June 30, 2007

My Miserable iPhone Experience, Part 2

Filed under: Apple, iPhone, Technology — Tom @ 11:17 pm

Yesterday, I did what a lot of people did — I stood in line to buy an iPhone. Here’s my bittersweet tale of the last 24 hours, and the story of why I may be taking my iPhone back. In Part 1, I talked about some of my purchasing experience and activation woes.

Using the iPhone

I’m happy with the iPhone and, like many others, feel that it lives up to most of its hype. I’ve found some things I love and a couple quirks that bug me.

Great Stuff

  1. The iPhone has some built-in rings that are really, really nice. I think people are driven to annoying ringtones because the included rings are so obnoxious themselves. I’m using the Xylophone ring — if, for some reason, I can’t have my phone on silent, I don’t think it’ll bother anyone.
  2. Despite the hand model scandal, the iPhone seems smaller than I expected. And it feels great. I think this is because the device is so slim — my Sony Ericsson P910i has almost exactly the same footprint but is thicker and feels a lot more awkward. The design of the iPhone is just fantastic.
  3. The interface is great. Really great. I’ve found a couple spots where the lack of a traditional menu has left me puzzled about how to get back where I came from, but in general it’s very intuitive and easy to work with.
  4. Most of all, the iPhone pretty much works as advertised. There’s not much I can add to that — people have covered the features and design to death. The keyboard works pretty well; I’m still adapting but think that I’m going to be fine with it. (I’ll note here that I’ve never been a high-speed texter; I’ll leave it to the Crackberry addicts to discuss the finer points of texting on the iPhone.)

Not So Great Stuff

  1. EDGE really is painfully slow. I’m not super let down by this. I’ve been using GPRS with my Sony Ericsson P910i for a long time, so I didn’t have very high expectations. For me, I really find the iPhone to be unusable for Internet functions over the cell network. Mail, YouTube video, general web browsing — it all takes forever. This isn’t a dealbreaker for me. I didn’t expect to scour the web via EDGE. Wi-Fi performance is great and that’s when I’d be checking multiple mail accounts or looking up something on the web. (Although even Wi-Fi seems a bit slower than a normal Wi-Fi device. Maybe it’s just me.) And EDGE will be fine for a quick look at the weather or whatever.
  2. I’ve run into some bugs. While browsing, I’ve been bumped several times to the iPhone’s main menu. And we’re not talking about pushing the boundaries of the web — even when using the built-in Google Maps link, I’ve had my page unexpectedly exit and the main menu appear. I’ve had the same thing happen in Mail while rendering messages with some large inline images. The phone’s even locked up once while rendering an image-heavy e-mail and I had to force it to restart. This is pretty disappointing, given some of Steve’s comments about how other phones lock up. Hopefully we’ll see a software update that addresses this stuff.
  3. Apple placed a convenient silent mode switch right on the side of the iPhone. But in a decision I don’t understand, “silent” isn’t totally silent. I was at a restaurant and the waitress asked some questions about the iPhone. I was showing her the interface and how videos play and Ask a Ninja starting blaring out of the speaker of my “silenced” phone. Be forewarned — “silent” doesn’t appear to include any of the iPhone’s iPod functions.
  4. The Podcasts item on the iPod is really for audio podcasts. Video podcasts show up in the podcasts list but playing them just gives you audio. To view the podcast, you need to go to Video where they’re lumped in with all other video content.
  5. Holding the iPhone

  6. Multitouch isn’t always multitouch. Multitouch really works only in the specific examples that have been demonstrated — zooming in and out of photos, web pages or mail messages. When selecting something from a list or pressing a button, the iPhone only reacts to a single input. This isn’t a big deal; I’m not even sure what I expected here. I was just a bit surprised when I was scrolling through my contacts list (oh, that beautiful scrolling), placed my right thumb on the screen to stop the list, then tried to select the contact I wanted with my left index finger. That won’t work. Check out the photo at right. Even though my thumb isn’t over anything that could be selected, it’ll keep the iPhone from registering a touch with another finger. This has only been a problem because so much of the iPhone is screen — it limits how you can hold the iPhone while navigating.

I think that overall Apple’s done a great job with the iPhone. I don’t think any of these are more than minor quibbles; some will say that they can’t live without 3G and I’d agree that leaving it out is the iPhone’s biggest deficiency.

Porting My Phone Number

But wait! I’ve been playing with the phone but still haven’t dealt with my phone number. Here’s where the real disappointment comes in.

As I said in Part 1, I’ve been using my Chicago number here in Portland for over a year on T-Mobile. Before that, I’d used my AT&T Wireless number from metro DC in Chicago. So I called AT&T Customer Care and explained my situation. “I want to move over both numbers from my T-Mobile family plan to an AT&T iPhone family plan. Right now I have one iPhone that I just activated with a new number because I couldn’t move both numbers using iTunes activation.”

No, she said, you can’t do that online. You should have activated the additional line at the store.

But they weren’t doing any activation at the store. They told me I could do it all at home, and then I couldn’t, so I’m calling you.

Well, where is the second number going? You have to buy another phone and get a SIM card.

I have plenty of phones. I know I need a SIM card. Can we do the transfer and you can send me a SIM card?

She says I need a SIM card for the transfer. She asks what numbers I’m transferring and I give them to her. Your area code is in Illinois, she says.

I felt we were making progress. We had found something that we both agreed with 100%. My phone number definitely had an Illinois area code.

You’re in Oregon, she says.

Yes! Exactly! Now we’re really getting somewhere.

Well, you can’t do that, she tells me. That won’t work. You’re not in the same region.

But my phone works fine here. Everyone’s told me this won’t be a problem. Area codes seem kind of quaint — my phone rings no matter where I am. Everyone has this number!

I really don’t think we can do that. Let me see what we can do. Do you have an Illinois address? Maybe we can use that.

Now I do still have an address in Illinois. We could try that if necessary. But this all seems to be so ridiculous. And everyone has this number!

Eventually she comes back and gives me the bad news. They could probably port my number over but eventually AT&T would deactivate my account; it would be flagged because more than half my activity would be coming from “out of region.”

Out of region? What the hell’s that? My phone says I’m on an AT&T network. Isn’t it all AT&T?

Apparently it’s not all AT&T. She explains that there are five regions and a midwest phone number can’t be used for a western account. If I’m permanently in Oregon, I have to get a new number.

But how can this matter? What about people who travel all the time — when I was on the road, almost all my activity was business and took place when I was far from my home region. What does AT&T do to them?

I want to believe that some archaic regulations associated with wired telecom cause things like this. But since this isn’t based on state boundaries, I thinking that’s not the problem. “Regions” sound suspiciously like crappy corporate bureaucracy — we’ve got an org chart in place and we certainly can’t have somebody using a phone number that falls under Jack when the guy lives in an area that’s controlled by Bob.

So AT&T wants me to drop the number I’ve had for five years, that I’ve given to tons of friends, colleagues and clients. I’ve certainly had old clients call up after several years and need some help; they’ve been able to reach me because my mobile number is my number. The idea that it needs to change because I’m in a different location — well, does AT&T even understand what the “mobile” part of mobile phone means?

I’m going to call AT&T again on Monday and see if I can get someone else who can help me out. If they can’t, I need to decide the hassle factor associated with changing my number; I may have to return the iPhone and stick with T-Mobile.

Man, AT&T sucks.

UPDATE: AppleInsider seems to have the workaround for out of region number porting — spoof the porting system with your old address. I think I’ll try this on Monday with Customer Care.

So what about the rep’s ominous warning of deactivation? I didn’t have a problem with this “out of region” usage on AT&T 5 years ago — has anyone experienced this on Cingular? And I imagine that the people moving to a new state and keeping their old mobile numbers are legion. So is this an AT&T Customer Care bogeyman?

Not that my hassles are over. Part 3


My Miserable iPhone Experience, Part 1

Filed under: Apple, iPhone, Technology — Tom @ 5:21 pm

Yesterday, I did what a lot of people did — I stood in line to buy an iPhone. Here’s my bittersweet tale of the last 24 hours, and the story of why I may be taking my iPhone back. It’s also the story of how AT&T — even as it tries to make itself over as some kind of new hotness — remains at its heart a tired, stodgy member of one of the most hated industries in America, the cell phone carriers.

A Little Background

I’ve never really been for or against any mobile provider. They’re all bad. For a long time, my job involved a lot of travel and I’ve found that they all drop calls somewhere, they all have bad reception somewhere.

For context, we only need to discuss my last two carriers. I signed up with AT&T Wireless in 2000. I didn’t have any real problems and I had good experiences around the country and with AT&T’s roaming in the United Kingdom and France.

I relocated to Chicago and continued to use my old number (a Virginia number, just outside of DC) for a year. Then I moved into a new place and my new condo happened to be in an AT&T dead spot. I couldn’t get any real answers on how that might get fixed from AT&T, so I switched to T-Mobile because I could get a signal in my living room.

Now I live in Portland. I’ve been here for about a year and I’ve continued to use my Chicago mobile number. My girlfriend and I have a T-Mobile family plan and we’ve both kept the old numbers.

Buying the iPhone

The buying part went pretty smoothly. The line at the AT&T store wasn’t too long when we arrived around 4:15 — there were maybe 45 people ahead of us. The doors opened promptly at 6:00 p.m., AT&T brought people inside in an orderly fashion and things moved pretty fast. We were inside by 6:45 p.m.

I clarified a couple things about what I needed to do — I have a family plan at T-Mobile and will be bringing over both numbers to a new AT&T family plan, I said. No, we don’t need another phone; we’ll unlock the Motorola PEBL my girlfriend uses, use a phone from my previous stint with AT&T, or whatever. We’ve got a half dozen phones at home, most already unlocked.

I was told all activation will happen using iTunes. Sure, I can bring over both numbers. Yes, I can keep my Chicago numbers. I left happy, one iPhone in hand. The whole thing went well.

Activation Hell

Let me preface by saying that everyone I dealt with at both AT&T and T-Mobile were really polite and did their best to help me. They were well-informed, or they managed to find an answer with a minimal amount of time on hold. The voice mail systems were a pain, as always (I found T-Mobile’s more irritating), and it took time to get to the option for a person.

Activation didn’t go so well. I downloaded iTunes 7.3, plugged in my iPhone and it promptly appeared in my iTunes devices list. As a new AT&T customer, I had the following options:

1. Activate one iPhone now.
2. Activate two or more iPhones on an individual or FamilyTalk plan.

Huh. I don’t see the “create a family plan with one iPhone and one other number” option. OK, I’ll activate this as an individual plan and deal with getting the other number moved later.

So then I get the “Transfer Mobile Number” screen. I put in my number, my T-Mobile account number and my zip code. I’m told that the number can’t be transferred.

So I call the AT&T store. They refer me to the Customer Care line, who they say can help me with something like moving my Chicago number although my billing address is in Oregon. Customer Care sends me to the iPhone Activations Line, who tells me to call T-Mobile and find out why they won’t let my number transfer. T-Mobile sends my call to the transfer service center; after 15 minutes on hold I’m summarily disconnected.

OK, so I’ll just activate the phone and port the number later. I uncheck the little box, remove my number, my T-Mobile account number and my zip code, and proceed. Pick my plan, enter my iTunes login, add some additional info, submit… AT&T is processing my activation! It may take up to 3 minutes!

So I wait. Another minute. Finally!

“AT&T requires additional time to complete your activation. You will receive an e-mail when your activation is complete.”

What?! So now I’m checking e-mail like a lab rat pressing a button for more crack. That doesn’t seem to speed up the process. I call the AT&T iPhone activations line again and ask what this means and how much “extra time” is involved. She tells me (again, very politely and very helpfully) that they’re overwhelmed and activation may take 24 hours. Nice planning, AT&T. I head off to bed, dreaming of 12 shiny icons on a black glass screen.

In the morning, I find an e-mail stamped 6:46 a.m. that tells me my activation is complete. Woohoo! I’m in iPhone heaven!

Part 2: What I find good and bad about the iPhone, and why AT&T tells me I have to give up my phone number. Portability — yeah, right.

June 20, 2007

City of Heroes Movie in the Works

Filed under: Gaming, Movies — Tom @ 6:50 pm

There’s no escaping the fact that I’m a geek. I spend enormous amounts of time on the computer. I love tech gadgets. I play videogames. I read comic books.

The upside of all this is that I can get pretty excited about relatively minor announcements when they involve one or more of my geeky pasttimes. Like the news that Transformers producer Tom DeSanto is looking to develop a movie based on City of Heroes, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

Dr. Nightshade vs. the Clockwork KingThis is awesome. I realize that it’s years off and may never happen. But I’ve spent countless hours in Paragon City fighting crime and would love to see it brought to life on the big screen.

I think the premise could make a great film. For those of you who have never played, the game takes place in Paragon City, a city on the eastern seaboard with a long history of super-powered vigilantes. It’s reeling from a devastating alien invasion. Various villainous organizations are looking to do whatever villainous organizations do. In response, the Paragon City has opened its doors to heroes from all over — come to town, register with City Hall and you’re a licensed vigilante. I hope the city’s premier supergroup, the Freedom Phalanx (made up of heroes created by the CoH development team), will find its way into the film.

I’ve played a few other MMORPGs but never stick with them. For whatever reason, I’ve had better luck making friends and building relationships in CoH than in other games. Anytime I log on, I can count on running into at least a handful of people that I team up with regularly and hang out with.

If you haven’t tried City of Heroes, you should check it out. Look me up sometime as JohnnyFlux or Dr. Nightshade. Or the Fiery Mass. Or Chill McFreeze. Rex Danger. Jake Justice. Crush Biggs. Or…

City of Heroes website
Buy City of Heroes at Amazon.com

June 19, 2007

Bland Pippen Mansion Sells at a Loss

Filed under: Portland, Portland Real Estate — Tom @ 9:27 pm

The real estate market in Portland is crazy. When I moved here, I was looking at places that had appreciated 1,000% in the last five to ten years. It’s out of control.

Then I come across an article saying that somehow, former basketball player Scottie Pippen managed to lose about a million bucks on a place he’d owned more than 6 years. Yikes.

It’s becomes less puzzling when you take a look at the place. I’m certainly not living in an opulent gated estate here, but take a look at this place. Maybe it’s just me but that looks like the most bland, character-less place I’ve ever seen.

Bleh. $4 million? A fool and his money, I guess.

June 11, 2007

Apple’s Safari Comes to Windows

Filed under: Apple, Microsoft, Technology — Tom @ 4:06 pm

Safari on WindowsToday at the Apple World Wide Developer Conference, Steve Jobs gave us a rundown of the features in Leopard — again.

Overall, the event was a little disappointing. It’s not that I’m not excited about Leopard. Some new features were discussed and the new Mac OS X certainly looks like a fantastic upgrade, but we’d already seen most of this.

But Steve’s “one more thing” was interesting — Safari 3 was available immediately as a public beta, and it was available for Mac and Windows. Knowing that this was coming, I imagine Steve must have been anxiously awaiting the right opportunity to make his “giving ice water to people in hell” comment about iTunes for Windows.

Safari for Windows makes a lot of sense. If the iPhone is going to run Safari and only support third party apps via web 2.0 and AJAX technologies (a major disappointment), there’s a lot of potential upside. Broader adoption of Safari means better support by web developers; Apple fans then get a more consistent browsing experience whether they’re using a Mac, a PC or an iPhone. There are still times when I can’t use Safari (like in WordPress.com’s visual post editor right now).

Personally, I was just excited to see the Safari 3 beta. I’ve already installed it on my Mac and Windows machines and it’s pretty impressive. This version closes some significant gaps with Firefox and passes it by in some places. Finally, I can reorder the tabs in my browser — or just pull a tab off and create a new window, something I can’t do in Firefox.

Safari 3 also provides a decent Find command. The new Find now highlights all items on the page, like Firefox; visually, I think I like the Safari Find better. (Major Safari 3 letdown — I couldn’t locate any .Mac settings on the Windows version so my bookmarks there will continue to be out of sync with my other machines.)

It really doesn’t matter whether someone prefers Safari or Firefox, however. What matters is that the number of Windows browsers that are far better than IE7 just increased by one. Between Firefox, Opera and now Safari, I can’t imagine why anyone would use IE7 at all. And that’s probably the plan — increase the alternatives and push developers away from Windows-only, IE-only technologies for their sites.

One other thing did occur to me, though. The debate over whether Mac OS X is really more virus-proof than Windows — or whether it’s merely ignored by hackers thanks to its small market share — isn’t going to get resolved without a major upheaval in the OS market.

But this Apple move may give us some insight into the question by letting us compare each company’s approach to security more directly. Internet Explorer has long been plagued by security issues. Now Safari is available, running side-by-side with IE on the same Windows platform. Will we see the same kinds of problems?I don’t think so. Of course, Safari will need to grab a reasonable share of Windows users before we can draw any conclusions. If they do, we might be able to finally decide whether Mac vs. Windows security is really about market share or if it’s just about Microsoft.

June 6, 2007

Portland No. 2 City for Dogs

Filed under: Portland, Portland Lifestyle — Tom @ 12:42 pm

Tolstoy and the red ballMen’s Health has named Portland as the number two best city for dogs.

Portland is definitely a dog-friendly city. Dogs are everywhere. Tons of people are dog owners and you often see dogs hanging out at outdoor bars and restaurants. There are a lot of dog parks. Tolstoy, at left, certainly seems to enjoy the upgrade from a Chicago condo to a Portland home. Back yard time is red ball time.

June 3, 2007

When DRM-Free Isn’t Good Enough — The Debate Over iTunes 7.2

Filed under: Apple, DRM — Tom @ 7:27 pm

It seems that to many, Apple’s new DRM-free music store isn’t enough. Now Geeks R Us has posted a response to all the nonsense — and it’s a good one.

I love the work Cory Doctorow has done to raise awareness about DRM issues. I hate DRM and have posted about it in the past. The problem is that the EFF and Cory are sometimes so rabid that they go off half-cocked.

First they spread a half-assed report from Playlist Mag that the new version of iTunes prevents DRM’d tracks that have been burned and ripped as MP3s from loading on the iPod. It doesn’t.

Several people posted in the Playlist Mag forum that they haven’t had any problems with burned and ripped tracks. It appears to be a bug — the problem can be corrected by rebuilding the iTunes library file. Cory updated his story with a weak follow-up that “some people have figured out how to get iTunes to load burned and ripped tracks” — I’m still waiting for a Boing Boing headline “iTunes 7.2 Restriction Total Fiction.”

Now some folks are complaining that the new DRM-free tracks have the user’s name and email address embedded in them. But this information has ALWAYS been included in purchased music’s metadata. There’s nothing new here.

It’s pathetic everyone has been desperately looking for a way to point at the new iTunes Plus service and say, “Look, they’ve removed the DRM but NOW look what they’ve done!” The fact is that the DRM is gone. This is a Good Thing. All the anti-DRM advocates who have always complained about not being able to play their music on the device of their choice have gotten their wish. Except they’re still complaining — now they’re crying foul because Apple didn’t make their music files totally anonymous.

In other words, this isn’t good enough because they don’t really want to play music they’ve purchased on all their devices — they just want to steal music. (Don’t bother entering into a debate on semantics; I’m fully aware of the distinction between theft and infringement. But for purposes of this discussion, “steal” works just fine.)

Apple isn’t obligated to facilitate illegal file-sharing. There’s still a question of EFF’s claims of some additional data encoded in the iTunes Plus tracks, but I doubt they’re going to find anything there that’s going to outrage me. This is my music. I’ve purchased it for my use. I’m about as upset that my name’s in the track metadata as I am that the dry cleaners writes my name on the inside of my collar.

Anti-DRM folks — including Cory — it’s time to put your money where your mouth is and buy some of this DRM-free music. iTunes is “crippleware”, but the new version that enables DRM-free music is a “downgrade”? Come on, guys. Enough’s enough.

(Although I’m all for writing to my congress-critters in support of legislation to roll back the copyright extensions, ban software patents or kill the DMCA. So keep fighting the good fight.)

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