iPhone: The First 72 Hours

20151215_205529857_iOS (1024x768)As I wrote in September, after more than a decade as a Windows Mobile/Windows Phone user, most recently for the past two years with a Lumia 1020, I decided to make the switch to an iPhone. I got an iPhone 6s at the end of last week and have spent a few days getting accustomed to it. Here are my initial impressions:

iPhone Pros

  1. The availability and quality of the apps. It’s like discovering an oasis after wandering through a desert.
  2. The phone is thin and light and feels nice in my hand.
  3. The phone feels much faster and more responsive than my previous phone. I don’t know how much of this is the Apple vs. Nokia/Microsoft platforms, how much is that the new one is part of a two-years-newer generation of devices, and how much is software crud that built up on the old phone, but whatever the reasons, the difference is noticeable.
  4. Ditto the above for battery life.
  5. Touch ID.
  6. Siri. It’s very convenient to be able to summon her hands-free. I don’t know yet if she’s significantly smarter than Cortana, but in my initial use she’s been at least as good if not better.

iPhone Cons

  1. No ability to pin tiles to the home screen for deep links to things within apps: People, OneNote notebooks, etc.
  2. Siri doesn’t automatically offer to read incoming text messages to me when the phone is connected to Bluetooth.
  3. Swype reliability. On Windows Phone 8.1 the equivalent functionality (called “shape writing“) is built in. I don’t mind paying the extra dollar for Swype, but frequently I find that the Swype keyboard has been turned off and I have to manually press a couple of buttons to re-enable it.
  4. I’m dependent on the Groove Music app to play my OneDrive-based music collection, and my use of it on the phone has surfaced a couple of serious problems:
    1. The app frequently cuts out mid-song and starts replaying the song from the beginning. Sometimes multiple times. I don’t know why this is happening but it makes the experience almost unusable.
    2. When playing music on the car’s audio system via Bluetooth, the name of the artist isn’t displayed. The album and song name are both displayed, so I’m not sure why this is failing. I’ve seen this with two different cars, neither of which has this problem with the Xbox Music app on Windows Phone 8.1 or with other music apps on the iPhone.
  5. The default podcast app isn’t that great. I’m trying Overcast and it seems to be better.
  6. No separate button to launch the camera app and take pictures.
  7. Porting existing custom ringtones to the iPhone is a bit of a hassle.

Seahawks: Anticipating History’s Judgment

Steelers vs. Bears

After another lackluster Seahawks performance in yesterday’s loss to the Cardinals, in the first of what are likely to be several “must win” games, Seahawks fans are starting to resign themselves to a wait-till-next-year attitude. It’s a tough spot for those of us who have been counting on 2015 to erase the bitter taste that was left in our mouths by the excruciating loss in Super Bowl XLIX. I prefer to cope with this season’s difficulties by trying to place the team — prematurely, I readily admit — in a longer-term historical context.

When I watched the Seahawks of the early Russell Wilson era in 2012 and 2013, the team they reminded me of most was the Pittsburgh Steelers of the early 1970s. A team that won two consecutive Super Bowls after the 1974 and 1975 seasons on the strength of a punishing defense, a strong running game led by an All-Pro running back, and a quarterback who was then known more for scrambling than downfield passing.

It is, to be sure, a flattering and optimistic comparison. After missing the Super Bowl the next two seasons, this Steelers team, still possessing a dominant defense but transformed by a pass-first offense thanks to the blossoming of its Hall of Fame-bound quarterback and receivers, won another two consecutive Super Bowls, cementing its place as one of the greatest teams in NFL history. How nice to believe, especially in the modern NFL era of parity and free agency, that the current Seahawks team could sustain such a record of achievement over the next decade.

There is another historical comparison that, while equally apt, is considerably less optimistic: The 1985 Chicago Bears. A team that dominated during the regular season with outsized swagger, led by one of the greatest defenses of all time. Featuring a beloved, Hall of Fame running back and a quarterback known more for finding ways to win than for his passing skills. A team that dismantled its opponent in one of the most dominating Super Bowl victories of all time. And sadly for its fans, a team that, while remaining a contender for the next several years, never regained the dominance that characterized its one glorious Super Bowl-winning season.

Which path are the current Seahawks likely to follow? We’ll know in a few years.

JEB!’s Debate Failure

[This post is about campaign tactics, not policy. And it’s definitely not an endorsement.]

JEB! has been rightly excoriated for picking on Marco Rubio’s Senate attendance record in last night’s debate and Rubio deserves credit — from a debating standpoint — for his clever rebuttal. Given that JEB!’s attack was obviously pre-planned, it seems like he was advised poorly by whomever was preparing him for the debate.

From a tactical perspective, a better approach for JEB! to win over Republican voters would be to paint Rubio 2016 as equivalent to Obama 2008. Imagine if he had said something like this:

“If we’ve learned anything during the last eight years, it’s that half a term in the Senate is not sufficient experience to be President. Marco, you may offer Obama-esque rhetoric about youthful optimism, but President of the United States is not the place for you to get on-the-job training.”

All About The Apps (Not the OS): Saying Farewell to Windows Phone

Audiovox SMT5600 (2004), Samsung Blackjack (2007), HTC HD2 (2010), Samsung Focus (2011), Nokia Lumia 920 (2012), Nokia Lumia 1020 (2014), Apple iPhone 6s (?)

In which I simultaneously field responses of the forms, “Et tu, Brute?” and “What took you so long?”

TL;DR – I’m tired of waiting for the apps I want to come to Windows Phone. My next phone will be my first iPhone.

I like my Windows Phone. I like the hardware. I like its multitasking support. I like its tight integration with services that I use every day, notably OneDrive — photo auto-upload and OneNote in particular — and Zune Xbox Groove Music. I really like its customizable home screen layout and the live tiles. And I still believe in Microsoft’s ability to out-innovate the competition in client software. But when it comes time to replace my current phone, I plan to get my first iPhone.

I’ve been using Windows Phones (and Windows Mobile phones before that) since I got my first smartphone over a decade ago. [The above image represents my personal smartphone history.] For most of that time, my need to test devices that interacted with the Microsoft services I was helping to build, as well as my innate loyalty as a Microsoft employee, made the choice to buy the best available Windows smartphone an easy one. There were some painful moments — the HTC HD2 with Windows Mobile 6.5  was a dud from day one — but mostly I was sufficiently pleased with the devices and the platform that I did not have iPhone envy.

So what has changed? To paraphrase Meghan Trainor, it’s all about the apps. Increasingly the apps I want to use are not available for Windows Phone or are inferior. I’m tired of feeling like a second-class citizen, app-wise.

To determine how personally significant this problem is, I’ve been compiling what I call the “App Pain List.” I’m constantly learning of apps that are available for iOS and Android but not for Windows Phone; they don’t automatically go on this list. I add an app only when I find myself thinking, “I would download this app to my phone right now if there were a version in the Windows Store.”

The App Pain List contains the following categories:

  • Apps that used to exist on WP but have been decommissioned. Ex: The app that let me deposit paper checks in my bank account.
  • Apps available on WP but not at parity with iOS/Android versions. Ex: Waze, Instagram.
  • Apps I would use regularly. Ex: TiVo, various video service apps, various bank and credit card companies’ apps.
  • Apps associated with a product or service that I’d like to use. Ex: Ring, Sonos, CarPlay, Snapchat.
  • Apps I would use occasionally. Ex: KCLS, KUOW, NHLSouthwest Airlines, various magazines.

For all of the apps that I’ve put on the App Pain List, there’s only one so far that I’ve been able to remove: NPR One. If can be generous and add Fitbit and Uber, as both of these came along for Windows Phone after I started using the associated products but before I starting officially keeping the list.

What’s sad is that the virtuous circle of “apps drive (platform) usage, usage drives apps” has been known to Microsoft since its earliest days in the OS business. Even in its prime, no application developer thought MS-DOS was the most technically advanced operating system or the easiest one to build apps for. Developers built apps for MS-DOS because it was the OS that had the highest adoption. And in turn the volume of apps made it an increasingly popular choice for users. I don’t believe that that Microsoft ever forgot this; they just fumbled the transition to mobile as the high volume app platform. (Blah blah Innovator’s Dilemma blah blah.)

My friends who have built smartphone apps consistently tell me that iOS users — as purchasers of premium products — are the most engaged and lucrative consumers of their apps. Android users are less so, but their sheer numbers make the platform a worthwhile investment. Windows Phone users, especially in the U.S., are barely visible.

I’d been patient with Windows Phone for a while because I’d been hoping that the momentum would shift when Windows 10 becomes available on smartphones. But my understanding of the current plan — providing developers a toolkit that will make it easy for them to rebuild Android apps as Windows 10 apps — doesn’t inspire confidence. Even in the best case, if producing a such a Windows app were a simple as a one-button rebuild, they’d still have to separately test it, publish it on the store, and support it. That’s a lot of effort for an additional 2-3% of the market; if I were an app developer, I’d rather put that effort into improving the version of the app that the other 95+% of my customers use. If you include the potential installed base of Windows 10 PCs and tablets, the numbers look better, but it remains to be seen whether app developers will consider those devices a compelling target.

Ironically, Microsoft’s recent embrace of iOS and Android as targets for its mobile apps makes the move to an iPhone easier, since I won’t have to sacrifice the Microsoft apps and services that I use today on my Windows Phone.

I remind myself, guiltily, that this is a reversible decision. Windows will continue to be my desktop and tablet OS of choice. I can buy an iPhone 6s and if Windows 10 causes a sea change of app availability, I can switch back in a year or two. But I won’t be holding my breath.

The Top Five Rejected Essay Prompts for the 2015-16 Common App

  1. Many students and their parents take on significant debt to pay for their college educations. What types of experimental medical procedures are you willing to undergo to help defray the cost of college?
  2. College is a time of experimentation and personal growth. Explain which prescription drugs and controlled substances you plan to try for the first time.
  3. Imagine that you’re a serial killer. How will you select your victims?
  4. You’re applying to at least one college that you have no chance of getting into, just to please your parents. Please list those colleges and explain how you plan to subtly retaliate against your parents.
  5. Discuss a time when you were exposed to a new or different idea, and how you used social media to stifle its expression.

Moving America to the Right

State Law: All Vehicles Keep Right Except To Pass

While there are many issues on which Americans are divided, there is one on which we passionately agree: Drivers who clog up the left lanes of our highways are a menace to society.

The most glaring examples of this are drivers who hang out  in the left lane without any vehicles in front of them. I have heard more than one person explain this behavior thusly: “My taxes pay for these roads, so I’ll drive wherever the hell I please.” As the people who use this justification typically have a chronological age that is followed by the phrase “years young,” they should be reminded that their taxes also pay for Medicare and that their fellow drivers are wishing upon them an occasion to use that too.

The bigger and more insidious problem, however, is drivers who drive in the left lane at speeds just barely faster than the vehicles in the lane next to them. They can claim that they are passing, but their behavior creates a line of cars stuck behind them. Each of those left-lane-clogging drivers can claim that they are going as fast as the car(s) in front of them and that they would speed up if only those drivers would just get out of their damn way. Guess what, folks? You’re all part of the problem.

I witnessed this behavior last week when I traveled round-trip from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon, which consisted mostly of driving on I-5. Despite the repeated presence of signs reading “Keep Right Except to Pass” (Washington) and “Slower Traffic Keep Right” (Oregon), there were frequently long lines of cars moseying along in the left lane, at or just above the speed of the adjacent lane. In areas where the highway was three lanes wide, it was at times possible to drive faster in the right lane than in either the left or middle lanes. (Not that I would ever suggest doing something as reckless and illegal as passing on the right.)

This problem seems more pronounced here in the Pacific Northwest. In less passive-aggressive parts of the country, drivers will flash their high-beams or honk to get the other driver’s attention, but the typical PNW driver will just quietly tailgate the car in front of them, hoping that they’ll notice and move out of the way. A tip to those people: If the driver of the car in front of you is too clueless to realize that they’re needlessly hogging the passing lane, they’re probably not checking their rear-view mirror either.

I tried to model good Autobahn-style behavior – staying to the right, except when actively overtaking another vehicle – but due to the left-lane clogging, this frequently caused me to fall behind the flow of traffic. And it definitely involved a lot more lane changing that just hanging out in the left lane with the other cars and very gradually overtaking the semis that populated the right lane.

Mind you, it is already against the law in Washington State to “to drive continuously in the left lane of a multilane roadway when it impedes the flow of other traffic.” While there are occasionally efforts to enforce this, it is quite understandably not a priority for law enforcement. An attempt this year to enact more stringent penalties failed; I’m not the only one who noted the irony that the bill’s co-sponsors are small-government conservatives who would normally be opposed to this sort of superfluous regulation if their jobs didn’t involve a long commute to Olympia.

As I drove, I thought to myself, “What would Daniel Pink do?” For those of you who haven’t read his books or articles or watched the show Crowd Control, Pink studies human behavior and in particular how to motivate people. He has creatively addressed a number of situations where people behave selfishly or illegally and where relying on official law enforcement is not a scalable way to deter the offending behavior. For example, this Lawbreakers video addresses people who illegally park in disabled parking spaces.

Inspired by Pink’s work, I offer this proposal: Treat the passing lane as the limited-supply resource that it is. Install toll pass readers at regular, short intervals (say, once every half-mile) and charge people a small toll for driving in this lane. Not enough to be expensive, but enough to make people think twice about remaining in the left lane longer than necessary. We can experiment with various rates to see what is the lowest amount you can charge and keep the left lane clear; perhaps it would take five cents a mile, or perhaps it can be accomplished for as little as one or two cents a mile. We’d want to ensure that the generated revenue covers the capital and operational costs of the tolling system, but what we don’t already know from the numerous existing systems in place can be determined via experimentation. This proposal won’t eliminate people cruising along in the left lane, but it will make people think more carefully about doing it. If some of them still consciously choose to camp out in the left lane, they’re literally paying for the privilege, and we’re no worse off than we are today.

You’re probably thinking of various cases in which this toll would be unfair, but I’m confident that they could be addressed. What happens if there’s a traffic jam and people are forced into the left lane just to get around it? Charge the toll only if the vehicle is driving above a certain minimum speed; let’s say 45 MPH, though again, we can refine this through experimentation. What about left lane exits, or areas where the left lane is the only through lane? Those areas would clearly be excluded from the collection zones. In fact, I would make the stronger statement that this system would be impractical in urban areas, and if you exclude those, you probably eliminate virtually all places where there are left lane exits. What about construction zones where the left lane is temporarily the only lane available? Disable the toll readers in the construction zone while the construction is in progress. Won’t this encourage people to make unsafe lane changes out of the left lane to avoid triggering an upcoming toll reader? Theoretically it could, but if someone is willing to put their own life at risk to save one or two pennies, we probably don’t want them driving on our highways. (And before you ask your next question, the answer is, “Yes, I have driven in New York City and Boston.”)

There is also the broader issue of driver privacy. Do we really want the government tracking our location and speed as we cruise along our network of interstates? What’s to prevent the government from infringing on our privacy and freedom of movement? I agree that the government should not be in the business of collecting this information; we should leave it where it is today, in the trustworthy and capable hands of Google, State Farm, and your wireless carrier. But seriously, this issue exists today with automated toll collection systems, so whatever safeguards we develop for those can be applied here.

By encouraging our fellow drivers to be more intentional about their use of the left lane, we can keep it more freely available for its intended purpose: As an active passing lane.

Flashback: First Day at Microsoft

Calendar page - August 3, 1987

Twenty-eight years ago today, I started at Microsoft, my first full-time job after completing my bachelor’s degree. Having arrived in Seattle the previous Thursday, I had settled into temporary housing at Hampton Greens on 148th Ave NE and made the short drive to campus in my rented Pontiac 6000 sedan. I wore a Miami Vice-inspired light gray sport jacket that I’d purchased in a mall on Long Island. After employee orientation in Building 1 with about thirty other people, I walked over to Building 2 where I was greeted by my first manager, Ralph Ryan, the development manager of the LAN Manager team.

I spent part of the first day in status meetings, where my new co-workers went over stacks of printed work items lists line-by-line. The morning meeting was about something called the “redirector” and the afternoon meeting was about something called the “API” and also the UI. In between we went to lunch at the cafeteria in the recently-opened Building 5. My co-workers were excited to go there because it was the first cafeteria on campus with a grill, including a menu item called the “Blibbet Burger.”

Over the next few days I got to work. As the most junior member of the team, my first project was to design and code OS/2 LAN Manager’s installation program, based on a few pages of details in the written product specification. I learned that my team was in the Distributed Systems Business Unit, which was led by Paul Maritz. This was part of the Systems Division, led by VP Steve Ballmer, who had signed my offer letter. In the office directly across the hall was Larry Osterman, a grizzled veteran by virtue of his three years of professional experience. I reconnected with friends like Rosie Perera and David Byrne, who were partly responsible for recruiting me there.

I set up the first PC I had ever used: A Compaq Deskpro 386/16 with 1 MB of RAM. It had a 70 MB hard disk, so much capacity that I divided it into three partitions and installed MS-DOS 3.21 on the main one (soon to be replaced with OS 1.0) and Xenix on another one just for comfort. My team was using Microsoft’s SLM source code control system but had yet to set up a shared toolset or an official build process, so I had to walk the halls to collect the various versions of the compiler and libraries needed to build the whole product. (Brian Valentine, who started as the team’s first test manager two weeks after I did, put both of those in place.)

Building 2 at the time housed the Systems Division (except for the Languages group), the IT Group, and what we would now call the corporate data center. The OS/2 group occupied most of the upstairs and the rest of the groups were scattered throughout the first floor. Down the hall from me was a bunch of folks working on something called Windows/386, but most of us paid little attention to them. There was also a peculiar fellow with long red hair and a full beard who talked loudly in the hallways and occasionally had Bill Gates stop by his office.

Interoffice memos were typed by administrative assistants, printed on paper, and manually distributed to our slots in the mail room. The building receptionists used a public-address system to page employees, sometimes throughout all of the buildings at once. I never met Suanne Nagata, but her name echoed from the building’s speakers so often in those days that I will always remember it. There was no voicemail system, so unanswered phone calls were redirected to the central operators, who took messages and sent them via email. The entire company phone list was printed monthly on bright yellow paper and delivered to everybody’s mailslot. There was also an online number lookup tool on the Xenix servers; it was called “phone” and was a grep script. Email was in heavy use internally, but the microsoft.com domain was still several years away, and external email was exchanged via UUCP, typically via the decvax!uw-beaver!microsoft route.

The company had just crossed the 2000-employee threshold and its stock price – nearly 18 months since the IPO – had fallen to $90 per share after having previously reached $110. Both of these were leading indicators, my more cynical colleagues assured me, that the company had become too big and bureaucratic and that its best days were behind it. In one regard they were right, at least in the short term, as the stock price rose again to over $100, then fell precipitously two months later in the Crash of 1987 and didn’t recover for another two years.

LAN Manager 1.0 code complete was six weeks away. The wild ride had begun.