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When I wrote two weeks ago about a frightening experience that a friend experienced on an Uber ride, I was contacted by a second Uber customer who also experienced a scary incident a few days later. I learned something very surprising when I spoke with her: the Uber app has a major flaw that adds more risk to an Uber trip.
On Aug. 21, Mandy, a resident of the Contra Costa County, east of Oakland, called for an Uber car to drive her home from a party that she and her husband were attending less than a mile away. She was tired after a stressful workweek, had enough food and drink, and was ready for a good night’s sleep. Her husband remained at the party.
Mandy recounted how she got into the car, and the driver, who received the destination when the car was called, sped off in the wrong direction and told her he was going to take her out for “a good time.” Only after she turned on her iPhone and started recording a video of the ride, did the driver reverse direction and drive her home. She then called the police and attempted to reach Uber.
(Watch her video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sArqn3H28fk)
When the police asked her for the make, model and license plate of the car, Mandy looked for the e-receipt on her phone and assumed that the information would be there, since it’s prominently displayed when you order an Uber car. But it wasn’t. Instead, there was just a short summary of her ride and payment.
Now, nearly every article written about Uber mentions that Uber provides the customer with all of this information for the passenger’s safety, and almost everyone assumes it’s part of the record of your trip you get on your phone. As one who has used Uber dozens of time, I assumed it as well.
In fact, Uber notes this on its site under “safety”: “You’ll receive important details about your ride, like contact info for the driver and the license plate of the car. You can track the exact location of the driver and even share details about your trip with anyone who is waiting for you at your destination or just wants to know you are getting home safe.”
With the information gone, Mandy was unable to provide it to the police. When she asked Uber for it, she told me they refused and told her that they would only provide it to the police at their request.
Mandy was told by Uber that her driver is known to have a hearing problem and, based on their investigation, he simply misunderstood her request to take her home. Mandy clearly disagreed, and said that the driver had not misunderstood her, he clearly stated he was “taking her out for a good time.”
Mandy then did some testing of the Uber app. She asked a friend who uses Uber to monitor the functionality of the app on her next ride to determine what information is available on her phone’s Uber app and how it changes between calling for the car and reaching her destination.
Here’s what she discovered:
The first image on the Uber app, once a car is requested, shows the “En Route” view that remains until the Uber driver arrives. It has the driver’s photo, the driver’s first name, license plate number, make and model of the Uber car and contact information.
Once the customer gets in the car, the driver then clicks “Start” on the app to begin the fare calculation and the trip. This is when the customer’s display-screen changes from “En Route” to “On Trip.”
On the “On Trip” view, the driver’s picture and first name is still visible, but the make, model and license plate number disappear. Should the passenger need to call for help during the ride, she has no access to the car’s license plate number.
When the driver reaches the destination and clicks, “End” on the app, the fare amount and the rating feedback system appears on the passenger’s phone with a “Leave a Comment” text box. Only the driver’s first name is displayed on this screen.
When you later check the records of past rides you’ve taken on Uber, the “My History” image displays a picture of the driver’s face, the fare, and make and model of the car. The license plate number is still not listed.
Shortly after, Uber mails a receipt that indicates the route of the trip, fare, driver’s first name and another chance to rate the driver.
You would think that an Uber trip could be made safer by providing the driver and license number not only before, but also both during and after the trip. That way the rider has a better recourse to get help, and the driver, knowing his rider has that information, will be less likely to do anything improper.
I asked Uber why wouldn’t they do this and after five days have not responded.
What can you do about this? Anytime you order an Uber car, before you get in it, take a snapshot of your phone’s display showing the full information.
(On an iPhone, press and hold the on/off button and then quickly press the home button; the image will be saved with your photos. Most Android phones work similarly by holding down simultaneously the on/off button and either the volume down button or home button).
You will now have a permanent record of the driver and car plates, should you need to make a police report. And if you encounter any issues during the ride, you can email the image to a friend, and inform the driver of what you’ve done.
This critical look at Uber is not meant to diminish its brilliant concept. But great ideas are only as good as their execution. And from two victims I’ve personally spoken with, there’s an opportunity to make Uber safer for the customer.Read More...
The cellular companies are losing some of their hold on our cellular services and that’s a good thing.
Much of this began when the FCC disapproved the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. As predicted by the FCC and the consumer groups opposing the merger, this has resulted in more competition.
Left on its own, T-Mobile, a distant fourth, changed the pricing model by offering a lower monthly service rate and selling phones separately, with some of the cost spread out in 24 monthly payments. This was a much more transparent pricing plan, and now most of the other carriers offer something similar.
Previously, the carriers appeared to subsidize the purchase of a new phone, charging $200 or $300 for a phone that might retail for $600 or $700. But in fact, they charged a higher monthly payment for service, typically about $40 to $50, about half of which was for the cost of the phone. At the end of the two years, if you didn’t upgrade to a new phone, the monthly rate would remain the same, while the carriers raked in the extra profits.
But now Apple has made a move that reduces the carriers’ influence even more. Apple has made its new iPhones compatible with all networks and sells them unlocked. So if you buy a phone from Apple rather than from your carrier, it will work with every other carrier.
All of this can free you from a long-term commitment, so you are no longer tied to a contract with your carrier. You are free to switch to a different carrier anytime. In fact, Apple could possibly help you select your carrier, providing price comparisons, when you buy your phone at an Apple store or online.
Taking a page out of the car-leasing business, Apple will now lease you a new unlocked iPhone, usable on any carrier, for a monthly payment beginning at $32 a month for a 16GB iPhone 6S or up to $45 a month for 128G iPhone6S plus. This includes the AppleCare+ service and warranty, and gives you a new phone every year for a continuing payment. This is a brilliant move, because it masks the iPhones’ high costs, just as it faces competition from more low priced phones.
We are slowly but surely getting closer to a model where the phone is the car and the cellular service is the gasoline. You need not stick with just one brand of cellular service or gas.
Expect to see the carriers becoming even more competitive. I recently changed to Verizon’s new simplified “Verizon Plan XL,” which is a good example of a more common sense plan that lowered my rates and provided more data.
In this plan, I pay $20 per phone that I bring (and $40 if it’s still being subsidized by Verizon), plus $80 for 12GB of data. Once the subsidy ends, the charge drops from $40 to $20. My family uses five phones and one iPad with LTE. Data is shared among all six devices on this plan. It’s a good deal and something similar to the other carriers’ new plans. My monthly bill now runs $290. Just two years ago I was paying $225/month for just two phones and 3GB of data.
Of course, we are using more data than ever and it will only go up. If I send a 1GB image to my wife and she sends it to my son and daughter-in-law, the data usage for this family plan is actually 5GB, since it counts each time one of us receives and sends the file. In other words, data usage adds up fast, particularly in these family accounts.
In spite of progress, the carriers still retain some consumer-unfriendly habits. Like the old voice plans, they still force us to estimate our data usage and penalize us if we go over. That means most of us will buy more data than we use.
Verizon charges $15 per GB if a customer goes over their allotment, two to three times the cost of buying data on a plan. A better idea is to sell data on a continuously decreasing cost based on how much is used, eliminating the need to monitor usage.
Another scam from some of the carriers is their phone insurance plans provided by Assurion, a company with thousands of negative online reviews.
I insured my grandson’s iPhone 5c based on a sales pitch from the online Verizon salesman when buying the phone. It cost $7.95 per month. When I had to use the insurance, I learned the deductible was $140, something the salesman never mentioned. To add insult to injury, the replacement phone was a poorly refurbished unit whose battery drained in three hours. Assurion replaced it a second time, but I immediately cancelled my insurance and bought Apple’s AppleCare+ that cost $100 for two years and $79 to replace the 5c phone ($99 for an iPhone 6), with no monthly charge.
Asurion then came back and tried to assess a $500 charge, saying the returned defective phone still had its find-my-iPhone feature enable, which it did not.
Now that we’ve seen how effective Apple has been in wresting control of cellular from the carriers to our benefit, let’s see if it can do something about the cable companies. The new Apple TV is the first step in weaning us away from expensive monthly cable bills, replacing it with purchase on demand, so we pay only for what we want to watch.Read More...
Several months back I reviewed Uber and described how much I liked using it. In fact, I compared it to having a driver at your disposal, being able to call for a ride whenever needed.
But there’s another side to Uber that surfaced last week. I first learned of it when a good friend of mine posted her harrowing Uber experience on Facebook. There’s nothing like hearing a story from someone you know well and trust to give you pause.
I’ve worked with Vikki Pachera, a highly respected technology executive in Silicon Valley, for more than 20 years. What she says carries a lot of weight with me and with others that know her.
Vikki, who lives in Los Gatos, was in San Francisco for the day a couple of weeks ago meeting with clients, when she took an Uber from the Potrero Hill area to the Caltrain station to catch a train back to the South Bay. The trip was just a couple of miles and should have been about a 10-minute ride.
When she got into the Uber car, she said the driver drove in the wrong direction — onto heavily congested Interstate 280 rather than taking the surface streets, which would have been more direct and much faster. In fact, his GPS instructed him not to take I-280.
When Vikki questioned him, she said he became hostile and began what would be a tirade that lasted the duration of the trip.
Once on the freeway, she said he drove like a maniac, traveling along the far right shoulder at 35 mph, passing cars on his left and then suddenly cutting across three lines of traffic to the far left lane. Vikki said the driver screamed and ranted and threatened to let her off on the freeway. She said she tried calling her husband, but that upset the driver even more.
When I spoke with Vikki, she explained how harrowing and scary the experience was. She realized she was in the car with someone who was clearly mentally unstable and her life was at stake. Finally, when the driver arrived three blocks from her destination Vikki said he stopped the car and told her to get out.
Pachera immediately shared her experience on Twitter. Uber responded by sending her a link to file a complaint and later refunded her $5.
I contacted Uber and a representative told me, “We would never want a rider to feel this way; this type of behavior from a partner-driver is unacceptable. As soon as we became aware of this situation, we began looking into this and have reached out to the customer to understand what may have happened here.”
Vikki said she received a voicemail and then an email nearly a day later, after her story was aired on the local ABC news television.
The Uber representative told me the driver has had no other complaints, although she wouldn’t tell me how long he has been a driver. He has been suspended pending an investigation.
Vikki, who had been a frequent user of Uber, has disabled the Uber app and told me she would never use the service again. Instead she would now use taxis, where the drivers must pass police checks and have their name and medallion numbers on clear display.
She was very disappointed that Uber did not call back on the day this occurred, and described Uber’s response as mechanized, impersonal and uncaring.
Uber makes a point of comparing its screening to that of taxi drivers, and contends that it is equally severe and offers some anecdotal stories how some taxi drivers could not pass their screening. But clearly, many cities, including San Francisco, are looking into Uber’s screening process, which unlike taxis, does not use the police in the vetting process.
Uber provided this link that describes its screening practice and the criteria to hire drivers: newsroom.uber.com/2015/07/details-on-safety/.
What this and other stories point out is that passengers should take precautions when they get into a car with a stranger.
• Always have your cellphone fully charged and accessible; it’s your lifeline if you need help.
• Texting for help is better than calling, which can create a confrontation with the driver. Or try calling a friend, allowing that person to eavesdrop on the conversation.
• Turn on your video recorder, which will also record dialogue.
• Avoid UberX, the lowest-priced option with smaller cars, at night. The condition of UberX cars, owned by the drivers, varies widely, with many passengers reporting some are not in good condition. And, when the car arrives to pick you up, don’t get in it if it’s unkempt, old or in poor condition, or if the driver seems a bit off. In short, trust your intuition and your instincts before you get into the car, whether it’s Uber or a taxi.Read More...
I thought I’d provide some background on how I evaluate and review products, with the goal of helping you make intelligent purchase decisions.
It’s become much more difficult to make a buying decision with so many new products being introduced each week, many of them doing new things, some claiming to be the best, and some making unsubstantial claims to gain attention. That’s why it’s so important to research a new product before you buy.
I find that many products I test often have weaknesses, hidden costs or issues that only become obvious after using them for a while. It could be the complexity of setup, a poor user interface or being underpowered.
A good example is the previous generations of Samsung Galaxy phones that had terrific specs, but had been laden with their own non-removable software that made the phone confusing and hard to use. Microsoft’s original Surface RT tablet was touted as a breakthrough product, yet was incompatible with most software, had a short battery life, was underpowered, and suffered from a poor interface.
To learn before you buy, begin with product reviews. There are both good and bad reviewers and review sites, ranging from insightful to snarky, some of the latter aiming to gain clicks through controversy, rather than providing serious analysis.
A few form opinions without even trying the product, just serving as an echo chamber based on other reviews. Gizmodo is one of those poor sites. In contrast, Engadget, The Verge, Pocket-Lint, and Re/code (now part of The Verge), each have serious reviewers and generally do a very good job.
For more specific products, I trust Digital Photography Review, Steve Huff, Reid Reviews, Ken Rockwell, and Image-Resource for camera reviews; Stereophile, InnerFidelity, and Headroom for music equipment reviews; the user reviews on apple.com and iLounge for Apple products; and Tom’s Hardware for reviews of computer equipment.
Among the national media, the Wall Street Journal has an excellent technology staff with thoughtful reviews from Joanna Stern and others. Ed Baig of USA Today, Harry McCracken of Fast Company, and Katie Bohert and Walt Mossberg of Re/code are all insightful and unbiased. The New York Times reviewer, Farhad Manjoo, can be insightful, but a little quirky. David Pogue of Yahoo is an entertaining writer, but is ethically challenged, such as when he was reprimanded for reviewing products from companies where he had business interests. And too often his egotism gets in the way of the facts.
But even the good reviews need to be judged carefully. Every reviewer has his or her own biases, weighing the importance of a product’s attributes differently from what might be important to you, and may not always understand the trade-offs.
For example, a recent review of a Motorola G Phone praised its low cost but criticized the display, stating that while it was excellent, it was not equal to an iPhone. But the iPhone is twice the price, and the reviewer never explained the trade-off of price to display resolution or how one affects the other.
The best reviews are those that don’t simply judge how many features the product has, but how suitable the product is to use and how good a balance there is among functionality, usability and cost.
I’ve always used the product before I write a review. Many companies will lend a sample for a few weeks. Those that don’t, aren’t reviewed, which affects what products I’ve covered. Apple, AT&T, Epson, Fujitsu, Canon, Garmin, Pentax, Casio, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, Acura, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Mazda, Plantronics, Audi and others have been very supportive over the past decade.
However, Microsoft, Nikon, Sony, Fitbit, Jawbone, Google and Tesla have been unresponsive. When I’ve reviewed any of these products I had to buy it or borrow one from another reviewer.
I recommend you do the same — try before you buy. You will not have access to PR firms sending you products, but fortunately, you can buy online or in many stores. Try and return if you don’t like it.
Even more important than expert opinions are the customer reviews posted online. Reviews can tell you about a product’s longevity and the quality of support from the manufacturer. Good sources for reviews, which I often check after writing my column’s first draft, include some of the sites noted above and, most notably, Amazon.
With products becoming so complex, their longevity and ability to be repaired becomes important, but this can be difficult to determine on a new product. Few companies make specific repairs, and instead replace an entire part of the product, meaning that it’s difficult to use independent repair shops. For example, Apple replaces the complete display assembly when the iPhone 6 has just a faulty home button.
When I write a review I’ll often try contacting the company, much as a customer would. How difficult is it to reach someone for help? Does the product come with a phone number or email address? Does their website make it easy to get help? Although increasingly rare, a product with a toll-free phone number right on the product is a sign of good customer support.
What is the company’s policy on early defects? Does it replace a defective product with a brand new one or with a refurbished unit? You should not expect to buy a new product only to have to replace it with a used one a week later. If you discover a defect within the first few weeks, it’s better just to return the product and buy a new one than get a refurbished replacement.
That’s why I’d much prefer a company that stands behind its products by making it easy to get them fixed.
I would buy an Apple product before one from Dell, HP or Lenovo, as good as they are. With an Apple I can walk into one of their stores to have it fixed, often the same day. The alternative is to be without your computer or phone for a week. So look for companies with local service or a one- to two-day turnaround.
Judging a product based on where it’s made is no longer indicative of its quality. Almost all consumer electronics products are made in China. Quality varies by the specific design and the manufacturer rather than the country.
As I’ve been on the flip side, developing products for companies, I know that products are released before they are perfected, with potential for returns from a defect in the design or manufacturing. I would show a little forgiveness as long as the company sent me a replacement quickly. It usually takes a couple of months for a product to be in the hands of thousands of customers to really know its issues.
With a careful, methodical approach, you can be adept at making the right buying decisions. And if you can’t decide, do nothing. There will be something similar out a few months later. Just remember, a technology product is only useful if it does something you want done, and should never add more complications to your life.Read More...
Here are updates on two products I’ve reviewed before: the Chevy Volt and Apple Watch.
Here’s my update on the 2013 Chevy Volt I bought nearly two years ago. I’ve driven 12,800 miles and just took it in for its scheduled free maintenance — still no cost for any service.
The car continues to perform well with no real mechanical or electrical issues. There are no rattles or creaks and the Volt runs just as it did when new. The brakes are over 80 percent of new, and the paint and trim are pristine with no sign of fading.
The rubber air dam at the front bottom of the car has become partially torn from running into a few curbs while parking. It’s been a recurring issue with other owners as well. The air dam is $300 to replace, but the dealer recommended just cutting the damaged part off and not replacing it.
I’ve averaged 114 miles per gallon driving a combination of battery (70 percent) and gasoline power (30 percent). My trips have been mostly less than 50 miles a day with several trips to Los Angeles and Orange County. For those trips, the trade off — and benefit — of the Volt is being able to drive in the HOV lanes.
As I earlier reported, I’ve encountered a small error on the information display: The pie chart showing the miles driven on electricity and gas for each trip sometimes erroneously shows 0.2 miles driven on gas when I start from a fully charged car.
GM tells me they continue to be baffled by this. I’ve lived with it, but I expect better follow-up from the company.
A freeze of the console, which I noted in the most recent report, has not reoccurred, but I experienced one strange event. When I got into the car it didn’t detect my key and asked me to insert it into a “key pocket” to start.
This required a call to OnStar to find out what it meant, because the manual made no mention of this. The key pocket turned out to be a small hole under the rubber mat in a dashboard storage compartment that allowed the car to better detect the key.
Apparently, the key fob’s battery was low.
I continue to get close to 40 miles per charge. The capacity has slightly increased over the past few months, perhaps because of warmer weather.
To sum up my experience, I find the Volt to be a terrific automobile. It’s been reliable and is still fun to drive. My dealer experience has been excellent (Weseloh Chevrolet in Carlsbad), providing quick service and a loaner car when needed.
The Volt is advanced yet practical, and affordable yet well-equipped.
A 2015 Volt fully loaded with forward-collision alert, rear camera, navigation, leather seats, lane-departure warning, cruise control, back-up camera and keyless entry costs about $39,000.
Federal and state rebates of up to $9,000 are available.
Chevy has announced that an all-new second-generation Volt is coming in January with a much sleeker body style and a 50-miles-per-charge capability.
I’ve been using an Apple Watch for the past month on loan to me from Apple. It’s the stainless model with a mesh strap, selling for $649.
I’ve used it much more extensively than my earlier sample, a $349 aluminum model with rubber strap that I had for only a few days. Both models perform exactly the same.
My assessment is not all that different from earlier: It’s a well-executed, attractive watch, but there’s no compelling reason to buy and wear it … yet.
This time around I had more time to learn how to use it, and more time led to a better experience. Because its learning curve is steeper than with other Apple products, you really need a week or two to become comfortable with it and learn its features.
You need time to figure out which way to swipe the screen to access other functions, as it’s not at all intuitive.
In addition, settings for the watch are scattered among three places: on the watch itself, on the watch App on your phone, and in your iPhone settings.
I’ve had to use Google many times to figure things out. Apple does not include adequate instructions and assumes you’ll use the Web to get answers. This is a product that needs an instruction book.
This time I’ve been using the watch for many new things. I’ve set alarms and timers on it, and answered and declined calls by touching a button on the display. I’ve been alerted to appointments and viewed my schedule each day.
I’ve used it to navigate just by speaking my destination into the speaker. Its Siri function generally worked well.
I still find it difficult to check the time without an arm shake and find its health-monitoring functions to be less than comprehensive. It doesn’t record steps or calories like other devices, but it does remind me to get up and walk every hour, which is good when I’m glued to my computer. It’s also sent reminders when I’ve been in a movie theater or driving at 60 mph on Interstate 5.
The true test is whether you automatically wear it every day. I didn’t at first, but now I wear it more often. I’ve gotten to like screening calls, getting reminders and alarms for appointments, and initiating calls.
When the iPad and iPhone first were introduced, each had more compelling uses for them, whether it was reading a book or making a call. And each was a self-contained product, not dependent on another.
With the Watch, there’s no compelling app, but more of a series of little things it does with your iPhone. As you learn more about these features, the accumulation may get you to a point where you find it’s something you will use every day — but that time will take about a month.
I think the Watch will be a formidable product over time as new apps are developed for it, and as Apple continues to add new capabilities. If you’re tempted, buy the aluminum model, which is almost half the price and does just what the more expensive models do.Read More...
We’ve seen some astounding developments in consumer technology since I began writing this column 12½ years ago, but also have had to put up with many of the issues that are associated with these advancements. This week I take a look at some of the important developments in consumer tech, both good and bad.
Among all the technologies I’ve covered, the smartphone, in particular the iPhone, ranks among the top consumer tech product of the decade. Literally a computer in your pocket, it wasn’t until cellphones were freed from the constraints of the cellular companies that they became what they are today.
Remember when Verizon charged to send an image, assessed a monthly charge for providing directions, and charged for each text we sent? And who would have thought making calls would become one of the least important functions?
Tablets were another huge hit, the first device that brought computer technology to a much wider age group, from 2-year-old children to 80-year-olds. You’d be hard-pressed to find a toddler that doesn’t have that finger and thumb zooming motion down pat.
If the iPhone is the best hardware of the past decade, then Facebook and Google Search are the best software products.
Who would have thought Facebook could do so much to enhance people’s relationships all over the world, create an efficient way to find lost friends, contact existing friends, and stay close to others?
Google Search is an amazing capability that allows anyone to check any fact in a few seconds, saving huge amounts of time to research it.
One of the biggest phenomena in recent years is replacing old, inefficient and expensive services with new ones that shake up conventional models by using the Internet and smartphone apps. Uber and Airbnb are good examples. Both have filled needs that weren’t being met or have made vast improvements to old models.
The government’s GPS satellite technology, originally created for the military, combined with personal navigation devices and Google Maps, eliminated the need for planning routes and putting an end to family squabbles about which way to turn.
But with all of this new technology, there’s a cost: privacy. Just about every company can learn who we are, where we live and what we do. They know our likes, dislikes, friends, political views and almost what we think. There are not only companies that want to sell us things, but Internet outlaws who want to steal our identity, credit cards and personal information to sell.
Because of the services we accept in exchange for giving up our privacy, we’ve been followed on the Internet, in the car and soon in the home. Google didn’t pay $3.2 billion for a thermostat company to help us manage our home temperature; they bought it to put a gadget in our home to track us and listen to us — all with the intention of offering us this dubious convenience in exchange for better targeting their advertising.
We’ve been bombarded with advertising everywhere we go, ostensibly matched to our interests and buying intentions — all in the name of making advertising more effective. But this targeting is far from ideal, as it is unable to discern what we intend to buy from what we actually bought, serving us the same ads wherever we go.
And the firewall that once existed between advertiser and editorial content has been compromised to such an extent that it’s hard to know what articles are accurate or created to get more clicks. Anyone can write about anything, and it’s incumbent on us to better understand the integrity of the sources.
Technology is responsible for a number of annoyances, including the unceasing flood of robocalls and junk faxes. Phone companies could end them in a moment, but they intend to get out of the landline business so have ignored one of the great annoyances of our time.
Another negative is the barrage of nastiness that permeates online forums from the Wall Street Journal to the Huffington Post to gadget blogs to any forum where people can express their views. They’re filled with venom and hatred, mostly from a vocal minority that has no manners or common decency.
The division between work time and playtime has been eroded with products such as smartphones that intrude on dinner conversations, and make it more difficult to disconnect from the pressures of work. No better example is Amazon’s expectations from its employees, whose 7days/24 hours culture was covered in Sunday’s New York Times. If only half of it were true, it’s damning.
On the other hand, we’re at the precipice of some amazing advancements that will continue to improve our lives. Self-driving cars are coming. The technology exists and it’s mostly a matter of setting regulations and putting all the existing pieces of technology together in the car. Fuel-efficient cars, including electric and hybrid, are here and continue to gain in popularity.
We can look forward to the demise of cable TV as we know it. Instead of being forced to pay hundreds a month for stations we never watch, we will be able to buy programming a la carte from an assortment of suppliers, including Apple, Netflix, Amazon, HBO, ESPN and many others.
This is going to force broadband suppliers to improve their speeds or face new competition. Long overdue, the United States is 20th in the world in broadband speed, behind Latvia, Uruguay and Luxembourg.
We’ll see more and more of us working from home because it’s working so well for companies such as Google, Facebook, Intuit and other enlightened employers. The American work ethic and productivity is so high that many of these companies are discovering economic benefits to providing this flexibility. About 20 percent of us do it now and that’s expected to more than double over the next decade.
Yes, the positives still outweigh the negatives, particularly if we become more discerning about managing our priorities, about what we buy and read. Even a techie like me is finding out that I don’t need every new gadget that comes along. Gadgets are fleeting, but personal relationships endure a lifetime.Read More...
I’m pleased to announce that the following column was selected as Column of the Year by the San Diego Society of Journalists:
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.
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.Read More...
I’ve been trying out two products that perform completely different functions yet have many similar elements. They represent the new wave of products called the Internet of Things, devices that use a wireless connection to the cloud to provide services in the home.
Echo is a clever product developed by Amazon that falls into the category of “I didn’t know I needed it until I heard about it.” It’s a black cylinder, 3¼ inches in diameter by 9¼ inches tall that sits anywhere on a counter, desk or table, and responds to voice commands. Think of it as a stand-alone Siri-like device. Address it by name, Alexa, and it lights up ready to respond to your command.
Echo is easy to install. Simply plug it in and download the Android or iPhone app, which will take you through the connection steps. Yes, it’s similar to Siri, but it can do more.
For example, request it to play a specific radio station or stream music from your favorite artist. Just say “Alexa, play radio station KGO 810.” You can ask it to create a shopping or to-do list and add items to them at any time.
Like Siri, you can ask for a weather forecast, the time, or your location. Unlike Siri, it can’t dial a phone number since it’s not part of a phone.
You can ask it for directions or traffic conditions, much like an audio version of Google search. You can even ask it for the news, a baseball score or dozens of other things. The app maintains a log of what you’ve asked for and displays the lists you’ve created on its accompanying app for iOS or Android.
The hardware is well done. It’s a solidly built cylinder with a futuristic lighted ring around the top that shows it’s listening, and also turns to adjust the volume. It has several direction-sensitive microphones that can hear a command from an adjacent room easily.
And it has a powerful built-in speaker that’s great for speech, although not that great for music.
Echo has the potential to do even more as its software is upgraded. For example, it could turn on lights, set an alarm or detect an intrusion; or order products from Amazon, as many had conjectured. Much like Google’s acquisition of the Nest Thermostat and Dropcam cameras, Echo could be the beginnings of a hub to manage a variety of services throughout your home, as well as potentially more onerous activities.
The Echo sells for $180 from Amazon, and while it’s not yet a must-have, it’s certainly one of the most fun devices out there that is useful and has the potential to do more.
Several companies are trying to redefine home security systems by replacing all of the window and door sensors with a motion-detecting camera, which provides alerts to your smartphone rather than to an expensive monitoring service.
Canary is one of those products, and I’ve been trying it out for a month. It’s a small cylinder that sits on a counter or mounts on a wall; it contains a 1080p night-vision video camera with a wide-angle lens. It’s able to detect motion, then alert you with a text message, and let you see what’s going on using an app on your iPhone or Android phone.
You can view what the camera sees, and pan and enlarge it up to three times. Canary also contains a loud siren you can activate from your phone, ostensibly to surprise an intruder. It works by connecting to your home Wi-Fi and stores video on the company’s cloud once it detects motion.
Canary also measures temperature, humidity and air quality. You can watch video live or go back and view later should it detect questionable activity.
Canary is designed to learn the patterns and identify normal activity, such as your dog or a family member, to avoid alerting you too frequently. The device is designed to use these patterns to know when you’re away so it can activate the monitoring or go to an unarmed state when you are home.
The learning feature did not learn so well though, as I continued to get alerts several times a day when my wife was at home.
The product has evolved over the past several months with frequent updates to its apps, based on user reviews. Issues have included too many alerts, a lack of learning and failing to rest after a power outage.
I liked the product. The camera is excellent and Canary accurately detected motion.
However, it’s not a substitute for a conventional alarm system that monitors windows and doors, because Canary only detects an intruder after he or she has entered your home.
But it’s a good supplement and useful for monitoring your home or apartment when you are away. We sure could have used this when we lived in Massachusetts and a pipe froze while we were on vacation and flooded the whole house.
Canary costs $249. The company provides limited free access to your recorded video and has several monthly plans to store additional footage on the cloud for a longer period of time. (www.canary.is)Read More...
Printers can produce a love-hate relationship. We love the utility they provide and their low cost. But we hate the high cost of ink cartridges, sometimes priced at more than the printer itself.
I’ve been using the Epson Multi-Function Printer WF-4630 for about four months. The all-in-one inkjet printer scans, faxes, copies and prints, both single and double-sided.
It’s one of the best home-office printers I’ve ever used. It addresses many of the objections of past printers, including being hard to set up, paper jams, low-capacity paper trays and the high cost of ink.
The WF-4630 paper tray holds 250 sheets of paper compared with others that hold just 50. Epson rates the cost per page at 1.6 cents for black-and-white and 8.2 cents for color, significantly lower than many other printers, including Epson’s older models.
The printer is fast and quiet, and the quality of the printing is excellent.
The printer has what Epson calls PrecisionCore technology, which uses four sets of nozzles (actually on a microchip) to create more dots, resulting in faster printing and higher resolution.
The WF-4630 is also durable, with a 30,000-page monthly duty cycle. In four months, I experienced one paper jam that could have been user error — the result of the paper not being properly stacked.
There’s also a rear tray for holding 80 sheets of a different-size paper or envelopes. You can also stack up to 35 pages in the automatic document feeder for copying, scanning or faxing. And there’s a choice of printing on one or two sides of the paper.
It handles paper sizes up to legal size.
I’ve been using it primarily to print Word, PowerPoint and other documents from my computers, and photos from an iPhone and computer. Text quality is as good as a laser printer and charts, tables and graphs are colorful and uniform.
Photos are also very good.
The printer was simple to set up and connect to my Wi-Fi home network. It can also be set up with a USB or Ethernet connection. It has a large 3½-inch color display for accessing many of its settings and providing status messages.
The printer is 13.5 inches tall by 18.1 inches wide by 16.6 inches deep and weighs 31½ pounds.
It is available for $199, making it a very good buy for all that it provides. Now if could just eliminate the junk faxes that keep showing up.
While Epson makes some of the best, small office printers, such as the WF-4630, it’s also the acknowledged leader of large-format printers used by photographers and printing companies.
Epson lent me its latest large-format printer, the SC-P600 color inkjet, designed to print at the highest possible quality on paper up to 13 inches wide. It’s typically used for making prints up to 13 inches by 19 inches, but also can print on a paper roll of 13 inches up to 129 inches long, perfect for panoramas, banners and posters.
The P600 is designed to produce professional-quality photos, artwork, prints and graphics. It uses nine cartridges of pigment-based ink: yellow, vivid light magenta, light cyan, vivid magenta, cyan, very light black, light black, photo black and matte black, all of which are fade-proof.
The printer is black with a 2.7-inch display and measures 24 inches wide by 14 inches deep by 9 inches tall (with the trays closed). Like the WF-4630, setup was easy, aided by the 2.7-inch display. You simply download and install the software and configure it for the way you want to connect.
In my week of use, I did a variety of printing: large photos, diagrams and artwork. I had recently created a 20-inch by 30-inch watercolor painting/poster.
I tried making 13-by-19-inch copies of it by photographing it outdoors and sending the file to Costco, one of the well-rated consumer photo labs.
The results were just fair. Colors were muddy, and there was an overall gray cast to the background.
I tried the P600 and printed directly on both Epson watercolor paper and photo paper. The results were best on the watercolor paper, nearly an identical copy of my original. Prints on photo paper were better than Costco’s, but not as good as the watercolor paper.
I also tried printing a large poster of a family tree that my wife was working on that included small photos. Again the results were excellent.
Last, I printed several of photographs at 8 by 10 inches and 11 by 17 inches on a variety of photo paper, performing color correction using Adobe Lightroom. Results were terrific and reminded me of when I used a darkroom — but this is much less work with better results.
This printer is ideal for an advanced or professional photographer or an artist, as well as for a small printing business. Many artists use watercolor paper and an Epson printer such as this model or its predecessors to make commercial prints of their paintings.
The P600 costs $799. Ink refills are costly at $31.99 for each of nine colors, but their capacity is huge, and I barely moved the needle after printing dozens of prints. The superb quality from this Epson printer is why printing companies charge as much as $50 for a print using this printer, compared with a few dollars by doing it yourself.Read More...