My wife and I just returned from a two-week vacation visiting Oslo, Bergen and the fjords in Norway, and several towns in Normandy and the Loire Valley in France. I was able to try out some products — not to make work more efficient, but to help make our vacation run smoothly. We carried a MacBook, iPad, and two phones, a Verizon iPhone and T-Mobile HTC One.

Getting connected was less important for email and work, and more important to get in touch with the surroundings to make good choices and better use of our time. WiFi connections at the many hotels we stayed in were free, but in several of them the service was too slow or erratic for browsing or making Skype calls.

While I tried T-Mobile’s new international plan in China a couple of months ago and found it to work well, this was my first time trying it in Europe. Like almost everywhere else in the world, T-Mobile offers free data and phone calls for just 20 cents a minute.

Not surprisingly, it turned out to be the most useful gadget we brought. Last time I was in Europe, I was reluctant to use my Verizon phone for data of any kind, fearful of all those exorbitant international roaming charges. I had to be extra careful: Turn it on, check out directions or a restaurant, and quickly put it back on airplane mode. Even then, I paid nearly $200 for a week of carefully monitored use.

With the T-Mobile service, there were no concerns, no worries and everything worked much as it does at home. We used data for getting directions, checking out restaurant reviews and researching the areas we visited. We gave out our phone number without a concern, knowing that a short call might cost $10 or $20 on other carriers. We made local calls, calls back home and even responded to some email messages. And we used Yelp to find local restaurants and visited the websites to check menus.

Our data connection varied from 2G to 4G, depending on location. It was mostly 3G and 4G in and near cities. 2G data, mostly in the countryside, was marginal and you wouldn’t want to browse, but it usually worked for directions and email. And with a feeling of satisfaction, we used the T-Mobile phone’s hotspot to connect my wife’s iPad and my Verizon iPhone to the Internet to check mail and make a Skype call.

In France, where we rented a car, our most important use was accessing the phone’s GPS. However, we found Google Maps to be disappointing and not nearly as good as it is in the United States. It occasionally got confused and led us astray, once when we were driving to a famous chateau in France and another time driving to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

On several walking excursions, it sent us to the wrong location and didn’t seem to know where we were. When searching for a destination, it often failed to return directions. No matter how we set it, the directions that it did give seemed to be the shortest route between two points, no matter that it was through a farmer’s cornfield!

Most noticeable was its abysmal pronunciation of French street names, even well-known names. For example, “Voltaire” was pronounced as Vault-er. I can understand the app doesn’t speak French, but to mispronounce so many words so badly made the speech nearly unrecognizable.

On the other hand, Waze, now owned by Google, worked much better. It instantly found routes, offered detours around traffic and identified accidents on the highway.

I also took along a new Garmin GPS to try out. Before I left home, Garmin had provided me a subscription to their European maps ($100). But loading the maps was a complicated process: I had to register the GPS unit by plugging it into the computer and it took several attempts to be recognized.

I then downloaded the maps onto a microSD card in the device; that took almost an hour over a fast home cable Internet connection. When I was all done, and it told me it was successful, I tried checking for the maps on the GPS, but the simplified user interface had no way to let me check its map contents, as best as I could tell.

When I arrived in Norway and again in France and turned on the GPS, it failed to show any local directions or destinations. Even if it had worked, with such complexity, I’m sad to say the Garmin is no longer competitive for either cost or ease of use.

One of the frustrations in visiting Europe is that U.S. banks still don’t offer chip and PIN credit cards. They’re standard in Europe and provide greater security because your information is read from a chip imbedded in the card — not the magnetic stripe — and it requires you to enter a PIN number. Shopkeepers bring you a handheld terminal so you always have your card in your possession.

Some credit card companies (American Express, Chase, and Citibank) offer a card with a chip, but you often have to request it, and it’s available only on premium accounts. While we were able to make purchases and pay for meals, we ran into trouble paying highways tolls and buying gas. The cards didn’t work for either, and we needed to use cash. This is just one area where we are behind in technology.

According to, the only issuers of chip and PIN in the United States are State Department Federal Credit Union EMV Visa Platinum, Andrews Federal Credit Union, GlobeTrek Visa, PenFed’s Platinum Rewards, Promise & Gold Visa, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard and the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard.

I took along a few other products that proved useful: a portable power strip that turns one outlet into three, something very useful with most hotel rooms having a scarcity of outlets. I used the Travelocity 3 Port Travel Outlet for $15. It’s the smallest one I could find, but there are similar units from Belkin and Monster. You just use it with an outlet plug converter such as the OREI Grounded Universal 2 in 1 Schuko Plug Adapter from Amazon ($6.25), and you can charge three items at once.

I traveled with a $75 ScottEVest Pack Jacket. This lightweight jacket with a rain hood took very little space to pack, and was vital during the many rainy days. Its 16 pockets were perfect for protecting my camera and phones and even holding an umbrella and mini-iPad. (

On the last night of our stay we found online that a flight to San Diego opened up where we could use our mileage for super saver awards, so we wouldn’t need to fly into LAX and rent a car to drive home. I immediately called United Airlines from the hotel room using Skype, knowing it would be a lengthy call. But Skype was not working well, so I redialed using the T-Mobile phone. Even a 20-minute call was only $4 and the connection was superb.

The bottom line is, if you travel internationally, it’s important to take the right gadgets. As it turned out, I used mostly the T-Mobile phone and notebook computer. I would have left the other devices home. Most important, taking along a T-Mobile phone will save you a fortune and make your trip easier and more enjoyable.

If you do consider T-Mobile, one caution is that it doesn’t have as big a data network as Verizon and AT&T across the United States, so check your local coverage. My experience over the four months of use is its coverage has been more than adequate for me throughout Southern and Northern California.


I recently returned from a short trip to Shenzhen, the large Chinese city less than an hour’s drive north of Hong Kong. When anyone wonders why we don’t build consumer electronic products in the United States, the one-word answer is Shenzhen.

When I first traveled to this city more than 30 years ago, I’d walk out of the train station and see locals hawking live chickens and the sidewalks filled with homeless people. I’d get into a cab that was usually filthy, both inside and out, and pray for my life while the driver navigated gravel roads full of ruts while his head was sticking out his window because the windshield was covered with mud. At that time, the area was full of factories making cheap consumer goods. Now Shenzhen is a large modern city comparable to Shanghai or even Hong Kong.

But as I was reminded on this trip, Shenzhen has turned into the world capital of consumer electronics manufacturing. Shenzhen is to the making of these products as Silicon Valley is to designing them.

In fact, there’s a practical bond between the two areas, evident each day at breakfast at any one of the dozens of internationally branded hotels, such as the Sheraton, Shangi-La, Hyatt, Hilton, Four Seasons, St. Regis and Westin.

At breakfast you see tables full of young American engineers and project managers from Apple, Google, HP, GoPro, Amazon and dozens of smaller startups beginning their day of heading into the factories to solve problems to get their products into production. For many, it’s a constant shuttle between San Francisco and Hong Kong airports, as often as twice a month for some.

An employee monitors machinery that adheres components to smartphone circuit boards in a manufacturing facility at ZTE Corp.’s headquarters in Shenzhen, China. Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

After a few visits, it’s certainly not much fun to make the 15-hour flight, especially crunched up in an economy seat. But in spite of that, making the trip is the best way to take your product from an idea to manufacturing with the best chance for success — not just for large companies, but even for entrepreneurs with an idea.

Shenzhen companies thrive on building new products, and there are usually companies skilled in your area, so you can find an experienced team for not much cost, because they want to fill their factories.

Shenzhen looks much like any other large modern city, but with a population of 10.35 million, everything is in large scale. It has the largest library in the world and the largest city hall. Beneath the appearance of a buzzing metropolis full of skyscrapers and clogged highways, is a network of thousands of companies focused on supporting the world’s thirst for the next smartphone, HD TV or gizmo you didn’t know you needed until you read about it.

These companies are housed in factories scattered within a two-hour radius that vary from nondescript cement structures to sprawling office parks that look like ones you might see in Japan or Taiwan. Depending on what they produce, they can be as clean as an automated Japanese factory or something resembling a sweatshop from the 1930s.
Occasionally, but not often, there will be a factory producing low-cost components that barely skirt the laws of tolerable working conditions, but that’s the exception rather than the rule when it comes to technology products.

But what this network in Shenzhen — supported by huge factories in other cities such as Shanghai — does better than anywhere else in the world, is build huge volumes of the components that go into consumer electronic products: lithium-ion batteries, LCD displays, touch screens, motors, electrical components, switches, plastic moldings, printed circuit boards, semiconductors, packaging, antennas, speakers, microphones, leather, plastic and other assorted materials. And for each component, there are scores of companies in intense competition that keep the prices down and advance the technology.

There’s one human characteristic that’s also important, and it’s not labor costs, although that is a secondary factor. It’s the attitude of the people who work in this industry. They have a high work ethic and can-do attitude that gets things accomplished without any fear of failing or thinking something can’t be done — even when sometimes it can’t. Whether companies are thriving or struggling, they will rarely turn away new business, and most have an insatiable thirst to try new things so they can learn and grow.

Now, it’s not all rosy. Every company has strengths and weaknesses, A teams and C teams, smart and not so. Interest in taking on your product can wane if sales don’t meet expectation or if a bigger customer comes along. It’s often painful to get things done with junior people. But in the end, there’s no better alternative. As to copying your product, it’s not a big issue, and when it occurs, it’s usually by other companies that become aware of it once the product goes on sale.

I’m often asked why we can’t make these products in the United States. When it comes to a high-volume consumer electronic product that contains a variety of components, building it in the United States is just not practical or often even possible, while still maintaining the cost, quality and fast time to market. And even if it were, we don’t have the same attitude of taking quick action and being responsive.

When Motorola tried building its smartphone in a plant in Texas, the company needed to import the parts from China. There are virtually no companies in the United States that make batteries, displays, speakers, semiconductor chips and wire for mass-produced products. While there may be companies building some of these components in low volume for the military, few are competitively priced.

The United States does build printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs), partly because it’s a highly automated process using assembly machines and components available worldwide. But you still need to take those PCBAs and combine them with the touch screens, the lithium-ion batteries and the tiny motors and speakers. To import these efficiently you must send them by boat; that takes a couple of weeks and ties up lots of dollars in inventory costs.

But more importantly, suppose that when the displays arrive, they have a defect. What do you do? If you were building the product in Shenzhen, you would call the company that’s an hour away and they will have engineers in your factory in a few hours to fix the problem. Try that from the United States and you would likely shut down your assembly line for several weeks.

Multiply this by the hundreds of parts and processes that go into your product that comes from China. Not only is it inefficient, but it’s also just not practical to build these kinds of products in the United States. And even if a company were to try, it could not compete with its competitors on many dimensions. A perhaps cruel, but accurate, analogy is trying to build an automobile in the Arctic from parts made in Detroit.


Ever since I discovered T-Mobile’s ridiculously low-cost International service, I’ve been carrying a T-Mobile phone (HTC One M8) along with my Verizon iPhone 5s.

Not only has it allowed me to report on how the two carriers compare, but I’ve also been able to compare Android and the Apple iOS operating systems. So it’s been helpful for my reporting.

But I’ve discovered that there’s other value to doing this. With smartphones offering so much functionality beyond just talk, it allows me to multitask using some of the other functions. For example, while talking on the Verizon phone in the car, I use the navigation on the T-Mobile phone. Verizon’s CDMA technology doesn’t allow simultaneous use of data and voice.

I’ve had a few instances of getting an incoming call while using the iPhone’s navigation, when suddenly my directions stop. The two phones allow me to take the call rather than pulling over to talk, if I continue to need directions.

I’m also able to use one phone while accessing email and the Internet on the other. That comes in handy when on a call and needing to refer to an email, calendar or contact list at the same time. The HTC phone also provides an advantage when I need a larger display.

Carrying two phones works especially well for those who love their Blackberry yet want some of the features of an Android or iOS phone, such as better Web browsing or access to a much larger assortment of apps.

Some might also find it useful to give out two numbers, one for work and one for personal. That way you can filter your calls by which phone you use. In my case I use a single Google Voice number (available free from and set it up to ring both phones simultaneously.

That allows me to answer an incoming call on one phone while on the other. While I could use the hold function on one phone to answer the incoming call, too often I find the hold will drop the waiting call, particularly with the iPhone.

Having two carriers can also help when you have a weak signal. The other day my wife said my voice was breaking up while using the Verizon phone; when I switched to the T-Mobile phone it was much clearer.

Ever come across a situation where you get a voice message, and you never heard the phone ring? That occurs when the carrier’s towers are overloaded and is much less likely to happen with two carriers.

One of the disadvantages of two phones is keeping the calendars and contacts in sync and up to date on both. The HTC has a feature that lets you import contacts from your other phone using Bluetooth. That worked fine for me to move all my contacts from the iPhone to the HTC phone, but it doesn’t keep them synced.

I haven’t found a convenient method to sync Google and Apple calendar directly in a reliable manner. As a result, I don’t use the Google calendar on the HTC and instead use the iPhone’s iCal and Fantastical calendars. If I wanted to keep them synced on the two phones, I’d enter all my appointments on my Apple products as Google appointments. Or even better, I could use two iPhones; then my contacts, calendar and even apps are perfectly synced.

Another advantage of carrying two phones is I can go much longer between charges by using both phones. With my usage patterns I find the iPhone 5S’s battery to barely last a day, but now I can revert to using the HTC phone if needed. But typically I carry the iPhone with a Mophie battery case and don’t worry about it. Both the iPhone with the Mophie and the HTC phone now use the same micro USB cable for charging.

Now, you might assume that carrying two phones would cost twice as much, but that’s not been my case. With my overseas traveling of about five times a year, I no longer opt for Verizon’s international data plan of $25 for 100MB when traveling and no longer use the phone for calling when I leave the country.

I put the Verizon phone in airplane mode and turn on Wi-Fi to avoid all charges outside of the United States. That typically saves me about $80 per trip or $400 per year. I also reduced my data plan on Verizon for a $20 per month savings, because data is now shared between both phones. That adds up to a $620 yearly reduction off my Verizon bill.

My T-Mobile plan costs $60 per month plus $28 per month for the phone or about $1,050 per year, so net cost is $430 or about $35 per month. Now, if I already owned a T-Mobile phone, signing up to T-Mobile would be essentially free.

This is surely a step away from simplifying your life, but with smartphones becoming so essential to our daily lives, some will find two phones to be better than one.


Over the course of a business day I spend lots of time using iCal, Apple’s default calendar program. I use it to plan, to keep track of my schedule, create alerts for appointments and import my travel schedule from TripIt.

I also try to use it for reminders and to-dos, although that’s one of its weakest features. Although it has been one of the most requested features, Apple has unfortunately all but abandoned adding new functionality to iCal, and has made few improvements over the last half-decade. The most recent was a visual makeover to more closely resemble its iPad version.

I was recently introduced to a new calendar program by Michael Simmons, co-founder of Flexibits. It’s called Fantastical and is available for the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers. It adds a wealth of new features that make it more flexible and provide better integration of your to-do activities into your calendar. Simmons explained that he created it as a result of iCal not having the features he needed to use.

There are three versions, for the Mac, iPad and iPhone.

• The Mac version is on sale at half off for just $10. It appears as an icon on your taskbar at the top of the screen. A click opens a small window that displays a monthly calendar at the top with a scrollable list below it that contains your reminders, to-do items and appointments. What is displayed can be easily customized.

As you scroll down the list, the calendar date being highlighted synchronizes with the events under your cursor. Likewise, as you move your cursor over the dates on the calendar, that day’s items appear in the list. You can click on any event and a box opens detailing the event, allowing you to make changes, much like iCal. The list contains appointments and to-do items that are easily distinguishable.

The Fantastical calendar program is available for the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers. Courtesy photo

But the best feature, common to all versions, is how easy it is to add items to your calendar. Simply type in natural-language phrases such as “meet with Bob Tuesday at 9” and it creates an appointment, even using some cute animation. Or type in a to-do and it will set an alert for a specific day.

Fantastical is localized in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, and allows users to enter events in any of the languages, regardless of the language setting of the computer.

Fantastical is integrated with iCal so that after entering a new item, it immediately appears on iCal and vice versa. For example, when Tripit imports an event into iCal, it shows up on Fantastical. Apple could take a lesson from this company when it comes to creating a much richer product with a superb user interface.

• Fantastical 2 for the iPad 2, also on sale for $10, is even more impressive. The full-screen view resembles the iCal monthly page, but there are many additional features. Open a meeting appointment that you’ve been invited to and you see all the attendees, and can even email them from the window.

While the monthly view looks much like that on the iCal, when you drag the bottom of the calendar up you see a three-pane window. One graphically shows your busy time for the week, day by day; another displays a smaller monthly view; and a third lists all the events and activities.

Fantastical is designed for all iPads running iOS 7. Additional features include half-screen and full-screen week view, reminders, choice of white text on black or black text on white, background app refreshing, floating time zone support, and birthday reminders and greetings.

• The basic view for the iPhone, at the sale price of $5, is a monthly calendar below which is a list of upcoming events, much like the drop-down window on the Mac. You can shift between the month view and a five-day view with a search field.

The list by date can be set to show all days or just those with appointments. Other settings provide plenty of flexibility for what’s included in the list. You can rotate the phone in portrait mode to see a weekly view.

Entering appointments is much like the other devices, but you can also use the phone’s speaker to dictate a new event. That’s even easier than typing, and it works better than Siri.

The beauty of using each of these apps on your Mac, iPhone and iPad is that everything is synced. If you decide to try one of the apps, I’d recommend the iPad version as a start. But like me, you’ll likely find it such an improvement over iCal that you’ll buy it for all your devices. (


Net neutrality means that the Internet service providers (ISPs) treat all data that travels over their networks in exactly the same way. It’s the way the Internet has worked since its inception and has transformed our lives in nearly everything we do. It’s also spawned innovation to create products and services we never imagined.

But there’s an effort underway to change the way it’s been working that will benefit a few large ISPs at the expense of the public and other businesses. This change is being led by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for Comcast appointed by President Barack Obama.

His proposal is to change the equal-access provision and set up two classes of service, one that provides faster speeds and better access to those websites that pay, and a slower access speed for those that don’t want to pay.

Comcast is one of the strongest advocates for this change and would be one of the companies to benefit the most from it; if Comcast succeeds in buying Time Warner Cable, it would control a third of the high-speed Internet market. Since few of us have more than a single choice of high-speed Internet service providers, the purchase would extend its reach even further.

But Comcast has one problem: It is constantly in the running for being the most hated company in America. This year the company won that title in a contest conducted by the consumer site, owned by Consumer Reports. A phone call last week that made news all over the Web demonstrated why they are so disliked.

Ryan Block, a friend of mine who co-founded the gadget website Engadget, and his wife, Veronica Belmont, were recently trying to cancel their Comcast cable account, but the customer service agent had no interest in accommodating them. Even though they had already signed up for a new service, the rep refused to allow them to cancel.

Ryan writes, “The representative continued aggressively repeating his questions, despite the answers given, to the point where my wife became so visibly upset she handed me the phone. Overhearing the conversation, I knew this would not be very fun.

“What I did not know is how oppressive this conversation would be. Within just a few minutes the representative had gotten so condescending and unhelpful I felt compelled to record the speakerphone conversation on my other phone.”

“This recording ( picks up roughly 10 minutes into the call, whereby she and I have already given a myriad of reasons and explanations as to why we are canceling (which is why I simply stopped answering the reps repeated question — it was clear the only sufficient answer was “OK, please don’t disconnect our service after all.”)

Even at the end of the call when the agent finally gave up, he refused to provide any cancellation number or confirmation of the call.

Comcast issued a statement saying, “We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and are contacting him to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with him is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives.

“We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.” reported that it, “Has heard from Comcast call center workers, both past and present, who agree that maybe while this guy went a bit far, it’s only because that’s the culture at the company, and that customer service reps are actually trained to do just what he did. … As multiple tipsters are telling us, CSRs can only have a certain amount of “discos” — or disconnects — on their personal tallies each day, and must meet a certain quota of “saves,” for which they can earn bonuses and/or commission.”

This is the same company that wants to insert itself in one of the country’s most precious assets.

Nearly every company and organization in the technology sector, as well as a large majority of the population, is opposed to these changes proposed by the FCC. How much do people care? When comedian John Oliver explained on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” what was being proposed, it generated 45,000 near instant responses to the FCC.

The FCC has received more than 1 million comments from the public regarding its proposed net neutrality rules. According to the FCC’s Gigi Sohn, 1,030,000 comments had been submitted by noon Friday on the East Coast.

Opposition is also coming from the major technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix that have petitioned the FCC to drop their plans. The Internet Association, the organization representing nearly 40 tech companies, including those above, also filed a formal petition in opposition. They want companies to compete by being able to attract customers based on their products and services, not on speed of access.

The FCC has recently begun accepting direct comments from the public. If you are opposed to this new scheme, it’s important to contact the FCC and Congress to let them know. We don’t want to hand over control of one of our most important resources to a near-monopoly. Call the FCC at 888-225-5322 or email comments about the net-neutrality plan to


This story began in January, when I was cleaning my office and rearranging its spaghetti nest of wires. I noticed the cable modem that I pay Time Warner Cable $7 per month for and it dawned on me that I could save that fee by buying my own modem.

So I bought an ARRIS/Motorola SB6121 Surfboard, much like the one Time Warner uses, from Staples for about $60 and returned the rented unit.

The new modem requires registering its MAC number, so I called Time Warner to provide the information. The modem worked for a day and then wouldn’t connect; a second call to Time Warner to re-register solved that problem. I was pleased to be saving the monthly fee, as inconsequential as the savings were, but more than that, finding a way to fight back at the cable industry’s continuously increasing fees.

But a couple of days later, I noticed that the modem would disconnect from the cable network and I’d be unable to reach the Internet. The outage lasted for a minute or two, then the modem would reset itself and work again. The power never went out, just the connection. Over the next few weeks when it became more of an annoyance, occurring from five to 10 times a day, so I finally called Time Warner.

The cable guy checked the signal at the modem and found it to be a little weak. He went outside and replaced a splitter, and thought that was the cause. He also checked the modem and said it was on Time Warner’s approved list. But the problem still continued.

Another visit from another cable guy, who thought the problem was caused by my sending too much data. He wasn’t more specific other than to say I must be sending videos or someone else is accessing my network and doing that, even though I never send videos. But I reset my passwords to increase security.

Still the problem continued and seemed to get worse. Every afternoon it would fail several times an hour.

Another call, another visit. This time the cable guy replaced the wiring from the light pole on the street to the house. No change; drops continued.

I then thought it could be a result of a defective modem, so I exchanged it at Staples, reregistered it, and really hoped it was the cause. But, still the problem continued. I contacted the modem manufacturer and the customer support person looked at all of the hidden diagnostics for the modem on my computer, and assured me it could not be the modem, and must be a problem with the cable signal failing.

Just to be sure that my house voltage wasn’t a problem, I bought a backup power supply (UPS) for $150 that eliminated any voltage fluctuations, should they exist. But the drops continued even with the replacement modem.

You can imagine how annoying this was becoming — several months of intermittent outages with no idea of the cause. I was really getting annoyed at Time Warner. Why couldn’t they fix this and why should it take so long to figure it out? I began looking for other Internet services, but all I could find that served my neighborhood was AT&T’s U-verse service, which had lower connection speeds and just fair reviews.

I called Time Warner once more and reached a supervisor, Bob, who was sympathetic but equally baffled. He came to my home with a three-man crew to test everything that could be tested, going from room to room, wherever there was a TV. They measured every connection, checking the data going out and coming in, working for three hours.

They found that that something was emitting noise from inside my home out to the main cable line and looked for the cause of it. They checked the wiring from the connection at the telephone pole to the house, along the walls, in the attic and in the crawl space beneath the house. They crawled into spaces that were never meant for humans. They found a corroded connection in the crawl space that had likely been sitting in the dirt for years. They replaced it and the noise on the line was eliminated.

Could this have been the cause? We all were hoping. Bob said he’d check in with me every day, and true to his word, he did. The first day there was no dropping of the Internet. I was cautiously optimistic. But then the next day there was one occurrence, and the next day more. A week later it was clear that the problem was still unsolved.

When I spoke with the Bob and his partner Mark, both seemed as frustrated as I was and suggested they replace my modem with one of theirs. Sure, why not? And it was done the next day.

Again he called every day to see if the problem was solved.

A day went by with no dropouts; a second day and a third. It’s now been three weeks and my connection has never gone down. Yes, the problem appears to be finally solved, six months from when it began. And it was the modem I had installed.

The moral of this story? Leave well enough alone and beware of unintended consequences, particularly when you tamper with technology that’s working. That elusive $7 savings was not worth the aggravation it caused or the money that I spent on the back-up power supply. But I do have much more respect for Time Warner and the problems and people they deal with.


Collecting and analyzing our personal data continues to grow exponentially. It’s not just the NSA, but businesses such as Google and Facebook, whose growth depends on learning more and more about us and everything we do.

We used to assume that it was OK to provide some basic information to these companies in exchange for using their apps. How cool was Google Maps that we let follow us in exchange for reporting back traffic and routing information? Or Google Now for checking our calendar and telling when it was time to leave for the airport? And by giving access to our address book, Facebook allowed us to connect with lost friends and create a social network we could check in with every day. We marveled at these services.

At first, we were given ample warnings and ways to opt out from being tracked. The companies always said the information was gathered for their own use and would never be shared. But the value of this data and the need to please shareholders has caused Google and Facebook to make changes in their privacy policies over time to a point where virtually everything we do is now accessible to them.

No longer are we able to opt in to allow us to be tracked. Instead, we must opt out — but only if we can find the near-hidden pages and cope with the confusing language. When anyone criticizes what the companies do, their stock answer is “it’s in the agreement we signed.” Yes, a 9,000-word document of legalese in a font size too small to read that would take hours to digest.

But now, thanks to failed government oversight, overly ambitious startups and investors — many with little ethical grounding — and the lure of rewards from data mining, hundreds of companies are gathering even more personal information. It’s become a currency they can sell to data brokers and use to target us with advertising or something worse.

Facebook has moved from just monitoring Facebook activities to monitoring everything we do on our devices. They can now track what sites we go to, what we buy, who we’re meeting with, and with this information can easily figure out our income and age. They sell this data to advertisers to better target us with relevant material. Companies can use even our income level to decide what price to charge when we make a purchase.

It was revealed last week that Facebook conducted a huge psychological experiment on 700,000 users. Behavioral scientists manipulated the data feeds by filtering out either the positive or negative posts to see how customers reacted when they had either more positive or more negative feeds.

Some dismiss it as just market research that’s conducted on many products and advertising campaigns, but it touches an area that’s very uncomfortable for many. How would you like to be the subject of an experiment without even being asked to participate?

Google, which is already monitoring us through the Google apps we use and mostly love, is aggressively expanding its reach into our personal activities at home. It has purchased two companies, Nest and DropCam, which have products that can monitor our home and us. Nest’s thermostat is connected to our home’s WiFi network to provide information such as whether we are home, as well as the temperature and the weather outside. It takes little imagination to see that it won’t be long before they monitor our conversations, ostensibly to be there to help.

Google will tell you that much of this is being done to make advertising more effective. They are doing you a favor by showing ads of interest. I’m skeptical that online advertising really even works all that well. After all, do we really want to be interrupted with a pop-up page while we’re trying to do something else?

I ignore most ads. A few months ago I didn’t and I regret that. I clicked on a display ad that offered a free sample of men’s jockey shorts only to find that I needed to fill out a long questionnaire, which I chose not to do. From then on for months and months, on nearly every site I went to, there was a pair of underpants displayed on every page. It followed me between two computers, an iPhone and an iPad. It was really, really annoying.

Does an advertiser really expect that I appreciate being interrupted while trying to click on a news story? Does that advertiser expect to get me interested on the 10th or 100th time I see its ad? No, I become more annoyed that I can’t get rid of their stalking. And now more advertising is being moved to mobile, where an interruption is even worse.

So what can you do to provide a little more protection?

• If it’s unclear that an app cannot make money through upgrades or in-app sales, hesitate to install it. It will likely make money through some other way, such as selling personal information.

• Before installing an app, look at what the company is asking for. Does it make sense that a game app needs to have access to your address book and phone number? If its list of requests makes no sense, don’t install it and let the company know that.

• Don’t agree to sign in to any third-party sites using your Facebook or Google credentials. You’ll risk giving them access to more personal data.

• Never provide permission when requested to allow an application to collect and send back information, even when it says it’s to improve the product. It’s another way of saying “we want to track you.”

• Never fill out survey windows that pop up when you go to a new site. I’m amazed at how many times one opens and asks me to rate a website that I’ve seen for only 3 seconds.

• Install Adblock on each browser that you use. It’s a free extension that removes all ads. That’s how I eliminated the underwear ads.

Now, I’m still not planning on giving up Google or Facebook — I get a lot of utility from both — but I will continue to tread with caution and take care in avoiding disseminating my personal information.


I was on a panel last week at Stanford University that was part of an educational program put on by True Ventures, an early-stage venture company. It a program for founders of their companies involved in developing new products. Each of us on the panel was asked to offer three pieces of advice involving the development of new products.

Ryan Block was the moderator and former editor of Engadget, one of the first and most successful tech blogs, and co-founder of gdgt, an electronics reviews and shopping site. He’s now a product executive at AOL, which acquired both companies.

Ryan’s advice was:

• Seek balance.

• Just say no.

• Your product should do less, not more.

He explained that you will always have decisions to make that will seem in conflict. The challenge is to find the right balance between alternatives. One example is making a decision based on financial requirements versus using your instinct to make your product more appealing.

For example, do you add cost to a display to make it easier to read versus saving several dollars to improve margins? The development process is filled with these decisions that often require good instincts, and there’s not always a right answer. His advice is to choose and move on, rather than turn each decision into a complicated evaluation.

There are often times when you, leading the project development, will need to say no about something that others favor. You can’t make a decision to please others, and saying no may be uncomfortable, but it’s an important trait to learn if you are ultimately responsible for the product. Decisions are rarely democratic.

He also noted that great products often do less than more. Piling on feature after feature adds complexity and may actually make the product more difficult to use. One of the hardest things for engineers to do is to leave out the unimportant. The key is figuring out just what is unimportant.

Michael Simmons, the first panelist, is co-founder of Flexibits, a company that’s developed one of the most successful calendar apps for the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers called Fantastical.

His advice was:

• Identify problems that truly bother you.

• Focus on key differentiators.

• Create solutions your users can’t live without.

Michael developed Fantastical ( because deficiencies in Apple’s resident calendar, iCal, bothered him and prevented him from working the way he wanted to. So he began with a list of what he wanted for himself and used that to develop his product.

One of the product’s key differentiators is its use of natural language processing that allows you to type a sentence to create an action. For example type “Lunch with John next Tuesday” would create an appointment on your calendar Tuesday at noon. This differentiator immediately sets his product apart from iCal.

The Mac version has a pull-down calendar that further sets it apart, allowing you to check your schedule or calendar or entering an appointment without opening a new window These are among several features that users say they can’t live without.

Nate Weiner, co-founder and CEO of Pocket, was the second panelist and his advice was:

• Build something you care about.

• Define “why” first.

• Spend your time prototyping, not developing.

He chose a goal that he believed was something people care about: saving Web content for reading later on a multitude of devices. How often do we spot an article while in the middle of doing something else? Our choice is to stop what we are doing and read the article or ignore it. Pocket lets you mark it for reading later.

Evidently people do care. Pocket has more than 12 million registered users and his software is integrated into more than 500 apps. It’s available for the iPad, iPhone, Android, Mac, Kindle Fire, Kobo, Google Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera and Windows.

Defining “why” is important in an age when so many products are being created just because they can be. A product needs to have a compelling reason to exist, a purpose, a “why,” Nate said.

His third piece of advice was to spend your time prototyping to evaluate the many ways each part of the software might work, rather than latching on to an idea and spending lots of time developing it.

The three pieces of advice I put forward pertain mostly to hardware companies:

• The idea is the easy part.

• Leverage outside resources.

• Don’t believe your own hype.

Undertaking the development of a new hardware product involves a huge amount of diverse skills and activities — conception, design, manufacturing, forecasting, marketing, distribution, etc. — and all have to work well. But the idea or concept, no matter how clever, is usually the easiest part.

Particularly with hardware, because of its diversity of talents needed (mechanical, electrical, software, etc.) and physical requirements (as opposed to software code), you can’t staff and do everything in-house. Leveraging special skills by using other experts and companies becomes an effective way to get things done more quickly and less expensively.

Last, companies can become complacent when they believe all the reviews and praise about their own products. They should enjoy the success that comes from it, but move right on to their next product. If you believe everything you read about how great your product is, you may miss the next product that can replace it. We’ve seen that behavior to some extent with Apple, believing that the size of their iPhone screen was perfect, and now playing catch-up to bring out models with larger displays.


When I bought a Chevy Volt in October, I promised an occasional update on the vehicle. As you may recall, the Volt is an “extended range electric car” that runs off batteries and then switches to gasoline after the batteries are depleted.

So while it has a shorter electric range than a Tesla or Nissan Leaf, you always have the option to keep driving when the batteries are empty.

Over almost eight months of ownership, I’ve driven 5,080 miles, with 3,769 miles (75 percent) running on the battery and 1,211 miles (25 percent) on gas. During all this time, I’ve consumed about 35 gallons of gas. My overall mileage has been 144 mpg, while the car has averaged 37 mpg when using gas alone.

If you think I’ve kept all these statistics, that’s not the case. I signed up to a website called that automatically tracks mileage and the electric and fuel usage of 1,800 Volt owners, in conjunction with OnStar’s on-board communication system.

I’ve really been enjoying the car. It’s been trouble-free except for one unexpected repair: An electrical cable to the braking system on one wheel was replaced because a rodent ate through to the bare wires! The dealer, Weseloh Chevrolet in Carlsbad, fixed it as soon as I brought it in.

I took the car in another time for a software update to eliminate the occasional crashing of the center console’s GPS. Unlike some cars, the Volt does not do over-the-air updates.

The Chevy Volt is programmed to begin charging when electricity rates drop at midnight; charging takes about 3¾ hours. Courtesy photo

What was most surprising to me is that my SDG&E bill has gone down about $100 each month, from about $350 to $250. This is the result of getting lower overall electric rates as an owner of an electric car.

My mileage, of course, is a result of how I use the car. Voltstats list owners with mileage ranging from 5,000 mpg to 35 mpg, with a mean of 157 mpg. Typically I’ll travel fewer than 50 miles most days, often to the airport, downtown or less frequently to Orange County. I made a couple of trips to Los Angeles as well. While the battery is rated to provide 35 miles of driving per charge, I get from 39 to 42 miles.

I’ll typically plug in the 220-volt charger each evening; the car is programmed to begin the charging when the rates drop at midnight. Charging takes about 3¾ hours and, using an app provided by OnStar, I receive an email when the charge is done. When I want to begin the charging immediately, I just unplug and plug back in the charger. A light on the dashboard displays the charging state.

While I once had GM’s wireless connectivity service called OnStar on an Acura, I never used it, but I’ve found it to be a real benefit on the Volt.

For example, there’s no need to type in your destination on the GPS, just touch the OnStar button and tell the friendly operator where you want to go, whether it’s an address, the nearest Starbucks or a business. A few seconds later, it’s loaded into your GPS ready to navigate.

OnStar’s built-in cellular phone using Verizon’s network also remotely starts and charges the car and reports on its status. When the light went on alerting me to the brake problem, OnStar did a remote diagnostic check while I was driving and let the dealer know I was on my way. You can also use OnStar to make wireless calling. Just ask the operator to dial the phone number, although it costs 40 cents a minute. The OnStar operators answer within a few seconds, address you by name and are extremely helpful.

I’ve rarely charged my car at other locations as there’s been little need. But one company I have occasionally visited in Irvine has a charger that I use while I’m there. I can even check the charging state using the iPhone app.

After six months, the car continues to be free of rattles or any defects and continues to drive smoothly with excellent acceleration. I’ve used the GPS with its traffic information extensively and it’s a well-designed system that’s easy to use and to see at a glance with its colorful display. A built-in information system provides weather alerts, local gas prices and nearby movie information.

The automatic Bluetooth connection to my iPhone works perfectly and the address book is downloaded into the car in fewer than 10 seconds each time I enter. Like every car I’ve used, the voice recognition is not very good. But by holding down the home button on the iPhone, Siri is activated and I can request to dial by name using the car’s mic.

Occasionally I will listen to an out-of-town radio station using the iHeart Radio app on my iPhone. The car’s Bluetooth system detects it is playing and routes it through the audio system, displaying the station. On my previous car, a BMW X3, I needed to go through several button pushes to listen.

While the Volt is not an expensive car, now in the low- to mid-$30,000s before rebates, it comes fully loaded at $35,000, with some features that often cost extra. For example, it comes with keyless entry, pushbutton start, front collision alert, an alert when you go out of the lane, a built-in diagnostic system, GPS system, a trial version of Sirius, leather seats and much more.

Surprisingly it has no power seats, ostensibly to reduce power consumption. The audio system from Bose is designed to use less energy, but sounds pretty average.

Service and support for the Volt has been excellent, both locally and nationally. The few times I’ve asked for specific information about some feature or operational question, using either OnStar or the 800 number, GM always has followed up, even when it required research on their part.

Being able to use a car in a car pool lane has always been one attraction and big advantage for hybrid and electric vehicle owners. The Volt qualifies for a green sticker that has recently had its life extended from Jan. 1, 2015 to Jan. 1, 2019. As of May 9, 2014, 40,000 “green” stickers have been made available.

I’ve found that the Volt has more than lived up to my expectations. It’s fun to drive, comfortable, well finished and a well-appointed car. And it’s been a very good value, saving me about $250 to $300 per month and dramatically reducing my dependency on oil.


San Diego-based ecoATM wants to pay you for your old phone or tablet. A retired iPhone, Nokia or Samsung smartphone could be worth a couple of hundred dollars. And if you’re near any of its 900 ecoATM kiosks, you can get your money on the spot.

New technologies are driving hardware innovation at such a rapid clip that we’re now discarding these products at record rates, not when they wear out, but when we want to upgrade. It could be to get a tablet that’s lighter and thinner or a phone with a larger display. We’ve been trained to believe that the latest is always better and to want to be the first with the newest.

While this may be good for the economy, it’s not good for the environment, if we just throw out the old. But what may be one person’s old gadget is another’s sought-after device. And companies have sprung up to find ways to pay money for old products and sell them to others.

According to Bamboo Mobile, an electronics recycling company, there were about 370 million idle, non-active devices in the U.S. market at the end of last year. This number is expected to rise to 461 million by 2018.

EPA figures show that of the 370 million, fewer than 20 percent were recycled, but that number is expected to nearly double by the end of 2018 because of new and convenient ways to quickly turn your old product into cash.

When I bought my most recent phone, an iPhone5S, I sold my iPhone5 to Gazelle, an on-line service that will buy your old phone, tablet or music player. The process is pretty seamless. Look up your phone on its site, describe its condition, and you’ll be instantly provided with an estimate.

San Diego company ecoATM has found a way for people to conveniently recycle their old electronics, rather than have them end up in a landfill. Courtesy photo

If you accept the estimate, register and the company will send you a mailer for your phone. After receiving and inspecting your phone, they will mail you a check. If they find the condition to be different than you described, they’ll revise their offer.

My iPhone5, a 32GB Verizon model in very good condition, fetched $350. That offset about half the cost of my new phone. My experience with Gazelle, however, was not as rapid as described. I received emails alerting me that the phone was received and was being checked, but then heard nothing for about three weeks. I received the check a month later.

Joe Brancatelli of told me that his experience in trying to sell his old phones was not worth the effort . He found Gazelle and competing companies of limited value. He was offered just a few dollars for his Blackberry 9700 and others even less. He returned them to the carriers for recycling.

Five years ago, ecoATM’s founder, Mark Bowles, was looking for a way for people to conveniently recycle their old electronics, rather than have them end up in a landfill. I visited the company when it was first founded and it seemed to be a very ambitious undertaking. Because it paid out money, the company needed not only to identify the device, but also had to carefully figure out its condition. A phone with a chip or scratch on the display would be worth much less than one without flaws.

I recently revisited the company, and it’s come a long way. It’s gone through three generations of machines and has placed 900 of them in malls and Wal-Mart stores across the country. EcoATM is now a subsidiary of Outerwall Inc., the company that also owns Redbox and Coinstar kiosks for movie rentals and coin counting.

The ecoATM machine has also grown in sophistication. I got a behind-the-scenes look at the latest model in operation at company headquarters in Sorrento Valley. The tall, attractive kiosk with its large LCD display invites you to trade in your old device for an immediate cash payment.

The customer is invited to get a free estimate of the device in a few minutes, once the machine performs a thorough evaluation of the product. I tried it with my iPhone 5S.

A large lid rises in the front where you place your phone onto a glass platen and plug in a cable that appears. There’s actually a carousel of cables that fit essentially every type of phone, tablet and player. Once you select the type of product, the appropriate cable rotates into place.

The kiosk then thoroughly evaluates the phone — identifying the memory, provider and both the phone’ internal and external condition. Cameras take pictures of all sides of the phone. Using a wireless connection, the ATM checks the phone’s serial numbers against a list of stolen products and looks up the current value of the phone using a continuously updated database.

Once the evaluation is complete, a price flashes up on the display. If you accept it, the machine will wipe off all of your data from the phone, and the cash will be dispensed, just as at a bank ATM. Or you can reject the offer and take back the phone.

What happens to the devices that ecoATM collects? They’re sold to a network of wholesalers that resells the phones. While the company was mum on providing more information, there is apparently a thriving business in buying and refurbishing used products.

EcoATM indicated that all who buy their used devices are vetted to insure the phones are not improperly recycled. About 75 percent of the phones find a second life; the rest are recycled by certified e-waste reclamation facilities.

So check your drawers and closets for old phones and tablets, and you might find you can convert them to quick cash while responsibly recycling them. (