→ Kill the wireless contract

In her piece for the Wall Street Journal, Kill the Wireless Contract! Buy Your Own Phone, Joanna Stern writes:

I am an idiot. I signed a two-year contract to get my iPhone 6.

Without much thought, I did what most Americans do every two years: I agreed to be locked in by a multibillion-dollar wireless company. With pricey contracts and confusing add-ons, they make it incredibly hard to leave, let alone take our phones with us. I deserve to walk around with “Property of Verizon” stamped on my forehead.

We sign on the dotted line because we presume it will save us money on that new shiny phone and our monthly service. But here’s the thing they don’t want us to know: Neither is necessarily true anymore.

My experience (I’m in Europe) corroborates this. When I upgraded from an iPhone 3G to an iPhone 4 in 2011, I left a two-year contract with one carrier, Movistar, to start another two-year contract with a different carrier, Orange. At the time it seemed a better deal, and I paid €140 for my 16 GB iPhone 4 when unlocked it would have cost me €599. But to be able to pay such a low price for the handset, I had to sign a 18-month contract where I would pay €42 per month to have in return a bunch of free texts, 500 MB of mobile data traffic and (if I remember well) some discount on national calls, or something like that.

Of course, those €42 did not include VAT, so I basically ended up paying €50 per month, an amount which started to skyrocket every time I phoned my parents and friends in Italy (I live in Spain), because international calls and texts were not among the included expenses in that contract profile. To give you an idea of the craziness, a half-hour call to my mother would cost me roughly €20. A single text was something like 60 cents before VAT, so a couple of such calls and a bunch of texts would make for €100 (or more) monthly phone bills. Eighteen months like this… do the math. I naturally tried to limit international usage, but still, over the contract period, I more than paid for the cost of the handset. The last cherry on the cake was having to pay €10 to have the iPhone unlocked by the carrier once the 18-month contract period was over.

Finally, in February 2013, I decided to leave this absurd two-year lock-in model, and since then I’ve been a happy customer of a local carrier (a MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator) called Pepephone (the site’s in Spanish). The name may sound funny to an English speaker — I think it’s based on the company’s mascot, Pepe, who sorts of represents the man of the street, the ‘regular Joe’ — but hey, I’ve been enjoying a great customer service, low rates, and very good coverage. At the moment I pay a €6.90 monthly flat rate for 1.2 GB mobile data traffic (VAT included), and in the two years I’ve been a customer the highest phone bill was less than €20. (Yes, making international calls and sending texts to phones outside Spain is still comparatively expensive, but not like it was with the previous carriers.) Oh, and this company has the great habit of not raising prices whenever it upgrades the service or its offerings. For instance, all Pepephone customers are currently in the process of being upgraded to LTE, and when it happens, we’ll still be paying the same as now.

If you do switch to one of the smaller guys and you don’t like it — guess what! You can just get up and leave. That’s the real freedom. They’ll never dangle a contract under your nose. You can set up an auto-renewing monthly plan and cancel any time.

Exactly. My contract with Pepephone implicitly auto-renews, but I’m free to go whenever I want if I don’t like the service or if I find a better alternative (so far I haven’t); there are no strings attached.

But apart from praising this company in particular, the point here is that — as Joanna Stern explains in the article — life is better outside the lock-in mechanism of two-year carrier contracts. I’ve been ‘free’ since 2013 and I’m certainly not turning back. Sure, having to pay upfront the full price of an unlocked phone is hard, especially when the budget is tight or when there’s no budget at all. In my case, this has meant holding on to my iPhone 4 for a much longer period, and not upgrading to the latest and shiniest devices, but the amount of money saved in the process is indeed significant, and that’s what matters.

Category Tech Life Tags

→ Saying Goodbye to Apple, Google and Microsoft

I started reading Why I’m Saying Goodbye to Apple, Google and Microsoft by Dan Gillmor on Medium because it was the suggested reading at the bottom of another, great article you should check out: The Last of the Typewriter Men. I started reading Gillmor’s article not because I just click on whatever recommended reading I encounter, but because I was genuinely curious about Gillmor’s point of view, what brought him to that decision, and which tools he ended up choosing as an alternative.

Gillmor writes:

More important, I’ve moved to these alternative platforms because I’ve changed my mind about the politics of technology. I now believe it’s essential to embed my instincts and values, to a greater and greater extent, in the technology I use.

Those values start with a basic notion: We are losing control over the tools that once promised equal opportunity in speech and innovation—and this has to stop.

Control is moving back to the center, where powerful companies and governments are creating choke points. They are using those choke points to destroy our privacy, limit our freedom of expression, and lock down culture and commerce. Too often, we give them our permission—trading liberty for convenience—but a lot of this is being done without our knowledge, much less permission.

And I’m totally with him on this.

Later on, about why he changed his mind about supporting Apple:

In Steve Jobs’s eras as CEO, Apple reflected his character and qualities. That was thrilling in most ways, because he demanded something close to perfection. But then the underdog revolutionized mobile computing and became the winner — one day we all realized it was one of the planet’s most powerful, profitable and valuable companies. Apple became the kind of company I prefer not to support: control-freakish to a fault with customers, software developers and the press; and, I came to believe, even dangerous to the future of open networks and user-controlled technology.

He later uses again the word ‘control-freakery’ about Apple as a reason why, when it came to choose a phone, he preferred an Android device (with Cyanogenmod) over an iPhone. And then, talking about Google, among other things, he writes this (emphasis mine):

But Google’s power and influence worry me, too, even though I still trust it more than many other tech companies.

I just don’t understand this position. (And while it seems I’m taking these words out of context, it’s actually the context that makes Gillmor’s stance even more puzzling to me, because he does recognise Google’s flaws and bad behaviour: “the company has made surveillance utterly integral to the use of its software”).

One of Apple’s traits may be this ‘control-freakery’ Gillmor mentions, but the fact is that Apple did not become ‘control-freakish’ after the huge success of the iPhone — the ‘control-freakery’ started with Jobs, for whom Gillmor shows appreciation. And yes, perhaps Apple’s excessive control has created the ‘walled garden’ effect when it comes to applications and App Stores, but the bright side of it is that it has led to a generally superior quality in third-party app offerings and in the virtual lack of malware. Apple may have made the occasional faux pas when it comes to app rejections, but I believe that what’s behind this obsessive control for the user experience is largely Apple’s care for its customers; the intention has always been to provide the best tools and the best experience. It hasn’t always worked, granted, but I’ve never ascribed Apple’s behaviour in this regard to malice, nor have I suspected a different agenda or ulterior motives.

I don’t know how Gillmor can still trust Google more than many other tech companies — Apple included, I guess — when Google can practically track everything we do online, and Apple has demonstrated it truly cares about customer privacy (Apple can’t decrypt messages you exchange with iMessage, nor FaceTime sessions, for instance) and that it’s clearly not interested in data mining. This for me is enough to trust Apple more than Google and other big tech companies.

Category Briefly Tags , ,

Lucas Bale has interviewed me about Low Fidelity and my writing

Welcome to Arslan banner

 

Shortly after I was interviewed by Alex Roddie back in October 2014 about my serialised sci-fi novel Low Fidelity, I was contacted by another writer, Lucas Bale, who asked if he could conduct an extended interview with me via email about my novel and my writing in general. I was happy to oblige, but it took me an inordinate amount of time to respond. Finally, last month I completed my answers to Lucas’s questions and you can read the full interview on his website. I’m extremely grateful to Lucas for his interest and support. The feeling is mutual.

Low Fidelity is an innovative, curiosity-engaging and untraditional format for a science fiction serial. It is currently available only on Vantage Point, Riccardo Mori’s compact digital magazine in Apple’s Newsstand. He publishes two issues per month. A monthly subscription costs $2.99. You can subscribe here (The first demo issue is free.)

Some useful links:


Please take some time to explore Lucas Bale’s site, get to know him and check out his books if you love science fiction. If you’re not familiar with his work, perhaps the upcoming anthology No Way Home, set to be released on March 2, is a good starting point (see also this page). Here you can read short speculative fiction stories by Bale and other authors, all with the common theme of being lost, stranded, blocked in places from where there’s no escape, no way to return home. I’ve been graciously handed a pre-release copy and I’m enjoying it so far.

Lucas Bale’s books in his Beyond the Wall series (“an epic, hard science-fiction space opera about the future of humanity and the discovery of the truth of its past”):

Category Et Cetera Tags , ,

Designing the Moment Case

Moment Case

The team behind the great Moment Lenses is back on Kickstarter for the funding of their latest product, the Moment Case. At the time of writing, the project is well beyond the original $100,000 goal and has pledged almost $520,000 with still eight days to go. I’m not surprised: the Moment Case looks fantastic, and I think its quality and good design are immediately apparent. The Kickstarter page for the project explains the various features of the Moment Case, and the design/engineering process in detail, but if you want to have an even deeper look at the long design research and process from the very first stages to the finished prototypes, don’t miss Designing The Moment Case: The Good, the Bad, and the Work Most People Don’t Show on Core77, written by Erik Hedberg from the Moment team. This accessory deserves to be backed if only for the meticulous approach and hard work this small team has carried out over months.

A few favourite quotes:

With this project we stumbled on a few insights we never would have prioritized without doing this work:

  • Speed is all that matters with mobile. Despite people’s ability level, taking a great picture quickly was more important than anything else.
  • People get tired of digging into their pocket to find their phone. We found this action loses the nostalgia of taking pictures.
  • Without adventure, most people don’t have the creative ability to take great pictures. Every time the scenery and subject were new, people took better pictures.

 

We’ve never designed a phone case before. When we started looking into doing one, we realized that people take tons of pictures with their phones, but they don’t think of them as cameras — they think of them as phones. We love the vintage quality and novelty of traditional cameras, and wanted to pay homage to that. We wanted to recreate that pride people take in wearing a beautiful Leica around their neck. So we set out to make a case that turns your phone into a camera.

 

The design process is a beautiful thing because it’s never the same for every project. It’s actually quite similar to riding down a mountain or surfing a wave. You start out knowing what you want to do, but once you get riding you might hit a bump, you might suddenly change direction, or you might even make the best turn of your life and become enlightened for a small second. You also eat shit sometimes. When that happens you have to learn from it, get back up and try again.

Category Briefly Tags , ,

Why I’m sticking with the old Flickr Uploadr

I’ve been on Flickr since October 2005, and I’ve typically used my Flickr account as a way to showcase: a) what I consider some of my best efforts, b) specific photography projects — like Little Light Left, Inception: architectural visions, and 1:60 — and c) geeky photo albums to document something in particular, like IBM WorkPad, The return of the 5.25″, Carry on or Cameras. Over the course of these past ten years (!) I’ve used Flickr constantly but I’ve never ‘mass-uploaded’ entire batches of photos and I tend to not follow other Flickr members who do so. I prefer selection. Since the start, I’ve also tried to be meticulous, and that’s why for me uploading two or three photos isn’t a casual or a quick 1-click task. It takes some time, as I want to enter tags, a proper title (and sometimes description), and the photos have to be filed in one of more albums and uploaded to the relevant groups I’m subscribed to.

I’ve always found the uploading experience to be lacking, no matter the tool, whether it was the Flickr’s Web interface or third-party applications. One exception was possibly 1001, a nice application by Adriaan Tijsseling, but development has ceased a while ago. In recent years I’ve come to rely on the first-party client Flickr Uploadr, which, while not having a particularly attractive UI, has been doing the job.

Old Flickr Uploadr

As you can see, it’s easy to add one or more photos, enter the necessary information, and upload. A couple of things I would have added, functionally, were auto-completing tags based on the tags you had already entered in the past, and the possibility to upload the photos to the Flickr groups you’re subscribed to.

As I said, not a fancy application, but useful and quite compatible with my kind of workflow.

Meanwhile, the Upload page of Flickr’s Web interface has got better since the latest site redesign has sedimented. I’ve been using it more frequently in the past months — it’s reliable, it offers tag auto-completion, it lets me upload to groups, and it’s generally what the Flickr Uploadr app should be.

The new beta Uploadr

A few days ago, exactly by visiting the Flickr Upload page on the Web, I noticed the suggestion to download the new Flickr Uploadr app. Since the previous version (judging by the file info pane in the Finder) was last updated in 2009, I downloaded the new one eagerly, expecting the kind of improvements displayed on the Web interface. I installed the app in the Applications folder (as the disk image itself suggests when you open it) and that meant of course overwriting the old version. And when I launched the new Uploadr, I almost immediately regretted installing it.

New Uploadr 1

First bad sign: “Upload automatically”. I said to myself, Of course I imagine I’ll still be able to select the photos I want to upload, and do whatever the old version let me do.

New Uploadr 2

…And this second screen gave me hope: “On the next screens, you can choose what to upload.”

But apparently, my choices are limited to folders of photos:

New Uploadr 3

No, I don’t want the Uploadr to automatically upload photos I may add to these places. I usually save screenshots on the Desktop, and I take a lot of screenshots, so no, unchecked. Same for the other folders: I can’t have this app upload whatever I put there. I still hope that the next screen…

New Uploadr 4

Upload my iPhoto library,” really? Everything? No fine-grained options? But I don’t use iPhoto anyway, so I uncheck the option and still hope that the next screen will take me to an interface where I can select the photos I want to upload.

New Uploadr 5

Tough luck. There’s nothing here. Everything is supposed to be automatic. The new Flickr Uploadr has become a mass uploader. But I decide to play along, for the sake of experimentation, and create a Flickr Up test folder. I want to see if everything is really automatic, or if I still have the possibility to perform edits and add information to the photos I place in the folder.

New Uploadr 6

 

New Uploadr 7

But no, the photo is uploaded right away. No information is added to the photo, and once I visit my Flickr page, the Photo Title field is auto-filled like this (surely a bug):

Thanks Flickr Uploadr!

Even worse, the Uploadr has automatically created a Flickr Up test album with the title of the folder I created for this test.

Sticking with the old version

Perhaps I’m not a typical Flickr user or I don’t belong to the current target audience, but my first impression of this experience is, How can people be okay with this type of automation? Uploading from the iOS app isn’t the greatest experience either, but at least it’s more thoughtful — you have the opportunity to give a title to your photo, do some basic editing, share it, geotag it and file it into one or more albums. In the new Flickr Uploadr the only level of control you have is selecting source folders of photos, and that’s it. This new version of the Mac client is significantly dumbed down, in my opinion, and it seems to be aimed at people who either love to flood their photostreams with dozens of photos at once or use their Flickr account essentially as a backup and don’t really care about showing their photos in a meaningful way.

I have recovered the old Flickr Uploadr from a previous Time Machine backup and will keep using it until it works. If you’ve been using it the way that I do and have a similar upload workflow as mine, I suggest you avoid ‘upgrading’ to the new Uploadr and wait — maybe new features and more fine-grained options will be added in the future. I believe you can even keep the two versions together in the Applications folder — to write this article and take screenshots I kept the two apps by renaming the older version Flickr Uploadr 2009.app — so you can experiment and maybe have the best of both worlds, so to speak. As for me, I have already deleted the new version.

Category Software Tags , , ,