So apparently on August 1, Motorola Mobility (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Google) is going to reveal, in New York City, the much-debated Moto X, a smartphone which is supposed to be a significant departure in several ways.  For Motorola, it’s Android without the Droid branding or the Verizon ties, which is a nontrivial shift from their positioning over the last few years (remember, Verizon’s “Droid” identity was the thing that was going to put the smack down on the AT&T/iPhone pairing. Then the Droid phones kinda sucked and the iPhone came to Verizon, while Samsung created the Galaxy cross-carrier branding and pretty much became the face of Android).  For the mobile phone industry in general, it’s a return to American manufacturing, or at least American assembly, for the first time since Motorola had a 50% global share of all mobile phones.  For Google, it’s their first self-produced Android device – the Nexus tablets were outsourced to Asus, the Nexus phones to HTC and then Samsung and then LG, and they own Motorola.

So, Google’s making a new Android phone in America themselves (well, themselves once removed) and not going through Verizon.  What else do we know?  Well, for one, it’s supposedly a mid-sized phone, under 5″ on the display as opposed to the shed loads of Android phones that have blasted through 5″ and are starting to push 6″ diagonal on-screen.  Not gonna lie: a lot of that size growth was for the sake of including an ever-bigger battery, because power management is still the Achilles heel – hell, the Achilles lower torso – of Android telephony.  And one of the things that’s specifically being talked up around the Moto X is its power management and battery life awareness.

But that’s not all – supposedly the phone will be “contextually aware” – know when you’re driving, know when it’s in a pocket, know when you’re voice-commanding it (a leaked video from Canadian carrier Rogers Wireless seems to bear this out).  And apparently it’s being pitched as a “mid-range” device that will nevertheless compete directly with the likes of the Galaxy S4 or HTC One or iPhone 5 – from the looks of things, by eschewing the stat-sheet arms race that drives so much of Android phone development in favor of doing some truly innovative things with the gadget itself.  There are rumblings that it will be possible to pick the thing up for $200…off-contract.

This, at last, is some serious innovation in the mobile space.  Android was supposed to be a game-changing open-source OS for phones that would allow for all kinds of innovation – and in the end, its main effect has been to give back to carriers what little control Apple prised from them and give manufacturers a way to make dirt-cheap “good enough” devices for $0 with a contract…and, of course, to spare Samsung another round of R&D.  For Google to take a hands-on approach – and to specifically target the mid-range and mass market with an inexpensive high-quality device – strongly suggests that they are done screwing around and want to demonstrate what Android is supposed to be capable of.  No more chasing stats – this is about crafting a premium user experience, whether it’s comfort in the hand or drop-resistance or guaranteed all-day-all-night battery life, and at the same time pushing the envelope of what can be expected from a mobile phone.

This, at last, is where it really starts to get interesting.

Location, location, location

Location-based apps are the new social networking, it seems like. Google Now is the most prominent example of the genre, a year old now – assuming you use Google for everything, Google Now will mine your mail and calendar, and correlate with your location, to produce things like traffic for your commute.  Or transit stops as you approach them.  Or your boarding pass as you approach flight time.  It’s at once tremendously cool and unbelievably creepy.

Google Now came to iOS with a recent update of the Google search app, and was immediately awash in controversy because it was allegedly hell on battery life.  Google promptly released an update – some said it actually made changes, some said it just advertised how the app works.  But it wasn’t the only option – almost as soon as Google Now was announced, other companies began working on iOS workalikes.

I wiped my iPhone 5 and set it up from scratch a couple weeks back, in hopes of dealing with the ongoing battery life issues.  I’ve put things back one step at a time, and this past week I tried out Google Now, then Osito, then Saga, then Donna – four of the most prominent location-aware real-time info apps on iOS.  By and large, the battery impact wasn’t that bad – Osito and Saga seem like they were slightly worse than Google Now or Donna – but the bigger problem is, they didn’t really give me anything I could use.  I have two different worksites and none of the apps do a good job accounting for that, while the option to automate calling into meetings isn’t much use if the calendar event for the meeting doesn’t include the teleconferencing data (thanks a lot, boss).  The weather information is, quite frankly, all over the damned place (I’m currently running an experiment testing six weather apps and their predictions against the actual recorded data at a known good National Weather Service airport facility).  And honestly, without access to my email, none of them can really do any kind of mining for other types of data.

The problem is, this kind of location-aware app isn’t something I have a tremendous use case for at the moment.  I don’t travel around that much, least of all for work; I haven’t been on a plane in almost a year. None of them would pop up scores for me (not that I have many right now), and I have alerts set for that anyway via AtBat or ESPN Scorecenter or Sportacular.  Google Now was supposed to produce nearby restaurants or attractions, but I guess I just don’t go anywhere that draws on those.  As with so much of social networking (looking at you, Foursquare), the utility of these sorts of apps is not for the likes of me.

There was one other location-based app that I was very interested in – an iOS port of Ingress, the highly-addictive Android-based game that layers a secret war between two opposing factions on top of real-world geography. In theory, it sounds like an incredible good time, and if it were closer to The Secret War’s battle between Templars and Illuminati, I would have been all in (of which more later).  As it is, I couldn’t sort out the game mechanics enough to make the juice worth the squeeze, and it got wiped with everything else.  I don’t think it had that much impact on battery life, but why take the risk?

As it turns out, the two biggest battery draws are predictable.  One is Twitter.  Constantly reloading Twitter is pretty much guaranteed to destroy the phone’s battery in short order.  The other is signal strength – when Verizon’s LTE network gives out, what’s behind it is the same old CDMA-based 3G or worse, with a top speed of maybe 2Mb.  And if a Verizon iPhone can’t find a signal, it will burn the battery like Cheech and Chong at a Phish concert as it grasps for the nearest tower.  By staying off Twitter and steering clear of dead zones, I was routinely coming home at the end of the day with 50% battery life despite using the phone normally all day in every other respect, including for multiple hours of podcast-listening.

In the end, Verizon was a necessary evil – their LTE network is still the best built-out in the Bay Area, it ships with the SIM slot unlocked, and it has the best available bands for international travel.  But I’m very pleased that I’m not paying for this myself, especially when T-Mobile’s fallback network in the absence of LTE is an order of magnitude faster than Verizon’s.  The true test of a mobile device and network is how each degrades.  Plus, T-Mobile is the only carrier that actually spares you the cost of a device subsidy on your service – Verizon and AT&T will gladly let you pay full price for an upgraded phone and then still shaft you with the subsidy-boosted service rate.

This is not a return to phone glee, not by a long shot – I’m looking forward to iOS 7, which should run a treat on my iPhone 5.  That said, I’m very eager to see how the Moto X works out – a phone from Google (however indirectly) which will hopefully be running clean Android 4.3 and actually providing some of the alleged innovation about use-case awareness (it knows when you’re driving, it knows when it’s in your pocket, it knows when you’re giving it a command, and it knows how to save power). Too, there may well be a new Nexus 7 tablet next week, and that could be hard to keep my hands off – I still don’t have any meaningful real-world Android experience, and that’s no way to live in a modern mobile world.

Ultimately, the biggest location-based feature of the iPhone is that it goes everywhere with you.  I’ve spent thirteen years now trying to make a mobile device do more for me, and ever since the launch of the iPhone 4, you can make a pretty good case I’ve had it.  Between the soundtrack of my life, the picture to narrate it, and the social communication to keep me in touch with people, it really is the indispensable device in a way that simply wasn’t possible when I first came to California.

Life After Google

With the demise of Google Reader, it finally became possible for me to consider getting out from under the thumb of the Beast of Mountain View for good.  Sure, I had a lot of things going with Google, but many of them were simple to get out of – a quick redirect of my various domains for email left very little going into Gmail, while I unearthed an old AIM account to replace Google Talk for chatting with ‘er indoors during the workday. Google Voice has turned out to be not nearly as big a deal as I was expecting, and has basically become just a way of diverting calls to my old cell number (which invariably I don’t want to receive anyway, and besides, Google Voice is getting about as much attention as Reader did. I wouldn’t bet on it sticking around much longer in a world of Hangouts).

No, the two big obstacles to the Google-free life were Reader and Maps.  And when Google refused to upgrade Maps for the iPhone without additional data and advertising access, and Apple told them to go shit in a hat, the problem was half solved – a year on, Apple Maps is pretty much reliable for most of my purposes.  And now Google’s taken care of the other half, and I’m using Feedly as the backbone for Reeder on the iPhone and Mr. Reader on the iPad, and it seems to be working out pretty good.

I still have the Google Maps and Google Voice apps on the phone, under “in case shit.” And I have the Google Authenticator app in case I need to get onto the Google account. And…that’s about it, actually.  The default search engine on the browser is still Google most places, but resolutely logged out and set for Private Browsing by default.  I don’t even have my Gmail account on the iPhone anymore, just the iPad. 

Now…here’s the trick.  What if APPLE went away tomorrow?

Well, I still have the means to play all the content I already have, and I can still buy from the likes of Amazon. I might have trouble updating apps without the App Store, though.  But looking over most of the things I routinely use on my devices, plenty of them are web-accessible.  It might be easier to use the apps for Evernote, or Amazon, or Twitter, or Wikipedia, or YouTube, or Feedly – but it’s not strictly necessary.  If iCloud goes away, that would be a pain in the ass, but I still have email elsewhere, and I’d just have to go back to not losing my phone. All the notes go into Evernote, and as for maps…hm…

The moral of the story is that Apple is selling you things, while Google is selling you to somebody else in exchange for services.  It would be tougher to live without Apple at this point, just because mobility computing relies heavily on one or the other.  Except… the fallback of fallbacks, at that point, is Amazon. Get a Kindle Fire, which doesn’t depend on Google for its OS, and you’re off to the races again with a 8.9-inch tablet with 4G connectivity.  Plus a prepaid phone, obviously. Maybe an old Blackberry capable of Wi-Fi tethering, and then just get the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD with wi-fi and tether it…

Long story short, you’ve got to throw in your lot with somebody.  Google, Apple, Amazon, maybe Microsoft – but you’re just as hamstrung as you were in the build-your-own-PC days, maybe more.  You could slap together components and install Linux, but how far could you get from there?  And is it possible to get a phone or tablet that doesn’t rely on somebody’s specific services to back it up?

In any event, the de-Google’d life is now more possible than ever before.  We’ll see how long I last with it. If the Moto X is everything it’s cracked up to be, and if there really is a new Nexus 7 with the forthcoming Google announcement next week, it might be worth giving the Google silo another shot.

flashback, part 64 of n

Ten years ago this week, the shit jumped off.  I got paged an hour before my usual start time on a Monday morning asking for all hands to come in because of a problem with the domain.  Turns out the infrastructure group had killed the primary domain controller, with no backup – meaning 1400 workstations would need individual visits to reconnect them.  We did it in three days, largely through the efforts of my own group, who would still be there at 7 or 8 PM at night when the actual domain admins – who created the situation – rolled out at 5 PM mumbling something about catching a train.  Not us, though – we gutted it out, we fought off ridiculous suggestions from uninvolved managers, we engaged in a floor-by-floor clean sweep, and we prevailed.  Within two weeks, we also had a massive viral outbreak – and again, floor-by-floor, hand-to-hand combat to clean it up.  And before the summer was over, we were at it again, upgrading Lotus Notes in the same fashion: floor by floor and hand-to-hand.

Memory is the great palliative. I remembered those times with a lot more fondness during the nightmarish run at work this spring.  I missed having my crew, I missed my gang, I missed shoulder-to-shoulder with the people who got things done, with lunch and the 4Ps and the Mudd House as our rallying points.  We were the greatest.  In my mind, the summer of 2003 is one big whirl of music from the newly-opened iTunes Music Store and cigars from Courtney’s place and mad dashes to airports and the swagger and confidence of knowing I was damned good at what I did and that any technical conundrum thrown at me could be thwarted.

But looking back and reading the blog posts and email and such, I was plenty miserable enough – enough, in fact, that I was talking about hoping this was my last awful DC summer even before the shit jumped off.  I was exasperated with technical limitations, with idiotic upper management, with clueless and obnoxious and antagonistic users, with rival technology units undermining us…basically everything that would happen again ten years later.  Technical swag was no match for the unholy trinity of money, politics and bullshit, then or now.

I suppose in the grand scheme of things, it really has been worse this time out, because I don’t have my old gang around me for support and because my physical health and well-being have had ten years to deteriorate. But everything else echoes perfectly.  Even my relatives were a problem back then – not to the same extent as in more recent years, but enough to have a deleterious effect on my quality of life.  And back then, I always had an escape plan – California.  I didn’t know exactly when or how, but I knew that someday soon I would punch out, eject, and my girlfriend and I would escape to Silicon Valley.  The West is the best. Get here, we’ll do the rest.

To hear others tell it, I’m apparently worse now than I was then, which isn’t surprising. I’m older, I’m frustrated that the same problem has come around again in exactly the same fashion, I’m feeling my age and thinking about my future, and the Grim Reaper’s always doing pushups in the corner and is, hello, undefeated.  I don’t see a long-term future for the job I do now, I don’t know that I want to stick around this employer much longer (not least because the questionable management is going nowhere fast), and I don’t want to have to work until I’m 70.  Then again, that’s how long the mortgage runs.

My incredible good luck continued – nine years ago this week, we arrived in California for good.  Within a month, we had a place of our own and I had a contract job that would turn into permanent employment within a year. I started to build a new life for myself, and successfully at that.  On aggregate, I’ve had a pretty good run on the left coast these past nine years.  But when it’s gone shit-shaped, it’s gone all the way.

It’s called life.  Best just to get on with it.

Another Brick In The Wall

The jury more or less nailed it, for what it’s worth. Under Florida law, if a defendant kills someone and claims self-defense, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to demonstrate the killing wasn’t self-defense.  Which basically means you can start a fight with no witnesses, kill the other party, claim self-defense, and be assured of getting off scot-free because there’s no one to gainsay you.

It’s a hell of a way to run a state, but then, America’s flaccid wang is a hell of a state to begin with.  But it’s of a piece with other things, like North Carolina sneaking its abortion restrictions through on a bill to prohibit sharia law (proving that North Carolina Republicans are immune to death by irony poisoning). Or Texas calling one special session after another until they can hammer through a law that makes it illegal for a woman to use RU-486 – a far safer method of pregnancy termination than surgical intervention, and one that requires a doctor’s involvement in any event – in the privacy of her own home.  Or half a dozen states leaping at the opportunity to impose restrictions on voting in the absence of any preclearance mechanism for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Civil Cold War is heating up.  The general result of the last two or three years of state-level activity and Supreme Court decisions has been to return to a pre-Civil Rights’ interpretation of “states rights”, apparently leaning heavily on the idea that it’s better to get forgiveness than permission and that the best way to bring about their own promised land is to implement it red state by red state while merely tying up the federal government otherwise.  No need to win even a single house of Congress, or the White House – six years of record-breaking filibuster numbers are all that’s required to grind government to a halt.

So where do we go from here? It’s unlikely that the Supreme Court will step into the fray on the side of the federal government; quite the contrary, based on what we’ve seen thus far. (The Court didn’t affirm gay marriage; they punted on an open-and-shut case of standing, and one where the decision has been specifically handcrafted to pass muster with the swing vote.) It won’t take long before there’s an entire block of states, all under neo-Confederate governance, with strikingly similar laws across the board requiring voter ID and tightening up non-traditional voting, regulating abortion almost out of existence, and putting a gun on every hip with a green light to use it. Basically, we’re headed toward secession on the cheap.  Once they create their old white man’s paradise, they may be reluctant to give it up.  And that’s when the trouble really starts.

I called it.  I called it twenty years ago. But hey, there was no difference between Gore and Bush, right?

Gunshine State

So apparently in Florida, you can see something you think is suspicious, chase after it even after the police dispatcher tells you not to, get in a fight and kill the unarmed person you were chasing, skate for six weeks, and then get acquitted by a jury.

George Zimmerman is the poster child for the people who want to need the guns. He is the inevitable result of the NRA and its legal pursuits over the last decades. He should probably hang onto that gun, because there are plenty of people who wouldn’t mind picking a fight with him and “standing their ground.”

Garbage politics from a garbage state. Anyone with a lick of sense needs to stay the hell out of Florida until they get over their case of Wild West penis envy. I suspect it’ll take a while.

flashback, part 63 of n

Nine years ago this morning, my fiancee and I woke up early and quietly let ourselves out of my ex-girlfriend’s place, where we spent our last night as residents of greater DC – because almost all our worldly goods were on a truck for California.  We stopped back by my old apartment, stuffed the last things into the cars, and I locked up and walked to the office to hand over the keys and the parking pass.  And when I walked back from the office to my apartment, I had the strangest sensation that I was rolling back the last seven years and for one brief moment, I stood there in front of the old WPA-era brick apartments as if it were the trailing days of autumn 1997 and I were seeing it for the first time.

And then we left.

The drive took two weeks, first swinging down south and then back up to St Louis before setting a more even western course – including a night at the Peabody in Memphis, a dash through tornadoes to a hotel in Russell, Kansas, a three-day stop in Colorado after my Saturn’s fan stopped working properly, and my worst night at a craps table in history at the Silver Legacy in Reno.  But for the most part, the memory is of emptying another $2 12-pack of soft drink cans into the front-seat cooler and covering it with ice from the motel’s machine, then flying down the road at a steady 75-mile-an-hour clip, smoking cigars from the care package my DC tobacconist had prepared as a parting gift and playing the BBC World Service on XM (occasionally interspersed with Top 20 on 20 or maybe even the Broadway channel if I felt particularly cheeky).  There were days we knew we had to make 500 miles before dinner, and there was nothing for it but to check the handheld radios, make sure we were in range, and put the hammer down.

It was a highly liminal state of being.  Ever since committing to the move a couple or three months earlier, I had resolutely not thought about California.  Wouldn’t allow it. I didn’t want to develop any expectations or preconceptions or anything that would ultimately lead to letdown or disappointment.  Didn’t think about where I might end up working, or where we might end up living – the one slip-up I did have was thinking “not long until I get my VW New Beetle!” and sure enough, it didn’t come along for over two years and had become a Rabbit by the time it finally did.  But in all other respects, I was blindly charging into the future and trying hard not to think about what came next.  The devil I knew, for once, was worse than the devil I didn’t.

Nine years ago.

That’s longer than my entire college life combined, longer than I spent residing in the DMV, damn near three-quarters of my entire relationship with my wife.  I did visit DC four times in the first year, and I’ve made it back four times since then.  I miss my gang to this day, I miss the mere fact of having that sort of gang, I miss being shoulder-to-shoulder with the Rifles of the–

–and yet it turns out that wasn’t enough to make work tolerable when California beckoned.  So it’s probably foolish to think that having that sort of crew again, even if it were possible, would be enough to make tolerable a job that in every particular is the equal or worse of what I ran out on in 2004.  This heat wave has even taken out the climate advantage, the last thing holding an edge for NowJob.  Workload? Same.  Responsibility without authority? Same. Duties well outside the remit of my actual job responsibilities?  Worse now, and with fewer co-workers and without my gang backing me up. Cigar shop to escape to? Shit, are you serious? This is California. Management without a clue? Worse, because instead of reporting to the best boss I ever had, I report to the sort of clueless hack who was his boss back East.  Money?  On paper I make more money – but once you adjust for the passage of nine years and the cost of living from Northern Virginia to Silicon Valley, I’m prepared to bet (but can’t afford to pay up) that the actual value of my compensation is, at best, dead level.

But I think the bigger issue – as with everything that seems wrong with my life these last sixteen months – is the age. Things that seem surmountable and plausible at 32 are a lot less so at 41. I’ve gotten married, I’ve got a house, I’ve been to Europe three times and seen the revival of Vanderbilt athletics and the reinvention of mobility computing – but because I’m doing the exact same job in an environment as close to the same as makes no difference, it feels like I’m stuck in the mud while my friends join new companies or get amazing promotions or just take the reins of their own lives and strike out in their own direction rather than treading water.

At some point – some way, some how – I have to stop defaulting to the devil I know. And that means learning to seek out the devil I don’t.  It’s not a small shift.