if that’s the case, is is the price?

Maybe, just maybe, Microsoft will lowball the price of the Surface and following Amazon and Google’s lead, blow the tablet market wide open. This might not be good for Apple, but a tablet pricing war would be great for consumers. Cross your finger!

What do YOU think? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

[Update Aug 14, 2012]
Today Engadget is reporting to have a source that says the Surface RT will be $199. Hmm… maybe I was right?
[/Update]