9.24.2012 | Goodbye AT&T, hello T-Mobile

All right, so it's been 5 years since I last tried a different cell phone provider. AT&T had its problems, but it had a technologically superior implementation of GSM and zippy 3G speeds. But I got really tired of paying $100 a month just for a phone. When I saw that T-Mobile was offering iPhone users unlimited voice, text and data for $50 a month, I had to jump on it.

My area doesn't have 1900 MHz HSPA+ yet, which would let me use my iPhone at 3G speeds, so I'm operating at 2G speeds on EDGE. That's 0.3 Mbps down and 0.1 Mbps up. For old schoolers, that's about twice the speed of ISDN. Not the fastest internet connection around, but I have to say, despite the slower speeds, much more responsive than AT&T's. Slow and steady wins the race —this thing chugs along, and with a little patience, it can do everything a 3G connection can do (except streaming media … which I had been saving for Wi-Fi anyway under AT&T's onerous data caps).

So that is one thing I can thank AT&T for: by capping data and encouraging people to off-load data-intensive tasks to Wi-Fi, it made the transition to T-Mobile's slower network that much easier! And apparently iPhone-compatible 3G will be available if not next month by the end of the year.

E-mail, Google, and news sites load just fine. Facebook is a bit of a pain due to image loading delays, but I just look out the window while mobile … the view is sometimes more interesting than what's on my phone anyway! Maps was surprisingly responsive, especially after a few main images get loaded. Much less of a pain than I anticipated due to performance problems I had experienced on AT&T's EDGE network.

I'm going to give it a week to see if any glaring coverage problems crop up—AT&T's network is more extensive. But so far, saving $50/mo. on my phone bill is a pretty appealing opportunity.

Update (2/9/13): I'm sticking with AT&T for now for visual voicemail, but word on the street is TMo is getting the iPhone officially at the end of March or early April. Switching is a very tempting proposition to say the least, especially since I've found out AT&T does not let Wireless subscribers use their Wi-Fi networks without paying an additional fee. TMo lets you roam on AT&T WiFi for $10/mo.

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9.21.2012 | iOS6 Maps: really, inexcusably bad

Not often I make a two-part post on a subject, but this one deserves it. For clear examples of how iOS6 maps constitute an #applefail, check out the Tumblr blog over at theamazingios6maps.tumblr.com—here are my favorite examples:

And just in case you were sympathetic with Apple as I was that maybe international destinations might be less ready than U.S. ones, check out these mistakes from Apple's own backyard in California:

That first error is comedic, but the second one makes the app unusable. Unacceptable for a final product even from software companies with worse reputations than Apple. All this, and I haven't even mentioned transit directions yet—or the usefulness of Flyover compared to Street View.

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iOS6 Maps reveal an Apple off-course

Questions swirled around Steve Jobs' departure from Apple—would his successor be able to keep coming with hits that wowed, and would the company maintain its reputation for quality? After the hubbub surrounding the Maps feature in iOS 6 following its release this week, the answer is a definite maybe.

To me this is a sign of a rudderless Apple. I'm not used to this company releasing anything other than products that simply wow with their jaw-dropping quality. Steve Jobs was a very disciplined leader, knowing when to "get rid of the crap"—sitting on features and waiting to release them until public outcry reached fever pitch, and moving only into markets that Apple knew it could dominate.

This does not seem to be anywhere close to the rationale for Apple switching to an in-house version of Maps so soon. The two possible feature benefits—Siri integration and turn-by-turn directions—were already handled fine by third-party apps. Apple was facing no imminent threat to its market share for lacking these features; the iPhone 5 probably would have sold in spades without them. Apple seems to have jumped the gun on this one.

Me? I'm sticking with iOS 5 until either Apple gets its act together (unlikely) or Google Maps releases a standalone app for iOS (likely before Christmas, according to 9-to-5 Mac).

Apple claims that "as a cloud product" its own Maps feature will get better over time with user feedback, but there's already a maps application that has benefited from that refinement: Google's. Not only has it had more time to benefit from user feedback, but unlike Apple's offering, it has a far more vast desktop user base to draw from.

Time will tell if this is a serious enough error on Apple's part, but as an Apple fanboy since 2005 I am not used to this company having to apologize for its releases and promising to do better next time. I knew a company once that released features before they were ready and waited for future releases to allow problems to fix themselves. That company was Microsoft.

Update (9/23/12): Bianca Bosker at the Huffington Post has a well-researched article making some of these points, and one I missed: Google's fleet of Street View cars to ensure accurate street-level data in urban areas. Anil Dash is also quoted as saying this is the first time in recent history that Apple has put corporate strategy ahead of user experience.

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9.17.2012 | Cramming Obama: a case study for Dems

If you want to learn how to run for president, Obama's campaign is writing the book. It's his disciplined campaigning that helped propel him to victory in 2008 over his primary challengers and John McCain, and we're seeing it again against Romney. Even as his party expressed doubts when Romney briefly pulled ahead, Obama never changed course or tried desperate stunts as we're seeing out of the Romney campaign (be it empty chairs or rushes to judgment in Libya).

The most brilliant bit of campaigning so far, though, has to be Reuters's take—printed word-for-word from how senior strategist David Axelrod put it—on how Obama is preparing for the presidential debates: cramming. What? Obama's a masterful speechifier, and his debate performances in the past helped him, not hurt. Why would he need to cram?

There is an argument to be made that as president, Obama has been insulated from the kind of campaigning that won him the election in the first place. Maybe he needs a refresher, but cramming?

Then it hit me: this is a brilliant stroke by the Obama campaign. He's ahead in the polls. He only has something to lose if he doesn't do well in the debates. This is a masterful case of managing expectations, and the media is being played like a finely tuned violin, right down to the article's pointing out that incumbents usually lose the first debate. Since the first debate focuses on domestic policy, it's the one he's most likely to lose. What an inoculation against future criticism!

Wonderful. Slam dunk. Tie it up in the bag and take it home, folks, this election is over. But wait—in an interview with CNN, leader Pelosi opened her mouth and spiked the football. "Everybody knows Romney won't be president," she said. Major bummer. Even though polling bears her out, Americans don't like it when politicians are certain of political victory. They might just decide that they would rather prove her wrong.

In her interview, she had a point that GOP obstructionism is at all-time highs and likely to continue unabated. The filibuster has been abused at record rates (continuing a previous trend), and if Democrats don't get their 60 votes in the Senate and a majority in the House, things aren't likely to change. But you don't win people over by acting overly confident, or by complaining that the other side is being unfair (as Romney did). Perhaps Madam Former Speaker should take a cue from Obama and study her notes.

Or President Clinton's for that matter. When he argued for Obama's re-election at the DNC in Charlotte, he asked America to "renew his contract." That language sounds a lot like another contract that propelled Republicans to sizable Congressional majorities in 1994.

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9.16.2012 | The long-term view of LTE for the iPhone

I've been an AT&T customer for the better part of a decade now. With the exception of a brief, regrettable decision to try T-Mobile for a week in 2007, AT&T has been getting all of my wireless dollars for a couple of reasons: superior technology, and wider coverage. All of that changes with LTE (long-term evolution), the next generation of GSM technology (which once made AT&T the better choice) that is being deployed by all of AT&T's competitors: first Verizon, now Sprint, and soon T-Mobile.

When I stuck with AT&T through its problems with the iPhone, I supported the "underdog"—though people had complaints about AT&T's network, they were spending billions on upgrades, and I did see improved signal, especially in the DC area. But I still experience dropped calls, and since I moved to San Francisco I've seen frustrating dead zones (especially in the Inner Richmond) that have no sign of improving.

As I'm looking to upgrade to iPhone 5, if I wanted the best service in San Francisco, it's pretty clear I'd have to go with Verizon. Their LTE network is already deployed here, and in many other cities nationwide. But they're as expensive and limiting as AT&T, and I've never been a fan of their marketing.

As I look at Sprint, I see extremely limited LTE service that has a very strong chance to get better. With their partner Clearwire, they're going to provide hefty LTE service in urban areas that should avoid the need for Wi-Fi to be part of their basic network strategy as it was with AT&T. And with Google Voice integration, I'm going to be able to keep the personalized phone number I got with Google and use it with the iPhone's built-in phone and messaging software. That's pretty nifty.

Until I get the iPhone 5, T-Mobile is a tempting option now that my AT&T contract is up. With their SIM-only value plans, I can get the same level of service as AT&T for $65 a month instead of $100 (and my AT&T service is already discounted by 15%). But I'm not sure how extensive T-Mobile's iPhone-compatible (1900 MHz HSPA+) 3G coverage is. They won't say on their Web site, and I haven't found any public statements reflecting an area-wide deployment in the Bay Area. So AT&T it is for now.

As an early supporter of the T-Mobile merger with AT&T, I'm seeing now how competition may benefit consumers more in the long run, but it's frustrating to watch two large companies have a head-start on new technology deployments while the smaller, more consumer-friendly companies plod along in their deployments. Competition has a price, it seems.

Update (9/21/12): I've talked with a T-Mobile representative on the phone who's sending me a SIM to try out. He claims iPhone-compatible 4G is available in my area. I've started the process of unlocking my phone and will keep y'all posted.

Update 2 (2/9/13): I've since found out that Sprint's and Verizon's LTE implementations do not yet allow voice over LTE, so there's no using voice and data at the same time on their networks. That leaves AT&T and T-Mobile as my only preferred options. And since I've experienced the range limitations of T-Mobile's network, I'm still left feeling wistful for an AT&T/TMo merger, even if TMo has better terms.

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