My tests of the iPhone 4 antenna

Posted July 13, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Tech

After nearly a week with my iPhone 4, I can say that it is a great device. It’s very fast, the display is great, and the camera is very nice. It does virtually anything I want to do while on-the-go.

But much has been said about the antenna design flaw. And it is a real problem. But I want to set the record straight. It isn’t an issue of gripping the iPhone too tight. It isn’t an issue of the signal meter. It is a problem where bridging one external antenna to the next causes interference. And it is an issue in areas where the signal is weaker.

Although I don’t have access to test equipment like Consumer Reports used, I did some simple and informal testing using the signal strength indicator on the iPhone. I realize that this is not an accurate gauge, but it does give a rough indication of the signal strength.

If I put my iPhone on the table, it reports “5 bars” of signal strength. Next, I put my metal Leatherman Micra pocketknife next to the iPhone, touching the gap between the antennas in the lower left area. If I wait about a minute, the signal strength drops by 1-3 bars. And if I pull the pocketknife away from the iPhone just slightly so that it is close but not touching the iPhone, the signal strength returns to 5 bars. No sweaty fingers required. No “strong grip” needed. I don’t have a video camera handy, or else I would record a demonstration.

But what does this mean in the real world? For me, it simply means that I need to touch the phone in such a way that I don’t bridge this gap between the two antennas. This is only a minor issue for me, and I’m considering a small hack – like applying a small amount of clear material like nail polish to prevent this problem.

While I’m willing to live with this inconvenience, I must say that I do not like how Apple is handling the problem. According to reports, they have passed the buck, saying:

  • hold it differently
  • all phones have issues with signal attenuation
  • get a case
  • it’s simply an issue of how it reports signal strength

Hogwash! This was disproven by the rigorous testing by Consumer Reports.

I agree with Consumer Reports and MG Siegler of TechCrunch: Apple needs to fix this. Granted, this isn’t life-or-death like a design flaw in a major appliance or automobile, but an iPhone is an expensive device when you consider the pricey long-term service agreement. There are many things Apple can do to make this problem go away. They could give away the so-called bumpers. Even a recall would be relatively simple – they could do a retrofit at the Apple stores. But shame on Apple for failing to acknowledge the problem or promising to fix it.

iPhone customers shouldn’t need to use a workaround, even if I personally am willing to do so.

Cheaper eBook readers? Meh.

Posted June 21, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Business, Tech

Today, there was a big price drop in two eBook readers: first the Nook, then the Kindle.

Even at the current prices, I see a dim future for dedicated eBook readers like the Kindle or Nook. First, they are too expensive – both in terms of the devices and the content. As I wrote a few months ago, electronic books have many disadvantages thanks to Digital Rights Management: there are few ways to share electronic books, a device is locked to a single online store, and it is nearly impossible to convert your existing library to electronic books. (All of these problems are solved on digital music players).

Furthermore, dedicated eBook readers like the Kindle or Nook lack the versatility of an Apple iPad. With an iPad, not only can you read books, but you can watch movies, play games and browse the web. And with an iPad, you can buy electronic books from multiple sources besides Apple. In fact, you can use an iPad to read electronic books from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Amazon touts that you can subscribe to electronic magazines on the Kindle. Sorry, but no magazine we get is available electronically on the Kindle.

Earlier, I said that there was a big price drop in two eBook readers. I didn’t say “two popular eBook readers” because I doubt that either one would make the bestseller list.


Posted May 24, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Tech

Currently, there is an outcry over privacy in Facebook. Some minor celebrities have announced that they’re quitting Facebook over privacy. And as evidence that Facebook has gone mainstream, traditional media is running stories on how to protect your privacy in Facebook.

Even today, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted an apology for the confusing privacy settings, without addressing the fundamental privacy issues.

One apologist on TechCrunch wrote that one should not share any private information in Facebook. That’s not bad advice, but it doesn’t exonerate Facebook.

Through most of the internet, it’s clear what information is private and what is public. If you write a blog, it’s public. On Twitter, all posts are global unless you ‘protect’ your account. In email from your home computer, the information is mostly private (though it’s important to avoid sensitive information like passwords).

Facebook promotes itself as the premier site to build a ‘social network’. Share your stories and pictures. Reconnect with distant friends and family. In principle, these should be people you would trust with private information, like when you’re away from home, your birthdate, or your pet’s name. (And personal information like that is frequently used for ‘security questions’ in personal banking and commerce).

The problem is that it’s difficult to keep up with the changing privacy policy from Facebook. They keep pushing the boundaries in order to attract more users and to win more advertising revenue. And each time, I wonder how much personal information they’re sharing with advertisers. I don’t like being ‘marketed to’, and I doubt you do, either. Joining a Farm or a Mafia War seems innocent enough, but I don’t want to be pestered about where I shop or what products I buy. Will my travel or shopping affect my insurance rates? What if a church group decides to badger me about my religious beliefs? Or a political candidate decides to hound me about some political comments?

I fully appreciate that Facebook is in business to make money. I’m willing to pay for a service that will help me connect with friends and family, if they wouldn’t sell out my personal details to the highest bidder. Exploiting my personal relationships is a sleazy move.

I have never liked Facebook, but I reluctantly joined because many of my friends and family participate. I’m hoping for an alternative that doesn’t pay lip-service to privacy – that doesn’t think my personal information is just another bit of marketing data. And hopefully my family and friends will join me so that we can keep the personal conversations private.

Have it our way, fanboys

Posted April 17, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Tech

This Tuesday, Apple released updates to the MacBook Pro computers. Since then, there has been constant complaining among fanboys on Mac discussion sites such as Mac Rumors. People have complained bitterly that Apple didn’t make more aggressive upgrades, such as not offering the 13″ Mac Pro with a Core i5 chip, or not updating the MacBook Air.

I’m quite tired of this complaining. No one is forcing you to purchase an Apple computer. There are many other choices.

I think these fanboys fail to understand how Apple works. Apple offers an end-to-end experience. Their systems – the Mac computer, the iPhone, the iPod – are not open systems. There is no mix-and-match with Apple. The upside with Apple is that things basically work as advertised. The downside with Apple is that you don’t have much choice, and discounts are limited.

In contrast, if you buy a traditional PC from a vendor like Dell or HP, you can configure practically every component. You have access to the latest and greatest chips, cards, drives. But multiple times, I’ve purchased these custom systems and been disappointed when things don’t work as promised. Especially with graphics drivers and ‘sleep’ mode.

Think of Apple like a cruise vacation. With a cruise, you pay one price that includes your room, meals, and transportation while on the ship. But there isn’t much choice. You can’t change the ship’s itinerary in order to skip one port and spend an extra day at another. If you don’t like the shows or movies on board, you can’t drive to another theater.

You might get a better deal if you book a vacation a la carte. You can eat where you want. You can spend time where you want and not where you don’t. And you can find the deals that fit your taste and budget.

I’ve been on the bleeding edge of technology before. And I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to configure broken drivers on Windows or Linux. Trying to figure out why some program keeps crashing. Or simply trying to field phone calls from out-of-town relatives who need help with Windows.

As they say in the movies, “I’m getting too old for this”.

There are other areas where Apple could do better. This isn’t one of them.

The iPhone Crapp Store

Posted April 15, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Tech

One of the most acclaimed features of the iPhone is the App Store, where iPhone users can obtain software applications from a catalog of thousands. I have purchased dozens of these apps. Unfortunately, most are awful, failing to fulfill the potential of the iPhone.

When the iPhone was released, Apple told developers that they would not let developers write native applications for the iPhone. Instead, Apple told developers to write web applications to harness the always-on, unlimited use internet connection from the iPhone. After considerable outcry and the introduction of native applications through backdoor ‘jailbreaking’, Apple relented and provided a software development kit for writing native iPhone applications. Apple also created an official ‘app store’ where developers can sell iPhone applications through Apple’s iTunes Store. Thousands of would-be developers rushed to develop iPhone applications, hoping to profit from the hype over the iPhone app store.

Now, many developers are complaining about the low selling price for iPhone applications. Personally, I think most iPhone applications are so poorly conceived or badly implemented that they are barely worth $1 or $2.

Frankly, many iPhone applications can be implemented just fine as web applications. I can only think of a few cases where native applications are warranted. First, for applications that only need to serve static content, such as an electronic map or book. Second, for applications that need full access to the iPhone hardware, such as games or GPS applications. Third, for applications that need to be useable at times when the internet connection is unreliable or unavailable, such as on an airplane.

Instead, many iPhone apps are poor implementations of simple client-server applications that could have been better implemented as web applications. I think part of the problem is that amateurs have rushed to write iPhone applications, hoping to cash in on iPhone mania.

Let me give two recent examples. I just returned from a vacation at Walt Disney World. A handy application is Lines, which gives estimated waiting times for Disney World attractions. These estimated waiting times are based on real-time updates submitted by other Lines users at Disney. This is a clever use of ‘crowdsourcing’. However, there is no reason why Lines should have been a native iPhone application: it does not need direct access to iPhone hardware, it does not provide static content, and it requires the internet connection. And in fact, Lines is buggy, crashing occasionally and often taking minutes to download just a couple of kilobytes worth of information. I think it would have taken me about a week or two to implement the functionality of Lines as a web application. And it would have been accessible to other devices besides the iPhone.

Another example is the Alaska Airlines iPhone application. This gives access to the timetable, flight arrival and departure information, etc. Again, none of this information is stored on the iPhone; the Alaska Airlines application is simply used in lieu of a web browser. And the Alaska Airlines iPhone application is cumbersome and slow.

If I had some free time, I’d write some iPhone apps and web applications. If it’s so easy for amateurs to write iPhone apps, a professional ought to be able to create something really great. And maybe make some money in the process.

What’s the market for an iPad

Posted January 27, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Tech

Today, Apple announced the iPad, one of the worst kept secrets in the computer industry. Note that Apple rarely pre-announces a product; secrecy is a key part of Apple marketing. However, the iPad requires FCC approval, so Apple cannot keep it a secret to the point that the product ships.

So while we wait for the iPad to ship, I am wondering about its target market. Like others, I see the iPad as a large screen iPhone or iPod Touch. This is a big disadvantage in terms of portability: an iPad won’t fit in an average pocket or purse. It is also less powerful than a laptop: it only runs iPhone-style programs, not the larger library of Mac or Windows software. And it costs nearly double the smaller Kindle.

But the iPad does have some key advantages over an iPhone or laptop. The iPad is inexpensive compared to average laptops or netbooks. And the iPad is considerably lighter than a laptop – especially when you consider accessories like a charger. And an iPhone screen is tiny when compared to a regular computer screen. Finally, assuming that the iPad uses iTunes FairPlay DRM, the licensing model will be much more consumer-friendly than the Kindle.

So I see three possible markets for the iPad:

  • Students who want a great textbook reader.
  • People who want a web browser for the couch or kitchen table.
  • People who travel frequently but don’t need a full laptop.

Unfortunately for Apple, these seem like a niche market to me. Business travelers will generally need a laptop. And if you have a laptop, why get a second web browser to use on the couch or at the kitchen table. Finally, I doubt that electronic editions of student textbooks will be considerably cheaper than the paper editions – editing and writing are much more expensive than printing.

I could imagine owning an iPad if I wasn’t a power user that requires a real laptop while traveling. But we have a house full of computers, a laptop, an iPhone and several iPods, so the iPad is redundant for me.

No need for an internal optical drive in laptops

Posted January 25, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Tech

I think it’s time to eliminate the internal CD/DVD drive on laptops.

Ask yourself: when was the last time you needed your CD/DVD drive when you were away from your home or office? For me, it’s been years. Yet I’m carrying a drive around because it’s built-into nearly every laptop.

Install software? If you’re not doing it via the web, chances are that you wait until you return to the office and use an external optical drive. Sharing files via sneaker-net? A USB flash drive is faster, smaller and reusable. Ripping CDs? Again, something that you’re doing at home or work, not while away. Making backups? Even a Blu-Ray burner can’t fit much content these days – better to use an external hard drive.

A friend suggested I look at a netbook. Sorry, I don’t want a toy computer. I want something more powerful. But I have no need to carry an optical drive with me.

Google in China

Posted January 13, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Business, Tech

The web is abuzz with the story that Google may abandon its presence in China. The news started when Google SVP David Drummond wrote about how Google identified hacking of accounts belonging to Chinese activists. The western response has been predictable:

  • Thanking Google for standing up for human rights
  • Claiming that this gives Google the excuse to close an unsuccessful Chinese division

What hogwash.

If Google really wants to stand up for human rights, they should maintain their presence. Google gives a real alternative to the official Chinese presence on the Internet. Google gives a number of tools such as Blogger and Gmail that let activists communicate their perspective on human rights with Chinese citizens and the rest of the world.

And if Google is using this as an excuse to close an unsuccessful Chinese division, that’s a bad business decision. It doesn’t matter whether Google has the top position in terms of market share. The only thing that matters is whether the Chinese division of Google is profitable for the company. I don’t have any inside information, but I would be surprised if it isn’t profitable. In comparison, Apple Mac computers have a small market share – especially outside the USA. But the Mac is a profitable product for Apple, and Apple isn’t going to stop selling them simply because it has less than 10% global market share.

Shame on Google. It’s a bad decision from both a humanitarian and a business perspective.

P.S. I realize that Google may need to close the China office to protect its employees. Perhaps, but they could always maintain a Chinese site through offices in Taiwan, Singapore or even Mountain View.

Broadband Bill of Rights

Posted December 6, 2009 by Greg
Categories: Business, Tech

High-speed internet is no longer a luxury. It’s a fundamental service in developed nations. Individuals rely on internet access for countless activities: communications, shopping, jobs and schoolwork, news, information. Businesses rely on the internet to attract and interact with customers.

Many articles offer suggestions to fix the state of broadband internet. Most are highly biased. Articles written from the perspective of the consumer speak of an entitlement to broadband, complaining bitterly about even the most trivial reductions in service. Articles written from the perspective of the service providers speak of wasteful consumers who threaten to crash networks and bankrupt the businesses.

To protect consumers and businesses – and preserve productivity – we need a Broadband Bill of Rights. Here is my suggestion.

Article 1: Consumers have the right to unlimited internet access, but do not have the right to unlimited internet access for a fixed price.

There shall be no caps on the use of internet. You shall be entitled to download anything, anytime. However, you do not have the right to unlimited use at a fixed price. Broadband providers shall be free to charge based on your use of the internet. If they want to offer unlimited packages for a fixed price, that’s great. But there shall be no government mandate to offer fixed price, unlimited internet.

Article 2: All legal content is created equal.

There shall be no discrimination in terms of network traffic. All legal communications shall have full and equal access to the network. Network providers shall be forbidden from any traffic shaping that discriminates based on the type of communications. Especially for competing services such as voice and television. Peer-to-peer file sharing of legal content such as Linux distributions shall also be protected.

Article 3: Consumers have the right to reliable service.

If the broadband provider does not meet the promised level of service, you shall be entitled to a refund. The promised level of service shall include both a speed guarantee and an uptime guarantee. The refund shall be granted automatically – customers need not ask for a refund. And if a provider is consistently failing to meet its guarantees, you shall be entitled to terminate your contract without any penalties.

Article 4: No exclusive or locked hardware.

All hardware shall be enabled to work on compatible networks. Furthermore, no network provider may have an exclusive contract to sell a particular hardware device. For instance, the Apple iPhone shall be sold only as an unlocked phone that can be used on any compatible GSM network, and Apple shall make the iPhone available to competing GSM network operators such as T-Mobile USA. However, network providers may continue to offer discounted hardware in return for a long-term service contract. Furthermore, a hardware vendor is not required to make its hardware available for all network technologies. For instance, Apple may continue to offer the iPhone exclusively for GSM networks – Apple is not required to offer a CDMA version of the iPhone.

Article 5: The pricing plan shall be plain and clear.

There shall be no hidden fees. When there is an introductory discount, the regular rate shall be clearly written in all promotional and pricing information.

Article 6: A customer may terminate a contract without penalty if the operator makes changes to the contract terms.

At the time a contract is started, the network operator shall spell out all its charges for the duration of the contract. If the network operator makes any changes to the costs or services during the period of the contract, the customer shall have the opportunity to terminate the contract without penalty.

Article 7: No usage-based pricing without monitoring tools.

If a network operator offers a use-based pricing plan, they shall provide clear tools to monitor the bandwidth use and costs incurred. This requirement is waived for unlimited use plans.

Article 8: Government shall foster broadband competition.

1 billion served

Posted April 23, 2009 by Greg
Categories: Business, Tech

One key innovation of the iPhone (and iPod Touch) was the App Store, an online marketplace for 3rd party applications. Today, Apple will reach one billion applications downloaded through the App Store.

This has inspired many people to write applications for the iPhone. This week, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that amateurs are learning how to create applications for the iPhone.

Unfortunately, this shows. So many of the applications are garbage. How many fart and bikini girl applications do we need? Seriously, how many high school boys own iPhones?

As for the serious applications, many are ill-conceived or badly coded. For example, today I tried an application that is supposed to scan a UPC barcode and check prices. I grabbed a few items around my home but it failed to read every barcode. And it was so slow that I could have typed the numbers much, much faster. Granted, much of the problem is due to the limitations in the iPhone’s camera. But why didn’t the developer consider this before taking the time to develop the application?

Other good ideas are ruined with bad implementations. For example, I rely on an electronic grocery list – first for my Treo, now for my iPhone. But most of them for the iPhone force you to use its limited keyboard and menus for data entry. Why do this when you sync your iPhone with a full computer? (Those that realize this suffer from miserable desktop or web applications).

Furthermore, many applications really do not need to be standalone applications – they could be as good or better as pure web applications. However, the economics of the App Store rewards standalone applications, so I don’t expect to see much innovation in terms of iPhone web applications. That’s unfortunate.

I’ve read some iPhone ‘developers’ complain that iPhone applications have such a low selling price. The solution? Produce better applications. Considering the low quality of so many applications, I’m not willing to pay more than a dollar or two for most iPhone applications.

There are a few applications that really make my iPhone much more useful. The remaining 95% of applications are a waste. At least they don’t cost too much.

Meantime, I wish I had a bit more free time to write some Apps myself. I have a few good ideas but no time. Though I worry that only the fart and bikini apps are making real money.